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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 1, 2006

Gallery review
Lobel makes a statement "about hoiw art can affect the human condition"

By Saranac Hale Spencer

DELMAR — Children will stare at anything. A watchful parent will hurry them along from a rude fascination, but it is just such a sight that grown-ups themselves will gawk at. What happens when we’re allowed to stare"

Dozens of burn survivors sat with dignity in front of Steve Lobel’s camera last August at the Phoenix Society’s 2005 World Burn Congress. The photographs, now on display at the Exposed Gallery of Art Photography, shed a tender light on wounds that are deeper in the soul than the body.

The portrait of each person tells a heart-breaking story. Some have gleaned strength from their adversity but some will never heal.

"Today," writes Humphrey Miller, "I am not a happy person." He then goes on to detail the accident that left him fingerless and scarred nearly 20 years ago.

"Eighteen years later," writes Lily Chatterjee, who is at the opposite end of the spectrum, "I have found my own skin again."

The rest of the stories told in the book, Recognition Beyond Burned, run the gamut between Miller and Chatterjee.

Gallery owner Mark Kelly, a burn survivor himself, saw the project as an opportunity to teach people, to "get them to think differently; be more accepting of everything and everybody."

For the last 40 years, since he was 10, Kelly has worn long pants to cover the scars left from fire. He says that he’s lifted his pant legs more in the time since he met Lobel than he has his whole life.

The two met when Lobel brought his photos to the gallery, hoping for a show. They have since become close. "We lived parallel lives," Lobel told The Enterprise last Friday.

"This exhibit is a statement not just about burn survivors," said Lobel, "but about how art can affect the human condition."

Both photographer and gallery owner revel in watching patrons view the exhibit. Kelly recounted the reaction of a woman who caught herself absentmindedly fixing her hair in a mirror placed among the photos. "The mirror is there for one thing," said Kelly. "Be less hard on yourself; take that same acceptance and start to give other people a break."

"What we’re trying to do," Kelly told The Enterprise, is to "go right to the edge with our backs to the void, turn around, and ask the viewer to come to the edge with us."

The project is, indeed, singular in its subject but also in its humanity.

"These are incredibly beautiful pictures," said Kelly.

"They’re beautiful pictures because they’re beautiful people," Lobel replied.

Kelly and Lobel said that some people had been hesitant to see the exhibit, but they said that nobody had left unhappy.

"It’s art," said Lobel. "Art is meant to be viewed."

Lobel began making his first serious photos when he was a freshman at the University at Albany in 1966, but, he said, "I’ve been a photographer my whole life."

He documented the protests of the ’60’s and ’70’s with a photojournalistic approach; he has "tens of thousands of images" of the protests, he said.

He chose not to pursue photography as a career and instead became a self-described serial entrepreneur. "I recorded images in a serious way, just never showed them," he said of his photography until recently. This show, Recognition Beyond Burned, is his first.

With a handful of successful businesses behind him, he said, "Life is taking on a slightly different meaning at this point." He still works in insurance but said, "This show is the pinnacle of my life’s ambition."

The project itself came about unexpectedly. Lobel went to the International Burn Congress with his cousin and traveling companion, Dr. Melvin Krant, in the company of a documentary filmmaking crew. Lobel put together a makeshift studio and said, "In less than a day and a half, I did 50 portraits."

Lobel recalled being struck by the way Phoenix Society members were arriving at the hotel last August, covered from head to toe in layers of clothes. "That's how they travel in society, covered up, in costume — if you will," he said.

Among each other, though, they shed their layers in favor of skin. This unveiled beauty is what Lobel captured on film and what Phoenix Society founder, Alan Breslau, wanted to capture with the name he chose for the organization.

"I named the society after the Phoenix," wrote Breslau in the foreword to Lobel's book, Recognition Beyond Burned, "the bird of Greek myth that burns up in its nest every 500 years and rises reborn more beautiful than before."

Some of the stories in the book show that the transition has been made. Brad Johnson writes, "My attitude toward life is pretty positive. Everything I hold dear happened after I was burned."

Most of the survivors are still struggling with their appearance. "I still get looks of distaste and bewilderment," wrote Winson Chen. "It’s human nature to look at what’s different."

This begs the obvious question: Why display pictures of people who don’t want to be stared at" Lobel referred to the American photographer Diane Arbus, who documented the fringes of society. "Her photography gives you permission to stare," he said.

It is the permission given by the sitter, the choice a person has to make a portrait, but mostly it is the dignity and the mission. When we are given permission to stare there is an "opportunity to look at people with suffering and have to look at yourself," said Kelly.

"I know I look pretty weird," wrote Joe Kinan, who was severely burned in a night club fire in 2003. "I don't mind children looking at me, but I do not like being stared at by adults. Those stares hurt."

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