Thursday, August 15, 2013

Toward Sustainable Arts Criticism

Hardly a week goes by these days when we don't see some article about the layoff of arts writers. This kind of news should be shocking, but it's become so commonplace in the past few years that we have a hard time generating the required outrage that such an announcement should merit. As each major city without a full time paid arts writer gets ticked off the list, we have become wearily resigned to the premise that arts criticism is a dying breed, that arts writing doesn't pay, and that we as a society don't value a well crafted gallery review as much as we do other kinds of journalism and criticism. As a contrarian thinker on these topics, I find myself on the outside looking in, often in head-scratching bewilderment. How can this be?

For me, thoughtful arts criticism is the foundation of the dialogue that pulses through the arts community. It introduces work to those who hadn't been exposed to it, and offers a reasoned explanation and analysis of its merits to those who are already in the know. With the best of intentions, it attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff, all while injecting genuine enthusiasm and knowledge into the discussion. By taking a stand, a critic offers an opportunity for debate, for both agreement and disagreement, and for further exploration of the work at hand. At least for me, reading a great review offers a new way into the work (whether I've seen it or not), and challenges me to think differently about what I've seen. I may not ultimately agree, but I am forced to come to a more complex and nuanced understanding of what's on view.

If there is any overly simple lesson that can be learned from the disruptive effect the Internet has had on newspapers and magazines, it's that the old advertising model has been forever destroyed. Paying for content with advertising alone will no longer provide any kind of reliable economic balance, and if we want high quality arts writing, we must find alternate ways to fund it, as it doesn't come for free. Entire industries of smart people have broken their picks on this problem, and after many years of innovative experimentation, we've still not discovered any magic bullet that makes the ledgers even out. So, we are left with a state of disarray: writers must be paid at least a living wage to produce superlative content, but advertising revenue won't match the outlays necessary to fund that content (or the other costs of producing the publication for that matter). And thus, the bleeding of arts writers continues.

As we all stand in a circle and look at each other for answers, our gaze inevitably turns back around to our readers; unfortunately, they're aren't a lot of other places to look. If we want the kind of thoughtful dialogue we draw from our best writers, perhaps the readers (or other supporters) can step into the breach and fill the funding gap. This idea starts from a deficit, as one of the early premises that underpinned the last decade of revolution was that content wanted to be free; even though we continue to pay subscription and newsstand prices for paper content, we were initially trained that its digital equivalent came at no charge. Along with this free mindset came the erroneous idea that professional arts writers would be happy to trade real dollars in payment for broad "exposure". This myth has been proven false again and again; great writing of all kinds costs money to produce (even if it is ultimately given away for free) and dwindling payment for writers will ultimately lead to very little writing, except the kind that people are willing to do altruistically or as a hobby (like this blog).

In the past few years, asking for the support of readers has become increasingly widespread. In for profit models, content is increasingly being locked up behind paywalls and subscription services; perhaps in the future, these systems will get even more granular, allowing the annual signup to migrate toward micropayments for individual articles. In not for profit models, memberships, charitable donations, and other fund raising methods are tapping readers for dollars. Whether the payment system is imposed or voluntary, we are now entering a phase where the users of arts content are being asked to help fund its creation - the community is being asked to support its own interests.

For roughly the past five years, DLK COLLECTION has been an attempt to support and engage the photography community by writing about facets of the art and its market that were being overlooked by other publications. Given the slow decline in plausible photography coverage coming from the traditional New York outlets, the current situation is certainly no better than when we started; for those of us that are passionate about photography (and collecting), the pickings are still pretty slim.

Perhaps delusionally, we remain undaunted. Now, more than ever, we have confidence in the need for great writing about photography, and are willing to put our money where our mouth is by investing in our delivery platform. Several months ago, we embarked on a major overhaul of the site, including an entirely new WordPress/Responsive infrastructure (finally moving off of Blogger) and an entirely new graphic design. When the new site launches in September, it will have a new name (and domain), a new logo, and completely different look and feel. Not unlike an online newspaper, it will have a front page and a series of edited sections, covering galleries, museums, photobooks, art fairs, auctions and the like. Every single one of the existing 1600+ posts (as well as all the individual images posted on Twitter) will be ported to the new site, and there will be plenty of tools and navigation helpers to make finding an artist or gallery in the archive much easier (with more than 1100 artists/photographers and nearly 700 galleries worldwide to be found in the system, these tools start to matter). If we get it right (and we're working feverishly to ensure that we do), we will in one fell swoop transform the site from an amateur undertaking to a crisply professional photography platform, equally ready for your desktop, tablet, or mobile phone.

While we don't want to steal the thunder of its ultimate caterpillar-to-butterfly-like transformation, there are a couple of changes in our overall approach that we want to pass along now:

1.) Given the investment in the underlying platform, the site will now be much more able to handle multiple bylines, and like our monetary commitment to the platform, we're also ready to start selectively funding more superlative content from great writers. We expect to pay better than competitive rates to a small group of freelance writers, and will hopefully end up with a spectrum of regular contributors and intermittent guest writers. What we're looking for is consistently thoughtful and well reasoned analysis of fine art photography, especially when it's written by active collectors. We're into opinionated, knowledgeable criticism, not news or aggregated links; if you've got an idea for a piece that will fit into one of our areas of interest (galleries, museums, photobooks, art fairs, auctions, and the photographers and art that underlies all of them), shoot an email to to start the discussion. Want to write a dumbed down listicle of the top 10 shows to see, aping the press releases that just arrived in your inbox? We're not a match.

2.) On the new site, all advertising will be priced on a click through basis. Part of this change is purely technical, in that we will now have the ability to track the number of click throughs for an individual banner with much more reliability. But more importantly, we've come to the philosophical position that plain vanilla banner advertising doesn't align the interests of the advertisers, the site, and the readers particularly well. What everyone wants is a robust community, where advertising/sponsorship is relevant and unobtrusive, but generates follow through from targeted readers who are actually interested. The branding value of a banner that people see but don't interact with is amorphous at best, and we've decided to discount it to zero. Advertisers will be charged entirely based on how many click throughs occur; at its limit, if there are no click throughs during the entire run of a banner, it would be free. While there are a few other details to the plan, the goal is to end up with verifiable, quantifiable metrics for how well the advertising is working, with readers ringing the cash register for the site when they express their genuine interest. Want to hear more (there are now many more options/locations than the old chiclet banner)? Connect with us at to be ready for the surge of Fall activity.

