Phil Collins, the British photographer whose first New York gallery show sprawls over three floors at Maccarone, is deliberately slippery. His work is at once romantic and dispassionate, hopeful and despairing, straightforward and enigmatic; a peculiar, unresolved tension courses just under the surface of nearly every picture. Perhaps that's because Collins seems irresistibly drawn to trouble spotsto Belfast, his former home base; to Belgrade, where he met the boyfriend whose image haunts one segment of the show; and to Bethlehem, where he photographed another shot-up facade and a smiling boy holding a white bird in a cage. For a series he calls "Real Society," Collins placed an ad in a Basque newspaper soliciting models, most of whom agreed to be photographed without their clothes. Like Katy Grannan's recent nudes, many of Collins's subjects are appealingly ordinary and touchingly awkwardfar more naked than they realize. But however revealing, the "Real Society" pictures feel like clever stunts next to many of Collins's more complex and ambiguous photos, like the shot of his boyfriend, half-naked, eyes downcast, bathed in a cool blue light, or the nearly impenetrable image of a young couplea woman with a man's head nestled at her neckpeering out of a pitch-black space. These pictures have an emotional charge that only a couple of the nudes achieve, and a subtlety that still hits a nerve.
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