Lucas Blalock in Frieze

Published in Frieze 170 (April 2015).

Lucas Blalock belongs to a generation of artists, mostly in their 30s and from North America, which is exploring the component parts of photography in a time of dramatic technological change. The results of their investigations vary in form and genre: some work in an abstract vein; others tease apart representation through analogue and digital collage techniques; others exhibit objects that, to a conservative viewer, might only tenuously be described as ‘photographic’. Depending on how widely you wish to cast your net, artists as diverse as Walead Beshty, Talia Chetrit, Sara Cwynar, Jessica Eaton, Shannon Ebner, Sam Falls, Daniel Gordon, John Houck, Artie Vierkant and Hannah Whitaker can be brought together under this rubric of photographic experimentation. And they often are, by museums and galleries newly interested in an artistic medium no longer ghettoized by historical biases against it.

Cover of Frieze 170 (April 2015), featuring a photograph by Lucas Blalock.

Cover of Frieze 170 (April 2015), featuring a photograph by Lucas Blalock.

Blalock’s signal contribution to this dialogue-through-art is his explicit foregrounding of the role computers and digital processing play in the creation of photographs today. The word explicit is key. The labour that underpins many other photographs, especially those created for commercial or editorial use, is effaced in the final product; the goal is for viewers not to notice the airbrushing, the colour correction or the masking. In the photographs that first brought him widespread attention, such as those in his 2011 solo exhibition at New York’s Ramiken Crucible, Blalock reversed that priority, crafting ungainly digital alterations and exposing them to public scrutiny. It’s a simple premise that yielded profound results. In the last five years, Blalock has exhibited and published a large body of strange, and strangely compelling, photographs – still lifes, mostly, but also portraits and semi-abstract compositions – that encourage viewers simultaneously to decode what is being depicted and to ruminate on how that depiction is constructed.

This counters the transparent accessibility of most photographs today, which is augmented by their presence on screens and the ease with which we can modify them. In early interviews, Blalock referenced Bertolt Brecht and spoke of the ‘theatrical’ nature of his studio work, of how he liked to disclose his working process in order to complicate seamless viewing. In recently published conversations, however, Blalock has begun elucidating a broadened set of intellectual concerns that might best be understood through the term ‘friction’.

To read the rest, click here

Means to an End: Steichen for Stehli

My essay on the photographs Edward Steichen made for the Stehli Silks Corporation appears in Osmos 5 (Winter 2015). An excerpt:

Edward Steichen, Sugar Cubes (for Stehli Silks)

Edward Steichen, “Fabric design for Stehli Silk No. 28 (sugar cubes)”

As it steamed across the Atlantic one day in 1926, the Isle de France was the site of a chance encounter. Ruzzie Green, at the time an illustrator and designer, was on his way to Europe, perhaps to the Swiss headquarters of the Stehli Silks Corporation, where he served as art director. On deck he chanced upon Edward Steichen, the artist whose pictures were revolutionizing fashion photography. The two struck up a conversation, and, in short order, a deal: Steichen would contribute designs to Stehli’s popular “Americana” line of fabrics. The fruits of their collaboration, when released to the public the following spring, would prove to be not only a commercial success, but they would also draw together a remarkable number of aesthetic, social, and economic trends: celebrity, artistic abstraction, mass production and consumption, the creative appropriation of everyday consumer objects—in short, much of what we identify with modern American society and culture.

Green and Steichen’s meeting came at an auspicious moment. Historians of American culture, including Lizabeth Cohen and William Leach, have described the mid-1920s as an era of standardized production, mass consumption, corporate expansion, and increasingly influential advertising. America had emerged from the wreckage of World War I relatively unscathed and the stock market crash was still a few years away. Five-cent theaters featuring ethnic films were losing ground to the Hollywood system; mom-and-pop shops were being displaced by department stores and national chains. Recognizable brands were being promoted by familiar names and faces.

Stehli’s “Americana” line capitalized on these transformations, deploying celebrity name recognition to sell its mass-produced textiles. Green hired nearly one hundred prominent figures to create—or at least lend their names to—these patterns, which were sold by the yard for dressmaking and other domestic applications. Participants included Helen Wills, an eight-time Wimbledon champion, the cartoonist John Held, Jr., and the fashion desire Pierre Mourgue.

Green commissioned dozens of artists to create patterns for Stehli, but Steichen was the only photographers who contributed to the “Americana” line.

To read the rest, pick up Osmos 5 on newsstands or online via D.A.P.


“Our Poor Perishable World”

I wrote an essay on photographer Robert Adams, novelist Marilynne Robinson, and landscapes as sacred spaces that has been published in Issue Eight of The Common, a literary journal about “the modern sense of place.”

An excerpt:

Eden, unworthiness, ultimate judgment, grace: Adams’s is a biblical language of sin and possible redemption. Thinking of the Riverside picture in these terms, one can understand the blinding whiteness of the sun as a metaphor. Not only is it representative of our own destructiveness, suggesting that the further we push down the path of sprawl and development, the less of the current landscape’s beauty we’ll be able to see; it is also a symbol of our inability to comprehend what lies beyond this process—whether you believe that is more like heaven or hell. In Adams’s view, the landscape is sacred. And the quality of attention he gives to it is itself a form of prayer. At Yale, while I looked at hundreds of Adams’s beautiful photographs, beautiful even when they are records of humankind’s most wanton destruction, the treatment of landscape in an altogether different artist’s work came inexorably to mind.

The essay has been published online; read it by clicking this link.

Op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer

On November 18 I published an opinion piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Its subject, the use of cameras in public spaces, relates to my exhibition “Eyes on the Street” at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

How many times were you photographed or videotaped yesterday? The answer is likely higher than you think. In the last two decades, the rapidly decreasing cost of image-capture technology has meant a proliferation of cameras in both public and private spaces. At the same time, the widespread use of smartphones means most of us now carry a camera everywhere we go.

When a news story brings this proliferation to our attention, it’s often because a camera has captured something that, in the past, would likely have gone unrecorded. Think of the role cameras have played in bringing us information – instantaneously – about protests in far-off places like Hong Kong or the Middle East. Or how, closer to home, news of the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by cell-phone footage. When public spaces and cameras enter the news together, it is often at socially or politically contentious moments.

It is important to try to understand more fully the ways our lives are now intertwined with cameras.

To read the rest, click here.

“Findings”—On Jochen Lempert

Several years ago, the literary scholar and biographer Richard Holmes told the story of the “second scientific revolution” in Britain. Beginning with Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition, which departed in 1768, and ending with Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands, begun in 1831, Holmes described how enterprising figures brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work.” These men laboured in disparate fields—from astronomy to chemistry to biology—yet, Holmes claims, “the notion of wonder” united them. Reacting against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, they took exploratory voyages and dwelt in mystery and inspiration. By the mid-nineteenth century, this “Age of Wonder,” as Holmes called it, would give way to a Victorian science more recognizably modern—cooler and more restrained. Yet the notion of Romantic science Holmes explores is worth retaining, not least because it highlights the acts of imagination that are an important part of any scientific enterprise.

In a similar vein, art historians and critics have recently examined the “Romantic” side of Conceptual art, itself commonly understood as wedded to notions of logic and rigor. As Jörg Heiser noted in a 2002 article, Conceptual artists such as Bas Jan Ader attempted “systematically treating the unsystematic,” such as emotional states. In the course of exposing the tensions of modern art, these artists collapsed its primary distinctions—“analysis versus beauty, thought versus desire”—in what Heiser described as a kind of “alchemy.”

The echo of scientific inquiry in the term alchemy is apropos of German artist Jochen Lempert, who trained as a biologist before turning full-time to art making in the early 1990s. His seemingly casual photographs of flora, fauna, and ephemeral natural events benefit from his scientific training, though their analytical rigor is less obvious than their “poetry” (that other Romantic specialty). His images are unprepossessing when encountered individually: a pigeon on a sidewalk, a stick bug on an outdoor table, leaves swept upward by an unseen wind. Yet they are animated by a savvy observational acuity, one honed by Lempert’s years studying dragonflies. And his installations, for which he devises novel combinations of photographs, possess a quietly mesmeric force. By carefully controlling the progression of focus, scale, and other features, Lempert performs alchemical transformations in his own right, and makes of his modest endeavors something enchanting.

The first thing one notices about Lempert’s photographs is their peculiar physical presence. In a world dominated by on-screen JPEGs and the smooth color gradations of inkjet prints, Lempert always works in black-and-white and prints his photographs using analogue techniques. He often manipulates them as he processes them in his studio lab. After a rigorous editing process, he hangs the finished artworks un-matted and unframed, taped to the gallery wall in such a way that their rippling edges sometimes lift off its surface. The paper he uses has a relatively loose weave, giving each picture a softer effect; even his most sharply focused images seem, upon first glance, like charcoal drawings or finely detailed pencil sketches. In a world of digital C-prints the size of billboards, the material properties of Lempert’s artworks reveal a sensibility rooted in timeless concerns.

These photographs are recombined for each presentation of Lempert’s work. Pictures from the early 1990s bump up against phenomena he observed recently. Some of Lempert’s sly juxtapositions are based upon formal allegiances. A subtle dark pattern on a butterfly’s hind wing is revealed more fully after Lempert juxtaposes it with a similar-looking tattoo on a woman’s upper back. An isolated piece of coral acquires zoomorphic attributes when placed next to an image of a flamingo’s body. Or consider, as in his recent retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which garnered him the nomination for this year’s Deutsche Börse Prize, the berry of a deadly nightshade plant with light bouncing off its spherical surface; the toxic specimen parallels the eye of a squirrel in an adjacent picture.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.

Other combinations and series perform different tasks. Some are homages to figures in his initial field, as with his photographs of the title pages of Charles P. Alexander’s research papers on crane flies. The papers span several decades, and Lempert’s photographs of them are a paean to the unheralded task behind such research: dedicated, long-term observation. That dedication, however, can admit whimsy. Several photographs of four swans floating in a pond, included in the series Constellation, never quite create a perfect square. In that imperfection, they bring to my mind John Baldessari’s inimitable 1973 work Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts).

Other photographs celebrate pioneers of scientific photography, as with his photograms made by pressing light-sensitive paper to a computer-screen display of images from Anna Atkins’s 1843 volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, considered the first book illustrated with photographs. In a further reference to Atkins, Lempert has also made his own photograms with algae, as well as with other subjects, such as lily pads and frogs. One such artwork tracks the path of a glow-worm across several sheets of light-sensitive paper; the image it produced was exposed solely by the subject’s own bioluminescence.

But whether observed in the field or produced in a darkroom, Lempert’s photographs can also raise vexing philosophical questions. One of my favorite artworks he has made comprises six photographs of waves cresting on a roiling sea, each with an identical horizon line. They hint at the unremitting and yet futile attempts we make to organize perceptual phenomena; the images are similar enough that a viewer is tempted to devise a category into which to slot them—a fundamental human impulse, and a linchpin of scientific inquiry. (Linneaus is famous today for regularizing binominal nomenclature and his pioneering taxonomic classifications, not his collections of specimens. That deadly nightshade plant is also known as Atropa belladonna.) But what category might these pictures of waves slot into? And once you’ve outlined its contours, how would you fill such a category with photographs? Photographing the sea with any systematic intent is a Sisyphean task. As if to drive home the point, Lempert has also photographed the patterns created by raindrops splashing on the surface of a body of water—two impossible-to-visualize systems interfering with one another. He frequently tests the camera’s vision against the natural world, and then encourages us to dwell upon how the natural world trumps human perception and understanding.

By acknowledging those limitations, we open the door to doubt and uncertainty, for which we compensate with the poetic imagination. For all his training in science, and despite the scientific principles his photographs illustrate and the utilitarian information they may carry, Lempert’s pictures are also undeniably lyrical. In the catalogue accompanying his recent retrospective, Frédéric Paul asserts that it is “a human error to see a poetic invention in the behavior of a bird”—yet I’m confident that, like me, Paul succumbs to the impulse when looking at Lempert’s photographs. Lempert’s photographs are not controlled experiments, but rather explorations, voyages of discovery.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.

It is another literary scholar, the late Guy Davenport, who describes what I take to be the impulse animating Jochen Lempert’s work. In an essay on the “amateur archeology” of family trips to hunt for American Indian arrowheads, Davenport writes, “what lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before. . . . [Thoreau’s] daily walks [had] a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty.” Davenport continues, “our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Foraging, that prehistoric impulse, has not been bred out of us. Lempert’s modest voyages of discovery—often no more than day trips around his hometown—result in photographs that give us twin pleasures: that of the hunt, of course, and that of attending closely to what he has found.

This essay is published in the catalogue accompanying the 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. The exhibition is on view until June 22. For more information, click here.

“A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial”


Nir Evron, still from A Free Moment, 2011.

The first three ICP triennials were given titles that imparted their organizing themes: “Strangers,” in 2003, considered street photography and images of people unknown to us; “Ecotopia,” in 2007, was about environmental change; and “Dress Codes,” in 2010, examined fashion’s role in our lives. The title of this triennial, “A Different Kind of Order,” which includes 28 international artists (only eight of whom are women), brings to the fore the wholesale shifts that have upended photography during the ten-year span since the 2003 exhibition. What had been subtext is now the central focus, and there are nearly as many moving-image works as still photographs. The primary medium of several artists is not even lens-based.

No single theme emerges, despite the curators’ insistence that the apparent chaos of our moment is the titular “new kind of order.” What patterns the four curators discern feel kaleidoscopic, liable to sudden shifts, rather than stable and self-evident. Keywords defined in the catalogue’s introduction—“Analog,” “Collage,” “Community,” “Self-Publishing”—are hashtags as much as principles, and suitable for our transitional moment.

Viewers could trace their own through lines; I was repeatedly struck by the sense of accumulation translated by the artworks, and by the ways lenses are being used to capture and represent bodies under duress. The acquisitive impulse was manifested simply, as in Roy Arden’s rather dull Quicktime slideshow of thousands of images he has gathered from the Internet, and in the selection of photographs from Michael Schmelling’s project The Plan (2009), which documents the efforts of Disaster Masters, a New York company that counsels hoarders. The emphasis on bodies in particular places at particular times is expressed with haunting clarity in London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel’s photographs and video from his project Drowning World (2007–). What would have been full-length frontal portraits of flood victims in such places as Nigeria and Thailand are, sadly, converted into three-quarter or half-length portraits by the brackish waters that have risen up to their subjects’ knees, waist, or chest. The seven-minute video of people trying to go about their daily lives in these conditions is particularly poignant.

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

These two themes converge in some of the strongest contributions to the exhibition: Jim Goldberg’s Proof (2011), an affecting wall-length installation of contact prints depicting undocumented immigrants, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012), a wall-size projected video of a woman’s hand swiping an iPad to scroll through images of bodies torn asunder by violence. The intimacy of the hand’s gesture is contradicted by the distancing effect of the screen (and that of the projection). It offers unvarnished proof of just how vulnerable our bodies are, while also reminding viewers that privilege—and our mass media—largely spare us the evidence of bodily harm.

If the exhibition felt like a grab bag, it nonetheless was stuffed with engaging works. Every inclusion that seemed weak or out of place—Huma Bhabha, Mishka Henner, Sohei Nishino, Elliott Hundley—was offset by revelations. The Israeli artist Nir Evron’s film A Free Moment (2011), presented here as a wall-size high-definition video projection, is at once rigorously structured and disorientingly unstable. Evron installed a dolly track inside the unfinished summer palace in Jerusalem begun in the 1960s by King Hussein of Jordan. The film begins with a commanding view over the city; the camera then pulls back along the track into the concrete shell of the building and begins rotating and panning in a 360-degree circle. Ground and sky are confused; detailed views of the concrete ceiling look like the surface of the moon; the film’s apparatus—the track, the camera—at times edge into the frame. Reminiscent of work by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis, A Free Moment is compulsively watchable. In its balance between order and disorder, Evron’s film is an elegant microcosm of the exhibition’s concerns.

Published in Art in America, September 2013. “A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial” was on view from May 17–September 22, 2013.

An Update

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.

In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.

In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.

In May, I spoke with artist Sara VanDerBeek about her new exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York. I’ve followed Sara’s work since the beginning of her career, and wrote about her for Aperture in 2011. I also commissioned photographer Barney Kulok, who recently published a book on Louis I. Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to review a new book about Le Corbusier’s relationship with photography. He turned in a much broader, more ambitious essay on the relationship between buildings and pictures that I was proud to publish. I also talked to photojournalist Michael Kamber, who was the New York Times’s principle photographer in Baghdad from 2003 to 2012. He had just published a new anthology of interviews with combat photojournalists called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. I also chatted with photographer Anne Hardy about her exhibition at Maureen Paley in London, where she exhibited, for the first time, standalone sculptures not used in the creation of her photographs. Lastly, in the just-published Summer 2013 issue of Aperture (#211), I introduced a portfolio of photographs by Lisa Oppenheim, whose work I’ve long admired.

This month, I spoke with an old friend, artist Tony Feher, about the newest iteration of his twenty-five-year survey exhibition, and about the process of looking back on more than two decades of artmaking and life. An edited version of our conversation was published on

“Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop”

Published in Frieze 154 (April 2013). To learn more about the exhibition, click here.

Unknown French Artist, Scene of Murder and Decapitation, ca. 1870.

We all admit that taking a picture is a subjective act; where to point the lens is a personal decision, and each step in the development of a print requires a photographer to make choices about how to proceed. Yet until recently, the general public has maintained faith in the objectivity and truthfulness of images: events were assumed to have happened as the camera recorded them. It is only with the widespread use of image-editing tools that scepticism toward toward photographs has permeated mainstream consciousness. We needed to be able to remake images ourselves before we assumed others had the same intentions and skills. One strength of curator Mia Fineman’s exhibition ‘Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop’ was the way it built upon this development by bringing before a large museum audience, for the first time, examples of photographic manipulation that span the entire history of the medium. Separated by a hallway from the concurrent exhibition ‘After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age’, ‘Faking It’ was instructive, and its chief lesson, repeatedly taught, was: ‘Don’t always believe what you see’.

For experts, this is not novel territory. Each generation’s photographic thinkers have acknowledged the history of photographic manipulation as they consider new developments in the medium. A few recent examples will suffice. In the 1960s, artist Robert Heinecken dubbed the art with which he sympathized ‘manipulative photography’, and noted, ‘various manipulative methods have been in existence and described in detail ever since the first photographic images were made’. In an article published in 1976, critic A.D. Coleman identified ‘an extensive tradition of directorial photography’ that encompasses nearly everything—‘studio work, still lifes and posed nudes, as well as formal portraiture—and stretches back to 1850. A decade later, curator Anne H. Hoy organized for New York’s International Center of Photography the exhibition ‘Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs’, which surveyed art from the 1970s and 1980s but acknowledged earlier precedents in the accompanying catalogue.

Fineman’s achievement, however, extends beyond giving material form to various writers’ theses. In tracing the prehistory of Adobe Photoshop, she brought together photographs from fine art, advertising, politics, news and other realms to challenge the dominant view of photography held by many Modernists: that the greatest photograph is the truest photograph. Just over a century ago, Alfred Stieglitz repudiated the ‘artfully’ altered pictures he had championed in his magazines and at his New York gallery. In his own work, and in the rising generation of photographers he promoted, such as Paul Strand, he set forth a new emphasis on ‘straight’ photography that was influential for the remainder of the century. From Group f/64 out west to street photographers prowling big-city avenues, a belief in directness, clarity and spontaneity held sway over artists and public alike.

George B. Cornish, A Car Load of Texas Corn, ca. 1910

George B. Cornish, A Car Load of Texas Corn, ca. 1910

In presenting works in which ‘the final image is not identical to what the camera “saw”’, Fineman strung together a shadow history of the medium. In its early decades, photographers like Gustave Le Gray and Carleton Watkins attempted to overcome the limitations of their cameras, and ambitious men like Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson sought to replicate the narrative potential of allegorical paintings. The striving of artists was quickly accompanied by baser pursuits, as photographers repurposed techniques of manipulation to entertaining ends. The show includes generous selections of pictures of people who have apparently been decapitated; of figures who appear multiple times in the same frame; and of impossibly bounteous agricultural harvests. The persuasiveness of photographs was also embraced by those on both sides of political conflicts. Here we saw how those in power used images to shore up their regimes, and how those in opposition—from Ernest Eugène Appert, during the Paris Commune; to John Heartfield, during the 1930s; to Weegee, during the 1960s—crafted their visual rejoinders. A separate thread, centred on Surrealism, included artists who used the camera as a tool for realizing visionary inner worlds. Herbert Bayer, Dora Maar, Grete Stern and Jerry Uelsmann used collage techniques to create transporting scenes.

