“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 Artforum.com 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.