Whether they’re inspired by Internet surveillance images or 17th-century portraits, contemporary artists draw on a wide range of material to stretch photography’s limits of expression.
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We live in an age of image overload, from tumblr to Instagram to Google Images. If you spend any time online, it begins to feel like an incoherent sea of pictures, without rhyme or reason. But a number of contemporary photographers have dived into the massive pool of Web-based images to create bodies of work that stems from a sharp curatorial eye and an editorial impulse to create meaning out of chaos.
In his ongoing series A New American Picture, Doug Rickard has created a visual narrative about disenfranchised areas of the United States using images selected from Google Street Views. These are the pictures taken from the cameras on top of the fleet of Google cars continuously traveling the county. Rickard selects neighborhoods that he assumes might be socio-economically disadvantaged (Detroit, Baltimore, Camden, N.J.) and follows the Google car on his computer. When he sees an image he likes, he takes a photograph of it on his computer screen with a large-format camera.
There is a faded, painterly quality to these photographs, which have been likened, in their emptiness, to Edward Hopper paintings. But the series has also been situated squarely in the social documentary tradition of photography. The Village Voice dubbed Rickard, whose work appeared in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2011 exhibition, “the Google Riis” after the 19th-century social documentarian Jacob Riis. Yossi Milo, who represents Rickard, draws a line from his work back to such early street photographers as Walker Evans and Robert Frank. “He is using technology to his advantage,” says Milo, “to give a sense of what’s happening all over the country.” What’s happening is not good—a single soul in the desolate parking lot of a car wash in Dallas; four young men walking past an untended, overgrown cemetery in New Orleans—but the pictures themselves are eerie and persuasive.
Using the same technology, but to different ends, Jon Rafman captures strange and serendipitous moments around the world in his series 9 Eyes of Google Street Views. His photographs are uncanny and sometimes unexpectedly poetic: a stunning picture of the skeleton of a half-sunken boat in Norway, a tiger strolling across a parking lot in Boulder, Colo., and a baffling shot of a baby—alone—crawling on the sidewalk outside of a Gucci store in Taiwan. “I’m famous with tumblr kids; they’re my demographic,” the Montreal-based photographer told the London Independent last summer. With exhibitions in the last year at London’s Saatchi Gallery, L.A.’s M+B Gallery and the New Museum’s monthly First Look series, his demographic has definitely expanded.
Google Earth is the tool favored by Dutch artist Mishka Henner. Introduced in 2005, the satellite imagery provides aerial views of earth, but due to security concerns, many governments use blurring and pixelization to conceal certain areas in the images. The Dutch, surprisingly perhaps, were most strict in terms of digitally blotting out what they consider sensitive areas. In his Dutch Landscapes series, Henner captures these digitally altered images, in which the censorship is, at times, almost comical, since the blob-like polygons only draw more attention the area they’re hiding. But they also result in handsome, geometric abstractions that bring to mind Cubist paintings or works from the Dutch-born De Stijl movement, which emphasized pure abstraction. “Henner does what any documentary photographer does,” says Joanna Lehan, one of the curators of the ICP triennial, A Different Kind of Order, from May 17–September 8, which includes Henner’s work. “He investigates a place and tries to show us what a certain place and time looks like. It just so happens that the place he’s showing us is virtual space.”
The triennial also includes the work of South African photographer Mikhail Subotsky. As it happens, South Africa is the source of some of the most politically engaged but also visually arresting contemporary photography being produced. Subotsky teamed up with British artist Patrick Waterhouse to create the project Ponte City, which is in the triennial. A 54-story building in Johannesburg that has become a symbol of the city’s problems and the country’s post-apartheid struggles, Ponte City was built in 1976, when the surrounding neighborhood was largely white. But with the end of apartheid in 1994, many white residents fled the city for the suburbs. The building has changed hands several times and is now partly occupied and only partly renovated.
Subotsky and Waterhouse created three lightboxes that include photographs taken between 2008 and 2010 of every window, internal door, and television set in the building. The towering, vertical lightboxes, which move from geometric abstractions to information-rich imagery, depending on how closely you view them, echo the scale of the building itself. Though rooted in social documentary, the typologies bring to mind a colorful version of work by Bernd and Hilla Becher and their protégés.
A number of South African photographers have similar concerns about race and class, but they’ve approached the visual manifestation of those issues in different ways. The exuberant work of Robin Rhode, on view early this year at Lehmann Maupin, combines street performance, graffiti, drawing and photography. At once street smart and indebted to the history of conceptual art, Rhode’s photographs document frame-by-frame sketches, in soap or charcoal or paint on a wall, of a simple narrative: the arc of a baton as it twirls through the air, a small ship crisscrossing through a current, a bird making its way from perch to perch on a length of barbed wire.
The artist himself interacts with the drawings as they unfold in the photographs, and his work casts a wide net in terms of references, from South African traditions of storytelling and mural making to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies, stop-action films, flip books, and street artists like Vito Acconci, whom Rhodes has cited as an early influence. Race and class are swept up into his work, but the issues take a back seat to gesture and a sort of whimsical grit.
