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Group Exhibition
Bibliothèque nationale de France - François-Mitterrand
Quai François-Mauriac , 75002 Paris, France
October 29, 2008 - January 25, 2009

Social Commentary in a Snapshot
by Kate Lemay

Seventies, le choc de la photographie américaine showcases 320 works by major photographers from the seventies, presenting to a French audience the liberal, raunchy and sometimes shocking American culture from this era. The so-called “choc/shock” begins with one room devoted to the “pioneers,” whose socially committed photographs reveals raw, unsophisticated edges of American culture during the 1930s. There, Walker Evans’ influential photographs of the American Depression dating from 1936 are organized in a set of six, including the tragic figure of an Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife, Steel Workers from New York, and somewhat ironically, a farmer’s market stand with an overabundance of melons. Other American scene photographs include Robert Frank’s Trolley, New Orleans, with the sad and lonely glimpse of segregated American life in the 1950s. Rather unfortunately, all of these photographs are presented as a kind of golden rule or example of truth; no questioning of the photographic lens or intention of the photographer is encouraged. Instead, these pioneering photographs educate the viewer on the power of social commentary in the snapshot and are presented to serve as the spring board for the work of the seventies.

In the first room of the seventies, the viewer is welcomed into a section of portraits by Diane Arbus’ disturbing portraits, including her explorations of the abject body with Woman in Curlers, Triplets and several on nudists. The imperfect bodies and strange presentation of people that Arbus is so well known have as their perfect compliment Mary Ellen Mark’s series of deranged or sick people. On the wall, Mark’s work logically follows that by Jeffrey K. Silverthorne, whose disturbing collection of junkies are demoralizing yet important glimpses of the addict’s nightmarish world. Don’t miss his most disturbing portrait of a woman whose body is held together by huge stitches from the navel through the sternum and then continuing to each breast, Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. The theme of abjection weaves together the next two rooms, presented categorically as Wild Side, highlighting Larry Clark’s voyeurism of difficult realities such as junkies and violence; and Parties, in which people’s social motivations are crystal clear, if only now interesting for their nostalgic sixties and seventies clothing.

Although Lee Friedlander similarly valued the weird, his photography propels the exhibition on to abstraction, and therefore starts a dialogue on how American photographers combined artistry with snapshot. Urban landscapes are presented in the fourth room titled Geometry and Space. Here, the collection of photographs by Tom Drysdale and Burke Uzzle are more artistic and technically sublime, if less probing into the bizarre psyche of some Americans. The collection of photographs in Landscape are somewhat dry after seeing dozens of other people’s unmentionables acting in unspeakable ways, but the photographs by Ralph Gibson presented Material and Form are gorgeous and technically perfect, treating the eye to an elegant presentation of basic shapes and form. Bill Owens’ work in Average People is accompanied by quotes from his subjects, in a way letting them “speak” for themselves. Europeans might be tickled by what they recognize as iconic American cultural tidbits in Owens’ work, including a snapshot of a 1970s Tupperware party, complete with a quote of satisfaction by the hostess.

Seventies, le choc de la photographie américaine aims to help the viewer see a thematic relation between the social commentary of seventies photography and the era’s trend of applying a superior technical and artistic design to otherwise unnotable subjects. For some, there may not be a real dialogue between the photographs presented--the photograph of teenagers having sex in a bathtub probably won’t shed much light on the photograph of a stark silhouette of a farm house building. But overall, this exhibition about the seventies clearly presents the edgy determination of Americans who, perhaps for the first time since the 1930s, took a hard and realistic look at their lives and social environments. Bravo, les Américains!

--Kate Lemay

(*Images, from top to bottom:  Ray K. Metzker, Seventies, le choc de la photographie américaine, October 29 - January 25, 2009; Bibliothèque Nationale de France,  Etats-Unis, Philadelphie, 1968, courtesy of the Artist and Maison Européene de la Photographie.  Ralph Gibson, Seventies, le choc de la photographie américaine, October 29 - January 25, 2009; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Série déjà vu, 1973, courtesy of the Artist and Maison Européene de la Photographie.  Bill Owens, Seventies, le choc de la photographie américaine, October 29 - January 25, 2009; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Série Suburbia, 1977, courtesy of the Artist and BnF, dpt des Estampes et de la photographie.)

Posted by Kate Lemay on 11/17/08 | tags: photography

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