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List honors legacy of photographer Bruce Cratsley

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Walking into the List Gallery, now featuring “Bruce Cratsley: Shifting Identities,” one is struck by the vastness of Bruce Cratsley ’66’s portfolio.  The exhibition highlights images taken between 1977 and 1999 on Cratsley’s twin lens Rolleiflex camera, showcasing a range of subjects from participants in a gay pride parade to marble statues in a museum. Lectures and events will accompany the exhibition until it closes on October 30.

List Gallery Director Andrea Packard ’85 and Studio Art Instructor Ron Tarver curated the exhibit. Of Cratsley’s over 2,000 images, they were challenged to select only a limit amount for presentation.  

“As curators, you not only pick the artist,” Packard said, speaking to the difficulty in choosing these images, “but you have to think, ‘What are the best physical objects which represent the artist’s visions?’”

Throughout such a vast corpus of work, Cratsley frequently juxtaposed shadows and light to add a unique quality to his black and white photos.  

Tarver, who also is a staff photographer with The Philadelphia Inquirer, said, “Bruce’s work is all about light and texture, and sort of creating a mood with light, and how he used light to sort of sculpt his images. His focus is all on light and shadow.”

One theme in Cratsley’s photographs is especially poignant. By documenting the LGBT community and the AIDS crisis over the course of his career, he confronted topics in the 1980s, which were controversial when these images were captured and are still so today.

Tarver said, “It was a time when [this] wasn’t really talked about, but he was one of the first photographers to sort of push that idea of photographing mainly gay pride, putting it out there, and then turning it into art, and documenting it.”

A series of portraits of David, one of Cratsley’s partners, specifically reflects the toll of contracting AIDS.  At the time of these pictures, there were many myths surrounding the syndrome, which fed into paranoia and prejudices. Cratsley himself contracted AIDS and passed away in 1998.

Packard remarked on her own experience of graduating from Swarthmore and observing the impacts of the disease, explaining that there are still societal impacts to deal with today.

“That crisis manifested aspects of the best and worst of humanity, and those underlying qualities about human society … those underlying habits of both caring for each other and sometimes distancing ourselves from others are still prevalent, and we still have to work hard to overcome that sort of habitual and hurtful thinking.”

For Cratsley, though, there was no dominating single subject or theme. His diverse work included, among more, portraiture, still life images, and scenes captured in window reflections.  

“The show in its nature kind of delves into a lot of his different modes of working,” noted List Gallery Intern Blake Oetting ’18.

Packard commented that it can be important for students to see such a range.  

“I think it’s good for artists to know, young artists learning photography or any medium, that artists study and engage with lots of different things. We don’t have to be specialists in one,” Packard said.

To develop and create his photographs, Cratsley used two and one-quarter-inch negatives which were exposed in a darkroom. During this process, Cratsley varied levels of exposure to create different effects in lighting — a physical process that many duplicate today digitally.  He also did not use a glass collodion, which usually forces the negatives to lie flat, when printing, resulting in final prints which are not perfectly square. This effect is noticeable in his works currently on display.  

“If you go to the exhibit,” Tarver noted, “you may notice that the matte and the edge of the print isn’t necessarily parallel, and that’s because he didn’t use the glass plate.  From an aesthetic point of view, that’s probably where he … did his own thing.”

Trained by photographer Lisette Model, Cratsley was introduced to a distinct style early in his career. Model’s work is, according to Tarver, “not very fussy.”  

“She would photograph people on the street … very unposed,” he said.

Packard explained that Model defined photography as “the art of the instant,” and noted that Cratsley’s works took full advantage of this motif.  

“That paradox of instantaneity and timelessness in an image is something that a lot of artists are drawn to, whether they’re painters or photographers,” said Packard. “I think his work is interesting in that it really is an exemplar of that.”

“One thing I really am proud of with this show is the way Bruce did not define himself solely by one thing,” noted Packard. “He wasn’t solely a gay man, solely a person with AIDS, and the show [reveals] what a beautiful, full, life he led.”

The exhibition runs through October 30 with events occurring throughout its tenure. On Thursday, September 15, Tarver will deliver a lecture before an opening reception entitled “Bruce Cratsley’s Inspirations and Legacy.” The lecture begins at 4:30 p.m. in the Lang Performing Arts Center, and the reception is at 5:30 p.m. in the List Gallery.

Jasmin Rodriguez-Schroeder ’17 will speak at a closing reception on October 19 at 12:30 p.m., where an exhibition pamphlet created by Oetting will be available.

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