3.) With the utmost in modesty and humility, we will offer readers the opportunity to support the site. We'll leave the mechanics of the program for the launch, but the plan is to deliver a content product that has enough consistent value to be worth supporting with hard earned dollars. With most of the major infrastructure costs now sunk, aside from a few ongoing back office and operational costs, most of our variable costs will come in the form of payments to writers. The going forward plan is to run the business on a shoestring, so that all the available money is directed to great writers. This isn't a charity and we're not looking for your sympathy, but what we do want is for readers to be passionate about what they're reading, so much so that they make the plunge and offer some support that can be redirected to the next great essay or review. If we get the balance right, inflows from readers and advertisers will match outflows to writers and operational costs in a kind of unheard of equilibrium. We're looking for the mythical unicorn that no one has found yet in this world of arts criticism, the dream of stand alone sustainability, and the only way we get there is if we deliver content people are ultimately willing to pay for. The onus is on us to challenge our readers with great photography writing each and every day, and only then will we have a chance at making the math work.

With those ideas as a teaser of what's to come, we're going on summer hiatus until the launch of the new site in September; there will be no new reviews or other posts until we make the switch over. Rest assured, we're not taking a break in the slightest, just frantically working behind the scenes to ensure we're ready for our big debut.

The Checklist: 8/15/13

Current New York Photography Shows
New reviews added this week in red.
(Rating: Artist/Title: Venue: Closing Date: link to review)


THREE STARS: Photography and the American Civil War: Met: September 2: review
ONE STAR: Everyday Epiphanies: Met: January 26: review


ONE STAR: Snap Noir: Pace/MacGill: August 21: review
TWO STARS: John Baldessari: Marian Goodman: August 23: review
THREE STARS: ICP Triennial: ICP: September 22: review
ONE STAR: XL: MoMA: January 6: review
TWO STARS: Walker Evans: MoMA: January 26: review


ONE STAR: Model/Arbus: Hasted Kraeutler: August 16: review
ONE STAR: Rebecca Norris Webb: Ricco Maresca: August 17: review
ONE STAR: Under My Skin: Flowers: August 24: review

SoHo/Lower East Side/Downtown

ONE STAR: Jimmy DeSana: Salon 94 Bowery: August 16: review

Elsewhere Nearby

ONE STAR: Legacy/Fisher Landau Collection: Aldrich Museum: September 2: review

Forward Auction Calendar
New auctions added this week in red.
(Sale Date: Sale Title: Auction House: link to catalog)

No previews at this time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Everyday Epiphanies: Photography and Daily Life Since 1969 @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the work of 31 artists/photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in a large single room gallery space on the second floor of the museum. The space has been divided into a main viewing area and a smaller darkened space at the very end of the gallery. (Installation shots at right.)

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.

Collector's POV: Since this is a museum show, there are obviously no posted prices for the works on display. Given the diversity of photography on view, we'll dispense with the usual discussion of secondary market prices and artist representation.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: New Yorker (here), Wall Street Journal (here), Yahoo! News (here), New York Photo Review (here)
Through January 26th

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Artist/CEO and the Evolving Gallery Model

Quite a lot of ink has been spilled in the last year analyzing the changing nature of the contemporary art market and the external forces and competitive tactics that are putting pressure on the traditional gallery system. Part of this discussion has centered on the plight of middle tier galleries whose most successful (and profitable) artists are being poached by larger mega-galleries. In trying to understand the nuances of these changing realities, my MBA-trained brain has been thinking about the structural similarities between being an artist and running a start-up. While this kind of thought experiment may seem anathema to the entire artistic impulse, there are many more fundamental parallels between the two endeavors than we might initially expect.

Back in business school, one the core courses required of all students was a class called Organizational Behavior, where we studied how firms are organized, how structures and team design impact performance, how roles impact decision making, and how incentives are used to drive success. If we step back and look at how an artist's activities are organized and use the parallel structure of a typical software start-up as a guide, then the artist is the both the founder/CEO and the CTO/VP Engineering; she is both the face of the "company" and the person responsible for both "product" vision and "product" execution.

At the product/technical level for a software company, this means she hires and fires members of the technical and manufacturing teams, and figures out all the technical innovations, disruptions, and new directions. For an artist, this translates into the entire art making process, the building of a studio support team, the acquisition of raw materials, tools and workspace, the use of external contractors/services (like large scale printing), and all the intangible inspiration of artistic creation. At the company level, this means she hires and fires all the executives, is responsible for overall company leadership and strategy, and in the end, is the one on the line for delivering results. For the both the software exec and the artist, one important choice is which parts of the whole effort are going to be done in house and which ones are going to be outsourced (they all have to be done one way or another), and often this gets back to a set of decisions based both on core competencies and economics, or more simply put, a choice between building and buying.

For the artist, the gallery system provides a readymade approach to outsourcing all the customer facing functions required to bring the art to market. Back in the Renaissance (and now arguably again in the case of extra big name artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst), the artist was a vertically integrated operation, with all of the customer facing activities done and managed in house; this is the most expensive way to manage things, but it also offers the most fine tuned control.

In today's world, nearly all artists have opted to effectively hire a third party agent (a gallery) to manage these tasks; in fact, there really isn't much of a viable alternative to this model at the moment. From the software exec's perspective, this is the equivalent of hiring a distributor or sales rep in a far off geography (say China for a US based company). The distributor would handle all the sales and marketing activities, interact with customers of all kinds (who they already have relationships with), and handle inventory management, order processing, payment, and delivery of product. To handle such work, there would be a complex a la carte negotiation of economic terms, and the deal could take a variety of final forms, from just putting a product on a price list and taking orders, to dedicating sales teams, to co-marketing efforts, to full joint venture partnerships, all with different scales of cost sharing. There might be ratcheting sales commissions for volume, monthly retainers, co-marketing dollars, and bonuses/penalties for meeting/not meeting certain sales thresholds. Like any market, there are distributors and sales reps who are big and small, risk takers and conservative players, those with long standing reputations and those with attacker aggressiveness; the right distributor for the software company's product might be conflicted, might be too busy, or might not be the right fit for what the company really needs at any one time, so the relationships often change as products evolve.

Back in the head of our artist/CEO, she faces a very similar set of constraints. She needs someone to handle all the customer facing work to dealing with collectors, museums, and the rest of the outside world, and certainly doesn't want to build up all that expertise in house or do too many more studio visits. She wants a gallery partner to handle all the sales, all the marketing, PR, and branding efforts (including art fairs, books, exhibitions etc.), all the customer service (shipping, insurance, framing), and all the back office management (inventory and order tracking). Depending on her personality, she might also want her gallery to provide some loosely defined "product management" services, from helping to shape and edit the artist's work or to provide varying degrees of coaching, support and feedback. For all of this work, she's generally willing to share half the proceeds of the sales, although that percentage might be up for some negotiation.

