Monday, July 29, 2013

Snap Noir: Snapshot Stories from the Collection of Robert E. Jackson @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 61 black and white photographs, framed in white/black and matted, and hung against grey and white walls in the main rooms of the gallery. All of the photographs are vintage gelatin silver prints, made by unknown photographers from generally undated negatives. The prints are arranged into groups ranging in size from 4 to 21 prints. All of the prints come from the collection of Robert E. Jackson. There is no photography allowed in the gallery, so the installation shots at right are via the Pace/MacGill website.
Comments/Context: The dividing line between art photography and vernacular photography has always been a bit murkier than we might like to admit. Definitionally, we might say that it all comes down to original intent: in an art photograph, the person clicking the shutter was consciously making an artwork, while in a vernacular photograph, that same person might have been making a snapshot, documenting something of note, or acting for an infinite number of other reasons, except for making an artwork. Where things get a little bit more troublesome is that down the line, years later, it is altogether possible to see vernacular photographs with new eyes, where their original purpose or context is entirely removed, and their underlying artistic merit comes forth. Across the history of the medium, this has happened time and again, where images made for scientific, evidentiary, or documentary purposes (by photographers known and unknown) have been placed in the white walled context of a museum or gallery and have been instantly transformed into "art", not by some decree from on high, but by the intrinsic artistic merits of the images themselves.
This show gathers together a small sampler from the vast collection of found/vernacular photographs assembled by Robert E. Jackson and directly confronts this recontextualization issue. The images are grouped into sets, with common subjects and themes tying the photographs together, some apparently taken by a single photographer, others likely made by many different shooters. The first two groups track personal eccentricity: a grown woman posing with her stuffed animal bunny and a man in sunglasses showing off a seemingly endless wardrobe of tight swimsuits/briefs. Other sets find a more voyeuristic tone: cocktail-drinking deck chair inhabitants seen from behind, multiple images of a topless woman through an open doorway, and a selection of views through chain link fences. The largest group is a parade of the ominous and slightly odd: a pair of women in gasmasks, a man holding a deer carcass, a surreal stare near a waffle, a boy with a gun, a woman with a snake, with incidents with choking, whipping, and Halloween masks mixed in for good measure. Taken out of their original context and resequenced here, the images effectively take on the slightly creepy, noir mood intended.
I think this editing and selection of found photographs raises an intriguing question about artistic and/or curatorial intent. What if the press release had not told us about a selection of vernacular images from the vast collection of Robert E. Jackson, but it had instead introduced the artworks of Robert E. Jackson, made up of found appropriated and recontextualized found photographs? Would we react to them differently? What we are being shown here is partially Jackson's vision, his decisions about the creation of typologies and sets and his imposition of implied relationship or connection; the individual photographs (however wonderful or unexpected) are merely the (appropriated) raw material used to implement a particular edited point of view. A choice was clearly made to show (and sell) the photographs in series form rather than as a selection of singular images, and yet, in the end, we are asked to step back from that idea and return to the broader concept of vernacular photographs offering a multitude of potential interpretations; these groupings are just one, arguably temporary, approach to the vast image database of a huge collection like Jackson's.
The result is a show that is infused with a kind of inescapable mystery. The questions we have about the actual details of these images are unknowable, and so we are left with their formal qualities and the flights of our collective imagination to make sense of what we see. But that ambiguity is surprisingly powerful, forcing us to get away from reading wall labels and sizing up artistic reputations and back to just looking at the photographs themselves and seeing what surprises they have to offer.
Collector's POV: The groups of photographs in this show are priced based on the number of prints in the set, ranging from $2000 to $9500. Since the photographers are anonymous, there is no secondary market history available for any of the artists.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Exhibit: The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978 @NGA, 2007 (here)
  • Interview: Design Observer (here)
  • Features/Reviews: New Yorker (here)
Through August 21st
32 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

1 comment:

Pete McGovern said...

Great piece. The curating is the key. You also wrote recently about an Ansel Adams show where his archive was mined in a new way to present a radically different take on the work. Kinda the same thing.