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Portrait of Self-Consciousness: Where the Medium Is the Message
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography at the Met
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art has until recent years extended a clammy handshake to living artists. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Given what has been happening at other institutions, especially since the 1980s, its wariness about glossing nascent reputations can be seen as prudent. Of course, stodginess also risks irrelevance. For decades many painters and sculptors have viewed its historic go-slow attitude as hostility to anything challenging or imperfect.

Contemporary photographers have had even more reason to feel unwelcome. New acquisitions are still hung in hallways, visible as you enter or exit other galleries, not as a destination in themselves. One-person shows by younger photographers have occurred here at about the same rate as vacancies on the Supreme Court.

The opening last year of the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, the museum's first permanent home for contemporary work, signaled a more hospitable mood. The inaugural show, a survey of conceptual practice since the '60s, titled 'Depth of Field,' was a brave gesture by the museum, if disappointing. There were too many big pictures for the narrow space and too many yawningly familiar names: Cindy Sherman, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth, Sigmar Polke.

'Photography on Photography: Reflections on the Medium since 1960,' the second exhibition in Menschel Hall, is a marked improvement. Associate curator Douglas Eklund has found prints and objects of varied scale that fit the difficult space; and even though, once again, many of the usual suspects are lined up for inspection -- Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Hiroshi Sugimoto -- there are enough less-celebrated photographers, represented by a few uncommonly interesting pieces, to please the most jaded museum-trekker. Several of the artists are on the walls for the first time at the Met.

The theme of the show is self-consciousness, interpreted here to mean any work that comments on photography's unnerving mutability. The camera's ease in creating mirrored likenesses -- of events, of the photographer, or even of other photographs -- and the culture's profligate use of these cheap, numberless cloned images has intrigued artists of all sorts since the '60s. It has been a generation, says Mr. Ecklund, intent on 'breaking down boundaries not only between mediums but between art and life itself.'

With most of the work directed toward the many ways photographs function in our lives, visual luxury takes a back seat to conceptual rigor. Deciphering artistic purpose here can be like answering a series of riddles. Language is often as crucial as image.

The caption to 'Erratum' by Christopher Williams, for instance, overwhelms his immaculate cutaway view of a dishwasher. In over 20 lines of text, he lists all of the technical specs that produced the photograph, from brands of film and filters used, to water temperature in the developing trays.

Mr. Williams rose to prominence in the '80s, and his brain teasers usually leave me cold. Here, though, he is playing a joke on himself. By naming some of the many corporations that provide the industrial base for photography, he mocks artists who claim a 'purity' of vision. (Don't Kodak and Fuji deserve a measure of credit? the caption seems to ask.) At the same time, he can't very well hold himself above advertising photographers when this 2000 example of his own work is as manufactured as anything from the assembly lines of Kitchen-Aid.

In some pieces, the absence of photographs is the point. As part of his murder mystery 'Anonymous Men' from 1977, Allen Ruppersberg includes a loose-leaf binder that contains nothing but a series of typed names. Flipping through the pages, it's hard not to feel cheated. How can one feel otherwise anymore? Photographs and identity are now so bound together that to have one without the other leaves a void in our expectations.

The peril in conceptual art is that the idea beggers the execution. Mark Wyse's 'Marks of Indifference #1 (Shelf)' -- a photograph of a jagged scratch on a wall where a shelf once stood -- is not, despite Mr. Ecklund's best efforts, rewarding to ponder, at least not in this company. And it's a bit grandiose to call Moyra Davey's 'Bloom' from 2007, a series of color photographs showing tables, liquor bottles, and walls in a domestic setting during various times, 'a work in the process of its own becoming.' The two overtly feminist works -- Janice Guy's 1979 photograph of a naked woman aiming her camera at the viewer, and Josephine Pryde's satirical series from 2006 on a beauty product gone terribly wrong -- don't linger in the mind.

The most compelling meditation on the current anxious state of photography is a slide show by Kota Ezawa. A 39-year-old German who lives and teaches in California, he is best known for 16-millimeter animated films in which, aided by computer software, he draws famous images from famous events, such as the O.J. Simpson trial. Instead of appropriating his images by simply rephotographing them, as Warhol, Prince, Levine and many others have done, he reverse-engineers the process.

'The History of Photography Remix' from 2004-06 applies the same technique to the black-and-white canon. The palette of Mr. Ezawa's drawings is limited to a few colors, brown predominant, and his computer brush relies on broad contours, turning photographs by Matthew Brady, Ansel Adams and Garry Winogrand into cartoons.

What at first appears to be a travesty of art history, though, is actually a somber reflection on the tendency of black-and-white reproductions to flatten the world and our experience of it through photography. Images of everything from Yosemite to a couple kissing on a Paris street have to be homogenized by scanners and screens before they can appear in a magazine or book. Mr. Ezawa's brushwork only highlights an oddity we take for granted.

His drawings are products of his hand as well as out-of-the-box software, just as photographs can be both personal and stamped out by a machine. His low-tech presentation seems to empathize with artists whose darkroom craft is becoming obsolete. The slow clicking of the 35-millimeter slides through the projector (rather than in PowerPoint) adds another complicated emotional layer. The technology of photography is in some cases as nostalgia-provoking as any photograph.

As the Met learns to embrace contemporary artists, photographers should play a pivotal role. As the museum builds upon its outstanding 19th- and 20th-century collections, exhibitions like this one, that go beyond its rich tradition in landscape and social documentary, will likely be more common. For better or worse, photography about photography continues to be where the action is.

Mr. Woodward's latest essay on photography appears in 'Elective Affinities: Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams,' newly published by Little Brown.

Image and text by The Wall Street Journal, USA
 


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