Many of these photographers and the movements forged by their efforts have been part of the medium’s canon for some time. But Fineman has done invaluable curatorial and scholarly spadework to bring them together and craft an encompassing frame for understanding their relatedness. This was that rare thing: an exhibition, at once useful and consistently entertaining, that deftly responded to contemporary concerns by weaving together strands of the past.

Barb Choit

Published in Artforum, February 2013. For more information about and images of this exhibition, click here.

Installation view

Memories fade, so we invented a chemical process by which we can affix images of our world to paper. Yet photographs also fade, so we place them behind protective glass or store them away from the very light that brings them into being. By making fading the theme of her second solo exhibition at this gallery, New York– and Vancouver-based artist Barb Choit devised a novel way to frame the impulses behind, as well as the fundamental facts of, the medium. (In doing so, she acknowledges but adroitly sidesteps the pervasive arguments about photography and death.) The twelve pictures she exhibited are rich with associations, encompassing broad swaths of photography’s history while also offering sharp commentary on economic change, standards of beauty, and other facts of contemporary life. Though in line with the works exhibited in “Nagel Fades,” her 2009 show at Rachel Uffner Gallery, “Fade Diary” marked a significant step forward for the artist. This was a conceptually taut and strikingly elegant show.

These photographs are, simply put, views of storefronts. Each one focuses on a poster or a group of objects that has been in a window for an extended period; sunlight has diminished the bright colors of the items’ industrially printed surfaces. The large expanses of plate glass also function as mirrors, layering over the ostensible subject of each photograph a thin veneer of reflected imagery. Countless artists have taken storefronts as their subject matter, from Eugene Atget to Lee Friedlander, who se exhibition depicting mannequins in shop windows was on view in New York at the same time as this show. Choit brings to her project not only an awareness of this history, but also, at times, a wry sense of humor.

Five photos title Barbershop Fade (all works 2012) demonstrate this well. Each depicts a poster showing the hairstyles available within—including, of course, fades. The gridded images bring to mind everything from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies to Arnaud Maggs’s serial portraits to Walker Evans’s 1936 photograph Penny Picture Display, Savannah. That the posters’ saturated colors have dimmed can be understood as a metaphor for the fate of such mom-and-pop businesses in the increasingly gentrified areas of Brooklyn where most of these pictures were taken. Kings County, which is coterminous with the New York City borough, was recently revealed to possess the third-greatest income inequality of any county in the state of New York. The solidly working- and middle-class communities that patronize such businesses are themselves quickly fading.

The other images on view are taken from the sidewalks in front of beauty parlors, corner stores, and travel agencies. In the salon windows hang posters of women sporting hairstyles evocative of an earlier era. Here, too, Choit plays on words, by titling these images Faded Beauty; in doing so, she reminds viewers that while our fashions change, our underlying standards of beauty—thinness, unblemished skin—are remarkably consistent. We see these women as being out of time, yet can understand how they were deemed beautiful at the moment each poster was made.

Untitled Faded Beauty (Asian Cinema), 2012

Choit’s color palette is necessarily subdued—cyans softened to a baby blue, magentas with their forcefulness drained away, blacks that are no longer truly black. This delicateness gives the photographs a nostalgic quality that never lapses into sentimentality. Perhaps the most mysterious image in the show is Untitled Faded Beauty (Asian Cinema), of a movie poster depicting a woman holding a phone to her ear. The image has been not only effaced by the cumulative effects of the sun but also obscured by the reflection of trees and an overcast sky. The viewer knows precisely what she is looking at; yet, as do many of the works in this show, the picture also affords the chance to ask why we try to capture our experiences and why, in the end, those efforts will necessarily fail.

Interview with Okwui Enwezor

Several weeks ago I interviewed curator Okwui Enwezor about “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” an exhibition he organized with Rory Smith for the International Center of Photography in New York. The show remains on view through Sunday, January 6. We discussed the exhibition, the relationship between the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, and about how this exhibition aligns with other shows he has presented in New York institutions. Click here to read the edited transcript.

Joel Meyerowitz

Published in Artforum, January 2013. The second part of this exhibition is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery until January 5.

Joel Meyerowitz, New York City, Times Square, 1963

Joel Meyerowitz, New York City, Times Square, 1963

The first of a two-part survey of Joel Meyerowitz’s fifty-year career as a photographer, this exhibition presented nearly four dozen color and black-and-white prints of varying sizes. Today, Meyerowitz is known for large-format landscape images in often saturated, emotionally resonant colors, a vein of his work that had its spectacular debut with the 1977 exhibition of his “Cape Light” photographs at Witkin Gallery in New York; the book of that series is a milestone in the history of color art photography. By including no photographs shot later than 1976, this exhibition offered viewers a chance to reacquaint themselves with the Meyerowitz images largely eclipsed by his later renown. The first and most obvious lesson is that Meyerowitz was actively using color film not only well before the large-format pictures that made his reputation, but also before color prints were widely accepted by galleries and museums.

The second is that, from the early 1960s, when he had a formative encounter with Robert Frank, through the mid-’70s, Meyerowitz was a street photographer, capturing intimate, humorous, and poignant moments with a handheld camera. He worked mainly in New York, where he lived, but ventured to other parts of the country and to Mexico, Spain, and France, among other international destinations. The earliest photographs presented here suggest the artist’s impish side and demonstrate his eye for incongruities, though his humor cuts several ways. The black-and-white photograph New York City, Times Square, 1963, offers an immediate laugh: The face of a theater-box-office worker, centered in the frame, is completely obscured by the small porthole through which one would talk with her. Two color images spark more complicated reactions. New York City, 1963, taken from the driver’s door of a curbside convertible, depicts a man holding a woman aloft, about to place her in the backseat. Yet his mouth doesn’t match the grin of the man enjoying the unfolding scene; it reads as a grimace, and the placement of his hand underneath—and around—the woman’s neck seems menacing, almost violent. Mexico, 1963, taken at what appears to be an amusement park, likewise provokes a double take. One’s eyes quickly register the strange sight of a swaddled baby resting, seemingly unattended, in a blue-painted wooden box. Then one notices the air rifles lined up on a nearby counter. Sure, they’re for a shoot-the-duck game, but the sense of foreboding is enhanced by a second wooden box, its coffinlike lid closed.

Joel Meyerowitz, Fallen Man, Paris, 1967

Joel Meyerowitz, Fallen Man, Paris, 1967

The tension between obvious punch lines and ambiguity continues in photographs made throughout the decade. The latter is epitomized by Fallen Man, Paris, 1967, which offers no explanation for the subject sprawled on the pavement; a seemingly nonplussed passerby in the foreground glances over his shoulder, as if unsure whether to help. On the other hand, Miami Beach, Florida, 1968, in which a rotund man in a swimsuit stands in profile beneath a passing Goodyear blimp, is evidence of Meyerowitz’s quick wit. But the image raises other questions. It is one of three black-and-white prints paired with nearly identical images taken in color, indicating that Meyerowitz was working in both modes simultaneously. In a new essay, the artist has claimed that color presents this photograph’s joke “more fully.” He continues, “I need to see the color of his shorts, that belly, the silver of the blimp . . . .” Yet what is to be made of the fact that the color image, which was snapped first, was not printed until many years later, while the black-and-white version was printed (and presumably exhibited) at the time it was taken? The lag time between the act of photographing and the act of printing these images suggests the third lesson of this show: Instead of printing what he felt, and what side-by-side comparison reveals, to be the superior image, he printed the one that had a better chance of being shown. Despite his early and consistent advocacy of color film, even Meyerowitz might have felt constrained by the art world’s condescension to his preferred medium. 

Yasuhiro Ishimoto

Published in Artforum, December 2012.

Chicago, 1948–62

Chicago, 1948–62

Yasuhiro Ishimoto died this past February at the age of ninety. This exhibition functioned as a small homage to the artist, who, over the course of nearly six decades, worked in a wide range of styles. Although he was born in San Francisco, Ishimoto was raised in Japan and returned to the United States in 1939, when he planned to study agriculture in California. He was rounded up by American authorities during World War II and held in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. It was there, surprisingly enough, that he developed his passion for photography, which was to occupy him for the rest of his long life.

While at the Institute of Design in Chicago, he studied under Harry Callahan, whose influence can be seen in the street photographs, displayed in a small side gallery, that were taken during Ishimoto’s school years and on a return visit to the city a decade later. Whereas Callahan was at that moment looking down Chicago’s long, straight streets, occasionally catching pedestrians in the middle distance, Ishimoto shot from a perpendicular position: His subjects are at times pressed against buildings’ facades, made to look like figures on display in a diorama. Several photographs taken at Halloween, in which children out trick-or-treating pause briefly to pose for the photographer, heighten this impression of the stage. The most impressive such composition, Chicago, 1948–52, features a child dressed as a witch in the foreground, contorting her body over a stick and staring intently into the lens. Her pose seems spontaneous, yet the overall balance is remarkable: A second child, who is dressed as a ghost, hovers a few feet back, framed by a stoop’s stairway, down which a third descends.

Most of the photographs presented here were made in Japan during later decades; the eight-by-ten-inch prints were in recent years sent as gifts to a friend in New York. They showcase Ishimoto’s penchant for formal experimentation, and are quite different from the images with which he had secured his reputation, a series of architectural photographs taken in Japan that appeared in the 1960 book Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture. Here one encountered mostly studio investigations, several of which brought to mind the work of Western photographers. In the absence of contextualizing information, the connections one made tended to be formal. For example, Ishimoto’s exacting studies of flowers made in the 1980s stand toe-to-to, in terms of detail and print quality, with similar images Robert Mapplethorpe made during the same years, though they seem not to possess the sexual undertones of Mapplethorpe’s orchids and lilies. Ishimoto’s semiabstract photographs of light emanating from rolled sheets of paper, made in the 1980s and ’90s, prefigure Wolfgang Tillmans’s 2001– “Paper Drop” photographs. And the show’s only color images, three prints in which bands of green, blue, and other colors float like a psychedelic fog over the silhouettes of trees, call to mind James Welling’s “Hexachromes,” 2007. In their works, Welling and Tillmans were explicitly engaged with the material properties of the medium; it will take a further accounting of Ishimoto’s practice to know whether his intent was equally self-reflexive.

Minor White observed a dialogue between East and West in Ishimoto’s photographs, calling him a “visual bilinguist.” In this small, idiosyncratic survey, one could sense Ishimoto’s American forebears and colleagues more than the influence of his Japanese upbringing. The show did, however, hint at the richness and incredible variety of Ishimoto’s body of work, and whetted one’s appetite for more.

Untitled, 1973–93

Untitled, 1973–93

Sharon Core, Early American

My short essay “Cross Pollination” has been published in Early American, a monograph devoted to the series of the same name by photographer Sharon Core. The book is available now from Radius Books. Here is an excerpt, taken from the middle of the essay:

Like [Raphaelle] Peale’s paintings, Core’s photographs possess remarkable descriptive detail, which contrasts with their plain, indistinct environments. The objects of our attention rest on a ledge or table of indeterminate scale; the backdrops at times blend seamlessly into this horizontal surface. A gentle light suffuses each scene, often from one side of the image, its source unknowable. The compositions, too, are meant to be unobtrusive. Peale centered his objects, which are arranged in stately, pyramidal heaps. They are placed uncannily close to the viewer, the better to highlight their anatomical detail. These choices are partly unique to Peale, and partly a function of the time in which the paintings were made. In early nineteenth-century America, before the invention of photography, still lifes were not only objects of aesthetic delight, but also tools of instruction. They were a way of recording the country’s bounty, and of demonstrating to Americans the specific qualities of that bounty.

It took Core long hours to collect the items (both organic and inorganic) necessary to re-create Peale’s compositions….

Core will be signing copies of the book at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, on Wednesday, November 28, from 6:00–8:00 PM.

Arnaud Maggs (1926–2012)

I was saddened to learn last weekend of the death of Canadian photographer Arnaud Maggs at age eighty-six. Though not much appreciated in New York, where his last solo exhibition was presented in 1989, Maggs’s conceptually inflected portraiture was widely praised in his native country. He received numerous awards and prizes, among them the Governor General’s Award in 2006. He was active as a photographer from the mid-1970s up until the end of his life; his most recent solo exhibition, at Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto, was on view last spring. Click here for an obituary in the Globe & Mail and here for an interview with Maggs conducted last May.

James Welling

Published in Artforum, November 2012. For more information about and images from the exhibition, click here.

James Welling, Installation view at David Zwirner, 2012

James Welling, Installation view at David Zwirner, 2012

There are two dominant ways in which photographers have envisioned the landscape of the American West. One, glorying in the land and emphasizing descriptive specificity, is rooted in government-survey pictures of the 1870s; the other, wry and admonishing, arrived a century later under the banner of New Topographics. But outside its well-documented urban areas, how have American photographers framed the country’s eastern half? Eliot Porter rendered Maine foliage in Technicolor, Paul Strand spent time in New England, and Joel Meyerowitz caught seaside towns based in rosy Cape light, but prevailing themes can be difficult to discern. In these parts, painters have had the upper hand, from bucolic Hudson River School scenes to Winslow Homer’s churning waves to the bonhomie captured by Porter’s brother Fairfield. It makes sense, then, that James Welling, a photographer born in Connecticut but long identified with the Los Angeles he calls home, has used a painter as a route back to the landscape of his childhood.

As do many exhibitions of Welling’s photos, this show blithely intermixed visually dissimilar works, and here there were two abstract series—one of ink-jet prints, one of gelatin silver prints derived from photograms—that evoker painterliness in a general way. The stronger works, which comprised the majority of the show, were exceedingly specific and representational, engaging directly with the life and legacy of Andrew Wyeth. Several years ago, Welling began visiting Wyeth’s homes and studios in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine. One of his aims was to re-create some of Wyeth’s most well-known canvases, including the iconic Christina’s World, 1948, The Revenant, 1949, and End of Olsons, made in 1969, just after Christina’s death. Varying in their fidelity to the original paintings, the resultant images show the ways in which the landscape has changed since Wyeth painted it and depict these places in different seasons, encouraging viewers to meditate on the passage of time. So, too, does Welling’s use of a mechanical eye highlight the imaginativeness of Wyeth’s “conservative” realism; the painter rendered domestic details in his own idiosyncratic way.

In addition to his photographic reconstructions of Wyeth’s famous vistas, Welling attempts to show what Wyeth saw from day to day. Many of these photographs offer close-up views of the buildings’ interiors: a weathered door at the Olson house; a dark-painted cabinet hanging high on a wall; Wyeth’s easel, studio mirror, and collection of dry pigments. Desiccated northern light, somehow at once pale and bright, is a leitmotif, and is what makes Glass House, 2010, my favorite photograph in the show. Interior and exterior merge: Three windows spanning the corner of an upper story are caked with a thin layer of frost that matches the whitewashed walls and window frames. Yet for all its confusion of space, Glass House also offers comforting protection from the elements. Perhaps such shelter defines one iconic vision of the New England landscape.

James Welling, Glass House, 2010

James Welling, Glass House, 2010

Those familiar with Welling’s work will recognize the title of this photograph as the site of another recent series: the iconic modernist retreat designed by Philip Johnson as his own Connecticut home and completed, a year after Christina’s World, 1949. In Johnson’s building, too, windows both admit nature (visually) and keep it at bay. For his “Glass House” works, 2006–2009, exhibited at this gallery in 2010, Welling used filters to metaphorically transform the expansive plate glass into a prism throwing psychedelic colors onto Johnson’s immaculate gardens.

Barney Kulok

Published on on October 5, 2012. The exhibition remains on view at Nicole Klagsbrun until October 27.

Barney Kulok, Untitled (Cobble Constellation), 2011

The austere geometry and muscular presence of architect Louis Kahn’s late designs infuses the photographs Barney Kulok has taken of the Four Freedoms Park. In this exhibition, however, one won’t find conventional documentation of the park’s allée of linden trees, its open granite “room” at Roosevelt Island’s southern tip, or its bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt created by Jo Davidson. Kulok, who was granted access last year to the construction site, has instead brought back chiaroscuro fragments—moody gelatin silver prints that demonstrate remarkable tonal range and control but explain little about the late master’s final design. As often as not, Kulok seems simply to be photographing whatever was resting at his feet. The results, however, are quietly thrilling.

In addition to distilling something of Kahn’s design principles, these twenty-three images also demonstrate that Kulok has deeply internalized the legacy of Minimalist and post-Minimalist sculpture. One can walk through the gallery’s two rooms assigning to individual photographs entries from Richard Serra’s 1967–68 Verb List. “To scatter”: Untitled (Cobble Constellation) (all works cited, 2011) depicts a chance array of loose granite paving blocks resting atop those already laid in neat rows. “To suspend”: Untitled (Improvised Plumb Line), an image of a dangling brick, isolated against a dark, pockmarked wall. “To heap”: Untitled (Joint Filler), a pile of the eponymous material that exhibits such sharp contrasts between light and dark as to seem unreal, like a Photoshop tweak or a darkroom mistake. Others, with their bent wires and bits of stone and wood and earth, call to mind Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, or Carl Andre. The photographs’ charcoal-rubbed wooden frames give them a solidity, an objectness, that further aligns them with this sculptural precedent—and with Kahn’s resolutely tactile architecture. Visitors’ experiences of the park will undoubtedly range widely. For viewers of these images, Kulok has expanded that range still further, and tapped into something elemental that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Interview at Design Observer

The writer Mark Lamster interviewed me about “The Permanent Way” for Design Observer. We discuss revisionist histories of Gilded Age America, the difficulty of choosing photographs for an exhibition, and the “visual rhetoric” of westward expansion, among other topics. Click here to read the transcript of our discussion. The exhibition remains on view at apexart in New York until July 28.

“The Permanent Way” Brochure Essay

This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.

Famous Horse Shoe Curve, on Main Line P.R.R., ca. 1910. Collection of Luc Sante.

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.

Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”

The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.

That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.

The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”

Justine Kurland, Doyle, CA, 2007.

Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.

This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.

Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.

Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.

The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.

Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.

Jeff Brouws, Railroad Landscape #56, former Poughkeepsie and Eastern right-of-way as ingress to private hunting presere (abandoned 1938), MP 92, view south, Winter, McIntyre, New York, 2010.

James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.

Further Reading

Chandler, Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977).

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [orig. 1964]).

Naef, Weston J. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885 (Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1975).

Sandweiss, Martha A. Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).

Stilgoe, John R. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983).

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Exhibition: “The Permanent Way”

Mark Ruwedel, San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003. (C) Mark Ruwedel, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery

“The Permanent Way”
Organized by Brian Sholis
On view at apexart, 291 Church Street, New York, from June 6 – July 28, 2012
Opening reception: Wednesday, June 6, 6–8 PM
Featuring art by: Jeff Brouws, Justine Kurland, Mark Ruwedel, Victoria Sambunaris, James Welling

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroads. This exhibition marks the occasion by bringing together American landscape photographs by living artists with archival material charting the expansion of railroads during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad. Here it is shorthand for how railroads dramatically reshaped Americans’ notion of the country’s landscape. Cultural historian Leo Marx related Nathaniel Hawthorne’s horror, in 1844, at the intrusion of smoke-belching locomotives into his beloved Sleepy Hollow. Yet by the time the Pacific Railway Act was passed two decades later, railroads were pervasive and inextricably woven into Americans’ lives. Even the most isolated rural residents were tethered to urban centers by the steel rails running through nearby fields. This ubiquity guaranteed for railroads a seemingly permanent place in the American unconscious. Ask someone today to describe an iconic American landscape and you’re likely to be told of fields stretching away to mountains at the horizon and a train passing through in the middle distance. This image was fixed in part by now-celebrated nineteenth-century photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson.

The photographers in this exhibition are not concerned exclusively with railroads, or even with American landscapes. Nonetheless, they are sensitive interpreters of their environment, and each has at some point noticed the continuing power and imaginative pull of railroads—or of their ruins. “The Permanent Way” uses an important anniversary to celebrate their work and to place it in a historical context.

Victoria Sambunaris, Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, 2010. From the series "The Border."

Wreck in Yard, Port Arthur, ca. 1910, real-photo postcard. Collection of Luc Sante.

Henry Gannett/US Census Office, Railroad Systems, 1890, printed 1898.

Jan Groover

Published in Artforum, May 2012. For more information, visit the website of Janet Borden, Inc.

