It's unlikely any young married couples with babies and toddlers live in the perfect serenity that Jessica Todd Harper summons in "The Home Stage," a series of large, luminous color photographs of herself and her family that is currently on view at the Print Center. It's doubtful that Harper believes in her contrived narratives, either, but she doesn't quite give it away. That would spoil the fun.
Harper's gentle, WASPy images of parents, children, and grandparents at home together, illuminated only by available daylight, suggest earlier centuries, and domestic scenes more likely to have been captured on canvas than with a camera lens.
But the clues hidden within paintings of such scenes by Vermeer, Cassatt, Sargent, and Whistler (all of whom would seem to have inspired Harper), suggesting that a depiction of domestic bliss was not the artist's sole intent, aren't so easily disguised in the clarity of a photograph. Harper circumvents this by making her own subjects even less revealing of their inner thoughts. Here and there, a mere hint of doubt animates a face; overall, though, each image comes across as a carefully calibrated performance.
Occasionally Harper veers into camp territory, as in a portrait of her sister Becky lying provocatively on a bed in a red slip, and a self-portrait showing Harper lying awake in bed, pregnant and pensive, with her husband, Christopher, beside her, arms encircling her, eyes closed. Edward Hopper meets Douglas Sirk.
But the majority of events in Harper's photographs are quiet, deliberate, and full of double meanings without being stagey. At first, a portrait of two girls sitting together on a couch in their pajamas, and in a portrait of a toddler half-wrapped in a towel that shows her naked backside reflected in a mirror behind her, might recall Sally Mann's early portraits of her daughters. But Harper presents these children as innocents, with no sexual innuendo whatsoever.
"The Home Stage" is most aptly represented by a photograph in which Harper's son is in the immediate foreground, seated at a desk with a globe on it, gazing into the camera as if looking directly at his mother (which, presumably, he is), his face softly illuminated by light from a window. Other, older family members can be seen in the darker recesses of the room, one looking intently at the face of a baby she's holding in the air. It could be a scene borrowed from a Vermeer - or a Charles Willson Peale - but it is Harper's own invention, a sublime contemporary view of her own family that seems remarkably without artifice.
The inestimable contribution of African Americans to the history of photography is made electrifyingly clear in "African American Photographers: From the Daguerreian to the Digital Eras," at Haverford College's Atrium Gallery, organized by photographer and Haverford professor William Earle Williams. The famous are here, of course - James Van Der Zee, Carrie Mae Weems, Roy DeCarava, Andres Serrano - but the lesser-knowns offer the surprises. I didn't know, for example, that double bassist Milt Hinton was also a photographer until I saw his haunting portrait of Billie Holiday singing in a recording studio in New York in 1958.
Williams' selections, drawn entirely from the college's photography and library collections, also include such rarities as an oval sixth-plate daguerreotype by James P. Ball (1825-1904) titled Mulatto Woman, which is the smallest work in the show, and a portrait engraving discovered in the manuscript collection of Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) that was the frontispiece for her book, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," published in London in 1773, and is the earliest known fine-art portrait of an African in Colonial America.
And the living Philadelphians are here in full force: Donald Camp, John Dowell, Ron Tarver (a former Inquirer photographer), and Williams himself among them.
Neon's seductiveness is a generally accepted fact, though it seems few dare to tread so obviously in the footsteps of Bruce Nauman, Keith Sonnier, Dan Flavin, Tracey Emin, and Jason Rhoades.
But neon seems a natural for Bonnie Brenda Scott, who uses it the way other people draw (she's clearly a handy person, too, which helps).
Scott's show at James Oliver Gallery, "The Year of No," catches artist, formerly based in Philadelphia, now in New York, on a roll with her gorgeous neon "drawings" of figures and other representational images infused with her experiences of faith, magic, and loss.