Cellphone photo enthusiasts have a few more days to shape one of the pieces of art in a downtown Kansas City gallery.
Instagram users who post photos with the hashtag #bigamericanpicture can see their images on a computer screen mounted to a wall and hooked up to an iPad showing the feed of a group of Kansas City photographers called the Archive Collective.
“So anyone who uses the hashtag can be present in the show,” says Archive Collective member Megan Pobywajlo.
Like the rest of the artists in The One Thing That Can Save America at the Paragraph Gallery and its adjacent Project Space, the six photographers in the Archive Collective are members of this year’s class of Charlotte Street studio residents. Visiting curator Jessica Baran gave them a prompt from (and named the show after) a 1972 poem by John Ashbery.
The poem’s first line: “What is central?”
“So the concept of the ‘big American picture’ is our direct connection to that: How can individual images reveal something of the bigger picture,” Pobywajlo explains. “We want to know: Can a picture say more than what’s in frame, and can singular images tell us more about a bigger picture? It's also a way where submissions from anyone via the hashtag could be represented as a part of a larger body.”
As the hashtagged images stream onto the computer screen, they begin to feel like a calendar or coffee-table book of iconic Midwestern landscapes and characters, rural and urban, artistically photographed by the region’s particularly attitudinal boosters.
That’s what happens when you invite locals to participate – but it’s also in keeping with newer trends in photography, Pobywajlo says.
“It’s not until really recently in the art world that there really have been representations of the Midwest in photography and contemporary art. If you live in New York City, you’ve seen New York City depicted in the media forever, but there hasn’t been that kind of representation of the Midwest,” Pobywajlo notes, citing Minnesota's Alex Soth as an artist who is changing that reality.
And, she notes, many of this year’s Charlotte Street residents are “mining” the Kansas City community.
Elsewhere in the gallery are two of Lara Shipley’s black-and-white photographs; sculptures and installations by Paige Hinshaw, Molly Garrett, Max Adrian and Hannah Carr and an audio recording booth and accompanying listen stations for the Paris of the Plains Podcast (by KCUR contributor Matthew Hodapp). On Saturday, there’s a listening party for the podcast, and writers Jason Preu, Danny Volin and Lucas Weztel read from an accompanying publication.
“They’re not looking at Kansas City as a stop between undergrad and their professional career as an artist somewhere else,” Pobywajlo says. “A lot of the residents this year are really focused on making art or things that can engage the community as a whole.”
That’s been the case for the Archive Collective, which started a few years ago as an organization for photography students at the Kansas City Art Institute but has evolved since they graduated.
“We make free public events for photography around town, artists’ talks or studio visits or critique nights or just meetups and discussions,” Pobywajlo says. “All of our exhibitions are centered around things that are interactive or can involve photographers and non-photographers alike.”
That’s where the #bigamericanpicture hashtag comes in.
“We’re asking a question that invites people who are photographers and non-photographers. That’s why we used Instagram as a platform. Even if we don’t consider ourselves photographers, we’re all interfacing with photography every day through Instagram and everywhere else.”
Pobywajlo says they’ve been happy with the pictures they’ve been getting.
“A lot of them are coming from this region because our history of programming revolves around connecting with institutions and artists in our region,” she says, “but we got submissions from all over the country, which is really exciting. Also, the quality of the submissions is really impressive.”
The photos – at least in this form – will come down when the exhibition closes. Conceivably, though, they could keep responding to the Archive Collective’s prompt.
“I assume people could keep hashtagging forever,” Pobywajlo admits. “I would be excited if people are continuing to think about these questions we ask about photography and larger cultural identity.”
Pictures that keep coming into the Archive Collective’s Instagram feed after the show comes down, she acknowledges, “Just becomes part of the collection, I guess.”
The One Thing That Can Save America, through April 30 at Paragraph Gallery + Project Space, 21 and 31 E. 12th Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64126.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR. You can find her on Twitter (and Instagram) at @cjjanovy.