Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Photography Shows of 2009

As we look back on the world of photography in 2009, we find ourselves on a somewhat surprising perch. According to our tally, we wrote in-depth reviews for a total of 173 photography shows at galleries and museums this year. With the notable exception of the tireless Vince Aletti of the New Yorker whom we doubt we can ever match, we likely reviewed more photography shows in the past 12 months than any other publication on the planet.

If we assume that we reviewed a little less than half of what was on view, that says there were approximately 350-400 shows of photography on display in New York this year, in all kinds of venues, from large public museums to home based galleries, and everything in between. As such, while other cities certainly have vibrant and growing photography communities, New York is still the center of the photography world, at least in terms of sheer scale and variety.

Before we get to a discussion of the top shows of the year, a few sliced and diced statistics for the mathematically minded among you:

Shows by Venue Type
Gallery: 77.46%
Museum: 22.54%

Of the shows we reviewed, more than three quarters were in galleries. This data likely skews the museum numbers a little higher than reality, as much of what we didn't review or see was likely in galleries.

Shows by Time Period

New/Contemporary: 54.34%
Group Show, Mixture of Periods, or Retrospective: 19.08%
Vintage Only (1980s and Older): 26.59%

These numbers are a reminder of the dominance of contemporary work (defined as 1990 and later in this case) in the marketplace. Just over a quarter of the shows we reviewed were vintage material only, and again these numbers are likely skewed higher, as exhibits we missed were more likely to be contemporary than vintage.

Shows by Process

Color: 36.42%
Black/White: 36.42%
Mixture of Processes: 27.17%

These numbers were quite surprising, given how pervasive digital color photography has become. In the shows we reviewed, these was an exact even split between color and black and white. While color will likely continue to gain share as the years pass, I think this points to a continued/renewed interest in black and white (even when it is accomplished digitally).

Shows by Rating

3 Star EXCELLENT: 6.94%
2 Star VERY GOOD: 19.65%
1 Star GOOD: 73.41%

Less than 7% of the shows we saw got our top rating of three stars. While some may quibble with individual ratings of specific shows (and I think reasonable people could certainly disagree on many of these exhibits), I think the spread across the rating scale is about right, reflecting the reality of the situation, rather than a puffed-up, spin-doctored, over-marketed world where everything is fabulous and outstanding. While there are quite a few standouts this year, the fact is, I'd like to think the ruthless meritocracy of the art world works for the most part; there are winners and losers, and just showing up does not earn a gold star - the work has to have a strong and original voice to get out from under the deafening noise.

Leading Venues by Number of Reviews

International Center of Photography: 8
Yancey Richardson Gallery: 7
Metropolitan Museum of Art: 6
Museum of the City of New York: 6
Janet Borden Inc.: 5
Howard Greenberg Gallery: 5
Laurence Miller Gallery: 5
Yossi Milo Gallery: 5
Aperture: 4
Edwynn Houk Gallery: 4
Museum of Modern Art: 4
Pace/MacGill Gallery: 4
Bruce Silverstein Gallery: 4
Sonnabend Gallery: 4
Whitney Museum of American Art: 4
Amador Gallery: 3
Gagosian Gallery: 3

We reviewed exhibits at a staggering 92 different venues this year. The numbers above show those locations that we visited/reviewed at least three times. Many of these places have multiple gallery spaces, and often run two or more exhibits simultaneously that we often review as separate and distinct shows. So while a normal gallery calendar might have 6-8 shows in a year, some of these locations have twice that many shows on view across the same period of time. The numbers above (and the ones just below) are a pointer to the strength of the photography program at the venue, and to the depth of the stable of artists that are represented (in the case of the galleries). The dark underbelly of these numbers is that for many, many venues, less than half of what they are meticulously putting up is earning even a one star review.

