Daniel Traub, Migrant Community, Shanghai, 2006

Up & Now—the 12th annual Photographic Center Northwest juried show open to artists from around the world, but largely including young artists from New York and L.A.—is a portrait exhibition: classically posed portraits, grubby character portraits, and pictures of unpopulated places that act as portraits of the absent populations. Unfortunately, these characters are morbidly exposed and these locations are bland, dry, and unlived in—and then there is the occasional portrait of heavy-handedness itself.

Nan Goldin, who in the 1970s began taking unflinching, intimate photographs of her hard-living social circle, is the honorary godmother of this exhibition. Rachael Dunville, Joel Sanders (brother of Stranger staffer Eli Sanders and past Stranger contributor), and Martine Fougerone, all of New York, are influenced by Goldin's work, by her selection of intimate locations and her practice of finding vulnerability in the exposure to the camera of her models' flesh and ill-fitting underwear. At the beginning of Goldin's career, this subject matter was moving, aggravating, and somehow educational, but 30 years later, it feels like an encounter on the street.

The juror was Charlotte Cotton, curator of photography at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She has a slew of notable photographic exhibitions and publications under her belt, including The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2004), a survey of contemporary photographers and their mid-20th-century influences. The book divides photographers into seven categories, each of which gets a chapter.

The PCNW competition is "open to all photographers, all photographic processes, and all themes," according to the call to artists. But really, of Cotton's seven categories, only two are present in her 60 or so exhibition selections: photographs of domestic or personal narratives (chapter title: "Intimate Lives") and photographs of resonant personal objects (chapter title: "Something and Nothing"). There are no up-and-coming Jeff Walls or Andreas Gurskys here. And aside from the three silver gelatin prints by the first-place winner, Sung Jin Park of New York, and a black-and-white image by Seattle's Charles Peterson, all of the photographs are color-saturated, the type that make the world feel a lot more sallow.

(California artist Aline Mare's two small portraits of girls drenched in sun and water—hidden in the back of the gallery, but among the best works in the show—owe more to Sally Mann than to Goldin, and are a lovely exercise in light, surface, and reflection.)

During the Renaissance, painted portraits of wealthy patrons contained objects intended to signify the patrons' trades: a bag of gold coins for a banker, a quill for a scholar. Over time, this presentation of the signifier (wealth) and the signified (the wealthy patron) became less literal and one or the other could comprehensively represent both.

Several artists in the show, most notably Joseph Holmes and Beatrix Reinhardt of New York, and Rylan Steele of Georgia, contribute photographs of empty public spaces such as businesses, workshops, and in Reinhardt's case, clubs. The contents of these facilities, ranging from sundry office supplies to a hunting decoy, loosely describe the use of the space and the activities of the temporarily absent inhabitants. These photographs, though well executed, are insubstantial and without curiosity. The presence of used and ordered objects does not demand an interest in their owners or their use. More daring is the inclusion of inhabitants in the scene, as in three photographs by New York–based Dina Kantor that force the viewer to tangle with a person and a place, inclusive of all the potential conflicts and symmetries.

Daniel Traub, also of New York, took third place for his photographs of migrant workers and temporary dwellings in the border regions where city encroaches on country in China. If gentrification in the U.S. is a thief that enters through the window, gentrification in China kicks in the front door, begging for an ugly result. Paradoxically, Traub's photographs are gorgeous, and the highlight of the show.

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Although falling into another of Cotton's pet categories, art informed by documentary (chapter title: "Moments in History"), these images are broadly appealing. They are intelligent presentations of fleshy, living people rather than narrow reflections on people who have stopped living in order to stage their lives for the camera—or exaggerated portraits of unpopulated stages. Traub's subjects are genuinely vulnerable, their cobbled-together temporary dwellings vital and significant. recommended

[This story was corrected on August 16: Not all the photos in Up & Now are digital prints, and in addition to Sung Jin Park's prints, a black-and-white image by Charles Peterson was also not "color-saturated."]