This long-planned exhibition, titled “Formalism Is Everything,” became a memorial to Jan Groover after she died on New Year’s weekend, at the age of sixty-eight. Trained as a painter, Groover turned to photography in the early 1970s and created an engrossing body of street scenes, portraits, landscape views, and, above all, still lifes. This last genre rightfully predominated in this career-spanning survey, which encompassed more than three dozen small and medium-size images. Groover has consistently been described as a postmodern photography, but her pictures have never derived their value from illustrating au courant intellectual theories, as the application of the term can sometimes suggest. Instead, on the evidence of this show, John Szarkowski was correct in his 1993 declaration: Groover’s “pictures [are] good to think about because they [are] first good to look at.”

“Changing space,” in her phrasing, is what Groover thought about most. Her signal achievement was to compose scenes in the ground glass—the sheet of glass used for focusing images in large-format cameras without a viewfinder—and thereby undermine the camera’s mechanical vision. In the best of these photographs, what the lens captures doesn’t always match what one sees. Take, for example, her tightly cropped still lifes of kitchen utensils arranged in a stainless-steel sink. Her lens passively records the quotidian scene in front if it, but the resultant images are estranging: Light is rendered palpable, reflections seem as solid as the objects reflected, and it’s difficult to determine how deep the space is that you’re looking into. These images seesaw between legibility and illegibility.

Groover explored in the studio for the remainder of her career, with regular detours out into the landscape. By the late 1980s, she had crafted a thoroughly unique visual language whose component parts were, first, everyday objects spray-painted in monochrome colors and, second, the sheets of paper against which she had sprayed them. Two untitled color images from 1988, hung on opposite walls in the gallery, use the same serrated column as a pedestal for painted jugs and vases. Other objects are scattered behind the column. The jagged edges of the haphazardly painted backgrounds create optical confusion that prefigures the work of such contemporary “abstract” photographers as Eileen Quinlan. The works likewise evoke the painters Groover studied and admired, from modernists like Paul Cézanne to early Renaissance masters who pioneered the compositional use of perspectival depth. The most recent works included here, ink-jet prints from 2003, reduce the visual complexity to offer what seems like a direct homage to her guiding spirit, Giorgio Morandi. In these photographs, chalkily painted vessels repose elegantly in front of depthless black backgrounds. This visual austerity, however, also erases temporal anchors: For all their simplicity, these photographs are radically indistinguishable. They could be from any moment in the era of color photography, and their subjects from nearly any moment in human history.

Forethought characterizes even the earliest, and seemingly most casual, photographs in the show. These two- and three-panel works, which first gained her art-world notoriety in the late 1970s, depict bland roadside environments, and appear at first glance related to the street photography of Conceptual artists like Babette Mangolte or the vernacular-landscape explorations of Robert Smithson. That may be. Yet a closer look reveals the care with which Groover crafted these compositions, despite taking them on the fly as trucks and cars passed in front of her lens. Streetlamp poles divide the pictures vertically like Barnett Newman’s zips, and activate as well the thin slices of negative space between the prints. Passing vehicles function as abstract blocks of color that lend the works a beguiling syncopated rhythm. In these photographs, as throughout her body of work, Groover forges what is at hand into deeply satisfying aesthetic experiences.

“Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present”

Published in Artforum, April 2012. The exhibition remains on view at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College until April 28. For more information, click here.

Mimmo Jodice, Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977

In the half-century after World War II, cities across the United States and Europe underwent structural transformations. In America, middle-class whites fled downtowns for the safety and amenities of suburbs, leaving behind a minority “underclass” to struggle through the shift to a post-industrial economy. In Europe, it was the poor who were pushed to urban fringes (think Parisian banlieues) while central districts became jewel boxes cosseting the wealthy. On both sides of the Atlantic, cities themselves sprawled outward, yoking an increasing number of once-independent suburbs to the larger metropolitan framework. “Peripheral Visions” gathers photographers who have examined the liminal zones these developments created in Italy—places neither wealthy nor extremely poor, not quite suburban yet with enough wildness to offset their urban density.

This concise, well-edited show, curated by Hunter College faculty member Maria Antonella Pelizzari, moves quickly through the decades, encompassing Mario Carrieri’s grainy late-1950s pictures of Milan’s edges and, just a few feet away, Vincenzo Castella’s ambiguous 2009 photograph of that city’s Pirelli tower, into which a small plane crashed in 2002. Pelizzari identifies Luigi Ghirri as the show’s presiding spirit, whose own work and 1984 curatorial effort, “Viaggo in Italia,” translated the postwar work of Carrieri, Paolo Monti, and filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica into a more playful, witty, conceptualist language that later practitioners would mimic. The absurdity that characterizes many of Ghirri’s pictures reaches its apotheosis here in Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_CATANIA 09, 2009, in which an enormous matte black orb rests incongruously amid brick industrial exhaust towers. The menacing egg is symbolic of very recent attempts to rehabilitate these peripheral spaces: it is a performing arts center located at the site of a defunct sulfur mine.

In contrast to the strange iconicity of Barbieri’s image, smaller gestures, unadorned observations of everyday life, predominate. Mimmo Jodice captures the dented corrugated sheet metal imperfectly covering a stone column in Church of San Marcellino, Naples, 1977. Mario Cresci, who envisions southern Italy as a “foreign” space within the country’s borders, transforms wires snaking along walls into poetic abstractions in Martina Franca, 1979. Guido Guidi, working a decade later, positioned himself directly at the leading edge of human incursion into the natural environment, his pictures juxtaposing messy construction sites and, in the distance, unpopulated mountain ranges. Other inclusions suggest one need not even travel to find incidents worth recording. Franco Vaccari simply shifted perspective for his 1971 film I cani lenti (The Slow Dogs), for which he crouched down and tried to see what the animals saw. Likewise, Marina Ballo Charmet’s digital slide show Con la coda dell’ occhio (With the Corner of the Eye), 1993-94, finds a stoic beauty in the weeds and debris that accumulate on dozens of street corners, turning curbs into walls against which her quarry is positioned.

Few of these images are populated, yet the insistent focus on textures seems like an attempt to reveal what such neglected spaces feel like to their inhabitants. Here are the loose, ragged edges of the urban fabric, the places that have suffered for decades the indifference of authority that in today’s economic climate, with its calls for austerity, seems our common fate. “Peripheral Visions” offers knowledge of a subject that increasingly occupies the minds of scholars and policymakers. The lessons to be drawn from such work remain unclear, but the sense of urgency is palpable.

Interview: Liz Deschenes

Published in Art in America, March 2012. For more information about Liz Deschenes, visit her page on the Miguel Abreu Gallery website.

Liz Deschenes, Tilt / Swing, #3B, 2009.

From early experiments with green-screen backdrops to recent, camera-less images made by exposing light-sensitive paper directly to the night sky, Liz Deschenes has persistently explored the photographic image-making process. She isolates the component parts of mechanical seeing and underscores the materiality of the screens that display images. But the loveliness of her artworks belies the astringency this description suggestions.

Deschenes (b. 1966 in Boston, Mass.) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 and has worked in New York since the early 1990s, exhibiting regularly from the end of that decade onward. She outlined the contours of her practice with “Photography About Photography” (2000), an exhibition she curated for Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York that drew together artists (Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss, Thomas Ruff, Uta Barth) who likewise explore the medium’s mechanics. I first encountered her work in a 2003 exhibition, also at Andrew Kreps, where a selection of her monochromatic photographs illustrated a range of printing and display techniques. These works, in varying shades of gray, were bereft of information when seen from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed details that hinted at how they were made. One was an image of a plasma television screen (turned off), other photographs made with the light from an enlarger. These works, though conceptually related to their predecessors, seemed far more sober than Deschenes’s earlier, brightly colored images.

As the decade progressed, her work shed external references. Yet from limited means Deschenes creates a visual plenitude. For her 2007 solo exhibition at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, she photographed perforated paper held against a window, then superimposed two copies of each negative in an enlarger to create moiré patterns that were somehow both understated and optically vibrant. Two years later, “Tilt/Swing (360 degree field of vision, version one),” her show of six graphite-colored photographs installed on that gallery’s floor, walls, and ceiling, revealed no image. Yet the installation captured the reflections of viewers who stood among the works, as if the prints were being continually remade in the image of their beholder. That their untreated surfaces are meant to oxidize, to change over time in response to the atmosphere, adds a sense of romance to the blankness.

As the unconventional presentation of “Tilt/Swing” suggests, Deschenes has added to her explorations of the medium an interest in display strategies. Now she thinks of her work almost exclusively in terms of the other artworks with which it will be shown, and the conditional nature of that approach extends to her studio itself: she doesn’t have a room to which she retreats daily. She divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she teaches at Bennington College, researching and experimenting constantly but making her art on an as-needed basis. At present it’s needed at the Whitney Museum, where she’ll participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she will exhibit in a two-person show with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl [April 21-September 3]. We spoke in January at the CUNY Graduate Center.

* * *

[Excerpt from the middle of the interview]

DESCHENES Of course, there’s a deep research component to the work, some of which takes place in terms of teaching, at Bennington or elsewhere. I build scale models for all of the exhibitions in which I participate. The Usdan Gallery at Bennington is actually based on the third floor of the Whitney building, so instead of using a foam-core model I used a model that was built in the early ‘70s …

SHOLIS … that you can walk into!

DESCHENES … that I can walk into and actually feel the proportions of the work. The initial proportions I came up with for the four-panel piece [to be installed in the Whitney Biennial] were too wide for the space, so I narrowed them down. And returning to my interest in pedagogy, I think the Art Institute exhibition points to those concerns. Using the Breuer—er, using the Bayer—I can’t believe I just confused them! They weren’t close friends. Using the Bayer drawing to guide people through space in a new way touches on this. And of course what gets installed on those walls will be equally crucial to understanding the exhibition, and I like that a lot of those decisions haven’t yet been made. The walls are being built right now, but I won’t know until I actually go to Chicago what work gets installed, so there is an aspect of spontaneity that frees me from a daily studio practice. I’m more interested in responding to the conditions of exhibitions. As they change, I can change along with them.

SHOLIS Your “decisive moment” happens during the installation process?

DESCHENES No, it keeps on happening. I constantly have to respond to the changing conditions of the work, which is part of the reason why I’m trying to make work that also changes during the exhibition—and beyond. Because there is no decisive moment.

SHOLIS You also mentioned pedagogy. For a long time you were learning new things about photographic technology, but now it’s also as if you’re trying to give yourself a kind of autodidact’s M.Arch. degree. Reading new kinds of drawings—plans, axonometric views, and so on—almost entails a new way of seeing and thinking. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve been up to in recent years? And, if so, does that impact the ways that you think about the field of photographic image-making you know so well?

DESCHENES That’s an interesting question. Earlier I described the Whitney photographs as being stand-ins for the building. The building will obviously continue to exist, but as a newer or different institution. So to actually put scaled photographs representing the façade in the interior of the museum is a way off repositioning what you would generally find outside them museum. I don’t necessarily need to understand the things that Breuer had to understand in order to build that building. It’s more about trying to understand photography through architecture.

Robert Bourdeau

Published in Artforum, March 2012. To learn more about the exhibition, click here to visit the Edwynn Houk Gallery website.

Ontario, Canada, 1981

Robert Bourdeau trained and worked as an architectural technologist before an influential encounter with Aperture magazine and its editor, Minor White. A ten-year friendship with that elder statesman of photography encouraged Bourdeau to pursue the medium and embrace the emotional expressiveness on which White placed so much importance. Now in his eighties, Bourdeau is best known for landscape photographs in which the subject fills the entire frame, a compositional choice that emphasizes texture and occasionally creates odd spatial effects. Two pictures in this exhibition, his second at the gallery, exemplify this style. Yorkshire, England, 1985 is a straightforward depiction of scruffy northern fields, yet a low stone wall that divides the image horizontally adds a sense of strangeness. The wall masks a slope so that the land behind it appears as if a giant hand is pulling it upward, drawing it parallel to Bourdeau’s lens. Ontario, Canada, 1981 guilelessly portrays logs floating in a placid river. Yet the graphic contrast between the lightly colored bark and the water’s dark surface creates a pattern that Bourdeau must have known would recall Jasper Johns’s then-new crosshatch paintings.

The majority of the two dozen photographs in this show, however, depict industrial sites in varying states of disuse and decay. Despite the modest size of his prints—none exceed fourteen inches on their longest side—Bourdeau’s large-format camera allows him to describe these scenes with remarkable detail. Pennsylvania, USA, 1995 is a frontal view of a cylindrical tank. A stairway that cuts diagonally across the composition is the only straight line amid swirls of corrosion marking the tank’s surface, which bring to mind Gustave Moreau’s fanciful Symbolist backgrounds. Elsewhere, Bourdeau seems attracted to pairs, as evident in the twin silos and boulders in Virginia, USA, 1993, the double tuba-shaped metal piping in Lorraine, France, 1999, and the nearly symmetrical balance of Saarland, Germany, 1999. The most dramatic image is Pennsylvania, USA, 1997, in which an X-shaped metal brace stands before another cylindrical storage tank. The brace crosses in front of cascading rust and piles of debris, as if Bourdeau wanted to negate the scene—an X, after all, is what you might draw on a contact sheet to mark the photograph you don’t want to print. That some of the background detail is reflected in a pool of water at the bottom of the image is a virtuosic touch.

The attention granted these hulking machines and metal surfaces may bring to mind 1920s-era photographic celebrations of the power of industrial machinery, such as those by Albert Renger-Patzsch. But Bourdeau’s series, made in the 1990s across northwestern Europe and the United States, is opposite in feeling: With Romantic melancholy, he documents the demise of the era that Renger-Patzsch’s New Objectivist images heralded, offering evidence of globalization’s effects on first-world manufacturing economies. Perniciously high unemployment has once again brought the erosion of traditional manufacturing centers to the forefront of international consciousness. Such dilemmas make Bourdeau’s depiction of the material ruins of these changes all the more relevant.

Pennsylvania, USA, 1997

“The Life and Death of Buildings”

Published in Aperture 206, Spring 2012.

Danny Lyon, View South from 100 Gold Street, from Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1967

Danny Lyon, View South from 100 Gold Street, from Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1967

During the mid- to late 1960s, photographer Danny Lyon chronicled the “slum clearance” required by two enormous infrastructure projects in New York City: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center. The results were solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings, the men responsible for bringing those structures down, and, in interior scenes, the accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. After the violent obliteration of the Twin Towers in 2001, renewed attention to Lyon’s project, evocatively titled The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, was perhaps inevitable; indeed, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance. In 2005 PowerHouse republished to wide acclaim Lyon’s original book of the photographs. The series was also the primary inspiration for the 2010 Mixed Use, Manhattan exhibition at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, which surveyed artists’ interactions with postindustrial New York’s buildings and spaces. Finally, last summer and fall, the Princeton University Art Museum presented The Life and Death of Buildings, which curator Joel Smith was motivated to organize after a collector donated to the museum a complete set of Lyon’s pictures.

Smith’s curatorial effort, drawn largely from his museum’s collection, was a meditation on the role photographs play in granting us access to pasts no longer extant. Buildings and photographs are both artifacts that can be located in history, Smith notes, but each embodies a different sense of time. Buildings accumulate pasts, which shadow every encounter one has with them in the present. (Certain examples even make explicit their history, like the Bundestag in Berlin, the redesign of which deliberately left its walls pockmarked with World War II–era bullet holes and covered in the graffiti of Russian soldiers.) Photographs freeze a specific moment, excise it from its context, and make aspects of that moment accessible at a later date. To analyze these differences, and to focus viewers’ minds on the concept of time, Smith deployed his copious material, which ranged across the entire history of photography and several continents, in a somewhat unusual manner. He intentionally disavowed the divergent aims of the photographers included in the show—amateur and professional alike. Everything, then, became more or less “documentary.” Similarly, because no building appeared repeatedly, and we were thus denied a full understanding of its “life,” each skyscraper or cathedral represented the category “building” as much as or more than it represented itself.

John Szarkowski, Corner Pier, The Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York, 1951

Though at first I chafed at this selective curatorial framing, Smith’s criteria gave coherence to his expansive selection. Under such constraints, formal connections suggest themselves immediately, as between a detail of thirteenth-century brass work on a door of Notre Dame cathedral, captured by the Bisson Frères circa 1854, and the foliate handiwork in John Szarkowski’s Corner Pier, The Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York (1951). But unexpected links revealed themselves as well. The surface of walls was given close scrutiny in a section labeled “The Sentient Wall,” which featured midcentury abstractions depicting buildings ravaged by time. In these works, by Aaron Siskind, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Doisneau, and others, the “sentience” accumulates after the building is erected. Yet this arrangement prompted in me a reconsideration of the decorative patterning in the Bisson and Szarkowski photographs as a kind of sentience of its own. (Think of John Ruskin’s description of Gothic builders as free to creatively employ their talents; the resultant walls literally embody their craftsmen’s knowledge.) If, as this thought suggests, the lives of buildings begin before they are completed, evidence abounded in this exhibition that it likewise extends beyond their deaths. Richard Misrach’s White Man Contemplating Pyramids (1989) and Philip Henry Delamotte’s 1856 picture of the dilapidated cloister at Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey both remind us that a structure’s affective potential can far outlast its original uses. So, too, does Tim Davis’s witty photograph of nearly two dozen tourists’ cameras resting on the pavement, their viewfinders displaying just-snapped shots of the Colosseum in Rome.

What did this collection of pictures suggest about time? A basic lesson came insistently to mind: time exposes the frailty inherent in all human endeavors—even the grandest and most secure-seeming ones. In some instances that frailty was evident in the images themselves. The first gallery included century-old photo-postcards depicting homesteaders posing with their ramshackle homes. “BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE…” reads the ironic handwritten inscription on one, its sender surely aware of the insecurity of his perch on the plains. In most cases, however, the recognition that what is depicted no longer exists imparted the same message. Though both life and death appear in its title, the general drift of this exhibition was toward ends, toward ruins.

Many of photography’s earliest practitioners, such as Delamotte, had a Romantic predilection for photographing ruins; it’s as if the awareness of death upon which Smith focuses is encoded in the medium. But this is perhaps fitting, as an additional level of melancholy inheres in the recognition that photographs themselves are extremely fragile. Those early photo-postcards are rare survivors from an era that saw the creation and delivery of millions just like them. Photographs possess a rare power, granting us something akin to the capacity to time-travel, but that power lasts only as long as does the ability to read their surfaces. Thomas Ruff’s jpeg co01 (2004), in the show’s final gallery, draws together these themes. The wall-size print depicts the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the iconic structures enveloped in a haze of smoke, ash, and dust. Yet because Ruff made the photograph by scaling up a compressed JPEG file, pixelization further obscures its ostensible subject. The momentous event, the erasure of the towers that had replaced what Danny Lyon so carefully captured on film, recedes from us ever further.

Tim Davis, Colosseum Pictures (The New Antiquity), 2009

“Weegee: Murder Is My Business”

Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941.

I reviewed the exhibition “Weegee: Murder Is My Business,” on view at the International Center of Photography until September 2, for Capital New York. An excerpt:

The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibition is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”

Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-’30s through the ’40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.

To read the rest, click here.

Simon Norfolk

Published in Artforum, January 2012. An interview with the artist and images of several dozen works from the series are available here.

Homeless Family from Hazarajat, Camped in the Grounds of the Old Presidential Palace, 2010.

Simon Norfolk might be called a war-landscape photographer. He focuses on not only battles and resultant refugee crises but also the technological infrastructure that underpins conflict and the arenas in which those conflicts play out. Among his many subjects are the beaches where Allied soldiers landed on D-day in 1944; the electronic-spying equipment on Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic; Beirut during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah; and the material detritus produced during the early years of the current war in Iraq. This exhibition, his third at Bonni Benrubi Gallery, included medium-scale images from his latest body of work made in Afghanistan, “Burke + Norfolk,” 2010–11.

The majority of Norfolk’s audience, myself included, knows his work primarily through reproductions presented in some of the world’s leading news publications, from the New York Times Magazine to the Guardian Weekend to La Repubblica. Norfolk is a canny visual essayist, and his collaborations with the photo editors of those magazines have led to richly informative portraits of myriad locales. As gratifying as those stories can be, it was rewarding to see these photographs with the clarity afforded by a larger scale and lack of journalistic context. The exhibition consisted of seven color prints, each forty by fifty inches, depicting various sites in and around Kabul, and seven smaller, black-and-white group portraits.

Though unaccompanied by written reportage, the series, as its title indicates, is a kind of collaboration: Norfolk returned to Afghanistan under the influence of John Burke, a photographer who traveled with British troops during the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878–80. In an attempt to draw out the continuities between the earlier conflict and the current occupation, which Norfolk suggests should be called the Fourth Anglo-Afghan War, he has both retraced Burke’s steps and created pictures he imagined Burke would take today.