South African photographer Zaneli Muholi engages much more directly with the politics of her country—in this case, discrimination against the gay and lesbian community. Her ongoing series Faces and Phases, on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery through April 6, includes black-and-white portraits, in the classical tradition, of South African lesbian and transgender subjects. Her quietly formal portraits recall August Sander but also Catherine Opie: Muholi’s subjects gaze directly, confidently, into the camera and out at the viewer, surely part of the politics of her work. “She sees this project as a way of mapping the community and giving voice and dignity to these individuals,” says Yancey Richardson. The American artist Mickalene Thomas included Muholi in a show she curated last summer for Richardson, and her work immediately garnered interest from curators and collectors. “For me, the work is about gender fluidity,” adds Richardson, “the idea that it’s not fixed and can exist across a spectrum.”
Zwelethu Mthethwa has long been known for his vivid, large-scale color photographs, and his series The Brave Ones also touches on gender fluidity. The series features portraits of young Zulu men who are members of the Nazareth Baptist Church near Mthethwa’s hometown of Durban, South Africa. As part of a ceremonial retreat, they dress in black or pink kilts, white blouses and headbands. The gender-bending aspects of these photographs are fascinating, but their visual abundance outshines anything else: the handsome young men in their confident poses, the brightly colored clothes, the lush landscapes. They are richly detailed and sumptuous images.
Portraiture is, of course, one of the primary threads running through this history of photography. There is something undeniably compelling about the human face, its expressiveness and enigmatic qualities. But some of the best portrait photography in recent memory, by Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas, has focused not on people but on horses. As part of a commission by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Dumas made a series of tender, almost romantic, portraits of the U.S. army horses who pull the caissons carrying fallen soldiers’ caskets to Arlington National Cemetery. She took the photographs in the stables, after the horses had completed their jobs for the day and were resting, sometimes sleeping. “The horses are white, they’re shown falling asleep, and on a metaphorical level,” says dealer Julie Saul, who showed the work in early 2013, “there’s a deathlike quality to them, but also an angelic quality.”
Collectors can be skeptical of animal portraiture, and rightly so, since they can easily be sentimental or overly anthropomorphizing. But Dumas has a history of making portraits of working animals—rescue dogs after the September 11 attack, police horses in Amsterdam, racehorses in Palermo—that are inexplicably poetic and rich. “Her work is about the symbiotic relationship between man and animals, “says Saul, who first saw Dumas’s work about nine years ago and snapped up a photograph of a horse for herself. “There’s a particular quality to her work that is hard to describe, but it fits into the history of portraiture.”
Perhaps it has to do with the rich history of portrait painting in Holland and the influence of masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer, but the country produces great photographic portraitists. Rineke Dijkstra may be the best known, but her compatriot Hellen van Meene makes portraits of adolescents—and dogs, as it turns out—that are both wonderfully peculiar and steeped in the tradition of 17th-century portrait painting. Her recent body of work included intimate, psychologically rich photographs of introspective, semi-clothed young women and portraits of dogs, photographed on oriental carpets against richly colored backdrops, who seem, in contrast, quite sure of themselves. Her use of light gives the subjects both a softness and a richness found in the work of few other contemporary photographers.
Jill Greenberg, for instance, comes at portraiture from an entirely different place. Her photographs—whose subjects have included monkeys, bears and most recently horses—are staged and Photoshopped to achieve glamorous or humorously quirky expressions. She has said that if her pictures of monkeys and bears can be likened to celebrity portraiture, the horses are like supermodels, and indeed the beautiful specimen in Casey #4-50 seems to be eyeing us coyly from behind a well-coiffed forelock. “The Horse photographs are more formal,” says Brian Paul Clamp, owner of ClampArt, which showed her Horse series in the fall, “more like figure studies.”
Greenberg may be best known for a portrait series called End Times (a book of the work has just been published by T.F. Editores and Interactiva), which features highly detailed, large-scale portraits of toddlers crying. Greenberg, who has two children of her own, has said that the toddlers’ emotions reflected her own feelings of anger and helplessness regarding the war in Iraq and the general political tenor of the times, but they attracted their share of controversy. “Her work falls in line with the tradition of portraiture in photography—someone like Yousuf Karsh, even,” says Clamp, “but it’s portraiture that’s appropriate for this present moment. It’s definitely portraiture with a twist.”
That would certainly describe Frieke Janssen’s series Smoking Kids, on view at Catherine Edelman Gallery through May 4. Her staged, stylized and digitally manipulated photographs show young children—somewhere between the ages of four and nine—smoking. None of them are actually smoking, of course. They’re holding cheese sticks or chalk, and the images were digitally altered after the photographs were taken, but the subjects replicate to an uncanny degree the gestures of adult smokers, blowing smoke rings, holding the cigarette palm up in a casually feminine gesture.
Janssens was inspired, if that’s the right word, by a video that came out on YouTube several years ago showing an Indonesian toddler smoking one cigarette after another. Janssens’ series plays with the idea of the repugnance with which people viewed that YouTube video versus the glamorization of smoking generally. She dressed her subjects in clothing from time periods when smoking was particularly fashionable—the Mad Men era, or early Hollywood.
“This was the most irreverent, funny, disturbing, poignant work I had seen in a long time,” says Edelman, and despite its provocative subject matter, collectors seem to agree. Edelman took the work to Art Miami, she says, and collectors snapped the work up. Perhaps no surprise, because it’s just this sense of irreverence and experimentation that draws dealers to contemporary photography—knowing they can still be surprised and captivated by a new twist on a genre, a new way of looking at the world. Photography is still a young medium, and its boundaries are still changing and growing. The photographers who are pushing those boundaries are the ones to watch.
By Jean Dykstra