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The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Three shows featuring photography run the gamut from formal to irreverent.

Through Lerner's romantic lens, beauty and optimism exist in even the bleakest corners of the world. But while Lerner's will to de-emphasize grit and despair is reflected throughout these images, so is his formal genius. Each of these photographs is a lesson on the craft of composition. Of particular note are the alluring images of Paris made in 1949 and 1950 and a powerful portrait of RFK flanked by two coal miners with their backs to the camera. People fall in love with cities, campaign for candidates or enlist in the armed services because of images like these.

The 15 photographers Anderson Gallery showcases in "The Bad Boys of Photography" are so labeled because they rebelled against Lerner's brand of formalism. Whereas Lerner masters composition, many of these "bad boys" reject compositional strategies altogether in favor of realism and quick response. Even starker contrasts exist between these camps. Several insist on direct participation with less-than-pretty subject matter. Danny Lyon recorded the lives of death-row inmates in his series "Conversations With the Dead." In "Tulsa Portfolio," Larry Clark documented firsthand experiences with drugs and drug abusers.

Still others rejected the picturesque, visual order and even the importance of recording a depth of field. Aaron Siskind, one of the first photographers to explore the medium's kinship to painting, shot surface irregularities on walls at close range, producing images akin to abstract expressionist brushwork. Here his "Uruapan 11," shot in 1955, captures a weathered wood surface on which carved lines and other traces of human contributions are evident. Siskind narrows in on the image as if it were a rare find, capturing the rich landscape of tone, texture and gesture.

1708 Gallery's latest show takes an even larger leap from photographic tradition. "FEAST," the raised letters in the gallery's entrance, announce and instruct on a scale that rivals the famed Hollywood sign. It's also the first of many farcical expressions contributing to the brand of Feast, an unlikely collaborative group of six people who share an interest in food and camp, and who like throwing expectations of art and art-gallery experiences to the wind.

Their installation at 1708, "Feast … Against the World," largely depends on photographs the group (Terral Bolton, Terry Brown, Sherry Griffin, C.J. Hawn, Stephanie Lundy and Chris Norris) stages and Brown captures on film. The subjects of the images are often Feast members appearing as characters other than themselves. Like Cindy Sherman, the New York-based photographer who has made a career out of portraying herself as different personalities, Feast members stylize themselves and others with costumes, makeup and sometimes disguises to contrive scenes with uncertain intent.

But this isn't just a photography show. Feast functions as an installation collaborative, a performance troupe, and a crew of art directors. With experience in costume design, graphic design, photography, fashion magazine production, painting and sculpture, these people are more than visually literate. Judging from the quantity of affectation bathed in high-gloss finish, their antics seem to be inspired by print media of the '70s and '80s (their rosy-cheeked models often pose as either clean-cut youth or members of Studio 54's B-list) and advertising in general.

Quirky mannerisms and low-brow styling, like those seen in last year's movie "Napoleon Dynamite," appear in every detail, from their framing choices to opening receptions they stage like premieres. "Feast Girls" in custom-designed costumes circulate through the crowd like cigarette girls, carrying trays of candy and small toys. On an elaborately appointed table in the center of the gallery are mounds of different kinds of doughnuts and silver buckets with three kinds of chilled flavored milk.

Nutritional content varies among these shows, but each offers the opportunity to consume something satisfying. S

"Bob Lerner: A Lens to the World" is at White Canvas Gallery through July 6. "The Bad Boys of Photography" runs at VCU's Anderson Gallery through August 6. "Feast … Against the World" is at 1708 Gallery through June 25.

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