I grew up in Miami in the 1980s. “Beach” has a very distinct meaning for me: body oil, potato chips, neon smears of zinc oxide. Basically, a hazy public square veneered with general tackiness. Apparently, however, there are other kinds of beaches: isolated and clean; rocky and Soviet; grassy and suited to an Edith Wharton-style romance (white linen, straw hats, picnic baskets devoid of Pringles). All are on display, in works that represent more than 100 years of photographic processes and representation, in The Deep Element: Photography at the Beach, on now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. If your idea of the beach is like mine, you’ll find the show an unexpectedly classy affair.
Organized by Kaitlin Booher, the Corcoran’s assistant curator of photography and media arts, The Deep Element comprises fifty-one works drawn primarily from the gallery’s own collection. It is organized chronologically and into broad aesthetic categories: abstraction, colour, large format, snapshot. But Booher graciously keeps these borders fluid, and in allowing different kinds of work from different times to “speak” to one other, subtler themes emerge: the beach as site of voyeurism and exhibitionism; beach imagery and nostalgia and fantasy; Brighton Beach. Were historical similarities the only concerns, Sally Mann’s quasi-religious portrait of her husband and one of her young daughters — topless, swathed in a cover-up, perched on a flutterboard that glows white against the muted greys of water and sky — would not hang next to Robert Frank’s “Mary Frank and Children with Sparklers,” which similarly connects familial harmony, even bliss, with the seaside. Insinuated by proximity into Mann’s world, the tenderness and earnestness in Frank’s photograph become even more apparent — exciting, as these qualities are not normally associated with the work of the quintessential documentarian of American mid-century unease.
Massimo Vitali, Rosignano 3 Women, 1995, color coupler (chromogenic) print; Courtesy Massimo Vitali
Generally, however, the photographers represented here do what they do: Edward Weston and Minor White, concentrating on the finest details, draw sensuality from natural forms; W. Eugene Smith, in an image of trenches crudely drawn in the sand, as though by a heel, portrays dynamism, aggression, and the sense of some spiritual beyond all at once; with Rosignano 3 Women, Massimo Vitali gives us a vast, sun-bleached Italian beach scene, paradisiacal at first glance but thereafter increasingly ominous for its iconography (is that a nuclear plant in the background?) and blanched, almost monochromatic colour palette that makes the three planes of the photograph — sea, land, and sky — appear on the verge of swallowing one another.
The stand-out in the show, local boy Frank Hallam Day’s Airstream 19331, takes up an entire wall in the second of the exhibition’s two rooms. It needs it; in scale and virtuosity it recalls the grand works of French academic painting, though my first thought on seeing it was of Henri Rousseau. In the work, an RV peeks out of lush, tropical underbrush like one of the painter’s tigers, the whole scene, shot at night, illuminated such that the composition becomes not just fantastic but uncanny. (The photograph pertains to Day’s Alumascapes series, for which he won Leica’s prestigious Oskar Barnack Prize just last week.)
Andy Warhol, Jon Gould, n.d. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, 2008; © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
For me, the greatest pleasure of this small but excellent exhibition was in seeing how so many canonical photographers, from Frances Frith to Andy Warhol, approached the beach as a subject. Visitors with little knowledge of photography won’t find much to help them situate the works in the medium’s history or a given photographer’s career; labels are decidedly basic, and the wall text is brief and attends to the show’s theme more than the photographs selected as treatments of it. But if The Deep Element is lacking in didactic value, it might be that Booher considered it unecessary; who wants to learn at the beach?
(Image on top right: Garry Winogrand, 1979 Venice, California, 1979, Gelatin silver print, 9 x 13 3/8 inches; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)