A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing total of 173 photographic/video works from 91 photographers/artists, variously framed and matted, and hung against white and dark grey walls in a series of 6 divided rooms on the third floor of the museum. The exhibit was organized by Quentin Bajac with assistance from Lucy Gallun. (Installation shots below.)

The show has been divided into six thematic/titled sections. For each section below, a list of photographers included has been provided, along with the number of works on view, process details, and image dates:

Surveying the Studio

  • Uta Barth: 1 triptych of chromogenic color prints, 2007
  • Geta Brătescu: 1 8mm film, 1978, 1 selection of gelatin silver prints with tempera on paper, 1979, 1 lithograph, 1971
  • Constantin Brancusi: 1 gelatin silver print, c1920
  • Man Ray: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Bruce Nauman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1967
  • Charles Sheeler: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Josef Sudek: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1954, 1956

The Studio as Stage

  • Cecil Beaton: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Auguste Bellocq: 1 albumen silver print, c1858
  • Julia Margaret Cameron: 2 albumen silver prints, c1867, 1864
  • Martín Chambi: 1 gelatin silver print, c1933/1978
  • Julien Vallou de Villeneuve: 1 salted paper print, c1853
  • Eikoh Hosoe: 1 gelatin silver print, 1962
  • Seydou Keïta: 1 gelatin silver print, 1958/1997
  • George Platt Lynes: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1941, c1945
  • Man Ray: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Nadar: 1 albumen silver print, 1854-1855
  • Irving Penn: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1947, 1948
  • Lucas Samaras: 1 set of 18 Polapan prints with hand applied ink, 1969-1971
  • Cindy Sherman: 1 chromogenic color print, 1983
  • Charles Simart: 1 albumen silver print, c 1855
  • Edward Steichen: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1930, 1931
  • Maurice Tabard: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1929
  • Akram Zaatari: 1 set of 12 gelatin silver prints, 1970s/2006

The Studio as Set

  • Gerd Bonfert: 1 gelatin silver print, 1991
  • Francis Bruguière: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1925
  • James Casebere: 1 gelatin silver print, 1982
  • Thomas Demand: 1 chromogenic color print, 1999
  • Jaromir Funke: 1 gelatin silver print, c1925
  • Jan Groover: 1 chromogenic color print, 1989, 1 palladium print, 1991
  • Jaroslava Hatláková: 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints in overmat, 1935
  • Barbara Kasten: 1 Polacolor print, 1979, 1 silver dye bleach print, 1984
  • Shozo Kiyadai and Kiyoji Otsuji: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1953-1954/2003
  • Elad Lassry: 1 chromogenic color print, 2009
  • László Moholy-Nagy: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1926
  • Paul Outerbridge: 1 platinum print, 1922, 1 tri-color carbro print, 1936
  • Irving Penn: 1 platinum/palladium print, 1980

A Neutral Space

  • Richard Avedon: 1 triptych of gelatin silver prints, 1969/1975, 1 gelatin silver print, 1983/1985
  • Matthew Barney: 1 set of 2 chromogenic color prints in self-lubricating plastic frames, 2004
  • Valérie Belin: 1 gelatin silver print, 2003
  • Karl Blossfeldt: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1898-1932
  • Harry Callahan: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1948
  • John Coplans: 1 gelatin silver print, 1992
  • Imogen Cunningham: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Peter Hujar: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1980, 1981
  • Charles Jones: 1 gelatin silver printing-out paper print, c1900
  • Robert Mapplethorpe: 1 gelatin silver print, 1988
  • Josephine Meckseper: 1 chromogenic color print, 2006
  • Ray Metzker: 1 gelatin silver print, 1966
  • J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1970, 1971, 1973
  • Shirana Shahbazi: 1 chromogenic color print, 2009
  • Laurie Simmons and Allan McCollum: 12 silver dye bleach prints, 1985
  • Edward Weston: 2 platinum prints, 1925

