Sunday, January 22, 2012

New Photography @ MoMA

I for one am rather pleased with MoMA’s selection of work in the New Photography show, but the scatter-shot selection of photographs continues to frustrate. The curators’ resistance to state what they believe is important in current photographic trends or reluctance to stage a vaguely thematic selection of work causes a chorus of derision that obscures the quality of the photographs. It is the cross the show has to bear as long as it is held at MoMA and called New Photography. This could all be resolved if they simply changed the name of the show to something more accurate like Recent Photography We as Curators at MoMA Enjoy. It is not as catchy as New Photography, but it would keep every review from starting with a preamble clarifying that the curators aren’t trying to comment on current photography and allow people to put aside their expectations of the curators and enjoy the show for what it is, a quality selection of recent photographs.

The show also consistently exposes lower profile artists to a broader audience. Coming into this exhibition, I knew Deana Lawson’s name and her work only vaguely, but it is hard not to take notice, seeing her picture of a teen (?) girl in a one-piece, see-through body stocking, staring down the viewer while standing next to her fully-dressed mother and a mantle lined with family portraits, it is hard not to take notice. Or George Georgiou’s straightforward pictures of Turkey that mix the stillness and attention to detail of Stephen Shore with the unexpected events and political impact of Joel Sternfeld. Or Viviane Sassen’s magnificently odd pictures of Africa, where for those of us with western eyes, the intended dreamscapes seem entirely plausible slices of day to day life in Kenya.

This isn’t to say there aren’t shortcomings in the show. Deana Lawson relies too heavily on nudity to foster intimacy in her pictures, George Georgiou’s prints make his photographs look like they were taken with a low-resolution digital camera, and can anyone name a black African photographer? There are many great white photographers working in Africa, but it is starting to feel awfully colonial.

I have failed to mention Zhang Dali and his belief that cosmetic retouching, as it was often practiced in the US, is necessarily evidence of Communist China’s all encompassing social control (maybe removing some small fuzzy factories behind an ice skater or removing an adorable baby next to a quaint peasant has some political significance to a Chinese audience, but if it does, it would behoove Dali to let the rest of us know). Not to mention Moyra Davey, who mailed photographic prints of sedate still-lifes of a library to friends…. get it? They are images that were mailed not emailed… you get it? mailed…

I am not sure how I feel about Doug Rickard’s pictures. His photography blog American Suburban X is a great, if not a downright overwhelming read, but whenever I see his pictures, I have a hard time not thinking about Michael Wolf’s earlier photographs from Google Earth out my mind. Rickard’s pictures do have more of a political bent, and he attempts to make his own photographs from the images pulled from Google Earth where Wolf was content to photograph his computer screen, but I just can’t get past the use of Google Earth as a camera. At this point, it just feels gimmicky and redundant. But again, the show overall is successful. It is a fine selection of photographers whom I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.

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