Among the color landscape images, such connections were difficult to discern; one imagines that the recent exhibition at Tate Modern of pictures by both photographers made the more explicit. (The publisher Dewi Lewis has released a lavish book that also juxtaposes their work.) We see a homeless father and daughter camped out on the grounds of the president’s former palace, now reduced to six broken brick columns; a deserted pizza shop adjacent to the piled bus carcasses in a Kabul depot; a lumpy pyramid of bags of apples for sale in a roadside market; and the garish decorative lights in the courtyard of the Sham-E-Paris wedding hall. Each of these smartly composed scenes is cast in the smoky-blue light of dawn or dusk. Norfolk, in an interview, has suggested this light is meant to convey his disillusionment with the situation in Afghanistan. But the lights transitional nature can also be read as optimistic, as can the effortful “normalcy” some of these images depict. Disdain for the occupation need not preclude admiration for the resilience of its victims.

The poise of Norfolk’s group portrait subjects suggests that despite his dismay, he understands this. Shooting in black-and-white, Norfolk deploys the somewhat stilted-looking portrait conventions of Burke’s day—frontal views, no interaction among the subjects—to depict both the military and civilian sides of contemporary Afghan life. There are police being trained by marines, pro-Taliban refugees, and a minesweeping team, but there are also boys learning traditional instruments at a music school, the crew and ground staff of a new airline, and girls who use an indoor skate park set up by American NGO volunteers. In both his landscapes and his portraits, Norfolk refuses to look away from the dispiriting aspects of this damaged place, while suggesting, perhaps against his own emotional response to what he encountered, that the situation there may yet change for the better.

A De-mining Team trom the Mine Detection Centre In Kabul, 2010.

“Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph”

While in Chicago last week, I visited the exhibition “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-77” at the Art Institute. It’s a remarkable show. Although its argument about the role of Conceptual Art in bringing the photography “definitively into the mainstream of contemporary art” is debatable, it succeeds in several other arenas: first, as an exhibition of conceptually oriented objects that is neither dry nor didactic; second, as a sketch of the precedents available to the artists included in Douglas Eklund’s 2009 exhibition “The Pictures Generation”; third, as an eloquent testimonial to the importance of southern and eastern European art to the histories of Conceptualism (a reclamation project spurred on a decade ago by Jane Farer’s wonderful “Global Conceptualism” exhibition). “Light Years,” curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky, is on view in Chicago until March 11, and I highly recommend it. The catalogue, too, is well done, and available for more than forty percent off at Amazon. For those who can’t visit, Witkovsky published a reconsideration of photographic abstraction in the March 2010 Artforum, the text of which is available here.

Richard Benson

Published in Artforum, December 2011. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

Richard Benson, California, 2009

Puerto Rico, 2007, despite being one of only two photographs in this large exhibition to have been made outside the continental United States, is emblematic of photographer Richard Benson’s series “North South East West.” The image’s subject, an isolated fan palm tree at the edge of a parking lot, is representative in its humbleness and outdoor, out-of-the-way location. The sky behind it, as in many of the show’s photographs, is a rich cerulean, the clouds near the horizon puffy and white; shadows are nonexistent. And the palm’s visual similarity to a peacock’s tail feathers metaphorically represents a central element of Benson’s achievement: the rich and varied colors he creates with his “multiple impression pigment prints.” The slash of orange wending across the bottom of the frame is a bit unsettling in its brightness and purity. It must be seen in person to be believed—more so than usual, JPEGs on the gallery website do this work no justice.

We regularly encounter such saturation out in the world, yet when captured by a lens it has a tinge of surrealism, as if through digital manipulation the photographer is trying to trick us. Instead, Benson has devised a novel printing technique by which he isolates the image’s constituent parts into different layers, printing each separately after making minute color adjustments. (Benson even adapted his process for the related book, running each page through the press twice.) Traveling the country in an RV, Benson regularly stops to photograph what catches his eye—and sometimes, one suspects, what he thinks might make good use of his printing technique. There is a picturesque village of clapboard houses surrounding a village green clothed in snow. There are disused railroad cars and signage, as well as an image of tracks receding towards a far-off horizon. There is a mid-century commercial truck, parked alongside the highway to advertise Butch’s Place, and a row of roadside mailboxes, both with mountains in the distance. And a pile of hay bales is surmounted by an American flag. Each is rendered with precision, often from an oblique angle that invites the eye into the photograph.

The quality of light necessary to best achieve Benson’s chromatic splendor means that photographs taken in different parts of the country, or at different times of year, begin to look the same. Rhode Island, 2010, echoes New Mexico, 2006, which in turn echoes Nebraska, 2011. Because of this, our preconceived notions become what orient us in space: clapboard houses signify “New England,” while a lone utility pole in a vast, flat expanse of land signifies “The Great Plains.” Benson’s images rarely challenge our assumptions. And as the above list of his subjects indicates, Benson offers a vision of America that verges on kitschy Americana. There’s a glittering blue Ford Mustang on a lift at a mechanic’s shop in Virginia, a sailboat resting in a Rhode Island boatyard, and three small cabins abutting a Vermont lake. The colors in the latter photo are almost hallucinatory. Benson captures the precise moment when the setting sun turns both the sky and the lake’s surface cotton-candy pink, and at the same time describes accurately how the green of the grass differs from that of the painted cabins. The photograph is a compositional and technical achievement of the first order. It’s a disappointment that, cumulatively, this selection of Benson’s lovely travel images comes across like an antiques roadshow.

Richard Benson, Vermont, 2007

Daido Moriyama

Published in Artforum, November 2011.

Daido Moriyama, Stray Dog, 1971

Daido Moriyama, Stray Dog, 1971

Spanning more than half a century, “Daido Moriyama: On the Road” confirmed the artist’s importance to the story of Japanese photography. The quintessential street photographer, Moriyama has, since 1965, prowled avenues and alleys in Japanese cities and across the globe. His quarry is not only the unguarded human subject, often seen from the side or behind, but also our idealized, artificial replicas of ourselves, from store mannequins to movie-poster idols. Moriyama’s art, despite his penchant for surface and artifice, is anything but celebratory. If his touchstone is Warhol, whose art he seems to mimic in a 1974 silkscreen Harley-Davidson and who appears on a TV screen in Tokyo, 2011, it’s the Warhol of the 1962-63 “Death and Disaster” series. For Moriyama, despite his disavowal in a recent interview of any social or documentary mission, urban life is tragic theater.

The exhibition opened with two rooms encompassing the artist’s recent output. His newest photographs of Tokyo, in the first gallery, struck an anomalous note: Hung in three rows that encircled the room, the prints were both large and vibrantly colored. Though familiar themes recurred—a family of Western mannequins in a shop window counterbalanced a homeless man slumped on a narrow ledge—the saturated reds and blues made a bright contrast to the small-scale, grainy black-and-white images that predominated elsewhere. I couldn’t help but imagine them as an acrid response to Nobuyoshi Araki’s intimate studies of flowers. The second gallery sampled images taken around the world, from Taipei to Buenos Aires, Antwerp to New York. In this last city, Moriyama’s lens transforms a dented trash can found moldering in half-melted snow into a gorgeous play of surfaces. Though the can is perfectly legible as an object, the photograph epitomizes another aspect of Moriyama’s art: his almost hallucinatory focus upon texture. Urban grit is equated almost literally with the grain of the photograph, as if dirt had been rubbed into each print.

Moriyama achieves this effect, in part, by increasing the contrast in his images, a technique that in its consistency also serves to unite a disparate array of subject matter. A male actor wearing papier-mâché breasts in one early photograph can be compared to the mangy animal in the iconic 1971 image Stray Dog. Neither an automobile on fire nor the collision of two others in a pair of 1969 images is discordant with a frankly erotic 1976 study of a cabbage head. Moriyama’s interest in light and shadow is made explicit in a series of that title, made in 1981-82, which features, among other subjects, denim jeans, the vinyl top of a Jeep Wrangler, and the rusting hull of a Russian cargo ship. With so many coarse, dark pictures, a room of color prints, much smaller than those in the first gallery, offered a pleasing contrast. Ishinomaki, 1969, features multicolor lightbulbs strung along two delicate curves that arc away from Moriyama’s lens; they hang in the twilit sky like reddish-orange plants. Captured by any other photographer, the image of camellia petals on the pavement in Izu, 1982, would likely have a certain delicacy; with Moriyama, however, the petals seem to have fallen like hammer blows.

The bulk of the survey proceeded chronologically, and one could witness Moriyama’s subjects becoming more pedestrian—in both senses of the world—without his images losing their oddity or compositional acuity. At the outset of his career, Moriyama claims, he was “deliberately seeking a strange image.” These days, though, “everything looks strange.” We profit from this alienated vision.

Daido Moriyama, Records no. 15, 2010

Daido Moriyama, Records no. 15, 2010

“Jill Freedman: Street Cops, 1978-81″

Published on on October 13, 2011. The exhibition is on view at Higher Pictures, New York, from September 15 to October 29, 2011.

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

When photographer Jill Freedman embedded with the New York City Police Department’s Ninth and Midtown South Precincts in 1978, the city was just past its postwar nadir. Three years earlier, in the eyes of Daily News editors, President Gerald Ford had told the struggling metropolis to “drop dead.” The summer of 1977 had been marked by the tragic denouement of the Son of Sam killing spree, as well as rioting and looting under cover of the July blackout. In a city troubled by crimes both petty and spectacular, Freedman sought to counter the largely negative opinion of cops on the beat, to humanize the men and women behind the badge.

The officers with whom she cruised for three years were certainly busy: The Ninth Precinct covers the East Village, where junkies lay strung out in buildings burned for the insurance money and then abandoned, while Midtown South incorporated the hustling and vice of Times Square. There is a man Stabbed Twice in the Guts, 1980, and one Caught in the Act, 1978, while trying to boost a turntable, and one who tried to score a Free Lunch, 1979, by skipping out on his restaurant bill. Through it all, Freedman’s blue-shirts handle their duties with a sense of humor. They know that George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981, and that this little boy in the cruiser is Always Running Away, 1979. Several of Freedman’s images match this humor with visual wit, as with the Partners, 1978, who are hopping a cinder-block wall with symmetrically outstretched legs, or the Street Cops, 1978, belly to belly in a cramped hallway, one holding his pistol while the other clasps a stogie.

Viewed today, after more than two decades of zero-tolerance “broken windows” policing and in the midst of overreaction to #OccupyWallStreet protesters, the humanity and self-awareness Freedman identifies in her subjects is all the more remarkable. She deftly captured a moment unlike our own in several ways. While I wouldn’t trade the safety of today’s city for its late-1970s incarnation, I do wish today’s officers, many of whom are high-strung and alienated from the communities they patrol, would learn from their predecessors’ relative good will.

Small Change, 1979

Small Change, 1979

Max Kozloff

Published in the Summer 2011 issue of Artforum. To see additional images from the exhibition, click here.

Max Kozloff, Antique Store with Engraved Mirrors, 1978.

Max Kozloff, once the executive editor of this magazine, is best known for his writings on modern art. Much of this work has explicitly focused on photography, a subject upon which he has trained his formidable intellect almost exclusively since the mid-1970s, publishing three collections of essays, organizing museum exhibitions, and contributing to numerous artists’ monographs. In that time, he has also been an active photographer, using the camera to capture first the environment and then the citizens of his adopted hometown. This show, wryly titled “New York Means Business,” collected twenty-five images taken between 1977 and 1984, nearly all depicting storefront window displays.

As Kozloff readily admits, he was working at the time under the influence of Eugène Atget, whose efforts were ostensibly documentary in nature and have been interpreted as recording the final remnants of “Old Paris.” During the last three decades, finance capital has rewritten the built environment in New York as radically as the abstract forces labeled “modernity” upended nineteenth-century Paris. Seeing Kozloff’s pictures now, one appreciates their documentary value: “Old New York,” once visible to anyone walking in the streets who cared to notice, is now mostly gone. As Kozloff had already presciently noted in 1986, a “familiar corporate sterility” in New York would replace the zipper and twine shops, the pawned-watch purveyors, and the other idiosyncratic and independent enterprises he diligently captured with a lens.

Kozloff is interested not only in his subjects’ intrinsic worth, but also in their relationship with the semitransparent reflections of urban fragments caught in the windowpanes. Befitting his long fascination with photography, such juxtapositions allow him to engage self-consciously with historical precedents and to experiment with representational possibilities. The complex interplay of reality and reflection is paramount in Antique Store with Engraved Mirrors, 1978, in which the titular items, haphazardly arranged, capture objects from all directions—a passing taxi, an upper-story apartment window, the underside of flowers in a crystal vase—but, somehow, not the photographer himself. Ne York Under Glass, 1981, is also exemplary, dizzy with referents, portraying reflected apparitions floating in a space of indeterminate depth. Near the “back” of this complex image hangs a poster of midtown Manhattan in the evening, the skyscraper windows glowing yellow like kernels on a corncob. As Kozloff surely knew, the poster is reminiscent of a 1932 photograph by Berenice Abbott taken from the Empire State Building’s then-new observation deck. But such elevated, glorifying vantage points are not for Kozloff, who celebrates the streets, so the soaring midtown high-rises are overlaid with the reflection of unfussy mid-rise apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity. The storefront glass likewise reflects pennants hanging from a street lamp, which slice dynamic lines across the composition, as does a string of lightbulbs framing the poster. In the midst of all this falls a shower of fake currency, tens and twenties and hundreds, a metaphor of the force behind the changes Kozloff was witnessing around him. Kozloff has written that Atget “dramatized a historical process” in his immense body of work, and the complex symbolism of New York Under Glass achieves something similar.

Max Kozloff, New York Under Glass, 1981.

Among other theses, Kozloff’s 2002 curatorial effort “New York: Capital of Photography” contended that street photography is uniquely able to capture a city that “shuffles, obliterates, and reconnects appearances” at will. With its lost world so artfully staged, this exhibition made clear that he was arguing from experience.

“Hiroshima Ground Zero”

Published at Art-Agenda on June 3, 2011. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view until August 28, 2011. To learn more, visit the museum’s website.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was momentarily “covered by a bluish-white glare.” [1] An atom bomb, the first to be dropped on a human population, had exploded 580 meters above the ground. A 4.4-square-mile section of the city center was more or less instantly flattened, and subsequent fires, which raged for more than eight hours, consumed much of what hadn’t been pulverized by the bomb’s concussive force. It is now estimated that nearly two-thirds of the approximately seventy-six thousand buildings in Hiroshima were completely destroyed or burned; approximately seventy thousand, or more than nine out of ten, were at least “half-destroyed/half-burned/slightly damaged.” Soot from the fires, along with dirt and mud, was swept up into the air by whirlwinds and returned to earth as highly toxic, sticky “black rain.” Those who happened to be within 1.2 kilometers of the detonation point (known as “air zero”) had only a fifty percent chance of surviving; any closer and the mortality rates jump to between eighty and one hundred percent. The city’s population that August is estimated to have been 340,000, and it is now believed that approximately 140,000 people died as a result of the bomb. These are the accepted facts about the devastation wrought in Hiroshima, ostensibly to bring the war with Japan, and thus World War II, to a close. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killing an additional 80,000 people, and on August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender.

We know what such explosions look like: a tall stem of smoke and debris, often several miles high, that disperses horizontally once it reaches sufficient altitude. While natural forces such as volcanic eruptions can cause these mushroom-shaped clouds, they are most closely associated with nuclear detonations. The United States government conducted hundreds of nuclear-bomb tests between 1945 and 1962, and images of the explosions have passed from the realm of scientific and military documentation into the broader culture. The mushroom cloud is the icon of the nuclear age.

It is much harder, however, to picture what the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like. This is not for lack of visual evidence. Japanese photographers catalogued the grim aftermath of concrete rubble and seared skin. A companion plane laden with photographic equipment, later dubbed Necessary Evil, accompanied the Enola Gay on the fateful mission that dropped the bomb. Hiroshima was targeted, at least in part, because its infrastructure presented a near-ideal environment in which to study the effects of the bomb, and after the attack President Truman duly sent members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) to Japan. A team of photographers made over 1,100 images, two-thirds of which were included in a secret three-volume report submitted to the government in 1947. Such images, however, despite occasionally appearing in books and other public venues, have not permeated Western consciousness. The presentation at the International Center of Photography of several dozen photographs from the USSBS archive is therefore a chance to become better acquainted with the fearsome power at human disposal.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Rooftop view of atomic destruction, looking southwest, Hiroshima. October 31, 1945.

These small, black-and-white pictures were taken with technical rather than aesthetic intent. The seven photographers were interested in the effects of the bomb on the built environment, and therefore few people appear in the images. Most of the photographs are portraits of commercial or civic buildings; so few residential structures, which were typically made of wood, survived that the photographers decided not to document them. Standing amid the rubble is the façade and dome of the city’s commercial exhibition hall. So, too, is the coal-distribution company headquarters, the front of which seems to have been punched into the ground. There are views of school buildings, banks, insurance company headquarters, and the interior of Hiroshima City Hall’s auditorium, barren save for fine layer of burned litter scattered across the main floor and balcony. Other photographs reverse the perspective, and provide dramatic context for the close-ups and interior views. To make them, the photographers ascended to upper-story windows or the roof of standing buildings and pointed the camera lens outward at the desolate landscape. Because Hiroshima lies on a large, flat plain, the photographers could see relatively far into the distance. The horizon line is the meeting point of two undifferentiated shades of gray: on the one hand, the mostly featureless sky, and on the other the uninterrupted expanse of dusty concrete and plaster that once was a great city. The “burned-over area,” as it was called, extends all the way to the horizon, and it is in these pictures that viewers can most clearly discern the scale of the devastation.

A map presented in the gallery allows viewers to reconstruct some of the scientific findings of the photographers. Reproduced from a USSBS report, it includes not only lines demarcating the physical extent of the devastation but also points indicating the location of the buildings depicted in the photographs. Those willing to correlate between the map and the photographs can discern, in an amateur fashion, some of the scientific results of the USSBS survey. For example, buildings closer to ground zero (the point directly beneath the detonation) were likely to suffer from collapsed roofs or other structural damage that indicates the downward pressure of the blast. Those farther away were subject to the horizontal force of the explosion as it spread outward: normally upright steel beams torque away from ground zero as if blown by a strong wind. Farther away still, tree trunks and telephone poles remain upright, but the former have been shorn of all their branches—testament to the fact that the irradiated earth from which they grow is itself no longer natural.

The most complex and haunting photographs in the show, however, depict “flash burns.” In one image, the shadow of a valve used to seal off a pipe is projected onto the metal surface of the container to which it is attached. Visual habit leads viewers to believe that this is the effect of a sunny day. The caption belies this commonsense response: “‘Shadow’ of a hand valve wheel on the painted wall of a gas storage tank; radiant heat instantly burned paint where the heat rays were not obstructed.” In effect, the nuclear blast—its “bluish white glare”—turned some objects in Hiroshima into light-sensitive surfaces, resulting in what might technically if uneasily be called photograms. I say uneasily because of another, altogether sadder image also included in the show. Here we see the surface of a road, on which is chalked an arrow labeled the direction of blast. Two somewhat shapeless discolorations stretch away from small points in the direction indicated. Once again the caption, its neutral language betraying the photograph’s scientific purpose, redirects our understanding of the image: “Flash-burn on asphalt on bridge 20, 3,500 feet south from [air zero]. Shadow was cast by a man.” Two small circles marked in chalk indicate the placement of the man’s feet; one is slightly in front of the other, as if he were mid-stride. The “shadow,” this photogram-within-a-photograph, is likely the only extant evidence that someone died on that spot.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. "Shadow of a hand valve wheel...." October 14 - November 26, 1945.

The terrible details disclosed by these photographs give ballast to the 2005 Japan Society exhibition “Little Boy,” curated by artist Takashi Murakami, which examined some of the artistic and cultural fallout of the 1945 attacks. (Its title came from the nickname of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.) The photographs included in this exhibition were originally meant to document the bomb’s effects and were used in the service of bettering civil defense architecture in the United States, yet seeing them in a public museum, shorn of their narrowly utilitarian purpose, allows them to serve other functions. These photographs can, for example, give specificity to debates over the proliferation and potential abuse of nuclear weapons, a prospect that will haunt us until the bombs’ abolition. And their presentation affords us an arena in which to sharpen the terms of debate about the contrary claims of secrecy and transparency upon violent government actions. Ditto the conversations about the necessity of such Necessary Evils, their moral and ethical implications. More than six decades have passed since we dropped the bomb, making this a politically safer exhibition for the museum to mount than its autumn 2004 show of Iraqi prison photographs from Abu Ghraib. “Hiroshima Ground Zero” is nonetheless in line with that earlier, daring curatorial effort, and reveals that temporal distance hardly depletes the shock of the images themselves.

