Culture » Visual Arts

Rising Starr

The luminous work of local photographer Bill Starr on display at Phototroph



Simple, elegant and fluid, Bill Starr's photographs of the human body are both graceful and pleasing. They're also sexy, witty, reflective and a little strange.

Starr's an interesting guy. A Springs resident, he developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as a child, and still has physical problems associated with that condition. Perhaps as a consequence, Starr seems to have a deeply intuitive understanding of the body, of the way that we move, and of the nature of our physical frame. Just as George Stubbs, the great English painter, spent hours sketching in slaughterhouses to learn anatomy, Starr has spent years photographing bodies in motion and repose.

Starr's subjects -- young, fit, often dancers -- share an unselfconscious, catlike beauty. Nude or seminude, posed or informal, they seem to occupy a separate world. Starr's not interested in the body's sensuality, but in its physicality; the way muscles move and ripple under the skin, the tension between two dancers, the light reflecting from a nude body.

At Phototroph, Starr's photographs are grouped in series of twos, threes and fours. One radiantly beautiful set of four depicts two young women in an interior, playfully touching each other, and then sitting on the floor in a patch of sunlight, looking at Starr's Polaroid of the preceding shot.

All of Starr's images are shot with Polaroid Type 665 medium format film, which, according to Phototroph owner Elaine Bean,"automatically develops a positive print, but also produces a very fine tonal-range black-and-white negative. Starr uses these Polaroid negatives to make fiber-based archivally processed selenium-toned prints on French paper."

With a couple of exceptions, Starr's prints are small in scale, not much larger than typical snapshot. That's appropriate; these are intimate, slightly voyeuristic, mysterious images.

But what Starr does best is to capture the ineffable beauty of the human body, particularly in unguarded, unposed moments. Look, for example, at the figure of Flora in Botticelli's Primavera. I was once privileged to spend an hour with that great masterpiece, which invites us to forget our own mortality, and join the dance of life. And look at Starr's images, luminous and alive, a quietly joyful celebration of youth and beauty. Yet there's more -- in deep velvety blacks, in the slanting shadows of afternoon light, in a beautiful woman's somber, thoughtful gaze. Flora smiles; a knowing, even lascivious smile, yet tinged with sadness. So, too, does Bill Starr imbue his subjects with a certain melancholy, a sense that the dance must end for them, and for all of us -- photographer, subject and viewer.

All of the works on display are for sale, most priced at $350. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Phototroph consistently offers work of the very highest quality at affordable prices. I suspect that anyone buying from Phototroph will, in a generation hence, feel like the folks who bought Microsoft in 1986. And instead of feeling vaguely guilty for helping Bill Gates get rich, you'll have the joy of living with fine art.

-- John Hazlehurst

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