Virtual Space

  • Michele Abeles: 1 pigmented inkjet print, 2012
  • Walead Beshty: 1 color photographic paper, 2008
  • Chargesheimer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1961
  • Bruce Conner: 1 diptych of gelatin silver prints, 1973
  • Nicholas Haz: 1 dye transfer print, c1940
  • György Kepes: 1 gelatin silver print, c1940
  • Dudley Lee: 1 dye transfer print, 1943
  • Man Ray: 1 rayograph, 1923
  • Christian Marclay: 1 cyanotype: 2008
  • Ira Martin: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1921/1955
  • Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil: 1 cyanotype, c1950
  • Mariah Robertson: 1 diptych of gelatin silver and chromogenic color prints, 2009
  • Thomas Ruff: 1 chromogenic color print, 2012
  • Osamu Shiihara: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932-1941
  • Arthur Siegel: 1 gelatin silver print, c1947
  • Penelope Umbrico: 1 set of 8 chromogenic color print diptychs, 1989
  • Luigi Veronesi: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935

The Studio, From Laboratory to Playground

  • Berenice Abbott: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1958-1961
  • David Askevold: 1 16mm film, 1971, 1 gelatin silver print, 1971
  • Zeke Berman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1990
  • Anna and Bernhard Blume: 1 set of 5 gelatin silver prints, 1986
  • Robert Cumming: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1968, 1976
  • John Divola: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1974
  • Harold Edgerton: 9 gelatin silver prints, 1932, 1933, 1936, 1938, 1939, 1962
  • Caroline Feyt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1993
  • Peter Fischli and David Weiss: 1 16mm film, 1987
  • Robert Frank: 1 set of 6 Polaroid prints with hand applied paint and collage, 1985
  • Adam Fuss: 1 gelatin silver print, 1988
  • Heinz Hajek-Halke: 1 gelatin silver print, 1947-1951
  • Barry Le Va: 1 ink, gelatin silver print, and pencil on graph paper, 1967-1968
  • Barbara Morgan: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1940/1971, 1941/1971
  • Eadweard Muybridge: 4 collotypes, 1884-1886
  • Bruce Nauman: 1 16mm film, 1967-1968
  • Adrian Piper: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1971/1997
  • Charles Ray: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1973
  • Roman Signer: 18 Super8films, 1975, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989
  • Kiki Smith: 1 lithograph, 1993
  • William Wegman: 5 videos, 1970-1971, 1972, 1973-1973, 1974-1975, 1975-1976, 1 gelatin silver triptych, 1971

Comments/Context: One of the first challenges faced by Quentin Bajac when he left his position at the Centre Pompidou to become the incoming chief curator of MoMA’s powerhouse photography department was how to reinvigorate the department’s standard repertoire of exhibits, namely the annual rehanging of the permanent collection and the ongoing New Photography series. Like sturdy bookends, these two shows offer carefully constructed opinions on both the history of the medium and the present state of its evolution, and a quick look at them in any given year should tell us something about the museum’s views and interests when it comes to photography.

In the last decade, the annual rehang has slowly evolved from a team based institutional approach to a single curator taking a slice through the history of the medium, with various thematic constructs providing the scaffolding on which a mix of classic icons and recent acquisitions were hung. In many ways, the whole idea of comprehensiveness, or of providing a sampler of greatest hits that will be sure to please all kinds of visitors, has likely been a drag on curatorial innovation. Even when the formula has been tweaked, there are only so many ways to slice and dice the usual suspects, and as the medium has continued to evolve at breakneck speed, it has become harder and harder to balance the old and the new while staying relevant.

What bodes well for the department is that with his first volley, Bajac has tacitly conceded that it is no longer wise or possible (or even worthwhile) to keep grinding away in that old manner – the age of omniscience is over, to be replaced by the age of pluralism. His exhibit isn’t a wave skimming survey of classics, but instead a mid-range dive into studio-based photography. It’s a tremendously smart and relevant (that word again) choice, as it gives broad historical context to the rising tide of studio-based work being done in the digital age. The show also liberally incorporates film and video, signaling that the hard and fast boundaries between media are going to be much more fluid going forward.

