A solo exhibition of photographs and videos by David Butow, including the new book, Edge, chronicles politics in the United States from the 2016 presidential election to the January 6, 2021, uprising, arrives at RIT’s City Art Space.
Opening Feb. 4, “Brink: Photographs by David Butow” features a captivating selection of images from the book (Punctum Press) for which Jenn Poggi, assistant professor at RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, was the one of the main publishers. The exhibition runs until February 20.
Poggi will conduct a free public conversation with Butow at 6 p.m. on Friday, February 4 at RIT City Art Space, 280 East Main St., Sibley Tower, Rochester, NY Butow will also give a Charles Arnold talk on his accomplished career in photojournalism at 6 p.m. Thursday, February 3 at the Wegmans Theater at MAGIC Spell Studios on the RIT campus.
Butow is a freelance photojournalist whose projects and assignments have taken him to more than two dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, Peru, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Despite his decades of work covering public policy outcomes, he had never photographed on Capitol Hill or the White House. In 2017, when Donald Trump took office, Butow felt compelled to move from California to Washington, DC, to document events up close.
“We went through history minute by minute, so much so that the gravity of what happened is only apparent when you step back and see how the whole saga unfolded,” writes Butow, whose book was recently reviewed by The Washington Post.
“As revisionists seek to trivialize or downplay these events, it is essential to keep track of how close Donald Trump’s presidency brought American democracy to the brink of dysfunction,” he adds.
According to Butow, while some of his photographs were taken on assignment, or published right away in the new yorker, vanity lounge, and TIME, “What interested me most was making images that would be different from everyday news coverage and that would be particularly compelling to viewers decades from now.”
He noted that he and Poggi worked together to plan the exhibition “with the idea that it will be much more than an exhibition and a reproduction of what is in the book.
“City Art Space is large and flexible, and we set out to create a unique experience for the viewer,” Butow said. “One difference is that we’ll be including a short slow-motion video I made, which mostly contains scenes from the US Capitol and the White House. There’s no narration; it’s just a symphonic poem that complements and gives a certain texture to the still images of the exhibition.
The space also provides the flexibility for very large prints, Butow added, and because the narrative ends with the January 6 attack on the Capitol, “we kind of force a viewer into a space to be confronted with virtually life-size images of images that I hope will give some idea of my experience that day – very crowded, chaotic and claustrophobic.
For Poggi, a former White House photo editor before joining RIT in 2013, editing photos spanning a five-year job — not to mention remote during a pandemic — has provided a number of unique and interesting challenges.
“David first sent me an extensive working edition of files in October 2019,” Poggi recalls. “Over the next two months, I made a montage of images that really resonated with me.”
“We both acknowledged that David would continue to work during the inauguration, but January 6 had a significant impact on how the book took shape,” she added.
Last spring, the duo consulted Olivier Picard, a photo editor with whom each had previously worked at US News and World Report. Around the same time, Poggi put Butow in touch with Shelby Leeman ’12 (photographic sciences), whom she had previously recruited to work at the White House Photo Office. Leeman, a digital imaging specialist, then prepared the 104 files for the book before it was printed in Italy.
Poggi said she was grateful John Aäsp, gallery director at RIT College of Art and Design, was able to carve out a niche for Butow’s exhibition, especially given the space’s scheduling. and other logistical changes caused by the pandemic. She looks forward to the public discovering Butow’s important work.
“In many ways, it’s a whole new project that organizes the exhibition,” Poggi said. “Although the themes are the same in the book and the exhibition, there will only be 29 images on display at the City Art Space. I didn’t want the two experiences to feel redundant.
“It was important for people to see the exhibit and then be able to pick up the book and continue to find new images that add more nuance to the conversation,” she concluded.