By Myles Ludwig
Process — the origination of something — pre-exists as form, said Heinrich Schenker, the 19th century Ukrainian-born, Vienna- schooled composer, conductor, performer and theorist, and that appears to be the subject of four photography exhibitions I visited recently.
In some cases, it was the act of taking the picture, in others it was the act of making it or preserving it in time and space. Shows at the remodeled Norton Museum of Art, the JL Modern, the Palm Beach Photographic Centre and the Holden Luntz Gallery all seemed to be asking this question. Each one is unique, each adding a touch of context to the history and development of the form as we know it.
Every art form confronts this issue at various times in its life cycle: painting, music, literature, sculpture, performance. It seems fitting that photography looks at itself as Walter Benjamin did in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” especially now that the camera has become an extension of the telephone, a kind of double-double McLuhanism.
I’ve been known to gauge the impact of a show by its accompanying comestibles, but I’ll just include sparse tasting notes here as a guide.
At the Norton’s freshly and friendly remodeled museum (more about that another time), photography curator Tim Wride has mounted a vest-pocket-size timeline of 60 portraits from the 19th-century Daguerreotype and albumen prints to an industrial-size color image face-mounted to the plexiglass meant to encapsulate the modern development of the print form.
Works by Tim Hailand, Shirin Neshat and Arne Svenson “examine the reciprocal influences between photography and the portrait.” There are pictures by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Julia Margaret Cameron, August Sander, Dorothea Lange, Irving Penn, Thomas Ruff and Lalla Essaydi, but process, rather than content, is the star of this show, called Out of the Box: Camera-less Photography.
Alas, no free food, but the pretzels for sale were hearty enough for two.
At her chic little Worth Avenue storefront, JL Modern, Jaye Luntz put up an impressive display of David Yarrow’s’ fashion-y animal portraits and pure fashion images, mostly in paradoxically graceful mid-tones. The Scottish-born photographer told me he wanted to make conservation “sexy” and he has: despite their intimidating size and subject matters, the scaled-up pictures do seem uncannily in time.
His all-feet-off-the-ground galloping zebra recapitulates Muybridge’s 19th-century stop-motion pictures meant to show an animal goes momentarily airborne in mid-run. The landscape of animal horns and swirling dust is particularly impressive, viewed from a perspective that puts you in the picture, in the very midst of the vanishing herd.
The opening atmosphere was neo-Brooklyn boite. Bourbon was poured, and I was told the brand had been developed for the 1980s heavy metal band Metallica. In view of the fashionista crowd, I suggested that be hushed on the down-low, though I’m a bourbon-and branch man and I liked it. It’s not enough the soundtrack of our lives is backing car and beer commercials, now the bands that used to roll their own are brewing it. Even Bob Dylan has a sippin’ whiskey.
I drink my past in chichi cocktails.
At the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, Fatima Nejame chose to show painterly work by Jill Enfield and Diane Farris whose sublime, desaturated images felt textured and even tinted in a muted palette, something akin to a camieux effect. Her subtle still-life work has a sense of mystery. In her hands, an artichoke and a begonia become monuments to memory.
Enfield’s images of immigrants, “New Americans,” were worked in the old wet colloidal plate method of processing and they rippled and whispered seductively: dream this.
A cornucopia of cheese and cold-cuts and chocolate, and artfully arranged.
Finally, at the important Holden Lutz Gallery on Worth Avenue, large infused dye sublimated work on aluminum — again process — from the eyes of photojournalist Harry Benson; former advertising and sometimes fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky, Joyce Tenneson; Andre Lichtenberg; and the team of Ken Browar and Deborah Ory pleased a packed gallery feted with champagne and elegant hors d’oeuves.
Benson’s pictures tended to be enlargements of processed contact strips; Sokolsky’s girl-in-a-bubble series date back to pre-Photoshop days when retouching was an artisanal skill; Browar and Ory’s ballet pictures are reminiscent of Phillipe Halsman’s jumping pictures and Kenn Duncan’s dance portraits, though in colorful hue. The elegiac pictures of Tenneson and the gentle seascapes of Lichtenberg are engaging.
The history of photography is fraught with controversy.
Is it picture taking or picture making? What is a photograph? A duplication, a replication, an imagining? Is it an objective document or a subjective one? What role does the subject of the image play in its creation? Is it ephemeral or timeless? Is it fixed or raw material? What is the significance of Photoshop, retouching, Kodachrome sandwiching, in-camera double exposures, augmented imagery?
The selfie, which has achieved legitimation via our National Portrait Gallery and London’s Saatchi Gallery, is a development of the “painted” self-portrait. But it also removed the viewer from the viewed. I knew there was going to be trouble the first time I saw a London street full of spectators interposing their cellphone cameras between themselves and arriving celebrities at a nightclub opening, interposing the screen between self and reality.
Having been both art director and photographer (two different points of view — one sees the images as a final statement of the process; the other sees the photograph as raw material in the process of design and feels free to edit the photographer’s images) and academic, investigating perceived verisimilitude in whether the same combat photo in color, black and white and night vision green is more trustworthy, I’ve looked at life’s illusions from various sides, now.
Symbol, metaphor, staged scene, decisive moment, action or aftermath. There’s no end to the discussion.
“If it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen,” so said Beto O’Rourke of our current visual mode mood, according to a recent article in the Financial Times. I know the trope didn’t originate with him — I think I first heard it on a TV travel-cooking show – but it is symptomatic of the virtual solipsism encircling current photography.
Google Glass didn’t quite stick the first time around, but the clickable eye-qua-camera could make a comeback in another iteration.
The shows: Out of the Box: Camera-less Photography runs through June 18 at the Norton Museum of Art; Jill Enfield and Diane Farris: Side by Side, runs through May 25 at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre; Big, Bold and Beautiful runs through May 4 at the Holden Luntz Gallery. David Yarrow: Off Road and After Hours has closed at JL Modern, but the gallery’s current show, Fashion Forward, runs through June 15.