Leading Venues by Average Rating (out of a possible 3.00)

Gagosian Gallery: 2.33
Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2.00
Pace/MacGill Gallery: 2.00
International Center of Photography: 1.88
Janet Borden Inc.: 1.60
Howard Greenberg Gallery: 1.60
Edwynn Houk Gallery: 1.50
Museum of Modern Art: 1.50
Bruce Silverstein Gallery: 1.50
Sonnabend Gallery: 1.50
Whitney Museum of American Art: 1.50
Laurence Miller Gallery: 1.40
Amador Gallery: 1.33
Museum of the City of New York: 1.17
Aperture: 1.00
Yossi Milo Gallery: 1.00
Yancey Richardson Gallery: 1.00

I think these statistics are among the most revealing that we calculated. For each venue, the average rating of all the shows we reviewed at that space has been tabulated (not including the shows we didn't review of course). So while Gagosian only had three shows in the table just preceding this one (an indicator of a relatively thin photo program), the three shows that were presented were of very high quality (Roger Ballen: three stars, Alec Soth: two stars, and Sally Mann: two stars). On the flip side, there were other venues that had a larger number of shows on our review list, but most of those shows lacked the firepower to earn more than one star on a consistent basis. So these numbers give us another look at the quality of photography programs out there.

And so we come to the main event, our top shows of the year. In our rating scheme, three stars is the highest mark a show can receive. These 12 shows were the only shows to receive this superlative grade in the past 12 months. As regular readers will know, our ratings are time-based; these top shows were recommended based on a restricted time budget of only one photography show a month throughout the year. Given the depth of quality in this list, if you saw these 12 shows, you had a spellbinding and enlightening year of photography. Check out the original reviews for the logic behind each choice:

Top Shows of 2009 (in alphabetical order by artist or show name):

Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000 @ICP
(original review here)

Roger Ballen: Boarding House @Gagosian Gallery
(original review here)

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard @Metropolitan Museum
(original review here)

Lee Friedlander: Still Life @Janet Borden Inc.
(original review here)

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans @Metropolitan Museum
(original review here)

Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt @New Museum
(original review here)

Emmet Gowin: Photographs @Pace/MacGill Gallery
(original review here)

Jacques Henri Lartigue, A New Paradise @Howard Greenberg Gallery
(original review here)

The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 @Metropolitan Museum
(original review here)

Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention @Jewish Museum
(original review here)

Aaron Siskind, Recurrence @Bruce Silverstein Gallery
(original review here)

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Conde Nast Years, 1923-1937 @ICP
(original review here)

Great shows shake our minds loose from the ruts of everyday living. They provide excitement and inspiration, they challenge our accepted notions, and hopefully they succeed in educating us in broad and unexpected ways.

Perhaps due to the challenges of the economy and the overall mood of the world, the 2009 list above looks to have been a retrenching kind of year, a return to reconsidering the value of the established masters, of seeing their contributions to the art form of photography with renewed clarity and deeper scholarship, perhaps even a hackneyed "flight to quality". We seem to have found comfort in the greats of the medium, or invested more time and energy into inspecting them more closely and reevaluating those we have long admired.

In contrast, only a very few early to mid career photographers even reached the two star level with their most current bodies of work this year, and I'm very sorry to say that 2009 produced no breakout new performances or mind bending new arrivals by young contemporary photographers. As a result, I believe this year will likely be largely forgotten by the writers of photography history, or seen as a transitional or flux year, where new ideas were percolating around, new technologies were refined and extended, and hard work was invested in bodies of new photography that came to fruition in later years. The bold ideas of where we go next are still apparently a work in progress.

A few of you may now be sitting at your computer screens outraged by our obvious bias and incompetent ignorance. Let me reiterate that we would like nothing better than to see a flowering of new contemporary photography that meets (and exceeds) that standards of the best of what has come before. And yet, if the top new work of 2009 came from Ballen, Friedlander, and Goldblatt (with a nod to Sally Mann), the younger generation needs to step it up a notch in my view. I just didn't see many authentically new bodies of work made by the new voices of photography this year that we are likely to be talking about 20 or 30 years in the future.

