According to a recent article in the Art Newspaper, social media and the popularity of photo-sharing networks like Instagram are fueling a boom in audiences for photography exhibitions. But does that mean the future of museum shows depends on cat porn and selfies? Fans of Justin Bieber, the first Instagram user to generate 1 million likes for a photo, say yes. Art-historical sense says it’s time to rethink what photography means today.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photography department has been busy over the past few years doing precisely that. Curator Douglas Eklund, for one, has done a better job than just about anyone of shining art’s critical light on the limitations and possibilities of the zeitgeist; the shows “Long May You Shoot,” “Hidden in Plain Sight,” and “The Street” are textbook examples of how to make contemporary art historical and vice versa. But the institution’s latest survey belongs to another curator. Mia Fineman, who in 2012 organized “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” presents a similar sleight-of-hand approach in a new display about what the camera usually misses. “Now You See It: Photography and Concealment” may cut a modest swath, but it consistently punches above its weight class.
An installation of 24 photographs and a single video inside the Met’s Joyce and Robert Menschel gallery, “Now You See It” gives the lie to the old saw that photography documents the truth without chucking in the towel on the camera’s perennial search for honesty. The exhibition ropes together a crafty group of photographers and photo-artists from across the ages. Starting with Pierre-Louis Pierson’s late-19th-century masked portrait of the Countess of Castiglione — the Kim Kardashian of her age, she was photographed by Pierson more than 700 times — the show moves seamlessly into the present tense with Mishka Henner’s Google Earth shot of a digitally camouflaged top-secret Dutch government location. What comes through in “Now You See It” is a brief alternative history of the medium. Far from a top-down hierarchy of “decisive moments,” the exhibition reveals photography as the perfect tool to portray the unseen, the obscured, and the partially hidden.
Consider Thomas Demand’s Vault (2012): A remarkably layered image depicting a studio reconstruction of a police photograph that had recently appeared in the news media, Demand’s large color print reframes an infamous storeroom full of stolen Nazi art that exposed the art world’s shady dealings. (The Wildenstein Institute in Paris was found to contain more than 30 such artworks when raided in 2011 by les flics.) The fact that the facsimiles of framed paintings — including works by Degas, Manet, and Morisot — are depicted turned against the wall, as they appeared in the source image, clues the viewer in to how the camera outlines the limits of the visible, even as it traces the contours of this tricky faux-reality.
While several photographs in the exhibition portray the idea of concealment literally — Weegee’s snaps of paddy-wagon perps covering their faces with top hats; Helen Levitt’s photos of city children playing hide-and-seek — others reveal what’s normally hidden. Such is the case with Vera Lutter’s Pepsi Cola Interior II: July 6-13, 2000. An enormous negative print the artist made by constructing a huge pinhole camera inside a derelict bottling plant in Queens, the image exhibits photography’s peculiar demiurgic tendency: Lutter created the print via a week-long exposure, literally scoring darkness with light. Elsewhere, Miguel Rio Branco’s A Touch of Evil (1994) and an untitled 2012 photo from Fredi Casco’s “Foto Zombie” series turn images inside out like a sock. The first portrays the seamy underside of a classical tapestry; the second traces its politically loaded subject matter on the photo’s verso in pencil.
Floating like an éminence grise above “Now You See It” is Diane Arbus, whose photographs remain the gold standard for picturing lasting strangeness. “I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them,” Arbus famously said. Her portraits of a middle-aged nudist couple and of a man playing at being a woman by tucking his junk between his legs expose the abiding allure of hiding. That’s a fundamental gift viral images will never achieve, no matter how many millions “like” them.