What's intriguing about the gallery model is that galleries have evolved to be a hybrid combination of direct and retail selling. They both call directly on customers (important collectors, museum curators and the like) and provide a retail space for walk in sales. This space is important because it allows them to control the presentation of the art/product, often showing it in solo shows of the artist's work (its best possible presentation) rather than having it fight other competing offerings for the buyer's attention. The gallery spreads the costs of maintaining such a space, staffing it etc., by having a stable of artists who can continually fill the space with works on offer. The retail space itself is a sunk cost that is added to all the other costs of selling the art. In the new world of the Internet, the gallery also maintains a virtual selling space (its website), again taking on these costs as part of the distribution deal.

Given the way most gallery relationships are structured (meaning no up front money to the gallery to begin the relationship and no retainer), taking on an artist is like making a venture capital investment. The gallery's costs are mostly front loaded, especially the marketing and fairs, since awareness needs to be built over time, the bills piling up long before the sales start to materialize. (An exception to this general rule is the gallery that only does a series of one off consignment style shows, selling what it can and not necessarily investing in long term relationships/representation agreements with artists.) Even if a gallery has an unusually great eye for talent, there will always be a mix of those artists that muddle along and those that reach breakout velocity, with the ones that hit mopping up the costs of the ones that don't, allowing galleries to support important work that is hard to sell. This all works like magic, unless of course your one bankable, consistent seller is poached by a larger, more prominent gallery, in which case, the economic model breaks down completely, all your up-front costs already invested and no way to recoup them. This is the current conundrum of the small and medium sized galleries who are being raided by the large, deep pocketed players; just when they think it's all going great and their top line revenue is relatively predictable, the rug gets ripped out from under them and they're back to hoping the farm team has a future star. Match that with a bill from the landlord doubling the rent, and it's no wonder there are so many glum faces around.

The reality is, that just like software distributors, there are a wide range of gallery types, some designed for emerging talents and some organized around supporting a global mega brand. While there is some commonality of general tasks, the scale of the operations, the market share, and the durability of the reputations are significantly and appropriately variable. And there is an inherent logic to the artist/CEO wanting to start with a gallery who is supportive and small, and then when the success starts to come, to want to move to a larger outfit with more sales reach and better global support services. This natural transition puts loyalty and economic reality on opposite sides, and often leads to permanently broken friendships. While this isn't surprising, what is puzzling to me is how little structural innovation there has been in the way artist/gallery relationships are organized, so that this natural progression is handled more smoothly (instead of hoping it won't happen), offering both the protection to the early supportive galleries who make the initial investments and the opportunity for artists to grow with new partners without burning bridges.

I think it's time we saw some experimentation in the artist/gallery partnership, for the betterment of both sides. In this case, I'm not referring to low cost, low service collective-style operations often trotted out to replace galleries, but a more fundamental rebalancing between artist/gallery partners that reflects the new realities. Perhaps new, unknown artists need to be signed to two, three, or five year contracts, effectively locking them into a single gallery for that initial investment period, just like in minor league baseball. Or why aren't there deals where initial galleries negotiate a thin slice of royalty income even if an artist moves on to a larger gallery down the line, to ensure recouping of start-up costs? Why aren't their more clear economic break even/profitability thresholds that must be cleared before an artist can move on? There are well understood ways to paper such transactions (and their options and corner cases) in the world of start-ups, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel here; we just need to adapt these kinds of distributor deals to the specifics of the artist/gallery relationship. If we get it right, galleries should be even more willing to take on the risk of new and emerging talent, knowing that they have some downstream protection. In many ways, to my eyes, the artist/CEO is getting a pretty good deal for herself these days in terms of distribution risk sharing (assuming she has been taken on by a decent gallery in the first place), and as the competition heats up, the complexity of the relationship is going to need to increase to handle the pressure.

It seems altogether possible that we might eventually see a breakdown of the integrated physical gallery model, especially as more and more transactions move online. The artist/gallery relationship can take any number of forms, where the customer-facing agenting function (sales and marketing communications) and the retail show venue function (product marketing and distribution) could easily get separated into two different business entities, conceivably both hired separately by the artist/CEO for different slices of the sales proceeds. We're also seeing artists add their own websites to the marketing activity being done by their galleries, effectively taking part of the branding exercise (and its costs) back in house. It seems like we are now at a point where the traditional model will really being to change, with new kinds of services and relationships being tried, mostly because in its current state, the current state is often financially untenable for one side or the other.

There's an old adage that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and this analysis certainly reeks of a start-up guy applying an external model to a different (and complicated) market. But it feels to me like change is in the air, and both the artist/CEO and her gallery partner need to bring some creative flexibility back into the way they collaborate. If you are already a bankable artist, you have the luxury of choosing your own path; for everyone else, on both sides of the table, the competitive pressures (and the increasing rents) are squeezing all the margin for error out of the business; the cottage industry is being professionalized, like it or not. Artists and galleries need to look more carefully at other industries where product development and distribution are separated, and look for methods and best practices that might be borrowed and adapted. The mega galleries have already figured this out, and have shot the first volley across the bow by building up the infrastructure and services (including the expansion of the art fair model) required to attract the best selling artists. The small and mid sized galleries need to respond, and while I'm sure many artists will cringe (and outright rebel against) at the idea of the arrival of the MBAs, this industry is already undergoing a disruptive transformation, and those entrepreneurial artist/galleries who figure this out soon will have a better chance of not only surviving, but actually thriving. I'm not saying that the high touch, reputation based selling of fine art is going away any time soon, but that the structural framework that surrounds the existing model is going to have to change to ensure the gallery system doesn't cannibalize itself.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Photography and the American Civil War @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 259 black and white photographs, generally framed in brown wood and matted or displayed in glass cases, and hung against grey walls with loose sack cloth edging in a series of ten rooms on the first floor of the museum (in the Greek & Roman wing). The exhibit was curated by Jeff Rosenheim, and a catalog of the exhibit was has been published by the museum (here) and distributed by Yale University Press (here). Since photography was not allowed in the galleries, there are no installation shots for this show.

