The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with information on the number of prints on view and other background details to follow:
John Baldessari: 1 gelatin silver print, 1971
Erica Baum: 1 inkjet print, 2009
Jean-Marc Bustamante: 1 chromogenic print, 1997
Sophie Calle: 1 gelatin silver print with accompanying text, 1988-1989
Gregory Crewdson: 1 chromogenic print, 1988
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: 1 chromogenic print, 1987
William Eggleston: 1 dye transfer print, 1980
Fischli & Weiss: 1 chromogenic print, 1979
Robert Gober: 1 gelatin silver print, 1999
Nan Goldin: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1980
Dan Graham: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1969
Jan Groover: 1 platinum print, 1980
Mike Kelley: 1 gelatin silver print, 1994
Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky: 1 single channel video, 1996-1997
Brandon Lattu: 1 single channel video, 2013
Nikki S. Lee: 1 chromogenic print, 1998
Sally Mann: 1 gelatin silver print, 1987
Malerie Marder: 1 inkjet print, 1998/2013
Tim Maul: 1 chromogenic print, 1981
Elizabeth McAlpine: 1 gelatin silver print, 2012
Mary Nickerson: 3 chromogenic prints, 1970
Gabriel Orozco: 12 silver dye bleach prints, 1991-2003
Martha Rosler: 1 single channel black and white video, 1975
David Salle: 4 gelatin silver prints with affixed advertisements, 1973
Ilene Segalove: 1 single channel black and white and color video, 1974-1978
Stephen Shore: 36 chromogenic prints, 1972-1973 (in case)
Larry Sultan: 1 chromogenic print, 1989
Carrie Mae Weems: 1 gelatin silver print, 1990
William Wegman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1972
Comments/Context: With the unspoken rules that exhibitions in the Met's contemporary photography gallery must be drawn exclusively from the museum's permanent collection and be organized as surveys of the period from the late 1960s to the present, it's no wonder that these long running shows are often so broad that their themes seem to dissolve into edited collections of everything. The newest selection of images is tied up under the umbrella of "everyday epiphanies", a construct that implies a delight in the ordinary, the quotidian, or the familiar, but in fact, reaches outward beyond these routine boundaries to works that have a wide variety of conceptual underpinnings and points of view. With some effort, it's possible to follow the logic of why each piece has been included here, but when seen together, the diversity of the works on view diminishes the show's ability to deliver any durable insights.
The works that function best inside this theme are those that capture moments of unexpected, elemental elegance, often as a result of the way the camera sees the world. Jan Groover turns a tangle of kids' bent arms into a lyrical overlapped abstraction, while Mike Kelley enlarges a dust mote to the point it becomes a swirling mass of lines. Larry Sultan catches the sun as it streams through his father's newspaper, and Gabriel Orzoco notices the back and forth sweep of a dog's tail. The video by Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky is perhaps the most graceful of them all, following the tumbling dance of windblown trash on city sidewalks, with the honking traffic as a background score. Why obvious inclusions like Kawauchi, Tillmans, Friedlander, Ghirri, and Parr aren't among these moments of discovered joy is a mystery.
The "epiphany" angle is instead taken in a different direction by works that play with conceptual inversion, where the startling realization is staged rather than found. In fact, the entire genre of Conceptual Photography, especially as practiced in the early 1970s, could fit under this definition, so the few works on view here, while excellent, seem a bit random when taken in the larger context of that period. That said, William Wegman's pairing of a sharp and dull knife (where the dull knife is not sharp in terms of its edge and the image itself is blurry) is infectiously witty and Martha Rosler's video demonstration of kitchen items is uproariously violent (who knew opening a can or using measuring spoons could be so passionate?) Robert Gober picks up a similar line of deviant thinking in the late 1990s, with his industrial drain unexpectedly inserted into the natural environment of a mossy forest floor.
The show includes only three works made in the last decade, which is surprising, since we might have assumed that lots of fanciful digital "epiphanies" would have emerged during that time. Erica Baum's dog eared book pages are a solid choice, with their chance juxtapositions of angled sentence fragments. Elizabeth McAlpine's work was new discovery for me, her ethereal shaped photograph a result of a complex molded camera construction and multiple pinhole openings. Brandon Lattu's video explores the unexpected connections made by computer intelligence, where face recognition software attempts to match images from popular culture and advertising, creating a mesmerizing sequence of similar morphing faces.
Like most of its predecessors, this show brings together plenty of intriguing and worthy photography, but ultimately the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. We're left remembering a highlight here or a highlight there, and losing sight of the overarching idea that ostensibly connected the dots. I'm grateful that the Met has a dedicated venue for contemporary photography, and these surveys certainly expose visitors to a consistently wide rage of work. But I am always left wanting something crisper and more tightly edited, a show that takes a stand of some kind rather than always trying to cover everything.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Features/Reviews: New Yorker (here), Wall Street Journal (here), Yahoo! News (here), New York Photo Review (here)
Metropolitan Museum of Art