Photography aficionados, who couldn’t help but be disappointed by the scant attention given to the medium in this year’s Whitney Biennial, can take comfort in a spring season dominated by important, intelligent, and immensely popular photo shows. When new exhibitions by Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky, and Vik Muniz opened on the same night recently, the streets of Chelsea were thronged and buzzing. And Chelsea’s not the only hot spot: Martin Parr is showing in Soho, Jeff Wall on 57th Street, and Hiroshi Sugimoto up on Madison Avenue. But the excitement isn’t confined to a few international art stars. Since January, in shows all over town, new and established artists from Joel Sternfeld, Anna Gaskell, and Loretta Lux to Andrea Modica, Thomas Demand, and Zwelethu Mthethwa have already made 2004 a great year for photography, and there’s much more to come (see box).
With the spread of photography from a few specialized galleries to virtually every white box in the art world over the past two decades, the medium has enjoyed a level of visibility its early champions could never have imagined. At the moment, the sheer variety of work on display is particularly remarkable. “Fashioning Fiction,” the Museum of Modern Art’s first show of fashion photography, gathers work by Cindy Sherman, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tina Barney, Steven Meisel, Mario Sorrenti, and a handful of others to highlight the hectic exchange between art and commerce in the 1990s. Shows of vintage fashion work by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (at Keith de Lellis) and Frank Horvat (at Janos Gat) help put that exchange in perspective. Magnum, the photojournalist agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour, is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Capa’s death with 21 gallery and museum shows designed to demonstrate its members’ extraordinary range and depth. Bruce Davidson’s gorgeously gritty color shots of New York subway riders in the ’80s are at Howard Greenberg alongside some of Capa’s lesser-known photos from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Werner Bischof, another key player in Magnum’s early history, who also died in 1954, is the subject of an unusually sensitive and frequently surprising retrospective at Bruce Silverstein, while the Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery gives Australian Trent Parke’s eerily charged underwater dreamscapes their first New York exposure. With “Magnum’s New Yorkers” up at the Museum of the City of New York and “Magnum Style” down at Staley Wise, it would seem the agency has the town covered right now, but it’s got plenty of competition.
Perhaps the toughest is from Weegee, who practiced photojournalism at its most basic and brutal on the sidewalks of New York—that’s where the dead bodies fell. More than 200 of his vintage ’40s and ’50s photos are at Ubu, and they couldn’t offer a starker contrast to Magnum’s refined humanist sensibilities. Weegee was no concerned photographer; he was a cold-blooded newspaperman with the instincts of a shark and a nasty sense of humor. His pictures of murder victims, car crashes, criminals in handcuffs, and movie stars are brilliantly artless, anticipating Warhol’s deadpan take on life, death, and celebrity. But it wasn’t all cynicism on the rocks. One of the many nighttime shots at Ubu is of nothing but a white line painted down the middle of an empty cobblestone street. Suggesting less a way out than a dead end, it’s the perfect final frame for that noir movie Weegee constructed frame by frame.
But those international art stars are what give the scene its current spark of hot-wire electricity, and none of them disappoint. Jeff Wall, at Marian Goodman, is still super-sizing his light-box transparencies, but his staged images are less operatic, less obviously contrived, and his still lifes (a bloody rag, a grimy wall, a ragged hole in wooden siding) are no less fraught and ominous for their cool restraint. Though the show’s tour de force—a broad, elevated view of two men at an anthropological dig in British Columbia—feels almost reportorial, Wall’s eye for detail and instinct for narrative compression give it an unnervingly subtle tension. Like so much of his work, this one might be nothing more than a moment of ordinary ennui, or it could be a crime scene in the making.
Andreas Gursky, in his first American gallery show since his knockout 2001 survey at MOMA, brings 10 drop-dead-spectacular new pieces to Matthew Marks. As usual, Gursky’s range of material is almost dauntingly encyclopedic and includes a Madonna concert, an umbrella-covered beach, a rattan-weaving factory in Vietnam, and cattle ranches in Japan and Texas. Almost always seen from on high and from an oddly flattened perspective, Gursky’s subjects are at once hyper-real and unbelievable. But there’s no denying the haunting presence of men peering from their cells at a prison in Illinois or the matter-of-fact confluence of obscenity and beauty at a trash dump in Mexico, where plastic bags float in the dead white sky like lost birds. Are these documents or indictments? Gursky is too savvy to provide an easy answer.
Vik Muniz, who has been turning odd bits of the material world into astonishing trompe l’oeil photos with almost frightening regularity, brings a series of huge still lifes to Brent Sikkema. Modeled after paintings by Cézanne, Morandi, Gauguin, Fantin-Latour, and others, they’re meticulously arranged accumulations of paper circles that have been hole-punched from the pages of magazines. Never merely witty, these “Pictures of Magazines” are homages, appropriations, and inventions all at once. Though Muniz is pushing scale to its limit here, he’s always in control of his eccentric palette and supremely confident when it comes to negotiating the tightrope between art and entertainment. Cindy Sherman knows how to keep her balance on that high wire too. For her new show at Metro Pictures, she’s dressed up as a whole host of clowns, and clearly enjoys exploring the dark side of these comic figures. Digitally inserting herself into the same picture several times, she’s alternately playful and menacing, daffy and demented. The garish, often massive results are crowd-pleasing but hardly ingratiating. Sherman’s circus is also a freak show. The fun house is closed.