The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the information on the number of prints on view and other background details organized by room. Other related ephemera is typically displayed in cases:

The Crucible of American History (Room 1)
  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • Reed Brockway Bontecou: 1 albumen print, 1865
  • Mathew Brady: 1 albumen carte de visite, 1858-1860
  • George Cook: 1 ambrotype with applied color, 1861-1865
  • Alexander Gardner: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • William Marsh: 1 salted paper print, 1860
  • McPherson & Oliver: 1 albumen carte de visite, 1863-1865
  • Timothy O'Sullivan: 2 albumen silver prints, 1863-1864
  • Thomas Roche, 2 albumen stereograph, 1861-1865
  • Andrew Joseph Russell: 1 albumen silver print, 1863
  • Unknown: 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861-1865, 3 ambrotypes with applied color, 1861-1865, 2 tintype with applied color, 1861-1865
1 campaign pin
31 lockets with tintype prints
1 necklace with tintype prints
1 gameboard
1 wooden stereo viewer

The Election of Abraham Lincoln: The Start of the War/Photographica (Room 2)
  • Mathew Brady: 2 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1860
  • Alexander Gardner: 2 albumen silver print, 1864-1865
  • Alma Pelot: 2 albumen prints, 1861
  • Alma Pelot/Jesse Bolles: 4 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861
  • Thomas Roche: 1 collodion glass negative, 1865, 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Unknown: 1 ambroytpe, 1861-1865
1 front page of Harper's Weekly, 1860
5 campaign medals with tintype prints 1860-1864
1 posing stand
1 Mathew Brady studio camera with tripod, 1860s
4 posters, ink on paper, 1861-1863
1 album, Mathew Brady, Incidents of the War, 1862
1 book plate, George Barnard, 1862
1 envelope/ink, 1861-1865

War Portraits/The African American Experience (Room 3)
  • George Armstead: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863
  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • Bonsall & Gibson: 1 ambrotype print, 1863
  • Mathew Brady: 2 albumen silver prints, 1861-1862, 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861-1862
  • Herrick & Dirr: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1862
  • Andrew Gardner: 1 albumen silver print, 1864
  • Horse & Peaslee, Gallery of the Cumberland: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864
  • Charles Henry Lanneau: 2 ambrotypes with applied color, 1863
  • McPherson & Oliver: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863
  • Henry Moore: 2 albumen silver print, 1862
  • NA & RA Moore Studio: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1862-1865
  • Joseph Carr Moulton: 1 ambrotype, 1861-1865
  • AJ Riddle: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864
  • Tappin's Photograph Art gallery, 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1861-1865
  • Unknown: 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861-1863, 19 ambrotypes with applied color, 1861-1865, 11 tintypes with applied color, 1861-1865
  • George W. Wertz: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863-1865
  • Oliver Willard: 5 albumen silver prints with applied color, 1866
3 leather albums with albumen silver cartes de visite
1 drum

Alexander Garnder and his "Photographic Sketch Book"/ "Mementos of the Fearful Struggle" (Room 4)
  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • George Barnard/John Gibson: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • Alexander Gardner: 4 albumen silver prints, 1863-1865
  • David Knox: 2 albumen silver prints, 1864
  • John Reekie: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Timothy O'Sullivan: 6 albumen silver prints, 1863-1865
  • Andrew Joseph Russell: 7 albumen silver prints, 1863-1865
  • John Wood/John Gibson: 2 albumen silver prints, 1862

Stereographs/Zouave Portraits (Room 5)
  • Mathew Brady: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1862
  • Porter Photographic Papers: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864-1866
  • Benjamin Reimer: 1 albumen silver print with applied color, 1861-1865
  • George Stacy: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1861
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1861, 1 albumen silver print with applied color, 1861-1865, 3 ambrotypes with applied color
4 albums
1 poster
1 wooden stereoviewer with 36 images from various photographers

Antietam, September 17, 1862/Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863 (Room 6)
  • Mathew Brady: 1 albumen silver print, 1863, 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1863
  • Alexander Gardner: 7 albumen silver prints, 1862-1863
  • Richard Lewis, 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863-1865
  • Tyson brothers: 1 albumen silver print, 1863
  • Unknown: 1 tintype with applied color, 1862
  • Wenderoth, Taylor & Brown: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863

Late War Portraits and Views (Room 7)
  • Charles Burgess: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1865
  • Gayford & Speidel: 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865
  • J Gurney & Son: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864
  • Hall & Company's Photography Gallery: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1865
  • JW Jones: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Kellogg Brothers: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1865
  • Myron Kimball: 1 albumen silver print, 1863
  • Samuel Masury: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864-1866
  • McPherson & Oliver: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863
  • Timothy O'Sullivan: 1 albumen silver print, 1864
  • Charles Paxon, 4 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1863
  • AJ Riddle: 1 albumen silver print, 1864
  • Unknown: 2 albumen silver carte de visite, 1861-1869
  • Charles Wheeler: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863

George N. Barnard and his "Views of Sherman's Campaign"/War Clouds (Room 8)

George Barnard: 13 albumen silver prints, 1864-1866, 1 album

Photography and Medicine/Reed Brockway Bontecou, MD (Room 9)
  • William Bell: 1 albumen silver print, 1866-1867
  • Reed Brockway Bontecou: 49 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865, 7 albumen silver prints, 1865, 1 albumen silver print with applied color, 1865
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver print, 1863-1865

War's End and Lincoln's Assassination (Room 10)
  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1866
  • Isaac Bonsall: 1 albumen silver print, 1864-1865
  • Mathew Brady: 11 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865, 2 albumen silver prints, 1865-1866
  • Alexander Gardner: 7 albumen silver prints, 1865, 2 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865/1 album
  • John Reekie: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Thomas Roche: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1865
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
1 poster
1 mourning corsage

Comments/Context: When the Met's photography department plays to its strengths, leveraging its deep collection of 19th and early 20th century photography and matching that rare imagery with in-depth scholarship and research, it can produce shows of such power and authority that they permanently alter the way we think about the history of the medium. This comprehensive show of Civil War photography is one of these special landmark exhibits, an extensive exploration of the point where a traumatic period in our nation's history met the emergence of a new visual medium. The show expertly mixes the known and the unknown: the generals and the anonymous soldiers, the famous battlefields and the forgotten camp sites, the big name photographers and the small town portrait studios, providing a rich, thoughtful investigation of how the war was captured in pictures. It's a parade of the somber and the grim, the grisly and the hopeful, photographs can be equally well read as classic documents of war and the market-ready innovations of artistic minded entrepreneurs.

