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Archive for the ‘photography’ Category

Concerning Photographic Evidence

Posted by gninja on September 26, 2007

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( Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.)

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(Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.)

Since the invention of the Daguerrotype, the status of photographs as objective depictions of nature has been debated.  So common was the belief that the camera was just an eye that photography had a rough time of it achieving the status of art.

And even though art historians and curators now express the general consensus that photographs are just as imbued with intention and subjectivity as the other fine arts, there still is some lingering fascination with the notion of photo as evidence.

To wit.  A recent opinion piece in the NY Times regarding the two photos above. The photographs, taken by Roger Fenton in April 1855, outside Sebastopol show the same landscape differing only in the absence and presence of cannon balls in the road. The author of the Times’ article went on a journalistic adventure, sleuthing about to determine which of the photos was taken first. His article spills some more ink over an issue that is already drenched in it.

Unsurprisingly, the author arrives at no conclusion and instead extends an invitation for the NY Times readers to compile their own “evidence” and make a case.

I was reminded a lot of Billy Kluver’s book A Day with Picasso,  the kind of art historical detective work a man like Dan Brown could really go for.  In the book, Kluver pieces together into their “original” sequence a series of 24 photos taken by Jacques Cocteau on a day out with Picasso and pals.

Fun, I guess.

But these sorts of endeavors conceal the calculated (and subjective) nature of the photograph, preferring instead to establish some kind of reality, ferret out some kind documentary quality from the images.  Sure, the photos by Cocteau were taken in a particular order– that’s how the day goes.  But why insist upon recreating that order? Why impose a narrative upon an un-ordered collection of images?

And I would ask the same question regarding Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death images.   I’m more interested in the existence of two photographs taken by Fenton (apparently, he did not often take more than one photograph in the same location). How does the juxtaposition of the two make a commentary about war? The very ambiguity of their order may be a deliberate mode of forcing the viewer to confront his or her own suppositions. I think we do an injustice to the photographer by assuming that he wanted only one of these to be the “actual” display photograph.  Which is what much of the debate around these sound like (though no one comes out and makes that supposition explicit)– i.e. “which photo did Fenton mean for realsies?”

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Posted in art, art history, photography | 1 Comment »

Rudolf Stingel and Having to Be There: Participation

Posted by gninja on July 26, 2007

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At the Whitney right now is an exhibition of works by Rudolf Stingel. (I have to admit–and I’m chalking this up to my being a medievalist–I’d never heard of Stingel before. But apparently, he [an import to the NY art scene from Italy] made a hit debut in 1991 with a great big orange carpet, and has been, as far as I can gather, a darling to the critics ever since.)

You can find reviews of his current Whitney exhibition here and here. In short, it’s the best exhibition I’ve been to in a long, long while. It epitomized for me why I go to a museum because it gave me what cannot be replicated elsewhere or in any other format.

From the Whitney website:

Employing such materials as rubber, carpet, painted aluminum, Styrofoam, and paint, Rudolf Stingel’s work questions and disrupts the viewer’s understanding and experience of an art object. Although Stingel’s work does not always involve paint on canvas, it continually reflects upon some of the fundamental questions concerning painting today, including authenticity, hierarchy, meaning, and context. While Stingel, who was shown in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, has created major installations for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and numerous other institutions, this is his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, surveying his career to date and including a new site-specific work.

Despite how much I was enamored of this show–and the experience of experiencing it– it has some shortcomings that are not so much a product of the exhibition as the result of its seductions.

The show includes several large rooms, each one devoted to between one and three works. But because of the relationship between the works and the gallery space, each room has the feeling of an installation, or I might even venture, a performance. The first room (pictured above) elicited some variation on “ooh” and “ah” from every person entering the room. It’s simply a large room with walls covered from floor to ceiling in aluminum foil panels, illuminated by a massive, somewhat low-hung chandelier glowing with soft warm light. Like entering the Tin Man’s ballroom. Unfortunately, I had approached from the stairwell, but I can imagine the effect of entering the room unaware of what would be in there would have been all the more exciting had I taken the elevator. Very theatrical.

I soon learned that the aluminum foil was actually a medium on which the museum-goers were invited to draw, place stickers and buttons or whatever else they had on hand. Some of the panels were transports from the same exhibition at the MCA, thus retaining a local flavor outside of its locale. It was a bit strange to see some shout-outs to Chicago in a museum in NY.

Clearly, this DIY aspect of the show went down well with the critics, though I thought it was the weakest part of the exhibition. Aside from the obvious criticism–that the invitation for musuem-goers to participate is gimicky– it detracted from what would otherwise have been an overwhelming experience of dislocation. Not only was the opulent and sumptuous effect of the room unexpected in the context of the Whitney museum, but it was also achieved through the use of an everyday item (aluminum foil) juxtaposed with a luxuriant lighting piece (the chandelier). The marks made by visitors, while fun, lessened the extravagant impression created by the use of these two strikingly different materials.

At the same time, Profiling, the other current exhibition at the Whitney which I discussed in a previous post reveals the shortcomings of the use of audience participation in Stingel’s show. Whereas the pieces in Profiling required the participation of museum-goers in order to communicate a very pointed and topical message (the simultaneous allurement and threat of omnipresent surveillance), the participation requested in Stingel’s exhibition lacked any sort of direction or, to be blunt about it, point. It seemed more an appeal to the increasing self-absorption of us these days, due to which it’s presumed we lack the attention span for anything not directly related to us. And rightly so. For chrissakes, each of the three headlining exhibitions at the Whitney now allow some form of participation (the Summer of Love one includes a kind of carpeted love cave in which people are allowed to cavort; picture the adult version of waiting in line for a carnival moon walk / bouncy castle, and you’ve got the right idea).

In any case, sometimes participation works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Stingel’s aluminum walls, I’d say it merely amounts to a questioning of the author of a work of art.  Something which is neither new nor underdiscussed (if you’ve got access to JSTOR, just search in the art history journals for collaborative art or audience participation and art, and you’ll see what I mean).

Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, graffiti, museums, new york, photography, portrait | 1 Comment »

Photo Op: White House Unveils New Press Room

Posted by gninja on July 11, 2007

I realize this is more of a BAGnewsNotes kind of post, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get my NY Times rant on.  This was their web page over-the-fold image for the unveiling of the new press room (polishing brass on the Titanic, aren’t they over there at the White House, eh?):

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The photo selected by a NY Times staffer is of some lady vacuuming, while an aide (or whatever kind of be-suited guy looks on, latte in hand).  I can’t decide whether this is sheer brilliance or just stupid.  If it’s the former, it portrays the current administration as a wealthy white man’s club, where African-American ladies keep things tidy.  Fair’s fair: since W wants to liken himself to our founding fathers, then this is an apt image for the role he so wants to play.  It also begs the question: where is the guy (or Snow) anyway?  Is there now, along with the new door that obstructs reporters’ view of people coming into the room, a policy against photographs while Bush is present?  I don’t know.

In any case, I’m not so sure that the individual who chose to put up this photo had these things in mind.  Or if s/he did whether the messages I think it conveys would be read by most people checking in over at the website.  People rarely linger too much over news photos, much less pick out things they communicate.  Which is why I think every kid should be taught art history in school.  Shame there’re no multiple choice tests for it, otherwise No Child Left Behind would definitely make sure it was standard curriculum material.

Did I mention BAGnewsNotes?  Go see BAGnewsNotes.

Posted in journalism, photography, politics | 1 Comment »