The Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently presenting New Photography 2009, this year’s installment of a series that began in 1985 with the aim of exhibiting the most compelling recent work in the field of contemporary photography. Organized by Eva Respini, Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at MoMA, the exhibition brings together six young artists, Walead Beshty, Daniel Gordon, Leslie Hewitt, Carter Mull, Sterling Ruby, and Sara VanDerBeek, in a visually diverse body of work. Most of these artists actively produce work in other media, such as drawing, video, and installation, and each one has an innovative and distinct method of constructing a photograph. Collectively, these artists investigate the making of a photographic image in the twenty-first century, often utilizing processes of collecting, assembling, or manipulating other images or items.
With the advent of contemporary aesthetics and technologies, photography, long characterized by its ability to capture and represent reality, is again the subject of critical debate. The historical definition of the medium is challenged by the rise of digital capabilities and software programs, which allow photographers to combine their own images with others that are digitally uploaded or scanned. The abundance of imagery now available at the click of a mouse has led artists towards a deeper analysis of the role of an image within society. The six artists included in the exhibition create their pictures in a studio or darkroom, investigating the expanded vocabulary of digital processes and its technical and theoretical implications for photography. The exhibition highlights an epochal moment of transformation for the medium, showcasing the work of artists who critically confront our media saturated world, and open a new era of possibility for photography. Some works reference traditional techniques of the medium while others are constructed from online images; the works included range from abstract to representational.
The monumental polychromatic photographs of Walead Beshty (b. 1976) dispense with specific content and outlying subject matter entirely, instead reflecting the technical and historical means of image production. At a time when chemical photography is slipping into obsolescence, Beshty works completely without the use of a camera in the secluded space of a darkroom, removed from the outside world. His psychedelic photograms, such as Three Color Curl (2008), result from exposing the sensitive material surface of the photograph to a range of various light sources and chemical applications. Portions of photographic paper are exposed multiple times to cyan, magenta, and yellow lights. Since the exposure process must take place in total darkness, a set of closed operations are administered, but largely left to chance, in the creation of these spectral compositions. The surfaces of the photograms are treated as objects in themselves, released from the role of description. Beshty pares down the photographic machinery in the creation of self-reflexive works that record the event, or the surrounding conditions, of their own production. Beshty began employing this evidentiary photographic process after a trip to Berlin in 2006, where he took several conventional documentary shots of the unoccupied Iraqi embassy. Upon crossing the border on his return to the United States, Beshty’s undeveloped film was accidentally exposed during the security scanning process, producing warm vermillion washes over the otherwise static architectural compositions. The element of chance and its creation of non-referential, but highly indexical, information characterizes all of the artist’s subsequent work. Each Three Color Curl is the outcome of the direct manipulation of photographic elements.
For other artists in the exhibition, the photographic image is the end result of a creative endeavor that begins with sculpture or collage. The photographs exhibited by Daniel Gordon (b. 1980) represent the final stage of a process that starts with the construction of life-size figurative sculptures made from cut paper and other images, often culled from the internet. In an interview conducted by DailyServing earlier this year, Gordon describes his pictures as “a collaboration between me and everybody on the internet.” Using online search terms such as ‘skin’, the artist compiles image results to use in the fabrication of his three-dimensional temporary collages that are then photographed. Produced entirely within his Dumbo, Brooklyn studio, the crude figurative sculptures (often female) depict bizarre and sometimes unsettling situations; detached objects and anatomical parts mingle and merge with one other to form grotesquely appealing images, such as Red Headed Woman (2008). Gordon’s photosculptures exist somewhere between two and three dimensions, visually interrupted by his disjunctive cuts which recall the photomontages of the Dadaists.
Sara VanDerBeek (b. 1976), daughter of experimental filmmaker and animator Stan VanDerBeek (1927-1984), takes a similar approach to image making, appropriating current and historical photographs from various sources, including newspapers and exhibition catalogues. She then creates temporary structures that exist only to be photographed. A Composition for Detroit (2009), a multipart photographic work consisting of four panels, reflects the country’s current economic situation by exploring the state of postindustrial cities. Media photographs from the 1967 Detroit riots as well as a Depression-era photograph by Walker Evans are symbolic markers in this cultural commentary. Leslie Hewitt (b. 1977) combines personal and historic narratives within her photographs, examining how nostalgia and cultural meaning can be held within an image. Hewitt meticulously composes and then photographs still life arrangements of personal artifacts, such as family snapshots or the 30th anniversary issue of Ebony, placing them with historic relics from the civil rights era. In two of the works exhibited, Hewitt turns the orientation of the photograph upside down, causing visual tension for the viewer.
Works exhibited by Carter Mull (b. 1977) include Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 5, 2008 and Los Angeles Times Monday, February 23, 2009, for which the artist photographed the front cover of the L.A. Times, his local newspaper, and at least two pictures responding to that page, and manipulated them using both digital and analog techniques. Mull draws attention to the parallel between the transformation of photography and print media in the digital age with his vibrant and often patterned prints.
Sterling Ruby’s (b. 1972) digitally constructed photographic collages on display at MoMA, Artaud (2007) and Animal (2009) are based on graffiti found in the Cinque Terre region of Italy and in Venice, respectively. Ruby took pictures of existing graffiti and digitally manipulated these photographs by adding his own painterly touches with Photoshop, resulting in rich and complex layers of imagery.
The six artists included in New Photography 2009 are expanding the medium by introducing new ways of working with an image, whether referencing traditional techniques or exploiting the proliferation of images in our media saturated world. Beshty, Gordon, Hewitt, Mull, Ruby, and VanDerBeek are blurring the lines of photography with other disciplines as they participate in the lively debate on the nature of photography in the twenty-first century.
New Photography 2009 will remain on view in The Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery on the third floor of MoMA until January 11, 2010.