While the show is roughly laid out chronological in order, it more closely follows the path of photography's approach to the conflict than the strict historical timeline of events. Capturing the action on the ground required multiple photographers and complex logistics, and so we saw the beginnings of the modern photographic agency, where key figures like Mathew Brady invested in large operations and studios to cover the breadth of the war. Given the dizzying variety of technical approaches being perfected at the time and the differing demands of customers, these studios produced everything from elegant albums to low cost cartes de visite and stereographic prints, each targeted at a specific audience hungry for images of the war.

In the early 1860s, photography was still very much in its infancy and crisply stopping action (like soldiers in battle) was beyond the ability of the available technology, so photographers were forced to linger around the action, taking before and after shots that could be set up with more care and patience. The result is a portrait of war that is often silent and subdued rather than noisy and chaotic, where battlefields like Antietam and Gettysburg are strewn with corpses and landscapes are defined by masses of military equipment or fortifications reduced to rubble: skulls mix with cannon balls, bodies are stripped of their boots, and troop carts and prisoners trudge onward. The show uses Andrew Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book and George Barnard's Views of Sherman's Campaign as two linchpin bodies of work, and fills in around these two cornerstones with other supporting imagery. Starting with the destruction of Fort Sumter and ending with the razing of Charleston, Savannah and other cities in the South, it's a wearying slog of trench spikes and ordinance, bodies in ditches, tent camp rest, and landscapes stripped bare, the only elegance to be found in the consistent craftsmanship of the compositions.

The show balances these sweeping views of the war with the up-close intimacy of studio portraits of both officers and enlisted men. This was photography for the masses, cheap tintype and ambrotype portraits, framed in elaborately decorated hand held cases and made for loved ones. In the early part of the war, men stand in fresh uniforms with a mixture of pride and trepidation, brandishing rifles and pistols or long knives and sharp bayonets, and brothers stand together, with beards and backpacks, ready to face whatever they might encounter. The faces peer out with a kind of doomed deer-in-the-headlights poignancy, given that so we know so few came back. Those that did are seen in a second group of portraits later in the exhibit, where lost legs and amputated arms are now part of the picture. An entire room of medical imagery by Reed Brockway Bontecou takes this idea further, following the path of gunshots through bodies, investigating ugly wounds and weeping scars, lingering over lost fingers and eyes. The exhibit ends not with fanfare and trumpets, but with the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and a heavy feeling of collective loss.

While there is, of course, a straightforward and often gripping visual history lesson here, the exhibit isn't a dry textbook of the Civil War. Instead, it's a visceral, gut punching tale of North and South, battlefields and sacrifices, destruction and desolation. It's also the tale of a trial by fire for the medium of photography, the story of Brady and Barnard, Gardner and O'Sullivan, and countless others, the eyes behind the cameras and how they framed the conflict for the rest of us to see. Taken together, the exhibit educates along multiple lines, seeing the history of the nation through its picture makers, smartly weaving art and war into one inextricably intertwined mass. This is the kind of exhibit the Met does better than almost any other museum, proof once again that when it investigates its extensive core holdings with deliberation and academic rigor, it's nearly unbeatable.

Collector's POV: Since this is a museum show, there are obviously no posted prices for the works on display. Prints and albums by George Barnard, Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan all come into the secondary markets from time to time. Barnard's individual prints have ranged in price from roughly $1000 to $3000, while the Sherman portfolio has reached more than $100000. Brady's prices have ranged between $1000 on the low end to more than $300000 for his most iconic daguerreotype portraits. Gardner's prints have ranged between $1000 and $29000, with his Sketchbook album reaching $85000. And O'Sullivan's prints have ranged between $1000 and $135000, although many of his highest priced works do not depict this particular Civil War imagery.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: New York Times (here), Wall Street Journal (here), New York (here), New Yorker (here), Gallerist NY (here)
  • Interview: Jeff Rosenheim, Modern Art Notes podcast (here)

Photography and the American Civil War
Through September 2nd

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

Friday, August 9, 2013

Walker Evans, American Photographs @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 57 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery on the 4th floor of the museum. Aside from one bulletin page (found in a glass case), all of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1929 and 1936. The exhibition was organized by Sarah Hermanson Meister and Drew Sawyer. A 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs has been published by the museum (here) and can be purchased in the bookshop for $35. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: At this point, some 75 years after its first display, there isn't much to debate about Walker Evans' American Photographs. It was the first one-person exhibit of photography at the MoMA in 1938 (a ground breaking feat at the time) and the accompanying catalog became a defining classic for the photobook genre. The photographs that made up the exhibit and book have influenced generations of downstream artists, capturing Depression-era America with a sense of exacting clarity and respectful austerity. Whether his camera was pointed at flourishes of 19th century architecture, examples of vernacular culture, or scenes of intimate social reality, his images consistently found a careful balance between poetic dignity and straight-on directness. These were, and still are, undeniable masterworks in the history of the medium, full stop.

Given the historical importance of the anniversary and the deserved reverence applied to these images, the curators of this show were actually faced with some thorny issues. Should they stay true to the original exhibition and recreate it with meticulous attention to detail (so as to preserve the artist's original intent), or should they reinterpret the body of work in search of new insights and fresh connections? In many ways, their answer lies somewhere in the middle, more a "spirit of the law" effort than a blind adherence to the original specifics. This show is smaller than its predecessor (many of the original 100 images edited out), opts for frames rather than prints glued directly to the walls (no surprise there, given the rarity of the vintage prints on view), and alternates the sequencing of the images between direct image by image fidelity and wholesale reordering. The photographs themselves are no less impressive, but the look and feel of the exhibit is somewhat different.

Part of the contemporary resonance that comes from this exhibit is its connection to the current Renaissance in photobook publishing. American Photographs was one of the first photobooks to be designed and sequenced with a perfectionist's eye for intent; Evans made careful decisions about which pictures went in which order, and how the two sections of the book worked together. No self-respecting photobook enthusiast has failed to spend hours poring over this volume and considering how it was put together. So if the curators of the current show were making a case for the importance of this work in the history of photobooks, and were making a particular point about the genius in the sequencing, I'm a bit surprised that they didn't try to recreate Evans' layout exactly. While the exhibit does have sections which follow his sequencing image by image, most of the walls remix the images into new lines of visual thought. This is not to say that the new sequencing is any less eloquent or well considered; in fact, some of the new groups and progressions seem clearer in terms of the hand offs between adjacent photographs. But if I'm a purist, they aren't exactly what Evans laid out, and if we're celebrating his fierce bookmaking intent, then I think we're off the mark just a bit.

