What Do You Believe In
This select group exhibition of sixteen artists— Jen DeNike, Hank Willis Thomas, Leah Beeferman, Stuart Hawkins, Yamini Nayar, Fay Ray, Luke Stettner, Anissa Mack, Kenya Robinson, Xaviera Simmons, Nicole Cherubini, Nyeema Morgan, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Matthew Spiegelman, Daniel Gordon, Ignacio Lang—explores how photography shapes our ideas—who we are, why we do the things we do, how our thinking happens, and where it evolves. Works in the exhibition will range from collage, installation, video, sculpture, and photography and span the mystical, ideological and political. Many of the works explore self-perception from an existential or spiritual perspective to popular culture’s impact on personal development. But what all of the artists attempt to show us is where we are and where we might be heading.
The Razor’s Edge: Between Documentary and Fine Art Photography
All artists walk a razor’s edge between form and content. It is the core struggle all artists must resolve with their work. By its very nature though, documentary leans heavily toward content. But the marketplace creates an environment that is uncomfortable with the emphasis on content and demands an emphasis on form.
The core concern of documentary photographers is the subject matter, and the photographer, as an artist, uses the formal language of visual art to communicate this context to their audience. But when documentary photography enters the fine art world of commercial galleries, the connection to the subject matter is downgraded and the formal values of the work, manifest in the print, is elevated. Gallery sales, though potentially lucrative, can substantially change the nature of the work.
There has always been an uncomfortable relationship between documentary photography and fine art photography. Even “fine art” photographers who work primarily in the documentary genre often will not admit to the term. The elephant in the room in the fine art world is that tendentious work—work that has a motive beyond pure “artistic” pleasure—is tainted and beneath work that is purely fine art.
But quite the opposite is true. Documentary has twice the pressure as art based in formalism. Not only must documentary excel in formalism, it must then channel this honed skill to create a meaningful message. Documentary can tell us truths about our relationships to other people, to nature, and to ourselves. Isn’t that what we want from art—truth?
Fundamentally our culture does not want to face difficult or complex truths about our world. Is it that we don’t care? Or that the truth is too painful, or that our guilt is too great, or just that the truth is too enormous for the average human psyche to fully grasp. It is much easier and safer to parse the subtleties of form than it is to grapple with the complexities of a world wrought with poverty, disease, hunger, exploitation, and war, or to explore dissonant gender and family relationships, or radical ideas about relationships to power and commerce—in other words the fare of documentary photography.
The dictates of the marketplace don’t help us answer this question; for markets to flourish, they must present a never-ending optimism and conformity, warranted or not. Photographers grappling with complex social issues are thus persona non-grata in the marketplace of art unless they turn their discourse to formal values that are more palatable to buyers of art.
The landscape documentary photographers face is both a culture that avoids facing difficult issues and a marketplace that rewards obfuscation. But luckily we have artists who demand truth, explore far beyond the measure of normality and the pedestrian, and who grapple with complex issues. But they want—and need—some measure of success in the marketplace, as we all do in contemporary society. They therefore must walk a razor’s edge fraught with these contradictions.
This show—featuring Bruce Davidson, Reza, Platon, Rina Castelnuovo, and Eugene Richards—is about that tension, and exploring where these artists stand on this edge and how they grapple with these contradictions.
the Curse and the Gift
Henri Cartier-Bresson once famously said that, “to take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life.” In this age of iPhones and Android digital photography, where Instagram and Picasa allow for easy photo editing, with endless retouching and sharing options, the art photographer’s perspective has been sacrificed at the altar of instant gratification. Photography is a way of life, and as we all become touch-screen photographers, emailing and Facebooking away, art photography takes on an entirely new meaning in its role in helping us to understand the way we live now. With our modern societies in flux, and many forms of cohesion in jeopardy, it helps to reflect on those changing human dynamics by looking at images that were composed calmly, away from the pressure of instant delivery. The three photographers I chose for this exhibition approach image-making in very different ways, but they share a nomadic sensibility that often translates into sharp social commentary. It comes out in the tones and undertones.
Evangelia Kranioti is from Athens, but she has been living in Paris, on and off for the past decade. Her work deals with the endless human journey, with the sea and maritime voyages as her great inspiration. Venturing into the Mediterranean to Italy or the Atlantic through the docks of Rio de Janeiro, she is constantly searching for dignity and humanity, seeking tangible traces of beauty in this world. In doing so, she often finds herself in borderline situations, in zones where others might feel personal and social discomfort. But, whether she is photographing downtown prostitutes or wayward sailors, the tension feeds her lens and the result is a series of unvarnished testimonies about human weakness, where vulnerability is the common attribute, courage is viewed as a currency and desire becomes the equalizer.
Irmelie Krekin lives in Stockholm, but her parents came to Sweden from the Russian border, a place called Karelia. The images shown in the exhibit are the result of a personal exploration of her childhood memories, when she would travel to the forest, carrying her secrets in her backpack and watching the world unfold before her young eyes. In the summer of 2009, she began to revisit her childhood summers and recreated, through her observations of her own children, the personal stories that she had once constructed from those fleeting moments, from the hidden experiences of innocent youth. The faded memories and unspoken family secrets are finally shared, reconstructed and turned into a road movie of sorts: a road movie with no car and no sound, just the melancholy of silence.
Christian Witkin, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, was born to an American artist father and a Dutch mother. Like many of the great twentieth century documentarians, he is interested in discovering the world through a series of surveys where the images are created through spontaneous street experimentations. The portraits shown here are telling us something about the people he met in India, Thailand, Ethiopia and the hometown boroughs of New York City. Although these characters seem detached from their surroundings, in reality they are completely absorbed in their cultural environments. The stories that are told through the gaze in their eyes end up pointing to a world where imagination subverts reality. Because of his preference for classical compositions that leave room for the spontaneity of chance encounters, he is able to embrace both the tradition in ancestral cultures and the modernity of assumed eccentricities.
Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid
Sinfonia Antarctica (The Book of Ice)
The Soviet architect, graphic designer, and collage artist Gustav Klutsis once said of his music-staging loudspeaker arrays: “Fantastic work. Looking for new media. Surface. Space. Construction.”
For the New York Photo Festival, Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky takes a look at how the role of the “archive” of Antarctic history—in photography, graphic design, and contemporary composition—has shaped some of the ways we think about contemporary digital media aesthetics. In conjunction with NYPH’12, Miller will present material from his recent Book of Ice project through the prism of an intersection of sculpture, architecture, live performance, moving image, and digital media installation. From the molecular structure of ice to the composition of atmospheric pollutants as they color the night skies, the material for Miller’s installation with NYPH’12 will explore the linkages between the physical realm of beautiful remote places like the ice fields of Antarctica, and the ethereal realms of digital media portraits of a rapidly changing world.