Two looks at life and identity

PPAC presents its 2019 Contemporary Photography Exhibition

3 minute read
Microscopic and celestial: Claire A. Warden’s 2016 ‘No. 09 (Not Basic Color Theory).’ (Image courtesy of PPAC.)
Microscopic and celestial: Claire A. Warden’s 2016 ‘No. 09 (Not Basic Color Theory).’ (Image courtesy of PPAC.)

Philadelphia Photo Arts Center’s eighth annual Contemporary Photography Competition and Exhibition, featuring 2019 winning artists Claire A. Warden and Arielle Bobb-Willis, imbues unfamiliar images with familiar feelings. It leaves you wanting more—and needing to look closer.

Through concurrent solo exhibitions, Bobb-Willis and Warden use different photographic languages for personal inquiries on the psychology of power, identity, and joy. The artists' works are polar opposites, but the two exhibitions combined make a complementary pair.

Allegories of the self

Warden was raised in a family with a diverse background and uses photography to reflect on the fluidity and abstract nature of identity. According to the exhibition notes, she uses a camera-free photographic process incorporating saliva and mark-making. The negatives are scanned, and the final images, large-scale pigment prints, “evoke systems of the natural sciences—microscopic, topographic, and celestial—and allegorize the complex systems that make up the self.”

Warden’s exhibition, Mimesis, leaves you wanting more. At a first glance, her collection of photos can be thrown into the modern obsession with art centering on shapes and astrology. Staring at the all-black-and-white photos of indecipherable images, I could feel restlessness rising to the surface. Mystery and ambiguity envelop each photo. Why didn’t I understand the complexity behind the simplicity? I felt like I was looking at a zoomed-in image of organisms under a microscope, or a rising and setting moon. You have to get close to the image to see the intricacy that makes the whole. Here is where I began to understand Warden’s intention, with abstract images relating to the minute details that make up identity.

Context is everything with these photos. Warren notes that we assume a photo will be easy to understand and interpret. But “when it is ambiguous, sometimes the desire to know what you are looking at is very strong.” That invites a wide audience to engage in abstract work, which then can be sharpened into a “very specific topic on ethnicity, immigration, and racial issues in a way that is maybe more approachable.”

Have I felt this way before? Arielle Bobb-Willis’s 2018 ‘London.’ (Image courtesy of PPAC.)
Have I felt this way before? Arielle Bobb-Willis’s 2018 ‘London.’ (Image courtesy of PPAC.)

A camera as empowerment

Bobb-Willis’s exhibition, At Zephyr, is a stark contrast to Warden’s, with bold colors and human subjects. Her photos look like a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a wild fashion show. Each subject is wearing a striking outfit and interacting intimately with the other subjects. There is something nostalgic about this collection of photos, and that is the power of Bobb-Willis’s skill and vision. I haven’t seen these images before, but I’ve felt the emotions they project—intimacy, belonging, and surrender. The photos don’t ever capture a straight shot of any subject’s face, but translate the complexities of life by documenting people in compromising and disjointed positions.

Bobb-Willis has been using the camera as a tool of empowerment for nearly a decade. According to the exhibition notes, the artist has battled depression from a young age and “found solace behind the lens and has developed a visual language that speaks to the complexities of life: the beautiful, the strange, belonging, isolation, and connection.” The photos speak to her desire to claim power and joy in moments of sadness, confusion, or confinement.

This exhibition is for people who enjoy reading between the lines. You won’t get a straight answer from any particular photo, but you will explore what two photographers can do with a camera and a meaningful intention.

What, When, Where

Contemporary Photography Exhibition VIII. By Claire A. Warden and Arielle Bobb-Willis. Through May 18, 2019, at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American Street, Philadelphia. (215) 232-5678 or

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