Monday, December 7, 2009

A Few Frames: Photography and the Contact Sheet @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white and color works, variously framed and matted, and hung in a single room gallery on the Mezzanine level of the museum (down the back stairs). A total of 15 photographers are represented in this group show, with works ranging from 1936 to 2007. In addition to the framed images on the walls, there is one glass case at the back of the room, with several contact sheets and books on display. The Whitney does not allow photography in the galleries, so unfortunately, there are no installation shots of this show.

The following photographers are included in the exhibit (with the number of works on view in parentheses):

Bernd and Hilla Becher (4)
Wallace Berman (1)
Harold Edgerton (4 as 1)
Robert Frank (2)
Ellen Gallagher (1)
Rachael Harrison (1)
Silvia Kolbowski (8 as 1)
Paul McCarthy (3)
Ray Metzker (2)
Duane Michals (9 as 1)
Ed Ruscha (10 mockups, 5 sheets, 2 books)
Collier Schorr (1)
Andy Warhol (4 as 1)
David Wojnarowicz (1)
Francesca Woodman (1)

Comments/Context: I think the title of this exhibit is a bit misleading; if you pay your $18 and come to this exhibit with the expectation that this will be a show of grease pencil covered photographic contact sheets (which I did), you will be somewhat disappointed. While there are a handful of actual contact sheets on view, the show reaches for a broader thematic construct, connecting the idea of working contact sheets to sequential images, typologies, photographic series, and the like. As such, it is less about hits and misses or the process of editing, and more about multiple related images seen together in various forms.

The works by Duane Michals, Harold Edgerton, Robert Frank and Paul McCarthy are all sequential stories, narratives taking place over the the elapsed time of the images. The Becher cooling towers, Silvia Kolbowski's grid of appropriated faces and body fragments, Ray Metzker's pair of positive and negative torso composites, and even the Warhol stitched photographs all consider repetition and the typology, working with multiples and the idea of comparison. Others take these ideas one step further, into areas of collage and rework.

From a pure process point of view, the Ed Ruscha materials in the back of the room are the most enlightening. They show his work on the book A Few Palm Trees, starting with the original contact sheets of photographs, complete with his grease pencil selections. Paper mock ups of several of the resulting pages are then shown, with his cropping and layout choices made clear. Final copies of the books are on display as evidence of the finished product.

Perhaps the over-arching point here is that even as the digital world slowly drives the old style contact sheet to extinction, many of the ideas embedded in that working process will continue to be reconsidered in new ways. Fair enough. Just don't visit this show thinking you're going to get a tutorial on the ways notable photographers made their images from frame to frame, or how they selected the best out of a sea of variants. This exhibit flies higher, choosing the longer term thematic ideas over the down and dirty details.

Collector's POV: As direct matches for the genres in our particular collection, the works by the Bechers and Ray Metzker would be the best fits. I also continue to enjoy Warhol's stitched photographs; we just need to find one with just the right subject matter (this one is bicycles).

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

Transit Hub:
A Few Frames: Photography and the Contact Sheet
Through January 3rd

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021

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