The Roman poet Lucretius, explaining the imagination, declared, "There are a great many flimsy films from the surface of objects flying about ... in all directions. When these encounter one another in the air, they easily amalgamate ... [and] penetrate through the chinks of the body and set in motion the delicate substance of the mind within." Balzac had a similar intuition which caused him to fear being photographed, conceiving of human bodies as "a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped in infinitesimal films ... [which] each Daguerreian operation [would] ... detach and use up," according to his photographer friend, Nadar.
Christina Koci Hernandez's photographs in Ambiguous Times may not make viewers fear for their subjects' precious bodily images, but there is a phantasmal aspect to these low-tech, plastic Holga camera images of performers barely emerging from an inky Bill Brandt blackness. Hernandez employs the instincts honed in her photojournalism career to investigate the self-presentation and visual manipulation practiced by neo-burlesque strippers, lucha libre wrestlers, and performers in the daily street pageant. The traditions of street and subculture photography derive, of course, from 19th-century realism, but Hernandez combines empathy and satire with objective observation: "I enjoy tiptoeing around the lives I follow ... I admire the lack of inhibition ... So many subjects I photograph are capable of confronting life head-on, less concerned than many as to what the opinions of others might be." Hernandez's use of an unobtrusive, ingratiatingly cute toy camera probably grants her a degree of freedom — both from interference and to experiment — that the usual electric-car-size SLR would not; it also insists that art derives from sensibility and not gadgetry.
Susan Sontag characterized photography as benign predation. Hernandez's image-captures from the Tease series include "Garter," a stairwell glimpse of a performer adjusting her stocking backstage; and "Hold Her," a shadowy view of two women tangoing in black slips. Highlights from the Everyday Mutations series include "Luchador," a powerful masked figure poised to spring from the canvas; and "Crucifixion," a robed fighter, kneeling with arms outstretched and head bowed to the impassive audience, suggesting gladiatorial morituri salutes to their emperor. From The City series comes "Urban Resolve," a woman in white crossing a darkened street beneath the familiar radiant pedestrian sign; and "Ambiguous Times," a worried-looking woman, overly made up, ambling through Arbusville. Ambiguous Times runs through November 28 at Slate Art and Design (4770 Telegraph Ave., Oakland). SlateArtAndDesign.com or 510-652-0485