Symbolically, Bajac’s approach doesn’t include many photographers we have come to associate with MoMA. Who would have thought a historical show at this museum could be done without Walker Evans, Paul Strand, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and other greats of American photography? None are on view here. While perhaps not intentionally, the exhibit has the undercurrent of an anti-Szarkowski statement, a consciously alternate view of the same sweep of time that we have all seen with a certain set of eyes. His message seems to be that there are many equally valid histories to be told, and that dynamism in the medium is something to be celebrated and explored rather than closeted away.

Structurally, this exhibit might easily have been organized based on various studio genres and subject matter groups: fashion, still life, nude, performance, etc. Instead, Bajac has taken another curatorial risk and offered us an space-centric, non-chronological, non-categorical framework, where the various uses of an artist’s studio are explored sequentially – in series, we see the studio as a stage (for human subjects), a set (for inanimate ones), a neutral space, a virtual space (for mostly darkroom experiments), a laboratory, and a playground (often for documenting performance based art). In each section, we find a compendium of related images, spanning the 19th century to the present (with a decidedly historical, black and white weighting), accented by new acquisitions and unearthed gems that haven’t seen the light of day for decades. Intellectually, I found much to like about the thinking that went into this plan.

And yet, in section after section, I came in excited by the theme and slightly underwhelmed by the execution. Every one of these mini-ideas could be a gallery filling exhibit of its own, and so when chopped down to fit in one room, the selections often felt solid, but somewhat less than optimal, and a pass through the galleries left a muddied, wandering impression in terms of the discrete thematic groupings. There were more than a few head scratchers: was this really the most relevant Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand, Irving Penn, or Robert Mapplethorpe print in the museum’s vast holdings? There really wasn’t a better Man Ray rayograph or György Kepes abstraction back in the back somewhere? Other selections from Matthew Barney, Laurie Simmons, Fischli/Weiss, Richard Avedon, and Robert Rauschenberg also felt like they hit the target but missed the center by a ring or two.

On the flip side, there are some real unexpected treasures and inspired pairings to be found. The Maurice Tabard shadows, the Lucas Samaras bike and chair improvisations, the Harry Callahan variant silhouette of Eleanor with her hands in the air, and the William Wegman dropping milk all knocked me out, while the visual connections between Outerbridge and Lassry, Penn and Chambi, Man Ray and Steichen, and Platt Lynes and Hosoe all forced new aesthetic bridges to be built in my mind. And smart works by Jaroslava Hatláková, Luigi Veronesi, Ira Martin, and Caroline Feyt were all new discoveries for me.

So while there is a wealth of superlative material on view and plenty of individually astonishing pieces, the whole here is a bit less than the sum of its parts, especially when it comes to more recent work. There are contemporary pieces sprinkled here and there (Ruff, Abeles, Robertson, Marclay), but it seems like a conscious decision was made to tilt backward rather than forward; a dozen more contemporary works from the last decade would have given the exhibit a jolt of vitality and connected the dots more explicitly between past and present. I couldn’t help but feeling like there was missed opportunity to be bolder, to forcefully integrate more new examples into the canon.

The most important takeaway from this exhibit is the visceral sense it has of fresh eyes being applied to agreed upon ideas, of questions being asked and new approaches being tried out. It’s an auspicious re-beginning for a photography department whose authority was once unequalled, but that now finds itself rethinking how it can use its voice most effectively in this more complicated and dynamic environment. Change is in the air, and that’s a good thing.

Collector’s POV: Given this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. With such a broad sample of work on display, we will dispense with the usual discussion of specific secondary market histories and auction data.

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Read more about: Christian Marclay, Edward Steichen, Eikoh Hosoe, Elad Lassry, Harry Callahan, Irving Penn, Lucas Samaras, Man Ray, Mariah Robertson, Maurice Tabard, Michele Abeles, Paul Outerbridge, Thomas Ruff, William Wegman, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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