Friday, April 29, 2011

Chris Marker: PASSENGERS @Peter Blum Chelsea

JTF (just the facts): A total of 136 color photographs, hung unframed in an up and down pattern throughout the four rooms of the gallery space. All of the works are digital pigment prints mounted on white Sintra, taken between 2008 and 2010 and printed in 2011. Physical dimensions range from roughly 13x16 to 13x21, and all of the images have been printed in editions of 3. A monograph of this body of work has recently been published by the gallery (priced at $95) and a companion exhibit of additional works is now on view at the gallery's Soho space. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Between 1938 and 1941, Walker Evans made hundreds of images of passengers in the New York subways, using a hidden camera concealed in his coat. These images were later edited and sequenced into the famous book Many Are Called, with an introduction provided by James Agee. The project was ground-breaking for several reasons: it introduced an element of chance into the idea of portraiture, his sitters were caught unaware and therefore had no opportunity to put on a persona or otherwise compose themselves, and it created a collective snapshot of the diversity of the city at that time. The dark images of blank faces mix the up-close intimacy of the voyeur with the social distance of the stranger.
Celebrated French filmmaker Chris Marker has essentially made a remake of Evans' classic series in his new work PASSENGERS. He's substituted a watch camera, the Paris Metro, and the 21st century, but otherwise, the concept is exactly the same: make images of commuters on the train without their knowledge, catching them in those fleeting inward moments of privacy in a public place. Marker's pictures find the present world more crowded, more casual, and a more complicated melting pot of ethnicities and cultures (with a seemingly higher percentage of women). But even with the addition of the isolation inducing headphones of an iPod, we still behave in much the same manner as Evans' passengers did decades earlier: unfocused empty stares, careful silent distraction, looking away, or down, or off into the distance, in a kind of bored, personal reverie.
Stylistically, Marker has taken these rudimentary subway snapshots and then subtly reworked them in Photoshop, using filters of blurring and pixelation, creating a more impressionistic feeling. Some figures have an added aura of faint color, while others exhibit an exaggerated brightness or a slight fuzziness that feels like motion. These are not all-over effects, but localized splashes that take away photographic crispness and add an element of painterly texture or smudging, where a flash of red hair, the energy of a blue scarf, or the pattern of a dress becomes more moody or electric.
I'm not sure that many of these images can really stand on their own as individual photographs of durable merit. But when you see them displayed in massive groups, or gathered together in book form, the specific moments and anonymous individuals fade away, and Marker's pictures become a hypnotic, cinematic impression of both the commonality of our shared experience and the real separations and differences to be found in our jammed together overlapping lives. In this remake, the formality and honesty of Evans has been replaced by something altogether more fluid and chaotic.

Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The first two prints from the edition are priced at $2800 and $3500 respectively, with the third print reserved to be sold as a full set. A group of 4 prints is also available in a larger size (I didn't get the dimensions) for $5800 each. Marker's work is not widely available at auction, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Reviews: Flavorwire (here), Art Fag City (here), NY Photo Review (here), Spread Art Culture (here)
Through June 4th

Peter Blum Gallery
526 West 29th Street
New York, NY 10001

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