Jeff Wall, Vik Muniz, Rineke Dijkstra, Paul Graham, Richard Billingham, Luis Gonzalez Palma, Massimo Vitali. The list of established photographers in the Venice Biennale may not have been long, but it had a nice weight. If you counted the lesser-known quantities, virtually all of them chosen by biennale director Harald Szeemann for his sprawling “Plateau of Humankind” exhibitions in the Italian Pavilion and the Arsenale, the list of photographers more than tripled. So why did they have so little real impact? Given photography’s considerable influence on and growing presence in the contemporary art world (at the recent Armory shows, it easily accounted for more than half the work on view), its lackluster showing in Venice is something of an anomaly. But that was little consolation for those of us schlepping great expectations, however unwarranted, through pavilion after pavilion.
It didn’t help that some of the most interesting photo work—notably Paul Graham’s gorgeously funky bathroom walls and Jeff Wall’s shoddy interiors—had already been seen in New York. Or that Muniz’s color-chip versions of Van Gogh, Monet, Rothko, and Richter and Dijkstra’s portraits of Israeli soldiers in and out of uniform were oddly off the mark for such reliably protean artists. Of the other big names, only Billingham was truly engaging. Even if he was mining familiar territory with big, soft-focus black-and-white photos of his magnificent mess of a father and a video of his brother’s dirty fingers working frantically at the buttons of a computer game, Billingham hasn’t lost a bit of his fierce intensity and bruising love.
But even he didn’t generate much buzz. The only photographers I heard anyone talking about were Lucinda Devlin, whose disconcertingly beautiful color pictures of electric chairs, lethal-injection tables, and other death-row interior decoration were on view in New York last fall, and Cristina Garcia Rodero, whose shots of Haitian voodoo celebrants swimming in mud are provocative but rather too much in thrall to the idea of raunchy black primitivism. Like these artists, both of whom were given prime space in the Italian Pavilion, many of Szeemann’s other choices were documentarians, too often of the most pedestrian (if politically progressive) sort. Along with what felt like hundreds of darkened video cubicles—only a few of which (Chris Cunningham, Bill Viola, Magnus Wallin) proved worth ducking into—flat, earnest photographs tended to deaden the Arsenale’s blocks-long main stretch. A peculiar exception: professional police photographer Arnold Odermatt’s weirdly bloodless, black-and-white shots of Swiss auto accidents, reduced to abrupt, detached, and meticulously composed narratives that center around pieces of found metal sculpture.
So Venice was a disappointment for the photo freak, but it wasn’t until I returned to New York that I realized what else I was missing there: magazines. No matter how tourist-friendly Venice is, its newsstands are decidedly provincial. They may have a selection of foreign newspapers, but they rarely carry anything but Italian magazines—a rude shock for anyone used to New York’s wealth of international titles, much less an addict fiending for the latest issues of French, English, Japanese, and Russian Vogue. There was a brief, thrilling moment when, after three days of scouring the stalls, I found the just-out Vogue Italia. But even 28 pages of Steven Meisel’s perverse take on the swimsuit issue—featuring an exceptionally bony, bronzer-slathered blond in bikinis and heels—didn’t cure my craving.
Back in New York, on the verge of withdrawal, I collected the magazines that stuffed my mailbox and went to the newsstand for more. Once the 10 hours of travel caught up with me, I fell asleep next to 16 fat, glossy slabs of paper, each one more promising than the next. Not every magazine delivers on this promise, but the potent combination of newness and ephemerality is sometimes enough. Still, it’s not about novelty, it’s about photography. For every terrific photo I see on a gallery wall, there are 10 in the pages of a magazine. Or maybe it just seems that way. The intimacy, size, and instant, continuous accessibility of the magazine makes it the ideal delivery device for images that don’t need to do anything more serious or substantial than excite. Many of these images would look great in a frame; most (including some of the most successful) don’t belong there. They were made for the printed page, often in an interlocking series, and outside of that hectic environment they often seem awkward, lost, pointless. (Similarly, many photos intended for gallery display look pathetic when reproduced in a magazine, where they lose all sense of scale and subtlety and have to compete on a purely graphic level.)
But artists have always shuttled between art and commerce, and some of the most enduring photographs (by Avedon, Penn, Man Ray, Capa, Steichen, Rodchenko, Bourke-White, Outerbridge, and countless others) were originally made on assignment. If the gallery-to-magazine route seems especially busy these days, perhaps it’s because magazine culture has never been quite so pervasive or inviting. So you have Brit Pack star Sam Taylor-Wood photographing Jude Law for Interview, Jenny Gage turning her California Girl prototype into a fashion waif for W, Larry Sultan going backstage in the porn biz for Details, Lauren Greenfield capturing the edgy exuberance of a prom for The New York Times Magazine‘s style section, and Janine Gordon showcasing her super-atmospheric mosh-pit shots in the pages of Nest and on the wall at the Whitney simultaneously. (That same summer issue of Nest also includes Lucinda Devlin’s pictures of the decidedly down-home interiors of an otherwise avant-garde house in Alabama.)
These crossover artists might make the occasional splash in a magazine, but it’s the veteran editorial photographers who keep us coming back month after month. The best of them are not just consistent, they’re consistently inspired. Look at Irving Penn’s startling spread in the July American Vogue: An alarmingly bloodshot eye stares out from beneath two competing mascara wands like a sea creature under attack. His shot of fried eggs and exotic salts later in the same issue packs an equally visceral punch. In Details, where the photography has never been better, Bruce Weber brings his patented cool to casually heroic studies of tattooed surf legend Matt Archibald and gives us another weathered dude as Chuck Baker-esque style icon. Dana Lixenberg takes on another sort of aged beef with her knockout portraits of ultimate fighters in Flaunt, their bruised, bulky bodies a jolt of dirty realism in the land of make-believe. And Vincent Peters, who has been turning out some drop-dead fashion spreads lately, does his best to outdo Steven Klein on the volatile subject of David Beckham. For The Face, Peters shoots Beckham sweaty, bare-chested, smudged with dirt, and dripping with stage blood: the theatrical embodiment of sports agony and ecstasy, right down to the Christlike final image. But Peters has tough competition within that same issue from Miles Aldridge’s Pop Art spreads of glazed, disembodied lips guzzling beer, chowing down on pasta, or meeting in a full-tongued kiss, each with a careful makeup credit and an implicit nod to Tom Wesselman.
Magazines offer up these passing pleasures as a matter of course, so it’s easy to take them for granted. But there’s no legal substitute for the regular fix of great photography they provide. Don’t take my word for it; I’m obviously besotted beyond all reason. Just pick up an issue and look. And keep looking.