The Critic as Artist: Mike Greenberg’s First Show

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The old axiom, “Those who can’t do, criticize” doesn’t apply to Mike Greenberg. After 28 years as an arts critic for the San Antonio Express-News, Greenberg continues to stay active – as a critic, playwright, and photographer.

Although he has been taking photos since 1973, this Friday marks his first public showing of his works – a retrospective of his work spanning the last 42 years.

The reception for Greenberg’s will be Friday, 7 p.m. at Urban-15, 2500 South Presa Street. Along with the reception, there will be a showing of “Patrick’s Day,” winner of the 2015 Manhattan Short Feature Film Festival, at 8 p.m. The photo exhibit is a free event; admission to the film is $10.

The body of work can be loosely categorized as street photography, although technically not all of it is such. Street photography, in its purest sense, is candid portraits of people in urban environments.

Mike Greenberg at Urban-15. Photo by Page Graham.

Mike Greenberg at Urban-15. Photo by Page Graham.

Greenberg sums up his own work in his usual articulate manner:

“I’d say the show is a mix of traditional street photography, urban landscape and, uh, whatever. There are a couple of portraits and a couple of interiors. But I don’t get hung up on genres. The best way to categorize the images might be to relate them to the various strands of my personality — partly melancholic, partly whimsical, partly cynical, partly sentimental. And most of the images in this show are there because they strike me as having a distinctly San Antonio feeling. Not that I could begin to explain that.”

In the exhibit, the works are grouped together thematically, whether it’s blue-collar workplace portraits, plants struggling to survive in the urban jungle, or streetscapes (see a sample in the gallery at the top of this story).

Greenberg works solely in film, usually black and white, which is then digitally scanned and printed, with minimal post-processing. Since all of the photos are black and white, form and composition are given the most emphasis. Light and shadows become key elements. The grittiness of the urban landscape is enhanced in a manner reminiscent of film noir.

One of Greenberg's early photos is the this image of a newsboy in Chicago, 1973. Photo by Page Graham.

One of Greenberg’s early photos is the this image of a newsboy in Chicago, 1973. Photo by Page Graham.

In an interview, Greenberg discussed how he got started.

“I got into photography in a serious way in 1973. I was working for Chicago Magazine (at the time it was still called Chicago Guide). My boss, the editor of the magazine, was deeply into photography. Every month, the magazine devoted eight, or 10, or 12 pages to the work of a Chicago photographer, and it was mostly street photography. So I sort of developed a taste for it from that, and frankly, from working in Chicago – walking streets in Chicago a lot.

“I had not really been into photography at all until then. My boss decided I should get a camera and become a photographer because I was doing a lot of the art direction and graphic design for the magazine.

“He insisted that I get a camera…and the magazine paid for all my processing and printing even though very little of it was for the magazine, just for me to learn. It was kind of an ideal situation. I was able to go out and shoot to my heart’s content. I spent a lot of time on the streets of Chicago, and it was a great learning experience.”

Street photography in San Antonio presents a challenge, Greenberg said.

“The problem with street photography in San Antonio is that there just aren’t that many people on the street. There are people in cars, but you don’t have the press of pedestrian traffic in very many places,” he said. “Even in walkable neighborhoods like King William, you don’t see people out, but it’s better now than it used to be, but that’s the main challenge – as well as you run into suspicion.”

He went on to explain how one of his most iconic photos came to be.

Man with knife, North Medina Street, 1973. Photo by Mike Greenberg.

Man with knife, North Medina Street, 1973. Photo by Mike Greenberg.

“One of the first photos I shot in 1973 was during a trip back to San Antonio. I was wandering around the old Missouri Pacific depot…it was abandoned then. This old guy asked me if I would take his picture. So I got my camera, ‘Sure, why not?’ So he stands there on the sidewalk. He’s got a gimpy sort of right arm, and with the left arm he pulls out a switchblade!

“So I shoot it – I didn’t get as close as I might. That was fun.”

In recent years, Greenberg has also been active as a playwright. He started writing “Three Views of a Waterfall,” in June 2008. In 2010, it was selected as one of the four winners of the Texas Nonprofit Theatres New Play Project. The Bastrop Opera House produced it in October 2011. The theme of the play centers around the long-term effects of war on combat veterans and their families.

During our conversation, Urban-15 Director George Cisneros pointed out, “Somebody in San Antonio should produce this play.” Given that we consider ourselves “Military City USA,” he has a point.

In addition to all of this activity, Greenberg still writes arts reviews for his blog, www.incidentlight.com. Needless to say, he has a busy post-career career.

George Cisneros discusses one of Mike Greenberg's photos on exhibit at Urban 15. Photo by Page Graham.

George Cisneros discusses one of Mike Greenberg’s photos on exhibit at Urban-15. Photo by Page Graham.

The only screening of “Patrick’s Day” in Texas will be the showing Friday night.

Directed by Terry McMahon, this Irish drama is about relationships between a suicidal airline stewardess, a schizophrenic young man, and his manipulative mother. Cisneros pointed out the disconcerting nature of the film: “It is so intense that we invited an expert on schizophrenia to lead a discussion afterward. I don’t think Manhattan Short realized just how powerful this film is.”

The discussion will be led by Lisa Jensen, executive director of the San Antonio chapter of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness). In addition, the audience will be invited to vote on whether the film deserves a wider release in theaters around the country.

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