The other new idea introduced here is the sense of broader context with the rest of American art. This exhibit is not huddled off in the photography galleries flanked by the history of photography, but dropped directly into the progression of the permanent collection of paintings and sculpture. To get to the Evans gallery, the viewer must first pass through the Abstract Impressionism of De Kooning, Pollock, Newman, and Rothko; to its side lies a gallery of Rauschenberg and Johns, and it is followed by the beginnings of Pop Art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Ruscha). While the chronological progression is slightly off (the Evans photographs are from the mid 1930s), Evans' placement amid this pantheon is well deserved. There are fascinating connections in every direction: the bold contrast between Evans' puritanical restraint and the heroic gestures (and scale) of the AbEx painters, the dialogue between Evans' vision of America and the one implied by Jasper Johns' encaustic flag or a Rauschenberg combine, and the interest in vernacular signage and cultural signifiers starting with Evans and being reconsidered by the Pop artists. It is long overdue to see a major photographer placed on equal footing with other bold faced artistic names, and found to be just as influential and critical to our understanding of the evolution of American art.

So while much of what is on view here will be familiar to most photography fanatics, the astonishing quality of the photographs is undiminished and the small riffs on the canon that have been introduced help keep the exhibit fresh. Those that were hoping for a historical rehanging of the original icon will be somewhat disappointed, but Walker Evans' American Photographs remains a landmark body of work, and I expect when we see it again in another 25 years, it will be even more integrated into the larger narrative of the American artistic experience.

Collector's POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are, of course, no posted prices for the works on view. Evans' prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of prints coming up for auction every year, mostly later prints and broken up portfolios. Recent prices have ranged from $1000 to nearly $200000, with vintage prints of his most iconic images at the top end of that range.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: New York Times Lens (here), New York Times (here), New Yorker (here), Ahorn (here), MoMA Inside/Out (here)
Through January 26
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Checklist: 8/8/13

Current New York Photography Shows
New reviews added this week in red.
(Rating: Artist/Title: Venue: Closing Date: link to review)


No reviews at this time.


ONE STAR: Oliver Gagliani: Gitterman: August 9: review
THREE STARS: Bill Brandt: MoMA: August 12: review
ONE STAR: Snap Noir: Pace/MacGill: August 21: review
TWO STARS: John Baldessari: Marian Goodman: August 23: review
THREE STARS: ICP Triennial: ICP: September 22: review
ONE STAR: XL: MoMA: January 6: review


ONE STAR: Model/Arbus: Hasted Kraeutler: August 16: review
ONE STAR: Rebecca Norris Webb: Ricco Maresca: August 17: review
ONE STAR: Under My Skin: Flowers: August 24: review

SoHo/Lower East Side/Downtown

ONE STAR: Jimmy DeSana: Salon 94 Bowery: August 9: review

Elsewhere Nearby

ONE STAR: LaToya Ruby Frazier: Brooklyn Museum: August 11: review
ONE STAR: Legacy/Fisher Landau Collection: Aldrich Museum: September 2: review

Forward Auction Calendar
New auctions added this week in red.
(Sale Date: Sale Title: Auction House: link to catalog)

No previews at this time.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the work of 29 artists/photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung/displayed throughout both floors of the museum. The exhibit was curated by Kristen Lubben, Christopher Phillips, Carol Squiers, and Joanna Lehan. A catalog of the exhibit was recently published by Prestel and the ICP (here and here). (Installation shots at right © International Center of Photography, 2013. Photographs by John Berens.)

The following artists/photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view and image details as background:
  • Roy Arden: 1 video, 2007
  • Huma Bhabha: 2 chromogenic prints with applied ink and acrylic, 2010 and 2013
  • Nayland Blake: 1 installation, 2013
  • A.K. Burns: 1 five channel video, 2011
  • Aleksandra Domanović: 3 stacks of inkjet printed paper, 2010
  • Nir Evron: 1 35mm black and white film, 2011
  • Sam Falls: 3 photograms, 2011, 1 enamel on archival pigment print, 2012, and 1 hand dyed linen and metal grommets, 2012
  • Lucas Foglia: 7 chromogenic prints, 2006-2010, 1 zine, 2012
  • Jim Goldberg: 1 wall installation of marked gelatin silver prints, chromogenic prints, inkjet prints and Polaroid prints, 2013
  • Mishka Henner: 3 inkjet prints, 2011
  • Thomas Hirschhorn: 1 video, 2012
  • Elliott Hundley: 1 large scale collage, 2010
  • Oliver Laric: 2 digital videos, 2010 and 2012
  • Andrea Longacre-White: 3 archival inkjet prints, 2013,
  • Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: 1 installation (storefront windows), 2013
  • Gideon Mendel: 6 chromogenic prints, 2007-2012 and 1 video, 2013
  • Luis Molina-Pantin: 17 chromogenic prints, 2004-2005
  • Rabih Mroué: 7 inkjet prints on high gloss paper, 2012, 1 video, 2012
  • Wangechi Mutu: series of 10 collages, 2013
  • Sohei Nishino: 2 lightjet prints, 2006 and 2013
  • Lisa Oppenheim: 4 black and white photographs, 2012
  • Trevor Paglen: 3 chromogenic prints, 2010-2013 and 1 video, 2010
  • Walid Raad: 3 archival color inkjet prints, 2012
  • Nica Ross: 1 performance, 2013
  • Michael Schmelling: 38 chromogenic prints, 2005-2009
  • Hito Steyerl: 2 videos, 2004 and 2012
  • Mikhael Subotzky/Patrick Waterhouse: 3 large scale lightboxes, 2008-2010
  • Shimpei Takeda- 5 autoradiographs, 2012

The exhibit also includes 5 shelves of self published photobooks, displayed in the stairway area. The complete list of the books on view can be found here.

Comments/Context: By its very nature, a biennial or triennial exhibition is an attempt at summing up, a snapshot in time meant to be representative of the larger trends of the moment. For the most part, these kinds of exhibits fail, mostly because the objective is so large and the answer so small (and often diffuse) that the viewer is left dissatisfied with the mismatch; these shows mostly turn into grab bags of disconnected work that are fun to walk through, but leave no lasting impression. But once in a very long while, the curators of a biennial or triennial get it just right, and find their way to a tightly edited selection of works that successfully tell the story of the current times. This ICP Triennial is one of those unexpected outlier exhibits, and certainly one of the best group shows of photography to be seen in New York this year.

