The Real Thing

A slew of shows turn Paris into a study center in the varieties of photographic realism

Because Paris Photo—the lively international fair that brings dealers, collectors, artists, and aficionados to the Carrousel du Louvre each November—coincided this year with the biennial Mois de la Photo, Paris was even more irresistible than usual last month. With nearly all the big shows—including Alfred Stieglitz at the Musée d'Orsay, Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Centre Pompidou, Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Fondation Cartier, and the re-creation of a 1935 exhibition featuring Walker Evans, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson—continuing into December and beyond, the city remains not just a magnet for mavens but an ad hoc study center in the varieties of photographic realism.

Over the past few years, as genuine innovation in conceptual, constructed, abstract, and digitally generated photography has come to a virtual standstill, realism, already resurgent, has moved back into the spotlight. Gregory Crewdson remains a powerful influence, but his fictions are beginning to look labored next to the (more or less) straightforward evidence of the everyday offered up by Eggleston, Friedlander, diCorcia, Gursky, Struth, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Catherine Opie, and Larry Sultan, among many others. For all its flaws, "Cruel and Tender," the survey of "The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph" that opened at the Tate Modern in the summer of 2003 with work by many of these same artists, helped reassert the importance of the photo as document. The shows now up in Paris offer a broad view of the historical underpinnings of photography's most fundamental style and make clear why honoring this tradition isn't necessarily a conservative move.

The Musée d'Orsay's "New York and Modern Art: Alfred Stieglitz and His Circle 1905-1930" (which continues through January 16) is especially instructive in this regard. Because Stieglitz's pared-down modernism didn't develop in a vacuum, the exhibition includes examples of the European painting and sculpture he debuted at 291, the Photo-Secessionist gallery he and Edward Steichen founded, and reproduced in the pages of Camera Work. With Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Rodin, Cézanne, and Duchamp (whose signed toilet bowl is here) as shining examples, it's no wonder Stieglitz abandoned the fuzzy impressionism of his early photographs and turned to cool, crisp studies of Georgia O'Keeffe's nude torso. Throughout the show, his achievement as a photographer is seen alongside his impact as a champion of the avant-garde, and both are solidly located in the context of a period when uncomplicated (but hardly artless) realism still delivered the shock of the new.

The "Masked Woman" Medium With a Ghost Apparition (c. 1900) from "The Third Eye"
photo: Maison Européenne de la Photographie
The "Masked Woman" Medium With a Ghost Apparition (c. 1900) from "The Third Eye"

The Bechers (whose show at the Pompidou runs through January 3) offer a rather more daunting example of the rigors of realism. Since the 1950s, they've been making small black-and-white photos of what they call "anonymous sculptures": grain silos, water towers, gas tanks, lime kilns, coal bunkers. Displayed in grids of up to 15 images, these pictures are formally monotonous (the Bechers aim for the authorless simplicity of product shots) but as fascinating in their variety as the Karl Blossfeldt botanical studies that serve as a key precedent in the history of German New Objectivity. Still, a little of this work goes a long way, and halfway through their inventory of relics of the industrial revolution I was longing for a big, vulgar slab of new realism from one of the Bechers' more famous students—Gursky's Madonna concert, perhaps, or a Struth rainforest, lush and wild.

Instead, I went off to the most extraordinary show in Paris, "The Third Eye: Photography and the Occult" at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (through February 6). With more than 300 small photos, many from the late 19th century and nearly all patently fraudulent, the show is about the power of illusion and the compulsion of belief. Spirit photos, each purporting to capture the ghostly presence of a departed loved one hovering beside the living, throng the exhibition's opening galleries with wraiths—disembodied heads, transparent figures, angelic children, hands raised in blessing, a vaporous dog—and their anxious, deluded companions. Far more alarming (and more than a little hilarious) are pictures of mediums who, when not levitating furniture, could manifest thoughts and dreams as spurts of fluid or ectoplasmic macramé. No matter how hokey, the images curator Pierre Apraxine has gathered here (many of which will travel to the Metropolitan Museum, where "The Third Eye" opens next September 27) have the dreamy, disturbing allure of the most compelling surrealist concoctions. These photographs don't just subvert realism, they feed off and fuck with it, offering a view through the looking glass to a world where hallucinations look as real as, say, grain silos.

 
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