Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography @Met

JTF (just the facts): 34 images (including a handful of smaller works in a glass case), displayed in the Modern Photography gallery, a single large, high-ceilinged room. (Installation shot at right.) The following artists are represented in this group show:

James Wallace Black
Frank Breuer (2)
James Casebere
Gregory Crewdson
Edward Curtis
Thomas Demand
Julian Faulhaber
Robert Grober
Naoki Honjo
Craig Kalpakjian
Shai Kremer
M. Laroche
David Levinthal
Philip-Lorca diCorcia (2)
Vik Muniz
James Nasmyth
Ruth Orkin
Gabriel Orozco
Stephen Shore
Taryn Simon
Joel Sternfeld
Thomas Struth
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Bernard Volta
Mark Wyse
Comments/Context: The arguments about the concept of "truth" in photography are as old and well worn as the medium itself. For nearly every person who ardently believes in the sanctity and veracity of the photograph (especially as evidence of a documentary truth), there is another who has claimed since the beginning that all photographs are fabrications - it's just a matter of degree (from seemingly innocent cropping and darkroom dodging/burning to outright staging and manipulation). While the arrival of digital capture and Photoshop in the past few decades have raised this question again in new and more obvious ways, this feud has been around a long time, and isn't likely to go away any time soon.

The Met had waded into this fight with its third exhibit in its new space for contemporary photography. My first reaction when I heard about this show was that it was a pretty tired subject, well traveled already and hackneyed, with a predictable set of photographers and techniques that would be represented. And while some of the images on display here are expected (can a show about "reality" not include Gregory Crewdson?), the overall effect is much crisper and tighter than the previous two efforts in this gallery. Instead of providing an unwieldy set of wildly inventive and obviously false manipulations and distortions, the group of pictures in this show have been carefully selected to totter right on the edge of truth, with a significant number of the images being straight photographs of subjects that just look unreal, due to an unexpected change in scale, viewpoint or framing. (As an aside, I never seem to tire of tilt-shift photography, and there is an excellent example of this technique in this show by Naoki Honjo, Tokyo, Japan, 2004, above right.) There are staged pictures that look haltingly real and there are real pictures that look haltingly staged. Perhaps the takeaway here is that given more powerful tools, contemporary photographers are finding increasingly subtle ways to play with our perception of truth. These are sly and quiet games, rather than shouts and flourishes.

One interesting outgrowth of this exhibit for me was a desire to trace the influences of many of these contemporary photographers back through the history of film and the cinema, rather than through the traditional roads of still photography. A few of the images in this show seem to bear the strong influence of a cinematic eye, and it would be enlightening to understand the historical precedents in the world of film for what we are seeing in the galleries today.

Collector's POV: While there are some terrific images in this exhibit, there were few works that would really match our particular collection. The pair of Frank Breuer images (Industrial House (Nike), 2000 and Industrial House (Philip Morris), 2000, at right) would likely be the best fit.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Through March 22nd

1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

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