Our goal in the end is not to leave you with a disapproving view of the photography of 2009; on the contrary, there was much to be seen and admired. But instead of patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves on a job well done amid tough circumstances, I hope we all (artists, gallery owners, museum curators, collectors etc.) might take away a renewed and optimistic challenge to stretch even further in 2010 toward work that will really stand the 50-100 year test, to photographs that will become the image icons of the 21st century.

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: This will be our last post before the holiday break. We'll see you next in January, with our detailed statistical review of the 2009 auction season on deck for the first week back. Happy holidays!


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the amazing number of reviews, and the valuable contribution to the photographic conversations.

You might want to think about renaming the blog to "I Heart B/W." There IS work being made today that will be talked about tomorrow (much of it color, some of it black & white).

Keep up the good work in 2010.


As I expected, I received quite a few thinly veiled flames in my overnight email about my comments about the lack of superlative or lasting contemporary work in 2009.

A couple of additional thoughts:

1.) Not all contemporary work makes it to New York in the year it was created. There is often a delay of several years as the work is shown first in other locales. So there may be great work made in 2009 (or 2008, 2007, etc.) that will arrive in New York in 2010 or later.

2.) The New York gallery and museum world is just one slice of the contemporary photography market. Our reviews cover only this area and its surroundings, so shows that occur in other cities are not included since we didn't see them in person. So my available choices for the best of the year were limited to what was on view in New York in the past 12 months, not everything everywhere.

3.) I'll be the first to admit that as collectors, we are more likely to be spending our money on vintage black and white work. But as lovers of photography, we are intensely interested in all kinds of work, in all formats, and from all geographies.

4.) For those of you who have pressed me to name names in terms of the best of what we saw in New York in 2009 with a focus on new color work and/or digitally manipulated imagery, I would give you:


Alec Soth @Gagosian
Doug DuBois @Higher


Beate Gutschow @Sonnabend

All three of these were two star shows in our rating system, and all deserve to be part of the photography conversation a few decades hence.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your follow-up comment.

The Dubois and Soth shows were great, but they were "safe," in that the work is very traditional and does nothing to expand the language of the medium.

This is the value of contemporary work. Without it, the photography world would stagnate. The past few years have brought an explosion of experimentation and innovation in photography, particularly with photographers returning to the studio, working with still life, and employing digital technology.

And so new work, including contemporary color, is a crucial part of the discourse, and it should be a part of your conversation. And it should be addressed more even-handedly.

From a collector's standpoint, most of the work in the DLK collection is safe, as well. It is time-tested. It is a safe investment. This is a central issue, and a potential problem with your rating system.

Yossi Milo and Yancey Richardson are fine galleries that show a mixture of work from established artists and new talents. Most of the work shown is in color. This must account for at least some of the reason why these galleries were so heavily covered yet not so highly rated.

Perhaps you should consider a two-part rating system -- one rating that applies to your interests, your collection and your aesthetic, and an a separate rating that attempts to address the work on its own merits and give greater consideration to the general public interest -- with a rating that is not weighted by consideration for the work's inclusion in the DLK Collection.

RedSardine said...

As a collector of both vintage and contemporary photography, I think this blog does an excellent or indeed 3 star job in covering the bases. Although different emotions come into play when I come across a vintage print of a photographer that I admire, or a contemporary photographer's (colour or black & white) work that I consider to be exciting, I enjoy both strands of my collection equally. I therefore get most out of the actual DLK review commentary, rather then the simple star rating itself, as the latter will always be difficult to apply across such a diverse universe.

On the question of the best new colour work seen in NYC during 2009, Chris Killip, who is of course a master photographer in his own right and is a Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, stated in his May 2009 review of Paul Graham's exhibition at the MoMA that A Shimmer of Possibility had "profoundly affected (him) by pushing forward the possibilities of photographic presentation."

As you said in your blog at the beginning of the year, Paul Graham is not as widely appreciated as one might have expected. However, there is a chance that "Shimmer" may prove to have been one of the most important photography events of 2009 and it happens to have been produced by a contemporary photographer who has been exclusively shooting in colour since the 1970s.