Smile Politely

A viewable feast

I can’t possibly be the only person in the C-U area who didn’t realize there’s a free photography museum in Urbana … right? Imagine my surprise when I found out that nestled between two buildings in Downtown Urbana above Mirabelle Bakery, up a flight of stairs, is the one of the most charming galleries in town. It’s a cozy, intimate setting in which to view some spectacular art pieces. The Urbana Photography Museum opened in May of 2012, and so far has exhibited seven different shows. 

Currently, the museum is presenting Joseph Sterling’s Taste of Chicago series, a series of photographs taken at the famous Taste of Chicago festival. Sterling is well known for both his education at the Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago, as well as his earlier series The Age of Adolescence: Joseph Sterling Photographs 1959–1964.

Not being well-versed in the mechanics of photography, I can look at a picture and say it’s great, but I’m not really clear on why that is. Luckily, Lisa Janes, the curator of the museum, took the time to explain some of what makes Sterling’s photographs stand out, and what looking at these very simple images can mean. She talked me through some of Sterling’s technique; for instance, his use of a panoramic camera is unusual for street photography, yet it allows for a view from both the subject’s point of view as well as the photographer’s. His composition of the shots and choice of subjects creates an accurate picture of the people of Chicago. This all results in beautifully shot images that put you right in the moment he’s capturing.

In addition to his masterful technique, Sterling is able to “Zero in on interesting moments without intruding on them,” as Lisa told me. Even to a non-photographer, this is clear. One can see people in their element, eating without trying to be polite or put on a show. There’s humor to some of the pictures, humanity, but nothing condescending. Sterling simply presents the images and allows you to judge for yourself whether you think those three women ought to lay off the barbeque a little. The photographs aren’t making a statement; rather, they’re capturing a moment in time from as many different aspects as possible.

The warm atmosphere and knowledgeable curator made seeing this exhibit so enjoyable, but the photos stand on their own merits — brilliant images of the wide variety of people that can be found in the Windy City. I probably could have spent all day looking at one picture of two kids sharing ice cream if the museum hadn’t been so close to closing. Simple, ordinary activities become special through Sterling’s work. It makes you wonder if someone could find something in one of your everyday activities, too.

The Urbana Museum of Photography will display the show from now through July 20, 2013, with an opening reception on June 22 at 6:00 p.m. The museum, located at 122A W Main St in Urbana, IL (on the second floor), is open Wednesdays and Fridays from 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., and Saturdays 10:00–2:00 a.m. Admission is, delightfully, always free. It’s a remarkably unique experience in the Champaign-Urbana area, well worth spending the time in order to see pictures of adorable kids stuffing their face with watermelon and corn on the cob.

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