[1] The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, trans. Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 21. Additional details about the bombing and its effects described in the text are drawn from this volume.

Victoria Sambunaris

Published in Artforum, May 2011. To see additional photographs from this series, see this post on Time‘s Lightbox blog. To learn more about the exhibition, visit the Yancey Richardson Gallery website.

Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon), 2010

The border between the United States and Mexico has been contested since 1848, when the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended war between the countries. It took survey teams six years just to draw the line, then marked with small obelisks and stone mounds. Disputes arising from population growth and other forms of development necessitated that this survey work be redone in the 1890s, when more than two hundred additional monuments were erected. During the twentieth century, as towns and cities along the border grew, five hundred more markers were dedicated; in recent decades, they have been connected by fences, owing to fears of illegal border crossings. Throughout this history , images have played an important role in the recognition and policing of this boundary, from Arthur Schott’s ink drawings, created for the initial surveys, to contemporary video surveillance footage. Victoria Sambunaris, who drove twenty thousand miles along the border to take the photographs in her new, ongoing series, “The Border,” 2009–, aims to “transcend political, ethical, or environmental ideology.” Yet political questions give these serene, large-scale, mostly uninhabited views a palpable undertow.

What one notices first are the broad swaths of blue sky; the dun-colored Rio Grande River, wending sluggishly across the diptych Untitled (Boquillas del Carmen, Big Bend National Park), 2009; and the striated rock faces of Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon), 2010. The natural environment dwarfs the eighteen-foot-high fence that cuts through several of Sambunaris’s compositions like a rusty scar, and which, contrary to expectation, rarely serves as their primary focus. Sambunaris achieves this effect in part by taking her pictures from elevated vantage points, always situating the ostensible subject of her compositions within a much broader context. Though her work employs the visual clarity of nineteenth-century survey photographers like Timothy H. O’Sullivan, such practitioners served a government that saw the American West’s natural landscape as an untouched site of expansionist fantasy. Arriving more than a century later, Sambunaris can’t help but acknowledge that “the frontier” is now “the border”: Man and machine have transformed this landscape and its meaning, of which the fence is but one manifestation. This sentiment is in line with her recent images of the Alaskan oil pipeline and of western dams and mines, and helps to situate the pictures included here that feature freight trains and industrial-scale farming.

David Taylor, whose photographic series “Working the Line,” 2007–, began with an attempt to photograph all the remaining nineteenth-century boundary-marking obelisks, has come to incorporate border patrol agents, migrants, checkpoints, drugs, and guns into his photographs. Despite the fact that such subjects do not appear in her images, and that in some pictures she downplays the fence or even leaves it out altogether, Sambunaris’s series is nonetheless conditioned by political realities. She would not doubt acknowledge this if queried, since each of the eight photographs presented in this exhibition was shot from the American side of the border. For unstated reasons, she has yet to shoot from Mexico. Though she grants viewers visual access to the “other side,” as it were, the fact of her remaining in the US is nonetheless a reminder of what’s at stake in even the most tranquil of her images. Even where there isn’t a fence, as in her magisterial 2010 view of grasslands in Hereford, Arizona, there’s a divide. After all, swim halfway across the Rio Grande River, and you’ve illegally crossed into another country.

O. Winston Link

Published in Artforum, April 2011. For more information and additional images, see Robert Mann Gallery’s website.

O. Winston Link, NW883 Gooseneck Dam and No. 2, Maury River, Buena Vista, VA, 1956

O. Winston Link’s magnificent photographs of steam-powered locomotives, taken half a century ago, appear now to prefigure artistic projects with which gallery-goers are likely more familiar. In one image, the speeding locomotive seen through a living room window calls to mind Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era collage series “Bringing the War Home, 1967-72.” Link’s picture of a massive engine racing across a railway bridge, beneath which a boy shoos cows and a couple sits in a car, or his image of a man sitting at the window of a third-floor apartment as a train lumbers along Main Street, offer a just-plausible surrealism perfected in recent decades by Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. The railroad’s presence, even in images seemingly focused upon other aspects of small-town life, is akin to that of the nuclear reactors that hover forebodingly in several of the photographs published in Mitch Epstein’s book American Power (2009).

Yet unlike these successors, who self-consciously tell stories that are explicitly political or charged with psychological ambiguity, Link undertook a project that was relatively straightforward. He was a commercial photographer based in New York whose early love of trains was resuscitated while he was on assignment in 1955, when he took a side trip to watch a steam engine pass through town. Fascinated by the hulking machine and realizing that the Norfolk and Western lines comprised, as the exhibition title suggests, “The Last Steam Railroad in America,” Link tried to capture the tail end of the country’s century-long devotion to steam-powered travel. It was a five-year labor of love, resulting in more than two thousand images, each accompanied by a painstakingly detailed caption describing the location, the film used, the type of engine depicted, and the names of people included in the shot.

Link’s pioneering use of multiple flashbulbs to create dramatic nighttime images of unusual clarity and focal depth remains remarkable today. So, too, does his talent for directing the station managers and local citizens who populate his scenes and who often give the staged images an improvisational air. His compositional sense was unerring, as evidenced by the dramatic image of kids splashing in a creek beneath two bridges, across one of which chugs a train. Like Charles Sheeler’s iconic 1927 photograph of crossed conveyors at Ford’s River Rouge plant, the bridges in Link’s image form a dynamic X; in addition, the train and the children, at different distances from the lens, are both in focus, and all of this activity is framed by inky black sky and water.

O. Winston Link, NW1126 Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, VA, August 9, 1956

But no matter the photographs’ individual merits, which are many, their value accrues when seen in aggregate. Consider that Link began his project the same year that Robert Frank began his series “The Americans.” Consider, too, the vastly different Americas the two men captured. In contrast to Frank’s astringent scenes of a diverse and increasingly fragmented population, Link hymns small communities that swap news in the country store or congregate at the drive-in theater. These Virginia towns, Link’s photographs suggest, were held together by the steel rails that carried people and mail from one place to another and that provided many citizens a means to their livelihoods. It can be argued that we still live in the world Robert Frank first revealed to us. By contrast, even in our country’s remotest corners, the life Link so painstakingly captured has perished—not least due to the centrifugal effects of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, passed while Link was working on this series. The social, spatial, and economic relationships he revealed, not to mention the omnipresent engines themselves, are an important aspect of our nation’s history. We are lucky not only that he arrived to capture them when he did, but also that he documented them with such determination and flair.

Sara VanDerBeek

Published in Aperture 202, Spring 2011.


Sara VanDerBeek, A Composition for Detroit, 2009. Installation view, MoMA, New York.


Sara VanDerBeek’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2009 exhibition was A Composition for Detroit, a quartet of photographs made that year. Like the photographs she had been exhibiting for the previous half decade, it is made up of images of images: each panel depicts a geometric scaffold, erected against a dark backdrop in the artist’s studio, to which she affixed reproductions of other photographs, including ones by Walker Evans and Leonard Freed. Unlike her earlier works, however, A Composition for Detroit also includes images VanDerBeek herself shot while visiting Motor City. Some of these component parts are in the background, obscured by the scaffolding or a painted pane of glass hung on it; others are depicted whole. VanDerBeek has said that the idea for the work came from a bank of broken windows she saw in Detroit, and the blank spaces in her composition—both within and across the four panels—deftly evoke that inspiration and give the work a syncopated rhythm. A Composition for Detroit is a threnody for a place laid low by the mid-century flight of manufacturing and its middle-class tax base, a place now grappling with the additional traumas of the current economic recession. With its inclusion of careworn photographic reproductions and its spacing across multiple panels, the work is also, more broadly, a meditation on time and entropy.

The photographs for which VanDerBeek first became known were, like the piece exhibited at MoMA, created in the studio with techniques borrowed from sculpture and collage. Most feature a single, somewhat rickety construction, laden with both photographic reproductions and talismanic objects—feathers, necklaces and chains, ribbons, and the like. The pictures are themselves invocations, calling forth the spirits of modernist precursors, from Constantin Brancusi and Alexander Calder to László Moholy-Nagy and Max Ernst; of classical cultures and historical figures; and of the artist’s father, the experimental filmmaker and artist Stan VanDerBeek, for whom the canny juxtaposition of images was second nature. Sara VanDerBeek brought together items ripped from the pages of art-history surveys and mass-market magazines or extracted from her father’s archive or from her own collections, placing them in exquisite if somewhat precious arrangements that she bathed in dramatic light. The resulting photographs, with evocative titles like A Different Kind of Idol, Ziggurat, and Mrs. Washington’s Bedroom (all 2006), are long on atmosphere and rich in allusions: each fragment is a keyhole into another world. Everything is suspended within shallow, anonymous spaces. These images, while possessing the qualities of a dream, are also commentaries on the erosion of boundaries in today’s media environment and on the instantaneous retrieval of historical information made possible by modern technology. They present history as image, or as a palimpsest of images. VanDerBeek makes calculated use of light, shadow, color, and the boundaries of the picture plane. Yet the prints are unusual in a distinct way. Each image is a one-to-one-scale replica of its subject: that is, a tabletop arrangement of twenty-by-sixteen inches results in a print of approximately the same dimensions. Each photograph is not only an index of something that once existed in the world; it is a direct copy of that worldly presence.

Having developed a unique pictorial language, VanDerBeek spent several years honing it, a process that first entailed the stripping away of extraneous elements and later the near total exclusion of photographic reproductions. The busily referential works she exhibited in 2006 gave way to a series of increasingly spare compositions, such as Eclipse I (2008). In that image, two photographic reproductions of ancient sculptural figures are affixed to a vertical, white-painted wooden pole. Also affixed to it is a thin metal ring from which emanates a series of string “rays” (likely the source of the work’s title). Subtle details animate the composition, reminding viewers that they are looking at a sculpture in space, not a flat image composed on a screen: one of the classical reproductions is affixed to the side of the pole and one to its front face; the entire arrangement is not perpendicular to the lens but slightly off-kilter; the “rays” slice diagonally downward, while the shadows the construction projects onto the white backdrop canter off in the opposite direction. After (2009) achieves a similar complexity without recourse to other images, relying instead on the play of angles and simple washes of paint over plastic and glass for incident.


Sara VanDerBeek, Caryatid, 2010.

In more recent works, color too has been drained from the image—VanDerBeek shoots with color film but prints in black and white. Caryatid (2010) is one example of this technique. A column of six cast-plaster forms rests on a sun-dappled wooden floor between two windows. The light streaming through them washes out the upper corners of the composition, leaving an inverted T to offset the thin vertical presence in the center of the image. Mirrors resting on the floor reflect VanDerBeek’s caryatid, hinting at Brancusian endlessness. Such a simple figure seems to aim for the impassiveness and iconicity of an architectural column or a totem pole, yet the handmade quality of VanDerBeek’s construction remains evident. Here is something stark and timeless, yet expressive of an individual maker.

VanDerBeek’s series of reductive gestures approaches an endpoint with images like Treme (2010). Two blocky forms, white over blue, rest against a neutral gray and white background; they too are cast in plaster, and have been painted in simple vertical washes. Despite its reticent minimalism and its genesis within the walls of VanDerBeek’s studio, the picture has a real-world referent: its juxtaposition of colors mimics the stairway outside an abandoned modernist schoolhouse the artist encountered in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

Treme is part of To Think of Time, the three-part suite of new photographs (all 2010) comprising VanDerBeek’s first solo exhibition in a museum, presented last autumn at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In advance of that show, VanDerBeek returned to the field, this time visiting two new sites that lend themselves to meditations on past and present: New Orleans, which was then about to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and Baltimore, the artist’s hometown. The locations symbolize VanDerBeek’s attempt (begun with the work created after her foray to Detroit) to examine how both private and public memories are encoded in the physical environments we inhabit. Inspired by the observational acuity and sensitivity of Walt Whitman, from whom two of the exhibition’s photographic arrangements draw their titles (Song of Myself and Sleepers), the roughly three dozen small-scale images present fragments, whether captured in the field or constructed in VanDerBeek’s Brooklyn studio. In the image Treme School Window, one windowpane opens to reveal a metaphorical black hole at the center of the composition. Another, Baltimore Window, depicts an antique leaded window, exhumed from dusty seclusion in the basement of the artist’s childhood home, resting in a slot carved into a rectangular block of plaster; a narrow shaft of light cuts through the window and falls directly behind it onto the wall.


Sara VanDerBeek, Baltimore Window, 2010.

Such resonant images, gathered into a halting frieze around the Whitney’s first-floor gallery, were punctuated by nearly abstract photographs of building foundations in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. The concrete slabs carry evidence of the houses they supported, such as rust-caked holes into which rebar once slotted, and the scraps and gouges left behind by the storm. As VanDerBeek told exhibition curator Tina Kukielski, “I felt when looking down upon them for the first time that these foundations retained in their surfaces the entire history of our civilization. They reminded me of early pictographs, and with their pale fragments of color and texture, they echoed the images of fractured frescoes or ancient Greek and Roman art.” The works’ grayscale tones are joined by hints of dusky blue or sunrise pink, indicative of the natural light in which all the images, whether shot inside or outside the studio, were made. The light itself is a subtle indicator of time’s passage. Reading the installation from left to right, the amount of light in each image gradually rises and then dissipates. It would be easy to extrapolate from this sunrise-to-sunset narrative a tragic tale of decay: urban infrastructure enters into terminal decline, its only remaining function to bear noble witness to the lives lived in its midst. But to do so would be to neglect an idea that the generative, studio-based half of VanDerBeek’s work speaks to: around the corner there is always a new dawn.

An-My Lê

Published in Artforum, December 2010.

An-My Lê, Manning the Rail, USS Tortuga, Java Sea, 2010, color photograph, 40 x 56 1/2"

For the past decade, public attention paid to the United States armed forces has understandably focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet our country currently has more than 1.4 million actively deployed troops, and an overwhelming number of enlistees are not at this moment patrolling Baghdad streets or stalking the mountains of Bamyan Province. Where are they? What do they do? An-My Lê’s new body of photographs begins to answer these questions. Set in locales ranging from Indonesia and Vietnam to Ghana and the North Arabian Gulf, the works here testify to the geographic spread of American military deployments. Lê’s human subjects, nearly all quite young, dispense medical and dental services, provide security for disaster-relief efforts, conduct military exercises, and patrol the world’s waterways. Yet these technically accomplished and formally resolved images raise other questions that are far more difficult to answer.

In the past, Lê has focused her lens on Vietnam War reenactors in North Carolina and Virginia; a marine training facility in California; and, in the series “Events Ashore,” military exercises and scientific exploration at water’s edge on several continents. In these series, she has attended to, among other themes, the living legacies of past conflicts, the cultural training of combat troops, and the interlocking interests of corporations and the American military. But she has also probed photographic and artistic conventions, and this exhibition was no different. Are these new works war photographs? Lê is no Robert Capa or Ashley Gilbertson, experiencing the heat of battle alongside those who are fighting, but for many young men and women, the prosaic activities she depicts are what military service entails. The images containing the most “action” reveal not actual battles but training exercises. Are the scenes staged? The clarity, frontality, and formal balance of Jungle Survival Training, Indonesia or Beach Landing Site, Haiti, both 2010, lend to these images a sense of the uncanny reminiscent of Jeff Wall’s photographs.

Even in the face of such sublimely beautiful images as Manning the Rail, USS Tortuga, Java Sea, 2010, which recalls a Canaletto painting of a busy Venetian lagoon, questions about framing and context direct the viewer to larger political concerns. How stage-managed is the American military presence in these far-flung corners of the globe? Portrait Studio, USS Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf, 2009, is perhaps emblematic, in that it serves as an allegory for the acts of disclosure inherent in Lê’s broader project. In this image, naval studio photographer Briana Brotzman prepares Lieutenant Commander Ron Flanders for an official portrait somewhere in the bowels of a ship. We see not the final “message” but instead the act of messaging, and are reminded, too, that Lê’s access to these scenes is itself partly intertwined with that messaging effort. Two other photographs, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam, 2009, and Ship Security, US Naval Hospital Ship Comfort, Haiti, 2010, are views of essentially the same subject from different vantage points. The former depicts a seemingly benign hospital ship floating in placid waters, its multiple painted red crosses broadcasting a peaceful objective; the latter, shot from the deck of a different hospital ship, shows a man in camouflage, flanked by a spotlight and a mounted machine gun. Exhibited together, these images suggest that the military’s dual aims of “capturing hearts and minds” (through, in these cases, humanitarian efforts) and projecting and maintaining military power rest uneasily together. The proliferation of amateur war imagery, often captured by military service members themselves, has complicated our understanding of what takes place on and around the battlefield; by turning her large-format camera on the many other kinds and locations of American military activity, Lê enlarges our conception of the armed services still further.

An-My Lê, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam, 2009, color photograph, 40 x 56 1/2"

Stanley Greenberg

Urban Omnibus has published an interview with Stanley Greenberg, whose “photography explores hidden systems, infrastructures and technologies, both state-of-the-art and antiquated. New York City’s unseen workings, the region’s complex water systems, architecture mid-construction, physics labs, telescopes and a decommissioned dam have all been the subject of Greenberg’s careful eye.” A slideshow of Greenberg’s photographs accompanies the text; to see more, click here for a page on the Gitterman Gallery website and here for a selection published at the site of the Architect’s Newspaper.

Interview: Susie Linfield

My brief interview with Susie Linfield, director of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, has been published online at She discusses her remarkable new book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, which is just out from the University of Chicago Press. An excerpt from the book’s first chapter—which tries to answer the question Why do photography critics hate photography?—is available online at the publisher’s site. A second excerpt, from her chapter on photographs depicting the Holocaust, is available online at Tablet Magazine. Here is an excerpt from our interview, which is published in “as told to” format:

On the one hand, the depiction of atrocities and of physical suffering is today much, much more explicit than it was seventy-five years ago. I use James Nachtwey’s images from the past few decades as an example. If you compare his photographs to those of say, Robert Capa or David “Chim” Seymour, you can see how photography today is far more graphic; it gets much closer to physical agony than it once did. There are several reasons for that. But one of the things that makes looking at such images especially difficult today is that we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework to help us understand the violence. Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it.

To read the rest, click here.

Thomas Struth

Published on on May 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For the exhibition press release and a selection of images, click here.

Thomas Struth, Grazing-Incidence-Spectometer Max Planck IPP, Garching, 2010, color photograph, 46 7/8 x 58 1/4".

In this exhibition of new large-scale color photographs, Thomas Struth discloses realms largely hidden from public view: experimental science and high-tech industry. Struth’s images do not offer a comprehensive representation of how the plants and laboratories he portrays actually function. Nor, for that matter, can we understand from viewing the photos how the industries depicted therein—pharmaceutical production, space exploration, physics research, offshore drilling—are integrated in a globalized market. But the claustrophobic images of wires, tubes, and rarefied machinery reveal something else altogether: Beneath the rhetoric of continual discovery and behind the millions of dollars given over to such research lies a surprisingly fragile, patched-together infrastructure. Tubes are fastened together with blue tape; pipes are hastily enclosed in crumbling insulation or torn bubble wrap; the rubber casings on various machines reveal cracks. In a way, Struth’s dispassionate, analytic photographic style is more imperviously machinelike than the physical plants themselves.

These images are also remarkable as compositions. The show’s largest photographs pull one’s eyes deep into the background at the center of the image. In Space Shuttle Endeavour Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, USA, 2008, the tiled underside of the shuttle blocks a view of the full height of the hangar in which it sits; a phalanx of scaffolding and ladders, scattered beneath it in a V-shape, creates a passageway that points to the shuttle’s nose and beyond. Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, South Korea, 2007, achieves a similar effect. Rusting steel chains stretch back from the immediate foreground to the enormous four-legged rig they help anchor. Most of the other photographs, however, are insistently frontal. That they are reminiscent of the series “Paradise,” images of verdant forests that Struth first photographed more than a decade ago, ingeniously reminds viewers that a strict division between the natural and the artificial is overly simplistic.

“Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place”

Published in Artforum, May 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the International Center of Photography in New York until May 9. For more information, click here.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Lachine Canal), 1954, black-and-white photograph

We’re drawn to the past for countless reasons and revisit it in myriad ways, but analytic, interrogative approaches to what has come before us predominate in today’s art world. Even nostalgia itself is codified and anatomized: Witness, for example, how the phenomenon of “Ostalgie,” or nostalgia for life in the former East Germany, has been cross-examined in exhibitions and essays. In this context, “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place” is refreshing for the ways in which guest curator David Deitcher has woven his own biography and hometown memories into a sophisticated appreciation of his subject. The exhibition is an exercise in neither formalist connoisseurship nor rote history. Sampling a little-known body of photographs created by Stone in the 1950s and ‘60s, under his own name and that of his Mark One Studio, the show deftly evokes what mid-twentieth-century Montreal looked like from a gay man’s point of view.