The main success of this show lies in its deft articulation (albeit indirectly) of the key sea change that has happened in photography in the past decade or so. Now would be the time most writers would trot out the "digital revolution" and leave the cliché hanging out there for everyone to nod their heads in agreement, as if they understood. But the fact is, we've spent the last ten plus years trying to figure out what that phrase really means, generally without a succinct and coherent answer. What comes through in this exhibit is a permanent and important change in what I'll call the "workflow" of photography. In the previous age (which we might call "analog", but that might be misleading), there was generally only one workflow: start with a point of view or subject, take out your camera, and deliver your artwork as a final print. Right now, in this moment, there are a seemingly endless set of workflows available to photographers, artists, and anyone else who wants to mix together disparate media. Once again, we start with a point of view or subject, but then both the choices for methods and outputs quickly multiply. Images can be captured with a camera, drawn/appropriated from a physical or digital archive, generated with a computer, constructed in a darkroom, or recombined as a mutant hybrid. Artworks can take the final form of traditional prints, moving videos and films, self published books, physical objects of nearly any form, or digital files with only an Internet presence. The photographic reality of this moment is "freedom of workflow" and this exhibit offers countless examples of how this idea is manifesting itself as innovative artwork.

In many ways, this show is a brocade of ideas, methods, and outputs, recombined in different ways and interwoven to highlight connections. It's easy to tie threads through examples of concerned documentary ideas (Gideon Mendel and climate change/flooding, Shimpei Takeda and the Fukushima disaster, Rabih Mroué and the Arab Spring uprisings), examples of collage methods (Elliott Hundley's massive, stick pin conglomeration,  Sohei Nishino's multi-perspective city maps, Walid Raad's hybrid artifacts, Mikhael Subotzky/Patrick Waterhouse's towering apartment building lightboxes), and examples of image aggregation (Roy Arden's digital archive, Jim Goldberg's full wall installation of prints, Thomas Hirschhorn's iPad of gory violence, Oliver Laric's videos of unexpectedly connected imagery). With the same set of artworks on view, we could just as easily draw commonality through the investigation of the changing nature of communities, the broadening use of "photographic" video, the exploration of physical materials and hand crafted additions, and many other themes and approaches. As the title of the exhibit says, we're not in an age of chaos, just "a different kind of order".

A few pieces deserve closer examination. Thomas Hirschhorn's video of a disembodied hand skipping through a series of images on an iPad is at once revolting and mesmerizing; it is the single most memorable artwork I have seen all year. Fingers dance across the surface of the tablet, flipping images forward and back, stopping to enlarge a bloody injury, an exploded head with brains spilled out, or a pile of rotting corpses from some unnamed riot or revolution. Every image is disturbing, and then after time, there is a sense of becoming numb to the astonishing violence. The work is at once both video and still imagery, with a sense of the curiosity of human touch and the endlessness of the Internet's access to images we'd rather not see.

Rabih Mroué's discussion of a hand held video made by a bystander during the Syrian uprisings is equally complicated and chilling. In the video, a citizen journalist points his cell phone camera at a shooter in the street, only to have the man turn and fire, the camera tumbling to the ground in a cackle of static, presumably signaling the death of the cameraman. The surrounding walls of the video room are covered in large scale prints of pixelated imagery of various gunmen, the whole installation a deconstruction of how videos like these are being made and what they are showing us.

And finally in the stairwell, an enormous metal scaffolding creates a stairway up to a series of five overstuffed bookshelves full of recently produced photobooks and zines, showing off a dizzying array of styles and options for delivering photographs in book form. The inclusion of such a display in this major exhibit is a testament to just how pervasive self publishing has become, and how important it is as a newfound creative outlet. It sounds the trumpet that the revolution has been legitimized and that we need to take these new photobooks seriously as valid art forms.

All in, the ICP curators have found a way to successfully capture the "nowness" of contemporary photography, while still keeping the diverse exhibit manageable. While I would have liked to have seen even more examples of cameraless digital experimentation, for the most part, they have chosen works that touch on the multiplicity of the current age, while still providing lots of connection points between divergent ideas, methods, and final outputs. When we step back and look at the exhibit from afar, it slowly takes the form of a network, a matrix of interconnected points that the viewer can trace and follow like router hops. It represents the new way we need to think about the medium, not as one monolithic entity, but as a series of loosely bound, ever reconfiguring, photographic ideas.
Collector's POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Given the diversity of artists and mediums on view here, we'll dispense with the usual discussion of secondary market history.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: New York Times (here), Wall Street Journal (here), New Yorker PhotoBooth (here), GalleristNY (here)
Through September 22nd
1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Book: Viviane Sassen, In and Out of Fashion

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Prestel (here). Hardcover, 296 pages, with 250 color images. The volume includes essays by Nanda van den Berg and Charlotte Cotton, and a spread by spread bibliography of Sassen's fashion work from 1998 to 2012. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For all its attempts to catch our eye with outlandish styling and elaborate set-ups, much of contemporary fashion photography still follows the simple underlying formula of the model and dress (or other accessories) given front and center attention. As a result, no matter how fresh, original, or shocking the surrounding trappings might be, the central compositions have a familiar, generic uniformity to them; there are only so many ways to pose a model while still explicitly featuring the fashions. A casual flip through any thick fashion monthly will quickly clarify the conventional boundaries most fashion photographers are working within.
These genre-defining methods are what make Viviane Sassen's fashion photographs seem so unexpected. In comparison to the standard fare, her work brashly defies the normal routines, breaking quietly accepted visual rules left and right. This hefty volume is a retrospective look at Sassen's fashion photography from 1998 to 2012 and offers a seemingly never ending stream of strange surprises. Her pictures are the opposite of obvious or straightforward, forcing the viewer to do a double take just to puzzle out what is going on; she plays on our ingrained expectations, and takes every opportunity to upend those short hand assumptions.
Sassen's compositions are built with a knowing eye for how the camera sees. Her models become sculptural human forms, where clothing is almost incidental to the posing of the limbs and torso. Bodies are bent, arched, and contorted in unusual ways, often further fragmented by the reflections of a mirror or made surreal by the intertwining of multiple models into one unlikely mass of arms and legs. Odd camera angles and vantage points (upside down, twisted, off kilter) add another layer of disorientation, making the flattening out of the visual field and the interplay of space even more mysterious. In nearly every shoot, she has rejected any kind of thematic narrative or clichéd setting (a day at the beach, a glamorous nightclub, a city woman on the street etc.) and instead opted for something much more inconclusive, abstract and conceptual.
Sassen takes this innovation further by disregarding another foundation rule of fashion photography - the idea that we need to see the model's face. In image after image, she obscures faces, covering them with dark shadows, hair, or simply the rotation of the body getting in our way. At first, this lack of looking eye to eye is meaningfully disconcerting; there is none of the usual back and forth connection we have come to expect. But this visual device forces the viewer to return to the sculptural realm, where beauty is seen in the shapes and forms on view. Sassen can then additional layers of extremity by punctuating a composition with intense light or bold color. Body paint, color filters, flares of color, neon light streaks, or simply the unexpected introduction of a brightly colored prop (a green garden hose, red shoes, an orange scarf, a yellow piece of construction paper) help to unbalance things. By the time all these ideas are crammed into one frame or shoot, Sassen's brand of surreal glamour has become ravishingly unconventional.
Seen across more than a decade of work, the originality in Sassen's eye is proven to be remarkably varied and consistent; time and again, she has done something startling, kicking us out of our visual ruts. Hers is the kind of work that always keeps us guessing, making us active and engaged participants in her images, rather than glassy eyed zombies mindlessly searching for the next fashions to consume.
Collector’s POV: Viviane Sassen is represented by Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town (here); she does not appear to have consistent representation in New York. More broadly, her work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Exhibit: Huis Marseille Museum, 2013 (here)
  • Features/Reviews: Time LightBox (here), photo-eye (here),  Feature Shoot (here)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Model/Arbus, Great Photographs of the 20th Century @Hasted Kraeutler

