Photography is not just the act of taking pictures with a nearly two-century-old invention; it’s a way of understanding the world. No longer just a paper and emulsion record of the way we live — goodbye Kodak, hello Instagram! — today’s hyped-up version churns out images ceaselessly and recklessly, like a stoned Artie Lange at Christmas dinner.
Begging Susan Sontag’s pardon, it really is now, and not during the flashbulb 1970s, that everything exists to end in a photograph. The iPhone, among other advanced gadgetry, fills the world with more reproductions than people ever thought possible. The fact that our surroundings are constantly being mediated by images, ranging from our own photos to those produced by pesky Google street-view cars, has in due course become one of contemporary photography’s most popular bugaboos.
The commonplace nature of this eye-opening quandary — that photography is constantly testing itself — is the subject of a terrific exhibition of pictures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Titled “Everyday Epiphanies: Photography and Daily Life Since 1969,” this modestly scaled show of 36 photographs and four videos traces the recent development of this omnipresent medium. Chiefly, it explains what happened after certain nettlesome artists realized mechanical and digital reproduction itself was the best tool available to pry open photography’s big box of magic tricks.
Starting with what pop historian Rob Kirkpatrick called the “year that everything changed,” “Everyday Epiphanies” examines the development of photography after 1969, an era marked by the medium’s openness to explorations of its own basic documentary and truth-telling functions. Set out in the manner of an insightful visual essay rather than an exhaustive argument or polemic by the Met’s photography curator, Douglas Eklund, the show chronicles photography’s drift through what may be termed early, late, and terminal postmodernity.
“Everyday Epiphanies” features photographs that are studiedly self-conscious, either by choice of subject or in their approach to the medium’s conventions. Consider, for instance, William Wegman’s print of two images of the same table knife. Combined with text that identifies one as “sharp” and the other one as “dull,” its perceptual, Magritte-like message is expressed drolly by selective focusing, rendering one knife blurry and the other crisp. Another photograph to use flatfooted imagery to test the boundaries of photography’s limits is John Baldessari’s Hands Framing New York Harbor (1971). A black-and-white picture that literally represents its title, the photo also apes the all-important framing function of the camera with the ultimate analog technology: the artist’s fingers.
A similar and more recent example of hard-edged conceptual photography is Erica Baum’s Buzzard (2009). An image of several pages of text folded into each other, the print not only flattens out the expressive possibilities of picture-making into a welter of unreadable ideas, it also goes a ways to making explicit our current data glut. Baum’s digital inkjet print also finds earlier machine-era echoes in a piece by the California conceptualist Larry Sultan. A color image of the artist’s father with everything but his hands obscured by the New York Times business section, My Father Reading the Newspaper (1989) displays sheets of reproduced information as an effectively obscuring rather than revealing barrier.
But not all of “Everyday Epiphanies” sounds the same paranoid, Adjustment Bureau note. In fact, much of the show is given over to two particularly lyrical artists. The first, celebrated shutterbug Stephen Shore — once Andy Warhol’s in-house photographer — is represented by a selection of colorful, everything-and-the-motel-sink “drugstore prints” he made during a single cross-country road trip in 1972. And then there are Gabriel Orozco’s 1990s photos of his own ephemeral sculptures. A pile of sand on the table, a curled-up potato bug, a shoebox in the snow — each of these images defies conventional hierarchies, while presenting photography not as unvarnished truth or power, but as a source of mysterious, small-bore revelations. One of the show’s takeaways is that you have to sift through a lot of Artie Lange’s Instagram garbage to find them.