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In Edward Hopperís famous painting "Nighthawks" isolated patrons can be seen through the windows of a brightly lit coffee shop. In "Luncheonette," Ann Marie Rousseau observes another kind of nocturnal urban isolation.

The photograph, blown up to stately proportions, shows a homeless woman with shopping bags at her feet. The lone patron of an all-night restaurant, she stares out the window with the exhausted resignation of someone able to rest only briefly from her continuous forced march through city streets.

This image is one of several from Rousseauís book, "Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives" (Pilgrim Press, 1981), that are at Orange Coast College Art Gallery through Thursday.

The black-and -white photographs, shot mostly during the 1970s in New York, Boston and San Francisco, reveal a world of cruel fluorescent lights, immovable plastic chairs and hard, dirty floors- the rest rooms, train station "waiting rooms" and shelter cafeterias where these women huddle like so many forgotten old coats.

Outdoors, they are observed sitting in the shadows of shops on derelict streets, rummaging through garbage bins, sunning themselves or eyeing middle-class women who stride by, oblivious or repelled.

Brief statements from some of the women sketch in the circumstances- a lost check, ill health, venal landlords- that have landed them on the streets, and subjected them to the sort of unimaginable indignities they endure every day in pursuit of rest, food, cleanliness and even control over their own bodies.

A few of the images, like "The Benediction" and "The Importance of Art"- are dependent on chance juxtapositions creating ironic social commentary, a strategy (most famously used during by Depression-era photographers) that now looks dated or didactic.

But Rousseau generally avoids obvious commentary. Her great strength is her attentiveness to both the tiny joys (a cheese sandwich, a piece of fabric from a dumpster) and the great pockets of numb despair in these womenís lives. Although there has been no end of media coverage of "the homeless," the photographs remind viewers of the individuals behind the label.

 

Cathy Curtis
Staff Writer, Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, November 7, 1996

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