Between the trade show atmosphere of AIPAD at the beginning of April, the photography fair that has struggled to stay relevant since its inception, and the lackluster offerings and mood in the sales rooms of the three photography auctions in the week that followed, it felt like the month began with low blood sugar in the world of photography. AIPAD was busy as hell, but the offerings were not, for the most part, dazzling outside of things being big, colorful, or dramatic. Whereas the auction rooms were nearly empty, and while the three sales were different enough from one another, they were full of the usual fare: lot’s of Ansel Adams, some Weston, street photography, etc. The story being told in the pages of those catalogs was neither inspiring nor exciting, and it’s a disservice to just how complex and wonderful photo-based work is.
There was a time a little over a decade ago when it seemed that was changing.Thanks in part to the plethora of contemporary artists working in photography, the photo world emerged from the darkroom of prints and works on paper and began crossing over into the mainstream of the art market. It capped a rise that began in the 1970s, when the first serious photography galleries opened in New York and abroad, and a couple of dozen or so private collectors around the world were on the hunt for the finest prints of an image. There were no edition numbers, and sometimes unknown versions would appear just when it was thought that all copies had been accounted for. It was exhilarating, and not without the occasional fugazi, but it set the field on fire. Man Ray’s previously available for hundreds of dollars were selling for hundreds of thousands, and it seemed that the million dollar photograph was within reach with each public offering. Moreover, the sales themselves were now a blend of more traditional material from the 19th century to edgier things by Andreas Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Warhol, looking more and more in the afternoon sessions like a contemporary day sale than a photo auction.
It gradually lost steam. The modern market became heavily over-fished, and the private collectors who had amassed outstanding collections for little money at the time either sold them piecemeal at a profit or directed them to institutions (Chasanoff and Heiting to MFA Houston, Walther to MoMA, Gilman to the Met, etc). The contemporary photo-based work took firmer root in the Postwar and Contemporary auctions, where works could sell for well above one million dollars in the same week that the same object from the edition could be found with a dealer for far less, and the dialogue that was dividing the field about what photography meant, what its history and trajectory was, fell apart like a political campaign that has just lost the primary.
Not everyone burrowed their head into the sand, however. The next generation leading the photography departments of the seminal museum collections are beginning to flex their intellectual muscles and bring new light into the shadowy world of the field. One recent example is Matthew Witkovsky’s “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1966-1977” which closed last month at The Art Institute of Chicago and sadly did not travel. It has a great catalog, however, and its premise and outcome are fantastic. It traces the use of photography both as a documentary medium and one used for experimentation and creative expression among artists like Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Giuseppe Penone, and Ed Ruscha, to name just a few. It encapsulates the image vs. object dichotomy that plagues photographs, where repetition and singularity reside uncomfortably close to one another in a very small philosophical space. While these artists’ use of photography is hardly unknown in the art world, the way in which Witkovsky weaves its trajectory into and out of the history of photography is brilliant, and the fact that it was ushered into existence under the auspices of a curatorial department formerly known for being more traditional is cause for celebration.