The bifurcation of authorship is the first hint of the social, cultural, and legal divisions that marked gay life in that time and place. As himself, Stone produced street views of the city’s historic downtown; admiring portraits of sailors, stevedores, Boy Scots, and others; and images of recreation, whether swimmers in and around the Lachine Canal or young men playing ice hockey. Sober depictions of newsstands and granaries contribute to a useful understanding of Montreal as a working city tied to its waterways. On the other hand, Stone’s Mark One Studio, established in 1953 in the basement of the home he shared with his mother and sister, produced “beefcake”—erotic images of male bodybuilders in scant attire that, passing under the sign of either art or sport, were distributed as small-scale bundles of prints or in magazines with titles like Physique Illustrated and Ahoy. These images, here presented in a vitrine, reorient the viewer’s impression of Stone’s more or less innocuous black-and-white photographs, as do the reproductions of homophobic newspaper articles from the era.

One notices, first, how Stone’s Montreal is almost entirely out-of-doors, as if in acknowledgment of the constraints placed upon gay men who wished to congregate in residential or commercial venues. Likewise, as Deitcher notes in his catalogue essay, the pictures seem taken “on the sly”: The photographs are shot from odd vantage points, and dynamic compositions lend several of them a superficial resemblance to vertiginous shots of ‘20s Paris by modernist masters such as Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson. The historical interest of Stone’s pictures rests in these subtle hints of gay life being carried out by necessity in the interstices of the dominant culture. Yet Deitcher, a gay man who grew up in Montreal during the era of the pictures on view, chooses to explain as well the personal interest Stone’s work holds for him. In doing so, the frisson of desire is rendered central in images that might otherwise be primarily understood as illustrations for an argument about injustice. Untitled (Torso), 1963, for instance, which depicts the sculpted bare chest of a man standing behind a tree trunk, his head obscured by the bark, is not merely a record of the use of parks as trysting locations. It is exhibited on a wall that contextualizes it historically, with a photograph of a sign that reads PERSONS OF GOOD EDUCATION AND MORALS ARE INVITED TO THIS PARK and the reproduction of a newspaper story that describes homosexuals’ “mincing gait.” But, especially as framed by Deitcher’s tales of his fugitive interactions with beefcake pictures as a teen, Untitled (Torso) also retains its original, mildly illicit heat.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Steve by Mark-One), 1964, black-and-white photograph

Mitch Epstein, American Power, Take Two

Last December I wrote a brief review of Mitch Epstein’s remarkable new book American Power (Steidl). The photographic series it presents was also meant to be presented in public, and a few days ago Pentagram, the design company, announced the launch of the American Power website, located at Epstein’s images have been placed on twenty-three billboards in Columbus and Cincinnati with the URL superimposed upon them. Viewers (and website visitors who haven’t seen the billboards) are encouraged to answer the titular question, and the responses are being folded in to the site to create “an immersive context for the project’s content and … a public forum about notions of power and energy in America today.”

Anne Collier

Published in Artforum, April 2010. For additional images and information about the exhibition, click here.

Anne Collier is an exceedingly patient artist, revisiting key themes again and again to refine the delicate balance between what she has termed her “forensic aesthetics” and her photographs’ “psychological or emotive” content. This exhibition, her first full-scale one-person show in New York, came after more than a dozen other solo presentations, including a small backroom debut at this venue in early 2008 that offers several illuminating points of comparison. A 2007 image of a self-help book inviting its readers to outline individual goals found its corollary in First Person 1–4, 2009, a four-part photograph of a book offering “your personality profile checklist.” A photograph of a poster depicting a sunset (Studio Sunset, 2007) included in the earlier exhibition morphed, in this show, into Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009, a picture of hands holding open a book to reveal a very similar image. Each work Collier makes achieves specific effects, yet so uniform and seemingly transparent is her photographic technique, so coherent her taste, and so structurally sound the conceptual scaffolding that underpins her images that viewers seem to admire or dismiss her art in equal measure. Such a neat bifurcation is perhaps testament to the balance, suggested above, that she achieves with each picture. Yet because her photographs appear so thoroughly premeditated, it can be easy for naysayers and proponents alike never to really think about them.

Anne Collier, Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009.

Anne Collier, Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009.

I like Collier’s photographs, and I believe that, as is true of much that is elegant and stoic at once, they reward effort. Her artistic process, by which she captures vernacular objects in an antiseptic “commercial” style, is reliable and flawless. Her subject matter, too, is consistent, with album covers, posters, eyes, cameras, self-help literature, and media depictions of women figuring repeatedly. The earlier Kern show included an image of Tim Buckley’s LP Happy Sad, while this one presents an image of an album cover by the Smiths that itself reproduces a still from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. As these examples suggest, Collier’s photographs are satisfyingly clever, while their inviolable stylistic consistency dramatizes the fact that one’s criteria for judgment are generally a matter of intuition. The lyric or romantic imagery in the photographs, meanwhile, is chosen in part to invoke sentimental, private associations in the viewer, thus rendering dispassionate discrimination impossible. To assess this body of work, one must think concretely not only about the images but about what one brings to them.

Such concerns arise alongside pressing questions that emerge from the artist’s approach to her medium. For Collier, our understanding of photography is conditioned by its everyday use, as well as by the odd process through which we invest impersonal, commercial items such as books or record sleeves with the highly personal meanings she so ably induces. Likewise, she explores the complicated weave of presentation and concealment that inheres in the use of a camera—which is a machine—for personal expression: Witness May/June 2009 (Cindy Sherman, Mark Seliger), 2009, which appropriates a media image of an artist known for camouflaging herself, or Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009, in which Collier’s own eye gazes out at the viewer from a print submerged in developer. This latter image, visually stark and conceptually compacted, dry as can be yet possessing a surprising vulnerability, underscores just how much value Collier extracts from the seemingly narrow territory she has chosen to explore.

Anne Collier, Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009.

Anne Collier, Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009.

Anne Collier, Studio Sunset, 2007.

Anne Collier, Studio Sunset, 2007.

John Vachon and the FSA

I just enjoyed John Vachon’s charming memoir of being introduced to photography by Roy Striker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration and amasser of 250,000 images of America taken between 1935 and 1944. (Those who have access to the Harper’s online archive can read the September 1973 piece here.) After working for Stryker for some time, Vachon writes, “one day I told Stryker I thought there were many scenes around Washington that should be photographed for his files. ‘Why don’t you borrow a camera and give it a try?’ he answered. And I did not hear the portentous bells tolling.” So began the first of a widening circle of trips out into the country, which he says allowed “a last look at America as it used to be.” Vachon went on to photograph for three more decades; small selections of his photographs can be found here, here, and here. (The last set was made in Puerto Rico the year he wrote his essay about Stryker.) In 2003, the University of California Press published a book, John Vachon’s America, that combines his FSA photographs with his writings—letters and journal entries, mostly—from the era.

Roger Ballen, “Boarding House”

Published in Artforum, February 2010. For additional images and information about the exhibition, see this page on the Gagosian Gallery website or visit the artist’s website. A book of photographs from this series is published by Phaidon.

Roger Ballen, Boarding House, 2008

No photographic, or even artistic, category quite encompasses the complicated, engrossing, and at times unsettling images in South Africa–based artist Roger Ballen’s new series “Boarding House,” 2003–2008, several dozen images from which made up this large exhibition. Though the artworks are consistently square-format black-and-white photographic prints, they represent a combination of photography, theatrical performance, drawings, and sculpture. The images were made in collaboration with the residents of a Johannesburg warehouse that, from Ballen’s description, seems like a miniature shantytown—a warren of tiny rooms that for decades has been its own ecosystem. There, some of society’s marginalized figures (a few labor in nearby mines, although many are entirely destitute) scratch out an existence of minimal comfort, their small dwellings divided not by solid walls but by rugs, sheet metal, and other provisional materials.

What differentiates these pictures from the portraits Ballen made in the early to mid-1990s and his two most recent series, published in book form as Outland (2001) and Shadow Chamber (2005), is that he has reversed the priority given to his human and nonhuman subjects. Whereas those earlier photographs depicted men, women, and children in contorted poses and faintly repulsive scenarios that simultaneously elicited and rebuffed the viewer’s empathy, in “Boarding House” there are few actual subjects with which to identify. The already claustrophobic, airless interiors of the building have been further flattened by Ballen’s bright flash, and in the shallow compositional field that results one finds not whole bodies but parts: feet dangling into one picture from the top of the frame; hands reaching up from the bottom of another; noses and lips and eyes partially visible behind fabric panels or other obscuring devices. These human fragments are now just one more element in Ballen’s macabre theater. What has come to the forefront are animals (snakes, tarantulas, ducks, pigs, puppies, kittens); tangles of wire and other detritus, such as children’s toys; and, most prominently, the expressive, somewhat crude figurative drawings on the otherwise bare rear walls of these grimy dioramas. It is in creating these sometimes dense scribbles and human outlines, along with selecting sculptural props to appear in the compositions, that the boarding house residents participate actively in Ballen’s project.

The oddness and seeming cruelty of Ballen’s earlier work, in which the subjects often appeared to perform their abjection for the camera, has been elevated here to a more abstract, poetic plane—one that may be all the crueler for the artist’s ability to aestheticize, and therefore mask, real destitution. Nonetheless, Ballen is a talented dramaturge, and throughout the series he maintains a disturbingly exquisite tension between he squalor and dissolution he depicts and a formal control that highlights the constructedness of each scenario, its collaborative, semifictional nature. In this equipoise, “documentary” realism becomes somewhat unreal. Unlike his earlier work, there is nothing specifically South African about the images in this series: The artist intends these miniature blasted landscapes to represent a psychological state dwelling somewhere within all of us. His descriptive precision, image to image, makes that claim to universality more plausible than most made by artists. One can imagine the rips and tears in the fabric hangings as psychological or emotional wounds, or the doors that lead only farther into the boarding house, never out, as reflective of the labyrinthine pathways of thought. Whether one proves able to relate to the bleak mental landscape of these astringent, absorbing compositions is another matter.

Roger Ballen, Scavenging, 2004

Roger Ballen, Squawk, 2005

Mitch Epstein, American Power

Published on on December 14, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. To see additional images from the series, click here. To read more about the project, click here and here to read interviews with Epstein and here to read an article published in the New York Times last October.

Earlier this decade, prompted by a lawsuit his father was facing, photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his western Massachusetts hometown. Holyoke had become an unfamiliar landscape in the years since he had left as a young man, so he decided to document the changed circumstances of his parents’ lives. The resultant photographs and video installations in the series “Family Business” can be understood as an attempt to render visual the tectonic social and economic shifts the United States has undergone since midcentury.Epstein_cover American Power, Epstein’s new book, attempts something similar, but on a much broader scale. He began with a straightforward if ambitious premise—to depict our nation’s varied energy infrastructure—but quickly expanded his remit to include several notions of power that course through American society as invisibly as does electricity through the national grid. Cooling towers and reactors factor in many of the images, yet each kind of power—not only literal, but also political, economic, and the power of nature—impacts upon the others. All are scrutinized in the dozens of color photographs Epstein took in twenty-five states over the last six years. He has suggested that this book is a “testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era,” but rather than revel in anger or anguish, the measured, elegantly composed photographs admit complex readings. What results is a picture of America both enormously blessed and seemingly jeopardizing its own well-being.

I came away with a renewed awareness of our society’s class divisions, which are a subtext that gives the book a plangent tone. Half of the people who appear in these photos are seen defending the interests of energy corporations or enjoying their status as reckless consumers in a land of material abundance. Epstein has crafted a lovely full-length portrait of a young woman, automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, working at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Mississippi, as well as an unaffected image of logo-plastered father-and-son dirt bikers in Midland, Texas. Yet the other half suffers unduly from being disempowered. Witness the residents of Raymond City and Poca, West Virginia, whose lives play out beneath the white smoke rising from the Amos Coal Power Plant, or those who are baptized in or fish from California and Florida waters potentially fouled by the conspicuous power plants hovering in the distance. Fences predominate in the book’s many unpopulated images, testament not only to the partition between the powerful and the weak, but also to the difficulties Epstein faced in trying to uncover this submerged current. Other photographers working in this vein, including Alex Maclean, Michael Light, and Emmet Gowin, often shoot their pictures from the air. Epstein, however, stays resolutely on the ground. It mustn’t have been easy to portray a sense of a nation and its relationship to power in transition, but it was worth the effort.

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Robert Kinmont

Published in Artforum, December 2009. For more information about and to see additional images of Kinmont’s work, click here.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

For those who arrived in the art world during the past three decades, Robert Kinmont was known, if at all, through the photograph of him performing a cliff’s-edge handstand reproduced in Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. That picture is part of Kinmont’s 8 Natural Handstands, 1969, which also finds him upended in desert grasslands and in a shallow river. The work is emblematic of the small but potent body of sculptures, photographs, and performances Kinmont created in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which were also on view in this exhibition, his first solo show in thirty-eight years. He stopped making art in 1975, initially taking care of his children so that his wife could finish a cookbook, and later studying Buddhism and working as a carpenter. In 2005 he picked up where he had left off. Sculptures of hollowed-out logs, one filled with peacock feathers, made in 1973, and one, from 2007, filled with dirt and children’s toys, point to continuity. But two other recent log sculptures—filled, respectively, with “fear” and the “sound of sawing”—suggest a change took place after all during his Zen-inflected intermission.

In both a literal and an abstract sense, an intimate connection to the northern California landscape marks Kinmont’s practice. Besides the hollowed-out logs, the show included Weed Container, 1964, a small, glass-framed box holding a collection of weeds; Wait, Wait, Wait, Grasp, 2008, a round cake made of walnut husks that was formed by their decomposition after they were collected in a plastic bucket; Hidden Meaning, 2006, a piece of willow that Kinmont whittled so that its two forked forms are joined only at their end points; and Willow Loop, 1972/2005, a delicate willow rod that Kinmont has formed into a circle by inserting one end into the other. My Favorite Dirt Roads, 1969/2009, a suite of sixteen deadpan black-and-white photographs and a framed text piece bearing the title, contains no organic material but nonetheless discloses an easy familiarity with a region that, without markets, might be impenetrable to outsiders. (In a recent interview, Kinmont speaks fondly and at length of the memories associated with just one of these roads.)

The amateurish aesthetic, the serial presentation, and especially the subtle traces of absurdist humor in works like My Favorite Dirt Roads and 8 Natural Handstands bring to mind roughly contemporaneous camera-based explorations by Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman. Similarly, some of Kinmont’s sculptures suggest the work of post-Minimalist or process-oriented artists. Source Support, 1970-73, in which four wooden legs each support two crossbeams, would collapse were it not for the joints swelling with water seeping into the wood from copper funnels. In a roundabout way this structural clarity and precariousness evokes Richard Serra’s “prop” sculptures while simultaneously prompting a unique kind of mindfulness—one must, after all, keep the work hydrated.

Corollaries for Kinmont’s recent output in today’s art world may be harder to find. Yet the artist’s infusion of late-’60s and early-’70s artistic strategies with a Buddhist concentration on the fullness of immediate experience seems more promising than most of today’s aesthetic and political rehashings of that earlier era. And, of course, unlike many of those now trading in nostalgia, Kinmont was actually there.

Jochen Lempert at Culturgest, Lisbon

Published in Aperture 197 (Winter 2009).

Oiseaux - Vögel, 1997/1999.

Oiseaux - Vögel, 1997/1999.

Seen one at a time, Jochen Lempert’s black-and-white photographs of the natural world and its inhabitants do not make great claims upon a viewer. Some have artless compositions; others seem out of focus or to have no subject at all. Encountered in aggregate, however, as in Field Work, the first major survey of Lempert’s photographs presented outside his native Germany, they possess a quietly mesmeric force. This exhibition, organized by Miguel Wandschneider, was an unforeseen revelation. Its scores of images, printed at modest scale on thick paper that the artist allows to warp slightly as it dries, were presented unframed, either singly or in rows and grids according to subject. These arrangements collapsed the distinctions between documentary naturalism and lyrical Conceptualism, the two contemporary photographic genres into which one is tempted to slot Lempert’s work. That Lempert’s silver-gelatin prints look more like charcoal drawings than they do conventional photographs further accentuates the artist’s singular achievement.

Lempert trained as a biologist before embarking upon his work as a photographer in the early 1990s, and the scientist’s rigorous avidity was one of this exhibition’s leitmotifs. He pursues his (mostly avian) subjects intently, finding them both in the field—whether urban or rural—and in the natural history museum. One series of images, each printed smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper, depicts lone cormorants moving gracefully through various urban environments: one is silhouetted against the sky between an imposing skyscraper façade and the delicate filigree of tree branches; another hovers just above a river’s surface at the bottom of a picture dominated by an apartment tower and a bridge. Still others register the concentric ripples set off by the birds’ feet as they flap across unknown waterways, evoking Adam Fuss’s tranquil studies of splashes. Several other series, arrayed in grids, depict the heads and beaks of various taxidermy specimens in a uniform style, calling to mind not only the presentations in natural-history museums but also Richard Prince’s collections of women extracted from advertisements and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial censuses.

A vein of romanticism counterbalanced these quasi-scientific investigations—and not every photograph has as its subject a bird or birds. One series, A Voyage on the North Sea (2007), includes six images of roiling waves cropped so that each presents the same horizon line. The quixotic nature of the endeavor—how could one document the sea in a systematic manner?—belies the uniformity of the presentation. In another gallery, five pictures of “photosynthesis”—lovely images of sunlight streaming through trees—were juxtaposed with a photographs of fire: depictions of the production of energy were neatly counterbalanced with depictions of its consumption. Lempert’s most abstruse and poetic collection of images, Symmetry and Architecture of the Body (1997-2005), was presented in the final gallery. Here one encountered photographs of coral, a flamingo, the back of a man’s head, a goat, a goose, and a tattoo of a bat on a woman’s shoulder, among other subjects. Rendered in the same unselfconscious style as many of the other photographs included here, the esoteric links between these images—they cohered visually but the logic of the juxtapositions remained elusive—further stressed what had become increasingly apparent as one moved through the show. Far from being mere “nature studies,” Lempert’s photographs are evidence of an artistic sensibility compelled to wrest order from circumstance, and, through the tight control of progression, variation, focus, scale, and exposure, to make of this order something enchanting.

Luc Sante, Folk Photography

Butte, Montana, July 1916

Butte, Montana, July 1916

My interview with Luc Sante, about his new book Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), has just been published on Click through not only to read his ruminations on this early-twentieth-century phenomenon, but also to see a slide show of additional images from the book. In the course of our discussion, Sante reiterated his point (from the book’s introduction) that he sees the real-photo postcard as a link between late-nineteenth-century American photography (of the Civil War, of the American West) and the “documentary” style of 1930s-era photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration. One aspect of our conversation that did not make it to the final edit of the text, however, concerned the links (if any) between the real-photo postcard craze and art being made between, say, 1905 and 1915. Sante suggested that the pictures are in almost every way contrary to what the Pictorialists, grouped around Alfried Stieglitz, were doing at that time, and cited how startling it was when Paul Strand’s photographs published in the final issue of Camera Work depicted commercial signage. At another moment in our discussion, Sante pointed to enterprising late-nineteenth-century photographers as one possible precedent for the real-photo postcard, citing Solomon Butcher, a postcard photographer whose work from earlier decades included a spectacular series depicting pioneer families on the Kansas-Nebraska prairies. The images in Sante’s book, which are culled from his own collection of the postcards, are pretty remarkable, and his essay is as thoughtful and well-written as you would expect. Click here to read the interview and learn more.

(NB: From the book’s extended caption to the image above: “The 62-foot-tall, 44-foot-long elk was constructed by a stage designer named Edmund Carns to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the country’s largest fraternal organizations. The plaster that coated the statue included $1200 worth of high-grade copper ore mined nearby; its eyes were made of 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs. Before the month ended the elk had been taken down and its copper recovered.”)

