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Spider Martin's Fashion Photos Put Models in Odd Places
At the Birmingham railroad station Martin has models exiting passenger cars, girls astride railroad

Spider Martin's Unseen Sixties Fashion Images, 1965-1973. The Visual Arts Gallery, The University of Alabama at Birmingham. Through Aug. 17.

''The documentary photography by Spider Martin is some of the finest. His raw and gritty photographs of turbulent events from the civil rights movement are some of the best documentary photography from that era.

This exhibition of his work as a fashion photographer does little to enhance his reputation. It shows a facet of his work that undoubtedly supported him. It also shows little of his incredible eye for the moment.

The 1960s and early 1970s gave us the ''lost generation'' and a lot of guff and fluff. The mantra of love-in and drop-out took many forms. It was the time of mildly titillating movies such as Doris Day coy comedies and James Bond scripts filled with naughty innuendoes.

Barbie and Ken became role models and life tended to dollops of emotional sherbet.

The most important aspect of this show is how Martin captures a lot of that superficiality in these fashion shots. Assignments from a number of local and a few national publications gave him the opportunity to do set-up photos that often were based on visual contrasts. He sought interesting and contrasting backgrounds for these pictures.

At the Birmingham railroad station Martin has models exiting passenger cars, girls astride railroad tracks or loafing in front of ramshackle warehouses. There is a shot of girls lounging at the bar of a local watering hole and a couple of garden fountain sites that brought some variety to the artificiality of the standard poses. Unfortunately the pretty girls lacked the talent to look alluring and end up looking sleepy.

These photographs reveal that Martin never achieved the required sensitivity for haute couture artificiality. Any suggestion of his unique vision is more accidental than deliberate. These pictures offer no insights into his brilliance.

It is apparent Martin sought to bring a kind of realism to these pictures. He seemingly tried but could not overcome

the deadly combination of stilted fashion pose and harsh reality.

What this show really tells the viewer about Spider Martin is that with almost every shot he's flatly stating, ''it's a living.''


James R. Nelson is visual arts critic for The Birmingham News.