The quantity, caliber and diversity of photography exhibitions in New York City this fall is remarkable. For students of the medium a curriculum could be developed and if I were tasked with building the syllabus I would start with the youngest generation and click backwards. Geographically speaking, that would mean beginning in the Lower East Side, passing through Chelsea and a few uptown galleries, before concluding at the Metropolitan Museum. Is it coincidence that the exhibitions become increasingly historical as one moves uptown? Perhaps. In the course I’d plot, heading north would be the equivalent of ticking back in time.
The most contemporary practitioners unsurprisingly utilize the most contemporary tools. For Lucas Blalock and Penelope Umbrico Photoshop is indispensible. It looks like it should be for John Houck as well, but his visual distotions are actually produced with analog techniques even though he shoots with a digital camera. I think of these young image-tweakers as the New Mannerists because intellectual sophistication and conspicuous artificiality are strong characteristics of their work. Content tends towards the everyday and familiar though it is typically made uncanny through varied processes of digital manipulation and presentation. For example, all the objects in John Houck’s new work Peg and John (2013) are easily identifiable, but if you try and locate a plane of focus or path of light the composition suddenly seems untenable and strange, like a flat map of a spherical thing.
John Houck, "Peg and John", C-print, 2013; Courtesy of On Stellar Rays.
Up in Chelsea the dominant photo trend remains what it was prior to the advent of digital darkrooms, which is not to say the work is completely analog. It just looks as if it might be. Here we find serial projects by Edward Burtynsky, Philip Lorca diCorcia and Pieter Hugo. These photographers turn out large luscious prints of people, places and objects in a style that is essentially documentary in nature. Unlike the New Mannerists whose work is rooted in a studio practice, the documentary sect still goes out in the world to photograph their subject matter. Social engagement is key. For Burtynsky’s new series, “Water,” the focus is on the global water supply; for Hugo’s “Kin” it’s the legacy of colonialism in South Africa. DiCorcia’s “Hustlers” project, which zeroes in on prostitutes, is actually from the nineties.
In the uptown galleries we switch from color photography to black and white, like the Wizard of Oz in reverse. However, the two exhibitions I’d stop in to see, “Robert Rauschenberg and Photography” at Pace/MacGill and “Man Ray Printmaker” at Francis Naumann, present a conceptual loop in our schematic program. Both Robert Rauschenberg and Man Ray made prints with chemical processes, pushing their work one level further into the past. However their experimental sensibility makes them more akin to the New Mannerists than the Documentarians. This is especially true of Rauschenberg whose focus on materiality, process, and assemblage is a strong precedent for the work of the youngest generation. The Man Ray exhibition is a quirky one, highlighting his efforts as a printmaker. Here we see what happened when one of the most innovative photographers of his time put his negatives in the service of cliché verres, a technique that combines etching and dark room processing. It was cutting edge in the 19th century.
Julia Margaret Cameron, "Sir John Herschel," Albumen-silver print, 1867; Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Finally, we would arrive at the Metropolitan museum for the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition. Here we come to a point of origin for both threads we’ve been following. Cameron’s style of portraiture brings us back to the root of documentary photography insofar as she was shooting from life, but it also foreshadows a Mannerist mentality in its willful disregard for the purely descriptive image. She wasn’t after photo-realism; she wanted her albumen-silver prints to capture something more than the surface qualities of her sitters. To do so she experimented in ways that many of her contemporaries found highly unorthodox. Among the photographs on display we might take a moment to appreciate the portrait of Cameron’s friend, Sir John Herschel, who coined the term “photography” back in the 1830s.
This is only a sampling of the excellent photography exhibitions on the horizon. I’ve left out shows by Leslie Hewitt, Elad Lassry, Irving Penn, Robert Polidori, Rinko Kawauchi, Susan Derges, William John Kennedy, Lucas Michael, and Joshua Citarella. These exhibitions make up the expanded syllabus and would no doubt broaden the scope of the NYC fall photo curriculum.
(Image on top: Edward Burtynsky, "Cerro Prieto Geothermal Power Station, Baja Mexico," Chromogenic Color Print, 2012 ; Courtesy of Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery.)