Peter Hujar

Published on on September 25, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view at Matthew Marks Gallery until October 24, 2009.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Some of the pictures in this exhibition were published a decade ago in Doubletake magazine; most have never been exhibited. They were made from 1956 to 1958, while Peter Hujar was in his early twenties, and most depict children at play in homes for the developmentally disabled in Southbury, Connecticut, and Florence, Italy. Neither sentimental nor aggressive, these small black-and-white images possess the empathy and compositional rigor we associate with Hujar’s unruffled portrait work of the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, some, like Boy Rubbing His Eye, Southbury, 1957, and Girl Sucking Her Thumb, Florence, 1958, prefigure poses he would later favor: The children lie on their sides, each poking into the frame from its right-hand edge, both of them aware of the camera but obviously in their own worlds. Other photographs, like Children on a Slide, Southbury and Playground, Southbury, both 1957, have a kinetic dynamism that captures something of the children’s vitality while acknowledging that they are damaged. Hujar recognizes in each child an essential human dignity that, I think, would escape most of us, with our cultural biases and reflexive attunement to difference. (This openness would serve him well in later decades as he photographed the eccentric figures of the downtown demimonde.) In a gaggle of Italian children crowding around a swing set, watched over by a nun, one boy seems more severely disfigured. With arms and legs akimbo and head sharply cocked, he is visually separated from his playmates by being the only one dressed in dark clothing. And yet it is characteristic of this striking, humane body of work that it is his gaze that finds its way directly to Hujar’s lens.

Related reading: A wonderful essay on Hujar’s work by Vicki Goldberg that was published in the New York Times in 2000.

Fritz Goro, Science Photographer

“Fritz Goro was the longtime science photographer for LIFE magazine. He covered the Manhattan Project, including shooting at the original Ground Zero. His image of a fetus in an artificial womb inspired Kubrick’s 2001. He crafted photo-simulations of x-ray diffraction and created elaborate graphics in-camera using multiple exposures, lenses and focal depths to depict atomic structure. Much of America’s 20th century image of science was either made or influenced by Goro.” More, with images and links, from

Danny Lyon, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan and Michael Wolf, The Transparent City

Published in Print, April 2009.

The Destruction of Lower Manhattan
Danny Lyon
New York: Powerhouse, 160 pages. $50.

The Transparent City
Michael Wolf
New York: Aperture, 112 pages. $60.

In late 1966, after years spent drifting across the United States and documenting civil rights protesters, outlaws, and motorcyclists, the photographer Danny Lyon returned home to New York and settled in a loft downtown.

Surrounded by condemned buildings and not yet eager for more human subjects, Lyon set out to document the broad swaths of downtown being razed for two major infrastructure projects: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge on the East Side and the World Trade Center on the West Side. The resulting photographs, reprinted here from a 1969 volume, are solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings standing sentinel; the men responsible for bringing those structures down; and, in interior scenes, the marvelous accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. The nearly empty street scenes, in particular, recall Charles Marville’s documentation of condemned quarters in 1850s Paris (before Baron Haussmann forever altered that city) or Richard Nickel’s 1960s photographs of Louis Sullivan–designed buildings in Chicago. Lyon’s images resonate anew at a moment (after the attacks of September 11) when New York is once again attempting to resuscitate its downtown environs.

If downtown New York seems to be at the end of its tether in Lyon’s photographs, the spectacular views of todays’ Chicgao Loop captured by Michael Wolf depict a city in robust health. What predominates is the sense of activity: Thousands of miniature dramas of work and leisure play out behind steel-and-glass facades. From his perches on rooftops and in tall parking structures, Wolf’s telephoto lens tucks hints of these lives into the vertiginous, nearly disorienting compositions that admit neither sky nor ground. Best may be a nighttime scene in which a man with a telephoto lens “shoots back” from a giant flat-screen TV.

Mark Ruwedel, “Westward the Course of Empire”

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Published in Artforum, April 2009. To see additional images from the exhibition, as well as read the press release, click here. Last summer, Yale University Press published a book of Ruwedel’s photographic series, with an essay by Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. It is a remarkable book; I recommend it.

At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there were 35,085 miles of operable railroad track in the United States. Eight years later that number had doubled. Midway between these dates, on May 10, 1869, a golden spike joined the rails of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was near this site that photographer Mark Ruwedel was inspired to begin his series “Westward the Course of Empire,” 1994–2007. This exhibition brought together seventy-five of the small black-and-white photographs, which document the railroad lines, now abandoned, that knit together our country (and Canada) in an unprecedented wave of industrial ambition and governmental largesse. For centuries to come we will be untangling the ramifications of the historical process he charts.

Ruwedel is keenly aware of the palimpsest of physical interventions and imaginative representations that have altered both the landscape of North America’s western half and our perceptions of it. Anyone who depicts these arid plains and craggy mountains today necessarily enters into dialogue with a legion of antecedents, from late-nineteenth-century geographic-survey photographers to Earthworks artists who fanned out across the West a century later; from environmental pioneers like naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams to contemporary writers like John McPhee; and from atomic scientists seeking uninhabited test sites to real-estate developers hoping to turn ranchland into exurban subdivisions. Ruwedel’s carefully composed images, made with a large-format camera, bear traces of this complex legacy. In the foreground of Deep Creek #2, 1999, for example, a gate in a barbed-wire fence carries United States Air Force signs warning visitors to keep out and identifying the flat territory as a bombing and gunnery range. The lone wooden railroad tie in Carson and Colorado #6, 1997, is complemented by at least seven enormous upturned satellite dishes visible in the background.

The photographs also enter into dialogue with visual strategies familiar to viewers of contemporary art. Ruwedel’s installation of the photographs in small grids by type (tunnel mouths, cuts through rock formations, trestle bridges) recalls Bernd and Hilla Becher’s rigidly sorted documentation of heavy industry. So many straight lines proceeding toward the horizon, denuded first of vegetation and, decades later, of the wooden ties and steel rails themselves, bring to mind the photographic record of Richard Long’s walks in the landscape.

Despite these connections to other practices, Ruwedel’s photographs, with their magnificent placid compositions and unexpected details, encourage one to savor their intrinsic allure. In San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003, a trestle bridge spans the mouth of a canyon like a dark spiderweb. The tunnel entrance in Columbia and Western #21, 2000, seems like a portal to another world. The concrete pylons depicted in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific #30, 2005, stand like an industrial-era Stonehenge in an otherwise empty landscape. Other photographs emphasize how nature has reclaimed some lost ground, subsuming humankind’s hubristic gestures within an inexorable vegetal creep. The give-and-take between man and nature will continue for as long as we persist. “Westward the Course of Empire” is an uncommonly sensitive survey of the evidential traces of that relationship’s recent history and a formidable aesthetic statement.

Luigi Ghirri, “It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It”

Published in Artforum, February 2009. To learn more about the book that accompanied this exhibition, click here.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

This was Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s first New York solo exhibition in over seven years, and coincided with Aperture’s publication of the first English-language monograph dedicated to the artist. Ghirri, who worked consistently from the early 1970s until his death in 1992, should be better known in the United States, not only on the merits of his intelligent, subtly mischievous color photographs but also because American audiences will find in these images the traits they cherish in their own canonical figures from the era. They will detect, for instance, similarities to prints by chance-oriented Conceptual provocateurs like John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler and Southern color masters like William Eggleston and William Christenberry. Yet there’s no mistaking that Ghirri was an Italian photographer. His landscapes’ flat, white sunlight and washed-out palette of stone, sand, and sky; his obvious love for the cities and people of Emilia-Romagna; and his metaphysical concern with the constructed reality of the image locate him indelibly within Italy as both place and art-historical precedent.

Ghirri’s constant probing of the distinction between “reality” and “artifice” came through forcefully in this exhibition of some one hundred pictures, most of which date from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The images whimsically conflate people and objects with painted backdrops (one series is revealingly titled Topography-Iconography,” 1978–92); or depict mirrors and windows that create compositions the camera dutifully records, but to which the eye and mind acclimate only with time; or upend expectations about scale; and occasionally employ darkroom sleight of hand. “My duty is to see with clarity,” Ghirri once wrote, and what his clarity communicates, with consummate humor, grace, and rigor, is that things are not always what they seem—and that this can be a source of unceasing wonder.

To this end, the exhibition included photographs of map details of the Atlantic Ocean and constellations in the night sky; cafeteria diners in front of a park scene printed on wallpaper; a bland institutional interior with a rolling, grid-partitioned mirror reflecting a man on a weight-lifting bench; tourists roaming like Gullivers through a miniature copy of Venice’s Piazza San Marco; and a self-portrait taken in the reflection of a Parisian shop window that also depicts, mysteriously, an oval mirror (and what it reflects) where the camera lens should be. Parma, 1985, is an interior view of a grand hall in an anonymous Italian palazzo that shows, head-on, a dark wood confessional. What is initially simple becomes increasingly strange: On the wall behind the booth is a peeling image of Corinthian columns receding into an even grander “hall”; to the left is part of a large, empty, golden painting frame that partly overlaps with the frame of a high window, which is itself the source of an oblong glimmer of light cast onto the floor.

The inclusion, in a blue-painted room-within-a-room, of Ghirri’s portraits of the studios kept by architect and theorist Aldo Rossi and painter Giorgio Morandi, both made between 1989 and 1990, highlighted the modern order underpinning Ghirri’s postmodern playfulness. That tension is evident in nearly all of the photographs included here. American viewers of this exhibition who came thinking of their own artistic forebears might have departed wondering about the protean artist’s Italian contemporaries, like Italo Calvino, creator of uncompromisingly ordered yet fantastical fictional words, and the Memphis Group, designers of brightly colored furniture and products with a heretical bent. It is a testament to Ghirri’s talent that he fits comfortably in both American and Italian contexts.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.

Interview: Michael Wolf

The Asia- and Europe-based photographer Michael Wolf is known for his fine-art and editorial photographs depicting rapid growth in Asian cities. A new series of photographs made in Chicago, “Transparent City,” goes on view this week at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is collected in a book just published by Aperture. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on November 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

The experience of photographing in America was not much different from photographing in Asia, really. The challenge was more conceptual: After working so long in Hong Kong and China, I wasn’t sure I was capable of working somewhere else. I feel in tune with what is happening in the East, and am so inspired by the architecture, food, people, and flux of life there, that I was afraid I’d feel disconnected from an urban landscape in another part of the world. Luckily, when I came to Chicago in 2006 to install some photographs, I rode an elevated train into downtown from the airport. It was a wonderful visual experience, looking out and seeing everyone through the office windows. I remember arriving at the museum and meeting the curator, and by my third or fourth sentence they asked whether they could arrange an artist residency for me. A year later, the deal was done.

I had thought about working in New York, in part because I’ve worked so long with what I call “architecture of density” in Hong Kong. But there are logistic problems in New York that don’t arise in Chicago. In Chicago, the buildings are spread out, they’re more loosely structured, and ten- or twelve-story parking garages are interspersed between them. From the garages, you can look into buildings. I would go up onto the twelfth floor of a parking structure and get a nice view into the neighboring building. To prepare, I went onto Flickr and printed out every photo of the city’s downtown Loop, then drew red arrows pointing to all of the roofs to which I wanted access. In Hong Kong, every building has guards and you must apply for permission to get onto the roof, but researchers at US Equities, who supported my residency, were able to get me access to 99 percent of the rooftops from which I wanted to photograph.

I began my series “Architecture of Density” by photographing close-ups of vernacular subjects in the back alleys of Hong Kong’s downtown high-rises. I enjoyed the photographs but thought the series of seventy or so images was conceptually one-dimensional. I felt the series would be enriched if I could bring in another layer of meaning, so I began to take photographs of the buildings from a distance. In Chicago, I worked in the opposite direction, beginning with the architecture. I felt, however, that I was bumping up against the same problem. Then one evening I was looking at a photograph I had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though I had probably been standing there for twenty minutes.

It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TVs in the evening. It was a bit lonely, particularly when I was photographing corporate office towers during the first banking crisis in November–December 2007—I could see through my telephoto lens the tension and stress those bankers were feeling. By zooming in on details, I manage to introduce a certain vernacular visual language as well as balance the faraway with the up close.

I don’t consider these works portraits; I’m not doing a portrait of Chicago. In fact, the city’s characteristics don’t really figure into my discussions of the series. It could be any large urban city. I simply proceeded by answering the question, Which vantage point gives me the ability to look into a building? One building that fascinated me was the very big courthouse downtown. The judge’s rooms are in the corners of the building, and I wanted to catch a moment when lawyers were standing in the hallways of seven or eight consecutive floors so that the image would depict them locked into little cells, like a Robert Wilson stage design. Despite the unpredictability of my process, I have very specific images in mind as I work. Edward Hopper was a particular inspiration for this series, and I was looking for the types of images he specialized in. I was trying to translate an idea—or, rather, to find it in reality.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Sharon Core at Yancey Richardson Gallery

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg, 2007, color photograph, 17 x 23".

Over the weekend my review of Sharon Core’s new exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery was published on It begins: “What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition ‘Early American’ that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions.” The title of her exhibition references her use of early American painter Raphaelle Peale’s still-life paintings as sources. In browsing catalogues, monographic studies, and journal articles about Peale while preparing the review, I came across one book that seems particularly interesting: Alexander Nemerov’s The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812–1824 (University of California Press, 2001). Core’s exhibition remains on view until December 6; for a selection of images that are larger than the ones available on the gallery website, please visit this post on the The Moment, the T style magazine blog.

Joel Sternfeld, “Oxbow Archive”

Published in Artforum, November 2008. To see images from the exhibition, click here.

In a passage in his journal dated February 5, 1855, Henry David Thoreau asserted, “In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or characters of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.” The thirteen large-scale color photographs in this exhibition chronicle the weather and the characters of the day in and around a single meadow in Northampton, Massachusetts, from July 29, 2005, to April 20, 2007. The site, famously depicted in a heroic Thomas Cole landscape that was painted in 1836 and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is characterized by a small loop of water (called an oxbow) that juts out from the Connecticut River. It encircles a series of meadows, and similarly flat land extends away from the river’s outer banks.

At this site Joel Sternfeld has catalogued, with Thoreauvian attention to detail, the variety and bounty of what the photographs’ titles identify as the East Meadows. In these images, one glimpses the twisting silhouettes of denuded trees framed against a pink-gray March sky; a horizontal expanse of melting late-winter snow placidly reflecting the clouds massed above it; steam rising off puddles of water as the Earth, in spring, returns to life; and the tracks of truck wheels rolling off into the distance, bathed in an orange summer glow. Cole described the view from nearby Mount Holyoke as the “grandest prospect in North America,” but Sternfeld observes this place with an unsentimental eye. And, unlike his series “American Prospects,” 1978–86, which deliberately charts human incursions into the landscape, these photographs see Sternfeld largely ignoring the greatest of such intrusions—nowhere, for example, does one find Interstate 91, which runs north-south across the oxbow. (In a related catalogue, however, additional images depicting abandoned campsites, roads cutting through cornfields, and more truck tracks appear.) In this sense, the photographs in “Oxbow Archive” continue the placidity that characterized “Sweet Earth,” the series, mostly made in the mid-’90s, depicting American utopian communes that Sternfeld exhibited at this gallery in fall 2005.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

To see this cycle of days and seasons unfolding ninety miles west of Boston would chasten any urbanite; while Thoreau and his peers were intimately familiar with this landscape and its intervals of growth and decay, many people today would be hard-pressed to identify its plant species. That such knowledge is now alien to a large share of the population highlights the disconnect between humans and their environment that is causing problems far greater than can be understood in two years’ study of one small patch of land. One at a time, these pictures prompt humility before nature’s variegated plenitude. In aggregate, as they chart how and when the seasons change, they bear witness to inexorable forces that will fundamentally alter such patterns in the future.

This is not to suggest such concerns prompted Sternfeld’s photographic journal, though by including the word archive in his title one is given some license to think so. It is, however, to state that the vocation of careful attention evidenced by these works prompted one viewer to attempt such diligent watchfulness of the world around him. The pictures themselves, with their flat, thin, dispersed northern light and their carefully considered compositions, are arresting, and function well both within Sternfeld’s oeuvre and as their own aesthetic statement.

Interview: William Cordova

Earlier this year, William Cordova, whose artwork frequently references human rights struggles, organized two exhibitions for Ingalls & Associates in Miami. One, titled “Casa de Carton,” features an intergenerational range of contemporary artists, and the other, “Up Against the Wall,” the photographs of journalist Ilka Hartmann. Both exhibitions will open at Branch Gallery in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, June 20. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on June 18, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Two years ago, while doing research into commonalities across various radical groups of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I gradually realized that many of the documentary photographs I was encountering were taken by one woman: Ilka Hartmann. She was one of very few photographers who had covered such a range of activist groups—anti–Vietnam War protestors, Black Panther members, migrant workers—and she began doing so long before it was a common practice. When I discovered that she lived only an hour’s drive away from another place at which I would be an artist in residence, I resolved to meet her.

She was incredibly generous with her knowledge about that time period and offered background information on a large portion of her archive; from her, I learned about photographers like Ducho Dennis (of the Black Panther Party) and Hiram Maristany (of the Young Lords). This information is important to the exhibition; I’ve made sure to include materials that explain how her photographs were initially used and other contextualizing ephemera. Doing so hopefully slows down the way the visual information—her pictures, in this case—is disseminated, and how quickly and carelessly such images can be consumed in the fine-art world. I don’t want her images to become the bastard children of a generation or of a movement; it is important they do not become T-shirt-ready, like a photograph of Che Guevara.

Having earlier done an installation in a storefront in Durham, I was somewhat familiar with the city’s past and knew of a number of radical organizations in North Carolina, including the Lumbee tribe, which is still seeking full recognition from the US government, and a Black Panther branch in Winston-Salem. As with the presentation in Miami, I hope that visitors will connect the photographs—and, for that matter, the works in “Casa de Carton”—to the social history of the environment around them. In the past forty years, Durham has seen some extreme social conditions; once the “Black Wall Street,” it has since fallen on harder times. Even if such changes aren’t addressed by the mainstream media, they remain present in the daily lives of those who reside there. Presenting Hartmann’s photographs is an attempt to reactivate acknowledgment of these facts, to make visible aspects of the landscape that are invisible.

As told to Brian Sholis

Shirana Shahbazi

Published on, September 27, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

This exhibition is the largest US presentation of Zurich-based Iranian artist Shirana Shahbazi’s photographs to date. It is an assembly of archetypes, offering still lifes, portraits, and landscapes rendered with a formal clarity that corresponds to received notions of Swiss precision or bracingly crisp Alpine air. The photographs, taken together, evoke the lyricism that suffuses Roe Ethridge’s landscape pictures and the variations-on-a-theme investigative depth associated with Christopher Williams. Whereas the cases made for the conceptual underpinnings of those two artists’ work are, respectively, plausible and sturdy, it can be frustrating to try teasing meaning from Shahbazi’s constellation of images. One wishes that the relationships between photographic archetypes, printing techniques, and the subjects’ geographic origins were more clearly articulated. (One vanitas wall painting, executed by an anonymous team of Iranian artists after a photograph by Shahbazi, seems not only out of place but also late to the game: Francis Alÿs, among others, has handed off work to local artisans to greater effect.) But what images: Black-and-white prints of butterflies; a fully abstract gradation, from pink to white, soft as cotton candy; an orange-pink orchid set against an azure backdrop; a flat Texas landscape where the depth of field stretches seemingly to the horizon: Like diamonds, each offers a glittering specificity. In years past, her photographs were both smaller and framed; Shahbazi is one of few artists whose work benefits from the increased scale to which success has allowed her access, as this ravishing if imperfect exhibition indicates.

Liz Deschenes

Published on on April 16, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

In contrast to the haphazard chic that characterizes neighboring art spaces and boutiques, nearly everything about this one-year-old Lower East Side gallery is rigorously composed, from its visual identity to its intriguing program of contemporary and historical exhibitions, avant-garde film screenings, and lectures on urban issues. This exhibition—Liz Deschenes’s first big New York outing since a delightful, restrained three-person show at Andrew Kreps in 2003—dovetails with the downtown venue’s consistent presentation of (for lack of a better term) brainy formalism.

For several years, Deschenes has teased apart the photographic process in compelling ways, mixing and matching its steps in an attempt to explain the camera’s magic without diminishing it and to remind viewers of the viral proliferation of screens in contemporary life. Here, seven new large-scale prints exploit the differences between the mechanical lens and the human eye, deploying moiré patterns to understated yet visually entrancing effect. (An earlier diptych, also included, illustrates an aspect of the dye-transfer process.) To create the works, Deschenes places perforated paper against a window and captures its image on an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white negative, then duplicates the negative and superimposes two copies in an enlarger; a slight but deliberate misalignment creates the disorienting allover patterns that result. No two are alike; no system governs the misregistration. Deschenes has likewise printed the images in color, which adds subtle washes—typically of blue and green—that seem like the hallucinatory side effects of looking too hard. One can feel one’s eyes striving to accommodate these (nonreferential) images, to ascertain what is figure and what is ground as the fields of white dots blur and snap into focus. Apprehending their detail is a physical, temporally expansive, rewarding event.

Sabine Hornig

Published in Artforum, March 2007.

