Pity the poor critic tasked with reviewing “reGeneration,” a lively yet vexing survey of 50 emerging photographers on view at the Aperture Foundation.
Now, if someone organized a show called “Fifty Old Photographers of Yesterday,” I’d be pretty interested. After all, the past is as mysterious as tomorrow; the stories museums spin about it are mostly convenient fictions; and as far as photography’s concerned, I’m still recovering from the insights of the 19th century. Living inside the art world’s center, where next is always best, one feels the pull of yesterday’s dusty corners—they’re pockets of resistance to the daily onslaught of novelty and forgetfulness.
Still, you can’t blame these curators for trying, even if their vision of tomorrow turns out, a quarter of a century hence, to appear as quaintly anachronistic as the 1964 World’s Fair grounds look today. Corporate sponsorship once burnished that image of the future to a bright shine, whereas these young photographers (many with talent to burn) present a world often filled with foreboding. They were culled from a pool of candidates submitted by over 60 art schools from around the globe. Ranging in age from 23 to 40 and coming from countries as diverse as Greenland, South Africa, and China, they’re an art-historically informed, technologically sophisticated, and self-conscious bunch.
Color, in their work, is nearly ubiquitous. Some make meta-photographs, like Harvard-educated Carlin Wing, whose deadpan shots of iconic images by the likes of Nan Goldin hanging in corporate conference rooms suggest art’s afterlife as a forlorn and ghostly presence in the corridors of business. Some investigate the no-man’s-land of media empires, like Japanese photographer Shigeru Tanako, whose pictures of television studios show eerily luminous and self-enclosed spaces, shrines at once all-powerful and vacuous. Many of these photographers are interested in the very young. But the children in Nicolas Prior’s melancholic pictures look lost amid their adult surroundings, the adorable baby in Marla Rutherford’s candy-colored diptych faces a dominatrix, and Charlotte Player’s Sarajevo slackers find their teenage years hemmed in by the memory of war.
Quite a few of these artists divide their time between the camera and the computer. Their pervasive fascination with digital’s transformative possibilities also (and ironically) recalls the yearnings of fin de siécle pictorialist photographers for the freedom of the paintbrush. What seemed radically modern about the camera back then, at least in the hands of an ostensible non-artist like August Sander, was its ability to liberate what Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious”—a psychological truth set free, like a gas, in the chemical reaction between machine and soul.
What are we to call, in contrast, the profound uneasiness that radiates from Eva Lauterlein’s cyborgian depictions of individuals whom she has photographed from every possible angle, reassembling their fragments afterward through morphing software? The technique, in her hands, creates strange ciphers nearly divested of identity, like personalities analyzed to death. Even someone like Raphael Hefti, who inherits Sander’s documentary tradition via the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher, chooses as his social point of focus the made-up faces of department store beauticians, straining against the realities of aging flesh.
Death, of course, has a way of breaking through fragile tissues of illusion and fantasy. In Mieke van de Voort’s haunting interiors from the series “People Who Died Alone,” lives are reduced to their most literal embodiment—the stuff that surrounds us at the moment of our demise.
“ReGeneration,” like any image of the future, reflects mostly present preoccupations. (Is there any reason, for example, other than unconscious curatorial bias, for one-fifth of the world’s most promising young photographers to hail from Switzerland?) My own review is no exception—I’ve left out a host of anomalous talents to tell a story that applies most closely to photographers from Europe and North America. And let’s not forget that great photographers of the past, like Eugene Atget or Carlton Watkins, didn’t necessarily set out to be artists—they were harnessing the camera to document a changing reality.
The future, it turns out, is a story impossible to tell. We’ll just have to live it.