This week the judging period for “Click!”–the crowd-curated exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum–closed. I evaluated roughly 250 of the almost 400 photographs online. It was really a mixed bag; every twenty photos or so, there was an image that really popped out from the rest. Whether we’ll end up seeing all those images together in the final show depends on whether other reviewers of my self-described experience level agreed with my evaluations of which images were best. Regardless, it’s a great experiment, and I’m glad the Brooklyn Museum has undertaken it. I hope the final show, however good or bad the works in it, is artfully displayed.
A number of image “types” kept reappearing in this pool, forcing any thoughtful reviewer to get pickier and pickier as the same subjects popped up endlessly. The main culprits were:
A number of photographers decided to picture “the changing faces of Brooklyn” in the most literal sense–by photographing the faces of young Brooklynites. Bonus points to anyone who got a biracial kid in their photo, thereby symbolizing something or other about the melting pot that blah blah blah. Very, very few of these photographs had any merit greater than acting as a starting block from which the photographer could launch into a poetic meditation on the new generation growing up in changing surroundings. (More on this later–although I think it’s partly the theme’s fault.)
Ruins and Construction
Ruins, that time-tested photo subject, made another strong–by which I mean frequent–showing in this pool. Many photographers tried to throw in a crane, a slickly modern building, or a colonizing chain store (IKEA, Starbucks) to capture the changing facades of Brooklyn. It’s a step closer to the abstract than children’s faces, but a very small step. Occasionally, when ruins ended up as a backdrop for some other scene or observation, they worked nicely.
Who doesn’t love Coney Island? And now that it’s undergoing a major development project, it’s a better photographic subject than ever. While a truckload of photos simply showed the Cyclone or the old amusement park without much skill or elaboration, a decent number of Coney Island photos managed to capture something more–the diversity of the crowds caught in an inspired composition, the strange physiognomies that pass on the boardwalk. Maybe I’m just a sucker for this landmark, but I was surprised at the number of Coney photos that rose above the average.
Documents of Graffiti and Homemade Protests
Many people responded to the challenge of picturing “the changing faces of Brooklyn” by documenting OTHER people’s responses to the phenomena, rather than their own–though presumably, they sympathized with the voices they chose to record. While part of a body of work about change should naturally include the way people are responding to that change, most of these images were little more than tossed off snapshots of other people’s signs and art, rarely well-made photographs in their own right.
I’m excited to see this exhibition mounted, and to see where some of my favorites ended up. One temptation I found myself continuously fighting was the urge to read the artist statement out of sheer curiosity. These statements tended to be disastrous, ranging from the incoherent rebellion:
The photo represents the end game, the recycling of an atavistic nightmare. Faces may change but greed remains the same.
to run-of-the-mill photographic platitudes:
Humanity greatly inspires me to capture moments. A second, when captured, keeps that moment alive. Forever.
Many photographers felt the need to dissect their own work, elaborating on their carefully constructed symbolism–almost the exact opposite of the way a great artwork should operate. The phrase “this represents” runs amok through the artist statements. If you know what your photo represents, why bother making it? Why represent what you mean when you can just say it? Great photographs either inadvertently end up representing an idea or they represent something too complicated to be reduced to a single pat explanation. In short, this isn’t an elaborate intellectual production that needs an explanation. The theme of the show is simple, and if someone needs to read your artist statement to understand your photograph, your photograph can’t stand alone–and doesn’t deserve a place in the show.