Monday, May 2, 2011

Night Vision: Photography After Dark @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of 44 photographic works from 34 different photographers, generally framed in black and matted, and hung spotlit against dark blue walls in a series of three small connecting rooms. The prints were made between 1896 and 2000, mostly using the gelatin silver process. A glass case in the second room holds two bound volumes. (Installation shots at right.)
The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the number of images on view and their dates in parentheses:

First Room

Berenice Abbott (1, 1932)
Frances Allen (1, 1899)
Bill Brandt (1, 1936)
Brassai (1, 1932/1960)
Alvin Langdon Coburn (1, 1910)
John Cohen (1, 1960)
Gordon Coster (1, 1932)
Patrick Faigenbaum (1, 1977)
Knud Lonberg-Holm (2, 1923, 1924)
Edward Steichen (1, 1899)
Josef Sudek (1, 1948-1964)
Werner Mantz (1, 1928)

Second Room
Marcel Bovis (2, 1928, 1932)
Bill Brandt (1, 1942)
Brassai (2, 1931, 1934)
Louis Faurer (1, 1951)
Robert Frank (2, 1952, 1958)
Lewis Hine (1, 1906-1907)
William Klein (1, 1954)
Paul Martin (1 book, 1896 in glass case)
Otto Steinert (1, 1950)
Alfred Stieglitz (1 photogravure, 1897 in glass case)
Weegee (1, 1940)

Third Room

Robert Adams (1, 1981)
Guiseppe Albergamo (2, 1939)
Diane Arbus (3, 1958)
Bill Brandt (1, 1930s)
Gordon Coster (1, 1932)
David Deutsch (1 group of 16, 2000)
Sid Grossman (1, 1948)
Peter Hujar (1, 1981)
Andre Kertesz (1, 1940s)
Daido Moriyama (1, 1978)
Hiroshi Sugimoto (1, 1990)
Stephen Tourlentes (1, 1997)
Pim Van Os (1, 1950)
Garry Winogrand (1, 1955)
Kohei Yoshiyuki (1, 1971)
Comments/Context: The Met's eclectic new survey of night photography is a budget-friendly drawn-from-the-collection whirlwind, covering a century of work in the span of a few small darkened rooms. By definition, such a show cannot be comprehensive (as the Met cannot own everything of importance in every genre), and night photography doesn't appear to have been a particular collecting focus over the years. As a result, this show feels less like a directed scholarly argument about the important trends in night photography over time, and more like a higher-level gathering of like work culled from the storage boxes.

The exhibit begins with a selection of turn of the century Pictorialist night images, followed quickly by a larger sample of between the wars work from some of the usual nighttime masters and a few well chosen lesser knowns: Abbott's iconic New York, Brandt's darkened London, Brassai's foggy Paris, Mantz' German architecture etc. From here, the story gets more diffuse, mixing Weegee's grisly severed head with Frank's lyrical Coney Island beach sleeper, Arbus' carnival goers, and Winogrand's top-hatted socialites. Post 1960, the connecting narrative is lost entirely, jumping from Yoshiyuki's park couplings, to a Sugimoto night seascape, to Deutsch's terrific series of aerial views of LA homes lit by the intrusive glare of a police spotlight.

My point here is not that this exhibit isn't well selected or sequenced; in fact, from picture to picture along the wall, there are plenty of subtle visual connections that are evidence of curatorial care. I think it just tries to do too much with too little. Perhaps this idea should have been split into two shows, one before 1960 and one after (as an aside, there isn't a single color picture in this entire show, and there are many worthy candidates for inclusion, from Misrach to Ruff to many, many others). It might also have benefited from tighter subject matter grouping, from architectural views, to landscapes, to social life, to movie marquees and light abstractions, over time and photographic styles. The whole subject of surveillance is hardly touched upon.

I actually think the overall concept of a smart show about night photography is a really good one. The challenge is that this exhibit needed either much more breadth or a much tighter focus to make a scholarly contribution to the history of this photographic subgenre; its survey in-betweenness makes for some uneven transitions and a waning of coherent momentum, especially in the latter parts of the show. Instead, I think this show takes the easier path of a tasty night photography appetizer, with some diverting randomness and non-obvious choices to keep things lively; if you visit the show looking for a little slice of the unexpected, you'll probably come away satisfied.

Collector's POV: Given this is a museum show, there are obviously no posted prices for the works on display.

My favorite work in the show was George Coster's Impressions of Chicago - The Lights of Grant Park, 1932; it's not actually in any of the installation shots. I like the way the multiple angled lines of circular lights overlap to create an abstract impression of energy and movement. I also enjoyed the Kertesz skyscraper multiple from the 1940s, with its glowing bands of intersecting geometric light.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Reviews: NY Times (here), Village Voice (here)
Night Vision: Photography After Dark
Through September 18th

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

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