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 black and white photographs, alternately framed in black (Model) and white (Arbus) and matted, and hung against white walls in the entry and the three rooms of the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, with a mix of vintage and later prints on display. The exhibit includes 15 photographs by Lisette Model, taken between 1934 and 1954, and printed in the 1940s and 1950s. These prints range in size from 12x10 to 20x16 (or reverse), and no edition information was provided. These works have been paired with 20 photographs by Diane Arbus, taken between 1961 and 1971, with one image printed and signed by Arbus, the rest printed later by Neil Selkirk and stamped by the estate. These prints range in size from 14x11 or 26x25 (or reverse) and generally come from editions of 50 or 75. The show also includes 1 video on Arbus. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: The student/teacher relationship in the realm of art has always been a tricky one. Every teacher wants his or her students to find their own unique artistic voice, but given the close relationship and nature of the ongoing feedback, it is somewhat inevitable that some of teacher's artistic ideas will trickle down into the work of the student, especially if the two have an affinity for the same kind of subject matter or are partial to a similar aesthetic approach. This show probes the nature of that influence, by pairing the work of Lisette Model (the teacher) and Diane Arbus (the student) in direct, side-by-side juxtapositions of photographs with visual echoes. It's a smart, well-edited reconsideration of portraits we have seen before, highlighting the connections and contrasts between the two.

In many ways, the selection and sequencing of the images in this exhibit is designed to highlight the parallels between Model and Arbus. The connections start with similar subjects, where both artists made portraits of pairs/couples, wealthy ladies in fancy hats, people wearing costumes, distorted faces, and stately grande dames and barons at white tie society functions. Other images trace more elemental compositional repetition, from subjects with raised arms or lying on their sides, to those seated in chairs with elbows bent or hands in their lap. When seen together in this manner, the argument for influence is pretty persuasive.

But interestingly enough, even with all the echoes and look alikes on view here, this hanging made me even more aware of the fundamental differences in style between Model and Arbus. Model's work, with its own connections to the grotesqueries of German Expressionism, has an inherent distance to it; her subjects are seen much more formally, even when she's right up close. They are more like specimens to be observed, often seen with a dark, harshness that is on the edge of confrontational. Jump ahead thirty years to Arbus, and her approach is much more intimate. Her eccentrics and oddballs are seen from within rather than from afar; in each and every image, there is a sense of direct personal connection between the photographer and the sitters. Based on these pairings, even if we can ascribe some causal relationship between Model's encouragement and Arbus' ultimate choice of subjects, Arbus has fundamentally replaced Model's judgmental eye with her own accepting embrace.

In a summertime full of light hearted group shows, this double bill has some welcome heft to it. It gives us a credible sampler of two masters of the medium, and thoughtfully investigates their interconnected relationship.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The Model prints range in price from $12000 to $45000, while the Arbus prints range from $7500 to $90000. Model's work is generally available in the secondary markets, with roughly a dozen or so lots up for sale in any given year. Recent prices at auction have ranged between $2000 and $62000. Arbus' work is much more ubiquitous at auction, both in the photography and contemporary art sales. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $5000 to up over $600000.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: New Yorker (here), Wall Street Journal (here)

Model/Arbus, Great Photographs of the 20th Century
Through August 16th

Hasted Kraeutler Gallery
537 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

Friday, August 2, 2013

Book: Motoyuki Daifu, Project Family

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Dashwood Books (here and here). Softcover, 50 pages, with 35 color images. There are no texts or essays included. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Motoyuki Daifu's flash lit photographs of his overstuffed family apartment in Yokohama easily cross over into visual chaos. The place itself is filled to the brim with parents, brothers and sisters, laundry, dirty dishes, cats, and the ever multiplying clutter of daily life. His images take a diaristic look at life in these cramped quarters, using a loose snapshot aesthetic to capture the eye popping density of color and texture seemingly found in every direction. Stepping into this environment full of visual stimuli for even just a moment is a bit overwhelming.

The best images in this thin volume reduce the mess into barely controlled still lifes, where a sink overflowing with dishes, a kitchen table of condiments, or a pile of bagged garbage and recycling turns into an overlapping riot of bright color. In these works, the jumbled too muchness of the stuff fills the frame to the breaking point. Other photographs introduce family members into this busy world, where open mouthed sleepers lie sprawled amid the debris and a snatched bowl of noodles offers a fleeting moment of peace. Daifu's photographs of his siblings add a sliver of surreal humor to the proceedings: three full-mouthed teenagers stare in the same direction with stunning similarity and the seemingly rolled back eyes of a brother punctuate tooth brushing and the face down passed out end of a meal. Even in all this claustrophobic, right-on-top-of-it chaos, there is a surprising amount of quiet tolerance and easy going joy.

Part of the charm of this book is its endearing warmth; the glare of Daifu's flash never turns harsh or particularly critical. (This was also true of his last project, Lovesody, reviewed here.) Rather than turn these pictures into pared down formal exercises, he has embraced the rush of cacophonous energy found in his home and let it run free. His photographs reject the entire notion of deadpan observation, and instead bring some low key personality back into the artistic discussion.

Collector’s POV: Motoyuki Daifu is represented by Lombard-Freid Projects in New York (here). His work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Feature: American Photo (here)