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Point/Counterpoint

Whitney Chadwick, 2010

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Each of Irene Poon’s photographs represents a moment in time, a telling detail, a subtle

exchange between artist and subject. And each conveys its meaning through images conceived,

not in series, but in relationship to other works that draw on similar subjects but are often

executed at a geographic or temporal distance. It is these relationships that alert the viewer to

the dialogistic exchanges that underlie the play of meaning summoned up in the title of her

new book Point/Counterpoint. And it is these relationships that identify the themes to which

she has remained committed for forty years. They include urban life, often that of San

Francisco’s Chinatown where she was born and raised; the elderly; the small private acts of

daring (from the extravagant detailing of a car to the choice of a dramatic fashion accessory)

through which individuals assert themselves in the face of social conformity; the traveler’s

sudden awareness of the familiar in an unfamiliar landscape. Many of Poon’s black and white

prints reach across cultural and geographic spaces to focus attention on the quiet interludes

often overlooked in the bustle of urban life, or to isolate those brief and telling seconds that

Henri Cartier Bresson, an artist whom she has long admired, termed “the decisive moment.”

 

Poon remembers Chinatown in the 1940s and 1950s not as a tourist destination, but as the

vibrant and diverse community in which she and three siblings (an older sister remained in

China until the 1960s) passed their early years, first in a two-room apartment behind the herbal

store where her father worked, later in a handsome multi-unit apartment building near the top

of Nob Hill (though not so close to the summit as to violate the boundary that prohibited

Chinese ownership). The close-knit family prospered and, after graduating from Lowell High

School and San Francisco State University, Poon continued to return to the familiar

neighborhood, seeking out its colorful public street life and its quiet back alleys, focusing her

camera on its inhabitants and their lives while bringing to the encounter a respectful distance

that mutes the voyeurism inherent in much photojournalism of those years. In The Secret 1964

two young girls dressed in school uniforms perch on the ledge of an open window. The interior

space behind them is shadowed, and their “secret” resides both within this impenetrable space

and in the illuminated public arena that surrounds the unseen photographer.

 

The tension between public and private, present in many of Poon’s photographs, can also be

seen in images like Portsmouth Square 1968. Here an elderly woman sits on a park bench

enjoying a moment of rest amidst the bustle of Chinatown. Her air of quiet introspection

contrasts with the attentiveness of the child who accompanies her and who raises her eyes

from the bun she is eating to cast a wary eye on the invisible photographer. The dark clothing

shared by the two figures merges into a single abstract shape within which their faces and

 

 

hands invoke the passage of time and the decades that lie between youth and old age. Old age

reappears as a subject in 100, Denmark 1991 in which another frail elderly woman, her hands

crossed in her lap, sits in a bentwood chair facing the camera. Behind her in the dim interior of

the room fragments of objects are visible: framed photographs, an elegant metal bowl sitting

on a patterned tablecloth, the back of a chair. Poon grew up in a family in which most of her

relatives remained in China. While the fact that she never knew her grandparents may underlie

her interest in inter-generational relationships, photographs such as these are equally informed

by her long interest in the work of humanist photographers from Henri Cartier-Bresson and

Jacques Henri Lartigue to August Sander and Bruce Davidson.

 

Poon’s sensitive and sympathetic approach to her subjects weaves together images from urban

worlds as distinct as San Francisco, where she was born and raised, to China, the birthplace of

both her parents, and Europe, specifically Denmark, from which her late husband’s ancestors

had emigrated. While a student of photography at San Francisco State University in the 1960s

(she graduated with an M.A. in 1967), Poon worked with photographers Jack Welpott and Don

Worth. It was Worth who encouraged her to follow her own direction, and whose modest

demeanor and quiet approach to his subject would inform her own attitude as she moved away

from student exercises that often included landscape, and from the Zone system, then the basis

of instruction and a method that she found restrictive and “cramping,” to photographing the

urban context she knew so well. Shifting from the large 4 x5 cameras that the school supplied

its students to a smaller but still cumbersome 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 Hasselblad purchased with one of

her first paychecks, and then to the 35 mm format she prefers today, allowed her to work

largely undisturbed. She quickly developed an interest, not in dramatic street scenes and signs

of conflict, nor in the perceived “exoticism” that had drawn photographers to San Francisco’s

Chinatown for decades, but in the social and human dimension of city life, the rhythm of its

streets and the rich diverse cultures that they sustained.

 

Although she attended university during the turbulent decade of the Vietnam War, the

photographs in Point/Counterpoint largely reject a direct expression of the social conflict that

defined that decade. Nor do they suggest the documentary concerns of the photojournalist.

Instead she focuses on a world with which she is intimately connected, a world where children

play street games with unselfconscious pleasure (Yeah! 2006), where counterculture rebellion

is glimpsed only in the title (We Are the World 1968) that accompanies the image of a young

couple on a motorcycle, where personal eccentricity and flamboyant expression are projected

onto objects in the exuberantly detailed cars of Mission Ride 2009 and Yuma Arizona 2009, and

where private anxiety and grief are read against the public signs of social protest (Desert Storm

Protest 1991) and (Yellow Ribbon 1991).

 

 

 

At San Francisco State Poon took courses in painting and art history as well as photography. She

was close to the photographer and painter John Gutmann and the painter Alex Nepote, both of

whose work impacted her own developing photographic practice, as did her long friendship

with Imogen Cunningham, and she brings to her artistic practice a discerning eye, an

appreciation for the moment, and a deep sympathy for her subjects. The consistency of Poon’s

photographs, then, lies in her emotional connection to the worlds she photographs, and her

commitment to portraying the familiar through broadly humanist eyes in photographs that

illuminate the toughness and fragility, the grittiness and sensuality, the large challenges and

small pleasures that make up urban life.

 

The photographs that comprise Point/ Counterpoint have another “counterpoint” in Poon’s

photographic portraits of Asian American artists active between 1930 and 1970. A historian, an

archivist and a curator, in addition to a photographer, her work in this area would prove ground

breaking and for some years she committed herself to recuperating and documenting the

history of Asian American artists in the twentieth century. While the artists who appear in

Leading the Way: Asian American Artists of the Older Generation – from Dong Kingman and Jade

Snow Wong to C. C. Wang and Ruth Asawa – do so as named individuals accompanied by

biographical entries, they share the photographer’s long commitment to capturing a specific

moment in the life of an individual and the formal relationships that give the moment its

meaning and expression, with the unnamed subjects of Point/Counterpoint. Whether known to

her or not, Poon’s subjects remain united by her attention to the touching details through

which their individuality and their humanity is expressed.

 

Whitney Chadwick is Professor of Art (Emerita) at San Francisco State University. She is the

author of Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Thames and Hudson, 1985), Women,

Art, and Society (Thames and Hudson 1990, in its fourth revised edition), and the co-edited

volume (with Isabelle de Courtivron) Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership

(Thames and Hudson, 1993). Her most recent book is The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris

Between the Wars, edited with Tirza True Latimer (Rutgers University Press, 2003). She is

currently working on a book on friendships between women in Surrealism.

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