For those of you hitting up the inaugural New York Photo Festival this weekend, I’ve done a quick run-through and picked out favorites among the exhibits. Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked–I had to catch a train down south, so I only had about 2.5 hours there. If you want to see NYPH in full, I’d recommend allotting yourself at LEAST 3.5 hours.
My top picks by section, in no particular order:
Milstein’s beautiful “Aircraft” series employs a simple composition to do a lot of intellectual work. Real jets, seen from below against a blank background (sky?), appear so perfectly aligned, contained, and in such sharp focus that they don’t look real. Instead, they look like toys, but Milstein photographs them with such close attention that they acquire a sort of natural beauty we don’t usually associate with planes. His visual strategy is a common one in photography–to make the familiar rich and strange by showing it close up–but rather than taking a very close look at a regular object, he takes a regular look at an object we normally see from very far away: the bottom of an airplane. Milstein’s careful titles stress the subtle differences we don’t normally see that make each model unique; he approaches these planes with the fascination of an avid bird watcher compiling a guide for the amateur birder.
The photographs from “Empty Bottles” are nice in themselves as images of quiet moments when anonymous urbanites stop to interact with their notoriously impersonal city environment. But they’re even better once you know that this photographic duo didn’t simply seek out these moments–they created them. They placed empty plastic bottles around the city, then photographed passersby as they decided to take a moment to collect them for recycling. So there’s an added aspect of citizenship and environmental conscience, as well as of conceptual documentation, that makes this a rich work.
Norfolk’s photographic documentation of what he dubs the “military sublime” is beautiful. His images of missile and satellite launches that leave a fiery, rainbow-like arc in the sky do a fine job of encapsulating the ambivalent beauty and fascination that we experience when confronted with our own wildly destructive technologies. His photo documentation of a miniature model of a missile testing area, which includes a hand-built mini-missile flying off the map, provides eloquent visual testimony to the boyish delight of the scientific and military communities in creating devastating weaponry. (I was also thrilled to see someone using the term “sublime” correctly, in the Burkean sense. Bravo.)
Gill gets the “innovative presentation” award for his images of crumpled betting papers salvaged from the floors of gambling hotspots in the UK. (Or maybe the award should go to Ryan?) The simple black-and-white photographs of these organic monuments to disappointment are mounted on a cheap plywood wall (not unique to his exhibit); around them, he’s scrawled captions and an artist’s statement in white chalk. It’s an artful and appropriate method of display that showcases how straight photography can still be an original and powerful force in the photo world.
Angelmaier tastefully arranges assorted reproductions of images–in the cases shown here, two Albrecht Dürer works, some art history slides, and a Man Ray postcard–to demonstrate how issues of image control and reproducibility aren’t unprecedented products of the digital age, but actually have a long and complex history. While I was drawn to Angelmaier’s images for purely aesthetic reasons, I’m indebted to Lesley Martin for the conceptual explanation. Unfortunately, the work in “The Ubiquitous Image”–like much of the work at NYPH–doesn’t have artist statements, which makes for some confusion when the title doesn’t explain work that’s theoretically complex. Lesley was around when I stopped by, and was kind enough to talk a little bit about the works on hand. She was as eloquent and engaged as always.
Mann takes found photographs and treats them with bleach to selectively eliminate elements. Surrealist work always risks tackiness, but Mann’s collage-like pictures never cross that line–his final products are inevitably beautiful reductions that are a lot more complicated than what he starts with. Maybe because we’re so used to photographs being spliced up, recombined, and botched in the lab, his interventions never grate on the aesthetic sensibility. Instead, they feel like an organic part of it, mimics of darkroom disasters that result in fortuitous, haunting compositions.
Harrell Fletcher has set up a station to scan, enlarge, and frame the wallet pictures of people who pass through the exhibition–a tactic he also used at SFMOMA in 1998. I love when vernacular photographs are brought into the gallery, and the added element of interactivity makes this a really wonderful contemporary show. It’s easy to lose sight of the everyday roles we assign photography when you spend your entire day wandering from gallery to gallery; Fletcher’s exhibition satisfies the audience’s narcissistic and voyeuristic impulses while pulling photography down from its high-art dais at the same time. Sadly, I won’t be there to see Frankie, my girlfriend’s mom’s dog, go up on the wall this weekend. But if you see a big poster of a curly haired dog in the grass, you know where it’s from.
I could call out individual works in “Various Pictures,” but that seems like it might contradict the point of the show. Incidentally, it’s a point that left me a little bit disturbed. (I wish I could have been at the “Curating 2.0″ discussion with Tim Barber, Laurel Ptak, and Jen Bekman–I’m sure it was amazing, and maybe it would have cleared up some of my doldrums.) It seems sort of ironic to me that “Various Pictures” is located right next to “The Ubiquitous Image,” since “VP” feels like a part of that trend of endless jumbled stores of images that the artists in “TUI” seek to order or respond to. There are many good photos in “Some Pictures”–this is clearly a curated space, not some giant Flickr print out–but the end result is dizzying, and you leave with a sense of exhaustion and skepticism about the importance, or possibility of uniqueness, of any individual practitioner. Perhaps that’s the point–to overthrow old hierarchies and histories based on canonical photographers and artificial distinctions of style and quality. But the senseless glut of images that Tim Barber seems to propose as a replacement feels anonymous and unnavigable. Each image is captioned with the photographer’s name, but they may as well not be. Maybe I’m just too old-fashioned to fully embrace the revolution.
I’m sorry I couldn’t see more of the satellite shows. I did stop by the Tobacco Warehouse invitational pavilion, which I didn’t have nearly enough time to explore. MoCP has put up a great show there, including Jonathan Gitelson’s brilliant “Items of Clothing Secretly Hidden By My Girlfriend” and Stacia Yeapanis’s “My Life As A Sim.” I love Gitelson’s work; he’s someone I bookmarked a long time ago and keep meaning to talk more about. Yeapanis’s work was new to me, but I like it–granted, the whole avatar genre of photography has gotten a lot of play recently; still, most of it focuses on Second Life, and I’d never seen this kind of autobiographical documentary applied to the virtual realm before. That’s an oversimplification of the project, but still–it’s nice work. Check it out.
Of course, the show also left me with a number of questions unanswered. The biggest one was “Why hasn’t there been a New York Photo Festival before?” But other frontrunners included:
–What the hell is the satellite show “The Singled Person” supposed to be about? I read the statement, but the way it’s presented makes it virtually unviewable.
–What is Michel Campeau’s “Darkroom” work doing in Parr’s “New Typologies”? I wasn’t sorry to see it again–it’s excellent–but there’s nothing typological about it.
–What is with this trend sweeping contemporary photography, where a bunch of flash-saturated images of everyday people and things are thrown together haphazardly? While I don’t think that style dominates the work of either Melissa Catanese or Lars Tunbjörk, it’s the only kind of work by each that appears in NYPH. Am I the only one noticing this? How many other photographers have series of work that might be described similarly? Matthew Sleeth, for one. Maybe 291 should establish a stylistic guessing game…I’ll consider that as a regular feature.
Until then, I’m signing off. Get out to NYPH if you possibly can.
Top image © Jeffrey Milstein; bottom image © Curtis Mann.