By the end of World War II, the photographic image had become ubiquitous in everyday American life. Photographs were commonplace in the tabloid press, for example, and in large-format news magazines like Look and Life, where they took precedence over text. The fine art photograph, however, as opposed to the commercial, scientific, or family photograph, was primarily an expression of the artist’s vision, not a simple record of an event. Just as a “focal point” in photography indicates an area of sharp focus, Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950, on view in MMoCA’s main galleries from May 18 through September 1, concentrates on important thematic interests of American photographers in the last sixty years. These themes—American Road Trip, City and Suburb, Fantasy, Nature, The Body, Rural America, and We the People—cut across the decades and are not limited by school, formal styles, technique, or critical discourse. What unites them is their visualization and expression of American identity.
The unusual as subject, a deep vein in American photography, is evident in Whoosis (1975), a vibrant, hand-colored black-and-white photograph by Karen Truax. A young woman masks her face with a large heart-shape leaf from a Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree. With one eye peering through a hole in the leaf, she is transformed into a leaf creature—the metamorphosis all the more arresting with Truax’s vivid coloration of green leaf, blue eye, and scarlet red lips and nail polish. Concocting a surrealist riddle out of ordinary things, the photographer has created a fantastical “whoosis,” someone whose name one does not know or cannot recall.
More down to earth or rather, up in the air, is Martin Kersel’s color triptych, Tossing a Friend (Melinda) (1, 2, and 3), created in 1996. Kersels is a Los Angeles-based artist who applies the principles of performance to his photography, audio works, and sculpture. With great abandon, and against a background of blossoming lilacs, he appears both to catapult a young girl away from himself and to catch her. His actions, caught time-lapse-style in three consecutive moments, celebrate the joy of being temporarily free from all physical constraint. In keeping with aspects of contemporary art since the 1980s, Kersels explores the body as an emblem of personal identity—here with typically American high spirits.
In addition to photographs by Truax and Kersels, Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950 presents over 100 works from the museum’s permanent collection by American photographers of regional, national, and international reputations. Among the artists represented are Michael Abramson, Diane Arbus, Cecilia Condit, John Coplans, Vernon Fisher, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, O. Winston Link, Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michaels, Eva Rubinstein, Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth, Minor White, Garry Winogrand, and Ida Wyman.