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A Street Photographer's Lens Focuses on the Strange and Noble

In its evolution from Louis Daguerre's first 19th-century photo plates, the photograph has grown to encompass everything - surreal tropes by Man Ray, formal arrangements by Edward Weston, social comment by Dorothea Lange, and symbolic Mapplethorpish portholes into the artist's tender or tarnished heart.

In the best work - Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank - all these functions are seamless.

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It's rare to find the knack for this sort of tiered vision in someone as young as the Marseille-based, French photographer Matthias Olmeta. Olmeta fuses profundity, absurdity, formal structure, expressive license, and intimacy in a manner more likely found in the work of artists who have lived - and toiled - longer.

Olmeta is a street photographer. Now in his late 20s, he's been taking pictures for more than two decades on the streets of Berlin, Marseille, New York, Bogot, and Los Angeles. Olmeta's nature seems to send him toward subjects outside the edge - homeless children, ladies of the night, itinerant street mimes.

For Olmeta, the street is an arena of adventure and fantasy, a repository for a strange and brutal beauty that resides just under the disguised veneer of daily routine - we need only know how to see.

Because of its requisite spontaneity, because of the way it is produced, the street genre is perhaps the most demanding and poignant of photo styles. Olmeta courts the form and makes it his.

His latest photo series, "Les Seigneurs" ("The Lords"), has been compiled into a handsome table-top book, and prints from the series have been shown at FIAC in Marseille and are now at the Bibliothque Municipal d' Aubagne, France, through Feb. 25. The show then travels to the Cargo International Center for Visual Arts in Marseille for April and May and is scheduled for London galleries in 1998.

In "Seigneurs," Olmeta peels away yet another surface to offer up for our consideration an odd baronship - the flea-market royalty of his native Marseille. Here we see the kings and queens of the discarded lounge chairs offering up their bric-a-brac that we might see in it some treasure.

Olmeta captures these lords of detritus waiting, looking, selling, hoping, shrewd, old, innocent, and new. He captures the wonderfully brittle, no-nonsense Marseilleux and their winsome children rummaging to uncover (much as Olmeta does with his lens) something fine and noble in the bizarre and the displaced.

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"Seigneurs" shows new technical maturity. Olmeta makes the best of the low-light characteristics of 35-mm street shooting, uses his instinctual feel for atmosphere, and activates his awareness of the human face as that thin barrier between the iconic and the utterly common.

It is this ability to see that distinguishes this artist. Olmeta's work is empowered by it. He is able to arrive at the symbolic, emotional, and formal "heart of the matter," revealing with a sensibility at once cynical and generous, critical but infinitely tender, what Cartier-Bresson called the decisive photographic moment.

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