Closer to home, evidence that shifting winds are blowing through MoMA’s rigid art historical canon is to be found in the new installation of the photography collection conceived by its curator, Roxana Marcoci. Slated to open April 18, it may actually open today, and it is worth calling up to find out if it has, because you will not fully recognize the museum you are in when you walk through its spaces. For all of its forays into interdisciplinary special collection exhibitions, where objects from different departments get blended together (remember the vaunted series of MoMA 2000 exhibitions??), MoMA’s curatorial departments have remained segregated according to medium: Painting and Sculpture, Prints and Illustrated Books, Architecture and Design, Film, etc. It’s a great way to classify the chaos of art history, where things really happened in a much messier, de-compartmentalized fashion. Can you imagine organizing postwar art like this? Was Andy Warhol a painter, a printmaker, a film-maker, a photographer…? You get the point. And while I recognize the herculean futility of redrafting the curatorial sectors, with so many objects, curators, and support groups attached to them, it has not been often enough that the collection galleries at MoMA are installed in a less than puritanical fashion when it comes to medium. For the moment, that has changed with Marcoci’s brilliant new installation. That it comes at a time when the department is searching for a new Chief Curator is exciting, for it is a shot across the bow declaring that it is possible to look at photography in an unconventional manner without in any way threatening the hegemony of its canon. Most museum photography collections are room after room of framed images, and it’s the history of the medium rather than the history of ideas that dictates the story being told. From the minute you enter MoMA’s photography galleries, you are confronted by a chronology that is faithful to the canon, but organized in thematic groupings of framed objects, offset by vitrines with books and magazines and film projections that relate to the imagery around them. We are treated to Berenice Abbot’s and Charles Sheeler’s images of the urban and mechanized environment while period film footage of the city dances beside them. The section on Russian constructivism shows the context in which the photos first appeared, with vitrines of chromo-lithographed periodicals showing Rodchenko’s, Klucis’, and Lissitzky’s original layouts in propaganda magazines much more dynamically arranged than the framed pictures on the wall.
Over in Surrealism, there are sections devoted to the ass, the mouth, and the hand, exemplary of its obsessions with sexuality and the subconscious, while another wall offers us an array pf German and other artists in the 1920s fascinated with the eye as a trope for the act of seeing the world through the camera. It’s a tour through art history that doesn’t even attempt to be encyclopedic or historically complete, and amidst all of the playful syncopation between themes and objects, a very important truism is reinforced. The history of photography has not only been about a singular image revered for its uniqueness or stellar printing technique. Quite often, the images first appeared in publication. They were made for mass production, and the publications convey as much about the Zeitgeist of a time and place as the images themselves. In some cases, they only make sense in books. The gallery with conceptual photography from the 1960s and 1970s has a beautiful wall devoted to Ed Ruscha, whose images of gas stations, parking lots, and swimming pools are laid out in the cheaply printed books they were first published in with their posthumously framed version alighting the wall above them. And artists we don’t associate with photography, like On Kawara, are represented by works that reside comfortably alongside Stephen Shore and John Baldessari.
New acquisitions never before exhibited are strategically placed throughout the galleries. A preview or two from Thomas Walther’s incomparable collection of modernist icons (to be shown in a special exhibition in a few years) make a special appearance, as does a room devoted to a fascinating body of work by Gerhard Rhüm, co-founder of the Wiener Gruppe in the 1950s, associated more with sound and poetry than with photography. His obsession with rigid flesh and wet places is bound to inspire some letter writing. Another artist lesser known in the canon is Michael Schmidt, a street photographer who worked exclusively in Berlin (mostly East), who is represented by a group of early works that hold their own against more familiar people like Dado Moriyama.
Towards the end of the installation is a work by Jules Spinatsch, originally shown and purchased during New Photography 2006, which is a large composite photograph made from time-lapsed surveillance camera videos taken during the World Economic Forum in Davos. Two monitors on the floor show the original surveillance images played in sequence. It brings us into the present day, reminding us that the photograph has become ubiquitous not only for showing us the world in a way we aren’t used to seeing it, but also for following and keeping track of us, creating a record of where we go and what we do, sometimes without our being aware of it.
This new installation takes full advantage of MoMA’s holdings across different departments in a tightly integrated joyful celebration of photography’s unresolved contretemps. Moreover, at a time when so many private collections are either being broken up by being sold at auction (e.g. Henry Buhl’s photography collection being sold this December at Sotheby’s) or gifted to museums with the stipulation that they must remain segregated from the rest of the collections to retain the owner’s intent, it shows the legacy of giving at MoMA across time, departments and taste. It is an homage to the endless retelling of art history that can occur when one is allowed to reshuffle the deck, mix things up, disregard boundaries, be discursive, self-critical, and while we’re at it, irreverent. That rumbling is not the subway cars passing below 53rd Street; it’s the next generation of curators taking control of the institution. Caution: good times ahead.