A room on a stage is typically missing one side, the virtual “fourth wall” through which the audience peers; the rooms depicted in the photographs Sabine Hornig included in this show are, unexpectedly, absent two sides. In each of the photos on view, the street-facing window of a Berlin storefront (there are two images of one of these storefronts and a third of another) is presented at roughly two-thirds scale, the casement marking the edges of the otherwise unframed image. The second missing division is more unsettling. In two shots, the floor has been demolished; in the third, behind the small rectangular gaps in a metal roll gate, one discovers that the rear wall has been dismantled, giving onto a view of a courtyard.

All three pictures slot neatly into a practice that has seen Hornig exploit the peculiarities of visual perception—in particular the eye’s comprehension of reflectiveness and slight changes in scale—to blur the boundaries between architecture, sculpture, and photography. But whereas the quirks of Hornig’s earlier images could be accounted for through patient looking, here the interference between what one expects and what one encounters is a result of what was photographed, not how it was captured. Fenster ohne Boden (Window with No Floor) I and II (all works 2006), hung on perpendicular walls in an otherwise empty room, are also an essay in the passage of time. The gray northern daylight illuminating the first image’s composition gives way to a darker picture seemingly taken in the evning; likewise, the trees reflected in the window shed their foliage from one photograph to the next.

Two sculptures were situated in the gallery’s larger room. Blechhütte (Tin Hut) is a narrow steel box, slightly shorter than six feet tall. A rectangular steel armature extends from one open end, framing a truck-windshield-size panel of glass. It evokes, obliquely, a bus stop shelter, a form Hornig used more directly for a 2001 sculpture, Bus Stop, also exhibited at this gallery. Everything about the object is slightly off: The box is too small to enter; the glass panel, on which is printed a thin vertical slice of an image, is too large to function as a door; deep inside the structures lightless interior, a small triangular ledge might imply seating were it not for a similar piece wedged a few inches below the ceiling. Stifling functionality, Blechhütte seems instead to embody the oft-recited claim that “all art is quite useless.”

Sabine Hornig, Landscape, 2006.

Sabine Hornig, Landscape, 2006.

That particular line belongs to Oscar Wilde, who prefaced it by announcing, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” Landscape, a five-panel steel-and-Plexiglas folding screen adorned with a photographic transparency depicting a landfill, is worthy of such admiration. It too repeals utility; the semitransparent image does not obstruct sight. Its ostensible message, reminding viewers of the proximity of luxury (the elegant folding screen) and waste, is banal when expressed didactically. Landscape, however, embodies its lesson in an interestingly literal manner. As one circumnavigates the sculpture, the panels—set at varying angles to one another—are reflected in the Plexiglas like phantom limbs. The object visually proliferates, and so does its image of waste. In this sparsely installed exhibition, more economical than Hornig’s previous three Bonakdar shows, one was tempted to view this lesson in relation to today’s art market, the many inessential objects it accommodates mere kindling on a pyre.

Melanie Schiff

Published on on January 4, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Since her solo debut at this gallery, photographer Melanie Schiff has moved out of the studio and into the world, trading fussily arranged, evenly lit still lifes for more casual, serendipitous compositions of everyday objects. These photos are hymns to natural light, and the presence of rainbows, beer cans, and a Neil Young LP cover tempts one to characterize her gaze as a stoner’s glassy-eyed fixation. In Emergency, 2006, the sun, modulated by a porch screen, is a marble-size fireball resting atop a bottle of Jack Daniels. In another photograph, a single beam slices through a compact-disc jewel case, splitting into faint prisms that descend upon dull gray carpet. A third shows a green beer bottle balanced at the tip of a canoe, lit from within by two crisscrossed glow sticks; their angle continues the lines made by the edges of the thin-metal boat and is also found in the X composed of two arrows jutting from disused beer cans in a nearby picture. With sixteen photos and one unexpected (if not unwelcome) foray into video, the exhibition is a tad overhung, but even the oddball images—of the artist making Spit Rainbow, 2006, next to a backyard lemon tree, or a tapestry of drug bags plastered to a cracked window—add to the show’s drowsy-afternoon allure.

Robert B. MacKay, America by the Yard: Cirkut Camera

Published in Print, January/February 2007.

The Cirkut camera, introduced just after the turn of the 20th century, charted—by means of a patented spring-arm rotation technology with a 360-degree range—the development of American society for the better part of 40 years. Military units, graduating classes, church groups, presidential inaugurations, car dealerships, rock quarries, and shipwrecks were documented by the panoramic prints, dubbed “yardlongs,” that the camera produced. This lavish volume, compiled by the preservationist Robert B. MacKay, is itself a yardlong, filled with more than 100 reproductions—many printed on foldout pages—scanned from original prints, which were themselves created directly from negatives and exquisitely detailed.

In his brief introduction, MacKay focuses on the development of the camera’s technology and how it was subsequently used, hazarding few observations about the broader cultural context into which it was inserted. This leaves the assembled images open to a wide range of interpretation. The smiling masses (or dour ones, like a 1924 Ku Klux Klan “Drill Team and Band”), pinned to lengthy scrolls of film with impressive particularity, remain anonymous examples of a society undergoing rapid urbanization, industrialization, and a dizzy ascent into scalelessness by every measurable index.

Alternately, the proud crowds speak to the cohesiveness of group identities—evidence of a country gathering steam as it glides into what would be dubbed “the American century.” These still pictures, cinematic in scope, were initially made around the time that filmed images were first screened to awed spectators. That panoramic picture-taking has become a quaint hobby while Hollywood proliferates endlessly lends these black-and-white documents a melancholy air that undercuts the triumph inherent in their wondrousness.

“On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag”

Published on on June 21, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Susan Sontag, relentlessly curious, roamed widely across the cultural landscape, the specificity of her writing compensating for her occasional lack of specialist knowledge. This jewel-box exhibition, which draws its title from her thin, seminal book first published in 1977, acknowledges her contribution to our understanding of photography by pairing quotes drawn from her essays with clumps of photographs exhumed from the Metropolitan’s far-reaching collection. Encompassing portraits, street scenes, war photography, political propaganda, and travel snapshots, the pictures on view—spanning 150 years—interlace anonymous works with canonical images while maintaining an intimate sense of scale. Curator Mia Fineman serves both image and text well by leaving loose the connections between them—allusion should always supersede didacticism—and, in doing so, refreshes our understanding of both. (Those turned off by the playfulness of “AngloMania,” on view elsewhere in the museum, should appreciate this exhibition’s gentler revisions.) Peter Hujar’s cool 1975 portrait of Sontag, which catches her in thoughtful repose, greets the visitor at the entrance; forty-odd pictures later, Annie Liebovitz gives us Sontag as a shadowy, faraway figure, dwarfed by the walls of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. It’s a bit of a trick, but it works, and one leaves this exhibition hoping that Sontag’s words won’t likewise slip into the distance.

Luisa Lambri

Published in Artforum, summer 2006. For additional images from and information about the exhibition, click here.

Luisa Lambri, Untitled (Barragan House, #35), 2005

Luisa Lambri, Untitled (Barragan House, #35), 2005

For her New York solo debut, Italian photographer Luisa Lambri presented a four-year minisurvey consisting of just seventeen photographs, and the restrained selection underscored the importance of editing to her practice. Lambri spends considerable time in each of the modernist buildings—primarily private residences—that she photographs, taking hundreds of pictures. Yet only a few of these are ever printed and exhibited, and they are not conventional architectural photographs in the vein of, say, Julius Shulman’s glamorous images of Case Study Houses or Candida Höfer’s typological surveys of magnificent interiors (both of which would otherwise seem obvious precedents here). Lambri’s idiosyncratic documents, often depicting individual windows or glass-curtain walls, are more somatic than panoramic, attending closely to the phenomenology of the built environment. Most architectural photographs posit the viewer as disembodied voyeur, but Lambri’s images place the body in space. Her pictures register her slight shifts in position as well as subtle changes in light, and both characteristics give her grouped images a sense of the passage of time in a manner that recalls Jan Dibbets’s “Interior Light” studies.

The main gallery featured images of Luis Barragan’s Casa Barragan (1947), Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art (1966), and Konstantin Melnikov’s Melnikov House (1927), although only architecture buffs would recognize these buildings in Lambri’s shots. All six pictures of Barragan’s Mexico City home, taken in 2005, focus on one window, which is covered by a wooden shutter divided into four cabinet-like doors. Lambri treats this window like a camera lens, opening the doors to varying degrees in order to admit different amounts of light. In four pictures, a prolonged exposure blanches the image, and the light surges between the cracks with an otherworldly radiance. The possible permutations are seemingly infinite, and endlessly rewarding. In the other two, the surrounding wall reasserts its solidity, framing a garden view that incorporates some pink flowers, the only bright color in the exhibition.

Three photographs of a single window at the Melnikov House offer a similar opportunity for back-and-forth comparison. Here, however, the light remains more or less consistent, and it is Lambri’s movement—identified by a point of view that shifts slightly with each shot—that becomes apparent. Two diagonal wooden sashes crisscross the elongated hexagonal opening and fragment the picture’s composition into rectangles, trapezoids, and triangles that interlock like puzzle pieces. Nearby, a single image of a window at the Whitney Museum, taken at a slightly oblique angle to the wall, likewise emphasizes the complexities of the iconic, off-kilter aperture, with its deeply recessed, irregular trapezoidal windowpane, which angles away from the building instead of lying flush with the facade. Picture plane, gallery wall, window, and the gridded exterior of the building across the street create a series of optical twists and turns that slow the eye’s movement around the photographic space.

Three pictures of Edward Durell Stone’s Mandel House (1934), hung in a smaller room, created a spatially complex tableau reminiscent of Sabine Hornig’s photographs and sculptural installations. The images depict what looks like a twin-chambered dressing room in which two mirrors—one circular, one rectangular—rest against opposing walls while a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a door spans the distance between them. The elegant photographs, which were here arranged like stand-ins for the mirrors and window, were taken from different oblique angles and amplify the disorientation caused by the room’s intricate play of light and reflections. One must work conscientiously to stitch together an understanding of the three-dimensional space fractured by this photographic hall of mirrors, but doing so offers one of this exhibition’s many pleasures.

Barbara Probst

Published in Artforum, May 2006.

Barbara Probst,  Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545, 8 Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., 2000

Barbara Probst, Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545, 8 Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., 2000

On January 7, 2000, at 10:37 PM, Munich- and New York-based photographer Barbara Probst first employed a technique that remains unique among contemporary artists. Using a remote-control device, she simultaneously triggered the shutters of twelve cameras strategically positioned around a New York City rooftop, and the resultant set of poster-size prints, in which Probst, her cameras and tripods, and the noirish urban scene all figure equally as subjects, anchored her last solo show at Murray Guy in 2004. The Rashomon-like multiplicity of perspectives synthetically prolongs the cameras’ “decisive moment,” and this clash of temporal registers was the exhibition’s most salient quality. For this exhibition, consisting of eleven photographs constituting four artworks, Probst added emotional nuance and referential complexity to that first multipart “exposure.”

Exposure #36: Studio Munich, 09.26.05., 2:34 p.m., a five-part work that alternates black-and-white and color prints, unsettles one’s sense not only of time but also of space. Viewing the photographs sequentially, one initially assumes that the young woman in a red sweater, her hands held up near the right side of her head, is standing outside, in or near a park. The second image, shot from behind the woman, exposes the artifice implied by inclusion of the word “studio” in the title: Here one sees, behind a camera on a tripod, the contours of a room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The third frame peels back yet another layer of the construction, revealing the greenery in the background of the first picture to be no more than a studio backdrop. The fourth shot plunges one back into a conceivably “realistic” space (the grain of the photograph merges seamlessly with that of the backdrop), once again giving the impression that the woman is outside, this time on a street in New York’s Chinatown. The final photograph is a close-up of the woman’s face.

But of course one doesn’t view these images consecutively. Instead, the successive revelations encourage the eye to Ping-Pong between the prints, picking out details overlooked on first pass. One gradually assembles a mental model of the depicted scene, pairing each camera with the images it has captured. But there remains an estranging detail, noticeable only because of the enlargements’ imposing size: The presence of a young boy lying on the studio floor, his head and an arm visible in the bottom-right corner of the third print. This returns one to the background of the first print: The park scene is naggingly familiar because it was lifted from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). (Exposure #37: N.Y.C. 249 W 34th Street, 11.07.05, 1:13 p.m., with its fashionably dressed, supine protagonist ogled by a plethora of lenses, evokes the studio scenes in that film, but to different effect.) Probst’s deconstruction of the photograph’s veracity—which, in these multi-panel works, evokes cinematic precedents in both atmosphere and presentation—literally encompasses a fragment of a classic film on the same subject.

The other photographs in the show, all diptychs, hint at the complexities, temporal and otherwise, lodged in Exposure #36. These photographs evoke Christopher Williams’s photographic deconstructions and Eadweard Muybridge’s time-lapse studies. But Probst’s fruitful investigation of photography’s characteristics (and the operations of human memory) distinguishes her from both precursors and peers.

Sze Tsung Leong

Published on on April 12, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong’s gorgeous, abundantly detailed, medium- to large-size photographs of Chinese cities undergoing cataclysmic change fuse Edward Burtynsky’s synoptic aerial views, Elger Esser’s blanched palette, and the patient attentiveness evident in underappreciated Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto’s mid-’80s “Architectural Apocalypse” photographs. The works included here, from “History Images,” an ongoing series begun four years ago (and exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2004), were taken in Beijing and Pingyao, Xinjiekou and Xiamen, yet each tells roughly the same story, in which a rush to transform society—whether during the mid-century socialist revolution or more recent capitalist expansion—inevitably and irrevocably transforms the landscape. Low-slung, tile-roofed, imperial-era houses give way to drab, mid-rise, concrete apartment blocks, which are in turn supplanted by more-or-less shiny skyscrapers bearing corporate logos—sometimes all in the same picture. The nostalgic tint of the series title, which evinces a preservationist documentary impulse, is offset by Leong’s eminently rational compositions, in which new structures encircle old, or radiate outward symmetrically like a Rorschach blot. Two pictures in a second room lift the veil shrouding this hyperdevelopment: One depicts a construction site, curiously devoid of the machinery necessary to erect a tall building, in which workers stand in holes dug for concrete pylons; another shows horses, certainly anachronistic workers in an urban environment, carting trash bags on rickety wooden carts. Their inclusion adds an important counterpoint to the exhibition’s deceptively seductive force, reminding us that individual lives play out both in the crumbling shacks and behind the steel-and-glass façades.

Harry Callahan

Published on on December 14, 2005. For more information about the exhibition, click here; to see the review in context, click here.

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Had Richard Prince organized this show, he would’ve called it “Twenty Women Looking in Every Direction.” But Harry Callahan, an acclaimed though under-exhibited photographer perhaps best known for loving, often experimental portraits of his wife Eleanor, was out on the streets of Chicago in 1950, and this series, titled “Women Lost in Thought,” presages Garry Winogrand’s sidewalk snaps as much as it does Prince’s postmodern Conceptualism. To take these extreme close-ups of women out for a stroll, Callahan had to push the technological limits of his equipment (choosing a too-high shutter speed for the film he was using) and devise idiosyncratic shooting techniques (pre-focusing the camera and hoping his subjects were the proper distance from the lens). It’s hard not to view these women, completely isolated from their surroundings, as early examples of then-emerging theories about urban anomie; they could be the wives left behind in the morning by William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man.” They look alternately sullen, animated, and impassive, and the frisson of violence implied by the odd, sometimes harsh cropping adds yet more psychological portent to pictures whose fascination is belied by their seeming simplicity.

Louise Lawler

Published in Untitled Magazine.

Louise Lawler, Big, 2002/2003

Louise Lawler, Big, 2002/2003

Louise Lawler would be the first to admit that an exhibition of her work is a product of forces beyond her control. For twenty-five years, most often with the aid of a camera, she has demonstrated that an artwork on the wall in front of a viewer—hers included—is a nodal point in a dense network of social and financial coordinates. With a matter-of-fact tone, Lawler’s editorial slant (to use Robert Storr’s phrase) has illuminated the tendrils of that network as they reach outward from art objects across both time and space. This is perhaps why her exhibitions have often been installations—’Arrangements of Pictures,’ as she terms them—that lay bare the contingencies of an artwork’s ‘uniqueness’ and the authorial stamp that deems it so. ‘Looking Forward,’ Lawler’s first solo exhibition since her appropriately titled mid-career survey ‘Louise Lawler and Others,’ held this summer at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, comprises many of her trademark gestures: the photographs depict other artworks in contexts unfamiliar to a casual art viewer (being handled, in transit, behind closed doors); multiple prints from a given photographic edition are on view simultaneously; the arrangement is not uniform (some works hang close to the floor while, elsewhere, spot-lit expanses of wall were devoid of their pictures). These signals, along with Lawler’s noted self-effacement and occasionally disarming sense of humor, can make it difficult for viewers and critics to see beyond the well-rehearsed tropes, mostly intellectual, that surround her work: that it is an act of ‘institutional critique,’ that it illustrates Walter Benjamin’s maxim about the loss of an artwork’s aura in an age of mechanical reproduction, that Lawler in effect exercises the powers of the collector in her meticulous acquisition of images of collections.

The photographs, shot on location at the ArtBasel and ArtBasel Miami Beach art fairs, the Museum of Modern Art, Christie’s auction house, and elsewhere, work admirably as transmitters of this intellectual content. But something comes through on a different wavelength in this exhibition, a parallel signal that, in harmony with the cerebral meaning of her pictures, amplifies what Lawler calls the ‘poignancy’ of her images. Several of the photographs in the two larger galleries feature artworks that depict bodies; in the flux of transition, those bodies experience upheaval or are torn asunder. Take, for instance, down (2002/2004), which portrays the mannequin used in John Millers’ sculpture Mannequin Love (2002) lying in pieces amid bubble wrap on the floor; Nude (2002/2003), which features Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966) lying unceremoniously on its side during the de-installation of the painter’s MoMA retrospective; and 2 Heads (2004), which shows Richter’s Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo (1971) seen from the side in a packing crate, minus their pedestals. Lawler outlines for us how the artworks lose their aura in another way, as a kind of violence (rooted in neglect) is visited upon them when not on display. As impassive as her eye may be, it’s hard not to imagine that Lawler laments the loss. This thread is most complicated and explicit in Big (2002/2003), a photograph of Maurizio Cattelan’s caricature sculpture of Picasso lying decapitated on the floor of an art fair booth; behind it, on the wall, is a Thomas Struth photograph of museum visitors admiring a classical statue, also headless. Lawler’s mastery of form comes into play: the decapitated body stretches from the left edge of the frame, as if Lawler’s crop had sliced off its head, while the audience viewing her photograph ostensibly becomes a mirror image of the one in the Struth picture. The photograph implicates all of us—Lawler included—in the confluence of events that led to the scene her lens found.

In this view, the austerity of Lawler’s vision becomes a kind of defense mechanism, as the work’s conceptual and formal rigor offsets a latent emotional content. As Jack Bankowsky asks in a recent essay, aptly playing on two of the artist’s titles: Does Louise Lawler make you cry? It is possible to retroactively apply this contrapuntal reading to Lawler’s output, bringing forth a richer understanding of her practice. It may have taken two decades and a survey exhibition, but, having caught up to Lawler, we are all now ‘Looking Forward’ at what is to come.

David Wojnarowicz

Published on on October 25, 2004. To see the review in context, click here.

Like the two slim poetry volumes Rimbaud published by age 20, David Wojnarowicz’s “Rimbaud in New York” photos, shot in his early twenties, are a fully realized aesthetic statement. The forty-four small black-and-white photographs in this show (accompanied by a selection of the artist’s journals) depict an anonymous young man outfitted with a simple paper mask bearing the visage of Arthur Rimbaud, adrift in a New York no longer extant. Mostly alone, he wanders through derelict buildings, the Meatpacking District, the subway, and other liminal sites. In some ways, the photos, shot during 1978 and 1979 and first exhibited in 1990, could be considered the inverse of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977-80. Whereas Sherman constructed elaborate scenarios but rarely masked her face—we almost always know it’s her—Wojnarowicz fully obscures his protagonist’s identity. To this day, we do not know if the artist is the (or is the only) flâneur depicted. Likewise the cinematic, imaginary space Sherman conjured counters the peripheral yet nonetheless very real locations (Hudson River piers, Coney Island) portrayed in Wojnarowicz’s pictures. Perhaps inevitably, time has added a filmic sheen to the drugs, sex, and graffiti of the rough-and-tumble 1970s New York seen here. For a fuller understanding of the era as Wojnarowicz saw it, an exhibition of his later works incorporating text is on view at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea through November 13.