But Still, It Turns @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the work of 9 photographers, the prints and videos variously framed and matted, and installed in connected galleries on the second and third floors of the museum. The exhibit was curated by Paul Graham.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their processes, and dates, as background:

  • Emanuele Brutti & Piergiorgio Casotti: 39 pigment prints, 2017
  • Richard Choi: 6 diptychs of single channel videos and pigment prints, 2011-2020
  • Gregory Halpern: 25 chromogenic prints, 2016
  • Curran Hatleberg: 11 pigment prints, 2014-2016
  • Kristine Potter: 16 pigment prints, 2012-2015
  • RaMell Ross: 20 pigment prints, 2012-2019, 1 film, 2018
  • Vanessa Winship: 30 pigment prints, 2011-2012
  • Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: 14 pigment prints, 2014-2020

Vitrines with photobooks (2nd floor):

  • Greg Halpern, 2016
  • Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2018
  • Vanessa Winship, 2013
  • Emanuele Brutti & Piergiorgio Casotti, 2018
  • Curran Hatleberg, 2016
  • Kristine Potter, 2018

Vitrines with photobooks (3rd floor):

  • Dana Lixenberg, 2015
  • Nicholas Pollack, 2015
  • Adam Pape, 2018
  • Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, 2009
  • Adrian Chesser, 2018
  • Zora J. Murff, 2019
  • Tanyth Berkeley, 2017
  • Judith Joy Ross, 2006
  • Gerry Johansson, 2018
  • Paul Kranzler, 2017
  • Ron Jude, 2010
  • Bryan Schutmaat, 2017

A catalog of the show has been published by MACK Books (here). Embossed linen hardback, 23.5 x 28.7cm, 268 pages. Includes essays by Paul Graham, Rebecca Bengal, RaMell Ross, and Ian Penman.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photography is still being used to thoughtfully process the world around us. That’s the essential message of the serenely exhilarating But Still, It Turns exhibition at the ICP.

But a quick glance back at the last twenty years of art photography might make us wonder. The transformation of the medium that occurred with the introduction of digital technology brought with it a whole host of new artistic questions and problems. Images could be easily manipulated via software, and if that was the case, why not simply tweak them, stage them in the studio, or construct them from scratch, instead of discovering them in the flow of real life? A related range of new process options and digital source materials led to fresh conceptual questions about the nature and structure of the medium itself, and the leading edge of photography resultingly turned inward, to look in at itself, birthing an entire cohort (or generation as it turned out) of photography about photography.

At roughly this same time, the smartphone camera became ubiquitous, and we started to share and consume photographic imagery with a voraciousness that has only continued to accelerate. We turned photographs into memes, GIFs, thumbnails, social media posts, and other shorthand forms of visual communication, and using our powerful new digital tools, we shaped even our most personal photographs into symbols of (and stand ins for) who we wanted to be, rather than representations who we actually were. In short, we actively traded in messy complexity for a mannered version of overly easy simplicity, at least in how we wanted to document our lives in photographs.

All of this might have continued had it not been for the arrival of the pandemic. Almost overnight, such photographic playacting felt vaguely out of place. We had immediate fears and anxieties to share, and as the months clicked by, real grief and loneliness to endure. In very short order, life reasserted its fundamental fragility. And in sense, we became ready once again to embrace photography about the real world, in all its tangled and conflicted glory.

Simmering in the background of all of this, while museums and galleries were getting excited about constructed and conceptual photography, that didn’t mean other modes of image making went away – left on the backburner, they needed an alternate outlet, and in the past decade or two, that place has been the photobook shelf. The emergence of a broader range of quality publishers and improvements in the economics of publishing and distribution have led to a flourishing contemporary photobook subculture, and many of the photographic projects that might have seemed out of favor at the time have found ready audiences when delivered in artisanal photobook form.

But Still, It Turns sets its roots in all of this aggregate backstory. While it may not have happened exactly this way, I can imagine the photographer Paul Graham stuck at home during the lockdowns, sitting around with stacks of photobooks from the past few years, and trying to figure out (like we all were) what this historical moment might mean. When the pandemic hit, we were suddenly in urgent need of a new way to see the world, to make sense of what was happening around us. And in the piles of photobooks on his floor, or in his library, or on his dining room table, he found dozens of perceptive photographic views of contemporary America. By piecing them together, Graham has unlocked a response that seems to match the struggle of the current moment.

But Still, It Turns is a group show, consisting of eight bodies of work all made in the past decade, taking America as its loose subject (even if a few of the included photographers aren’t American themselves). What’s different here is that this show isn’t a sampler, or a quick, tops of the waves survey of work made in a certain style. Instead, it is really eight small solo exhibitions (plus some supporting materials and a catalog) that are subtly linked together by commonalities (and contrasts) of subject matter, vantage point, and approach. It is the most patient group show of photography I have seen in at least a decade, and that restrained expansiveness allows us to meander through each body of work much more deliberately, seeing a deeper slice of its voices, interests, and questions than we would normally be given. Its obvious slowness stands in direct contrast to the frenetic pace of the life we used to live, and echoes the meditative solitudes we are traveling through now.

For those that follow the photobook community closely, many of the artists and bodies of work on view here will be familiar, and we too have already written in depth about several of them. Some are the standouts and “sold outs” of the past few years, the books becoming scarce with surprising speed or singled out by many as superlative artistic statements. What’s fascinating to see is how these projects have been transformed into museum exhibits, the intimately controlled sequencing and presentation of a photobook reconsidered in the larger context of prints on walls and in rooms. This leads us to a very palpable sense of time passing, of work slowly finding its audience and being recognized by more institutional forces, and the grind of art history similarly thinning the herd to reveal those with true durability.

