Some of the most exciting things in art during the ’80s and ’90s happened in photography. Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and others raided advertising, borrowing large-scale saturated-color prints, light-box displays, and digital manipulation and creating works that mimicked—even trumped, occasionally—the grand tradition of easel painting. The dazzling effects of high-tech photography mirrored an era of economic excess. But when Wall’s retrospective landed at MOMA in 2007 and Gursky’s show limped into Matthew Marks this fall, times had changed. Mainstream art photography felt exhausted: What was left to be done?
One avenue was already being explored: Retreat back to the 19th century. Make daguerreotypes (like Chuck Close), revive the collodion process (à la Sally Mann), or explore the world of spirit photography, seances, and other “magical” events.
The post-Gursky/Crewdson era has evoked other responses, though. Paul Graham’s current show at MOMA offers a novel solution, joining the social documentary of photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, or Robert Frank with the stagey narrative setups of Wall and Crewdson—a union that would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago when photographers were particularly suspicious about photography’s ability to deliver any kind of evidentiary “truth.”
Between 2004 and 2006, Graham, a Brit who moved to the U.S. in 2002, revisited the great American photographers’ rite of passage: the road trip, captured most famously by Robert Frank in his 1958 book The Americans, which included a preface by Jack Kerouac. Graham’s photographs were published in 2007, but in a form that consciously challenges the photographic book convention: 12 slim volumes with different colored covers. At MOMA, pigmented inkjet prints mounted in white frames are displayed in a similarly unorthodox way. A “work” might consist of one photo or nine, arranged in nonlinear fashion on the wall.
The nonlinear part gets tricky since, as Graham well knows, any time you stick a few photos on the wall—even one photo, as Wall and Crewdson discovered—you create the suggestion of narrative. But what exactly is happening in these photos of a man mowing a lawn in Pittsburgh, a man and a girl playing basketball at dusk in Texas, and someone huddled near a trash can outside a Jack in the Box in California? The answer: everything and nothing. America is falling apart; poverty and homelessness persist. But life goes on. A series of images taken in 2005, the same year as Katrina, shows people in New Orleans going about their business on a sunny day outside a strip mall. It’s not made clear—in fact, it seems to be consciously not clear—whether these were taken before or after Katrina.
Graham’s photos are stubbornly vague, but they ask tough questions: What does it mean to photograph the poor? What do viewers bring to images? Can there be any truth in photography? Actually, I suspect that his images are better fodder for writers than for general viewers—MOMA visitors, at least when I was there, seemed to spend very little time with them.
The same visitors might have been more riveted by the dazzling work downtown in “A Twilight Art” at Harris Lieberman. Here, a different lineage of photography is under investigation. The curators—artist Lisa Oppenheim and gallerist Jessie Washburne-Harris—say in the press release that the work deals with “photographic process and media specificity” and looks “beyond what is within photographs to the way photographs are made.” In other words, they’re thinking about the past and the future.
The past would be modernism, when critics like Clement Greenberg obsessed over “media specificity” and, even earlier, artists like Aleksandr Rodchenko, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray treated the new-ish medium of photography as a tool for revolution, aesthetic utopianism, or dada-surrealist titillation.
The work here nods heavily to modernism. Armando Andrade Tudela’s huge black-and-white solarized photogram—that is, a camera-less photograph made by exposing photographic paper to light—looks very much like one of Man Ray’s rayographs or Moholy-Nagy’s photograms from the 1920s. Matt Saunders and Markus Amm follow a similar trajectory, except that their black-and-white camera-less works mimic abstract painting as much as photography. Walead Beshty’s high-saturation cibachromes echo Moholy-Nagy’s color photos from the ’30s, as do Carter Mull’s abstract C-print and Barbara Kasten’s photos with reflecting glass and mirrors.
Other works use photography as a vehicle for touring modernist painting: Josh Brand’s purple-and-blue geometrically abstract camera-less C-print; Anthony Pearson and Liz Deschenes’s abstract, striated photographs; Tauba Auerbach’s pointillist field of static photographed from a television screen; Oppenheim’s series of monochromes (actually close-ups of a developing Polaroid taken at 20-second intervals).
Then there’s the recent past of postmodernism, represented in Allan McCollum’s work from the ’80s (an abstract black-and-white photo of a TV screen), Sarah Charlesworth’s photos of paint arranged to depict classic models of color theory, and early-’80s work by Kasten. Anne Collier’s photograph of a photograph (of an eye) staring back at the viewer from a developing tray functions like neo-postmodernism by recalling the conceptual tricks of Louise Lawler or Sherrie Levine.
And what about the future? It seems present in both Graham’s show and “A Twilight Art”—mostly in the form of anxiety. Graham is a perfect foil for the German and North American photo-conceptualists who captured the recent gilded age: a photographer in the new age of austerity doing self-conscious, self-styled social critique. At Harris Lieberman, anxiety seeps to the formal level, with artists revisiting the past to craft retro-futurist images. What was it, these images make you wonder, that modernism and postmodernism failed to deliver?
The future is always uncertain—but particularly now, and for photography. Analogue film (as in 35mm) has been pushed by digital media to the brink of extinction. In late December, Fred Ritchin published a book, After Photography, that explores “imaging” (as some people call post-photography) in the digital era. I haven’t read it yet. But these two shows feel like ruminations in the realm suggested by that title.