For most of the photographers in But Still, It Turns, a commitment to place is where the artistic journey began – settling in to look closely at a single location or geography was the key to unlocking the subtler rhythms of life the photographers were hoping to uncover and consider. For Curran Hatleberg, it was Eureka, a city along the northern coast of California; for RaMell Ross, it was Hale county, Alabama; for the Italian team of Emanuele Brutti and Piergorgio Casotti, it was St. Louis, Missouri; for Kristine Potter, it was the rugged lands along the western slope of Colorado; and for Gregory Halpern, it was the stretch of desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and particularly the quizzically named town of Zzyzx. In each case, slow looking and slow picture making led to transcendent results – the nuances of each place are markedly different, but each becomes the backdrop for observations that get beyond simple documentation to a more sophisticated aesthetic process of teasing order out of mundane everyday chaos.

Hatleberg applies a masterful sense for complex group composition to swirling masses of extended families, with children, babies, and puppies seeming to caterwaul across the frames. His ability to arrange separate sets of people at backyard parties, at gas stations, along dirt alleyways, and at work sites is quietly extraordinary, especially when seen in these large prints – in some cases, a frame consists of three or four individual activities, interactions, or moments, the movement seeming to coalesce into something much more elegant (and poignant) than the disarray might have implied.

Ross’s photographs apply a similar kind of synthesis to singular gestures. His pictures seem to peel away distraction, pulling us into see the small treasures of a boy resting on a billowing bend of chain link fence, a man shielding his eyes from the sun amid a dust cloud, a young girl in a yellow dress hiding behind rose bushes, a young boy curled in the wheel well of a car, and a girl staring over the edge of a bus seat. In these and other images, we feel the heft of time, place, and American Blackness, and see the complexity of life boiled down to delicate looks and movements that often seem to wearily carry the weight of the world.

A sense of vulnerability pervades several other bodies of work here. Potter’s refined photographs set up a dialogue between landscape and inhabitants, pairing the unforgiving thickets, rocky washes, and dusty scrublands of Colorado with men who are scraping a life out of the dust. Halpern turns more symbolic, with doves and white horses trying to help us navigate our way to the city lights and the sparkling ocean in the distance; in between, he forces us to run a gauntlet of charred trees, broken windows, curious strangers, and mysterious signs, like a set of unknowable tests. And Brutti and Casotti apply a more structured conceptual framework to their layered study of disparities in St. Louis, their shadowed portraits and empty apartment rooms amplifying both a melancholy mood and a sense of entrenched injustice.

Gesture returns as a common thread in two other bodies of work. In Vanessa Winship’s portraits, it is the pull on a shirt, the gentle tug on an ear, the stubborn toughness of cowboy hats, the look out of a car window, or a rolled shoulder stance that gives away nuances of mood or personality; even her landscapes use a kind of gesture to tell their small stories, from the rippled splash on water and the fluttering explosion of birds from a tree to a deer stranded in the long grass near the highway to the Peace Bridge to Canada. Gesture similarly informs Richard Choi’s paired videos and still imagery. By peeling a single moment out from a longer span of time, he forces us to think about what a photograph shows and doesn’t show – the winding of a clock, the playing of a recorder, the telling of a story, and even the restlessness of a boy at church widen out from single frames into more complex aggregations of linked details.

Unfortunately for Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, someone had to lose the short straw draw of the huge two-story wall in the main gallery space, and his work loses much of its conceptual richness and thoughtful bite as installed on that behemoth. In book form, his work brings archival imagery into a tight dialogue with his own photographs, probing the legacies of violence that run underneath the American experience. As installed in different sizes but largely taken in as one salon arrangement here, we get hints of that richness (the LYNCH brick, the prison guard house, the wrestling body slam), but the connective tissue that interweaves the images is more diffuse.

Seen as an integrated statement, Graham’s But Still, It Turns feels like a helpful roadmap for how the ICP can rediscover its own relevance in our new age. In recent years, the museum side of the institution has struggled to find its footing, its traditional “concerned documentary” strength (and history) suddenly cast a weakness during the crashing wave of photographic construction and manipulation (not to mention the distraction of several venue changes). This show smartly reclaims the validity of photography that actively engages with the world, and celebrates a selection of young talented photographers who can be leaders. It also acknowledges the way that photobooks are now providing an important balancing function and testing ground for the artists not yet discovered by the gallery and museum system. In short, But Still, It Turns feels like a timely fresh start, and one that’s aimed in the right direction.

I must admit that I mostly felt comforted by But Still, It Turns. As I wandered through the different sections, I felt a sense of ease return that has been largely missing during the sequestered months of the pandemic – here were pictures that didn’t shy away from or sugarcoat the complexities of American life, but that still showed us truths that felt sensitively authentic and relevant. In a strange way, this show is almost like a comeback story or an underdog triumph – at a time when we desperately need contemporary photography to get out of the safe confines of the studio and forcefully grapple with the world, it’s proven it’s very much up to the challenge.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. Gallery representation relationships for the included photographers are listed below, where known:

  • Emanuele Brutti & Piergiorgio Casotti: (unknown)
  • Richard Choi: (unknown)
  • Gregory Halpern: Magnum Photos (here)
  • Curran Hatleberg: Higher Pictures Generation (here)
  • Kristine Potter: Sasha Wolf Projects (here)
  • RaMell Ross: (unknown)
  • Vanessa Winship: (unknown)
  • Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: (unknown)

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Read more about: Curran Hatleberg, Emanuele Brutti, Gregory Halpern, Kristine Potter, Piergiorgio Casotti, RaMell Ross, Richard Choi, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, Vanessa Winship, International Center of Photography, MACK Books

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