Grand Illusions @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 41 photographic works by 39 different photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls in a series of three rooms on the second floor of the museum. The exhibition was organized by Douglas Eklund and Beth Saunders.

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

  • Ralph Bartholomew, Jr.: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946-1952
  • Morton Bartlett: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1950
  • Hans Bellmer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Bill Brandt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Claude Cahun: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Julia Margaret Cameron: 1 albumen silver print from glass negative, 1874
  • Lewis Carroll: 1 albumen silver print from glass negative, 1875
  • James Casebere: 1 gelatin silver print, 1980
  • F. Holland Day: 1 platinum print, 1898
  • Edgar Degas: 1 gelatin silver print, 1895
  • Jimmy DeSana: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1980
  • Louis-Pierre-Theophile Dubois de Nehaut: 1 salted paper print from paper negative 1854-1856
  • Philip-Lorca diCorcia: 1 chromogenic print, 1989
  • Roger Fenton: 1 salted paper print from collodion glass negative, 1855
  • Nan Goldin: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1983
  • Jan Groover: 1 chromogenic print, 1978
  • Gabriel Harrison: 1 daguerreotype, 1850-1851
  • Clementina Hawarden: 1 albumen silver print from glass negative, 1860s
  • David Octavius Hill/Robert Adamson: 1 salted paper print from paper negative, 1843
  • André Kertész: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Laura Larson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1999
  • David Levinthal: 1 gelatin silver print, 1972
  • Rene Magritte: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Frank Majore: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1984
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard: 1 gelatin silver print, 1962
  • Paul Outerbridge: 1 carbro print, 1939
  • Pierre-Louis Pierson/Aquilin Schad: 1 salted paper print with gouache in original gilded passe-partout, 1861-1864
  • Oscar Gustav Rejlander: 1 albumen silver print from glass negative, 1866
  • Jaroslav Rössler: 1 carbro print, 1935-1939
  • Cindy Sherman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1978
  • Laurie Simmons: 3 silver dye bleach prints, 1978, 1979
  • William Henry Fox Talbot/Calvert Richard Jones: 1 salted paper print from paper negative, 1845
  • James Welling: 1 chromogenic print, 1981
  • Clarence White: 1 platinum print, 1906
  • Francesca Woodman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1980
  • Piet Zwart: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936

(Puzzlingly smudged installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past few years, as the contemporary trends toward manipulation, staging, and image construction have gathered momentum in the digital realm, there has been a conscious effort on the part of major museums and galleries to go back into the historical archive and unearth the precedents for this new work, in effect to remind us that these ideas are not altogether original. From the studio-centric survey shows at MoMA (here) and Gagosian (here) to the broad pre and post Photoshop manipulation shows at the Met (here and here), this ground has been blanketed with academic rethinking and rediscovery, rebalancing the purist straight photography narrative with a newfound appreciation for previously deviant innovation and risk taking.

This small survey exhibit takes yet another bite at this same apple, diving back into the Met’s permanent collection with a specific eye toward staging. In this case, staging has been expansively defined, to include photographers posing themselves, posing others, setting up still lifes and other made-to-be-photographed constructions, and tuning all three of these for the codes and needs of commercial advertising. Organized in roughly chronological order, the exhibit swirls these approaches into one contiguous mass, and while there are few unexplored insights to be found in the resulting analysis, there are certainly some terrific pictures on view.

Lest we think the formative years of the medium were somehow a truer time, the show kicks off with works by William Henry Fox Talbot, Hill and Adamson, and Roger Fenton from the 1840s and 1850s, where fruit sellers on the lawn at Lacock Abbey, exotic Afghan armor, and Crimean War soldiers are all staged as genre scenes. A heavier dose of overt theatricality can be found in 19th century images by Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, and Oscar Rejlander, the form taken to its extreme in a captivating overpainted portrait by Pierre-Louis Pierson and Aquilin Schad of the Countess de Castiglione fleeing a fiery evening ball. More modern versions of the friends and family posing run from a shadowy Bill Brandt alley scene to Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s knife-wielding chef.

No survey of self-posing would be complete without Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, and Nan Goldin, and all make predictable appearances here. While the usual suspects are required, it’s the more offbeat choices that add some punch to the mix. Louis-Pierre-Theophile Dubois de Nehaut’s 1850s self portrait in Belgian judge’s robes has a surprising dour gravitas, while Jimmy DeSana’s self nude with leather case over his head and leather shoe over his private parts balances that seriousness with a jolt of fetish camp. And a living room self snap from Edgar Degas shows that the famous painters of the day weren’t any more respectful of tuning a scene to their desires.

When the show turns to set-ups and constructions, the dolls and doll houses take center stage. The Laurie Simmons ’70s kitchens/bathrooms and David Levinthal toy soldier image are straightforward choices, while the lesser known André Kertész image of a woman looking down into a doll house and the early James Casebere library are more unexpected finds; both Hans Bellmer’s poupée and Morton Bartlett’s doll portraits cross into more uneasy terrain. The included still life constructions (from Claude Cahun and James Welling in particular) don’t have as much resonance as they could have, but the gloriously tangled planes and geometries of Jan Groover’s kitchen sink do their best to carry the load for the whole subgenre.

The works that are most overtly drawn from advertising are the actually the ones that I found to be the most photographically thought provoking – perhaps there is a more comprehensive study of the motifs and approaches of fine art/advertising photography across the ages worth pursuing. Smartly constructed still lifes from Jaroslav Rössler and Piet Zwart show particular stylistic innovation (especially Zwart’s use of a glass sheet to create a floating mid-composition plane), and the obviously staged scenes from Paul Outerbridge (men drinking coffee) and Ralph Bartholomew, Jr. (kids taking pictures near a lake) overcome their mannered look with easy going glamour. Here staging is placed front and center (rather than trying to hide or downplay it), and that brash in-on-the-joke unreality is what gives the pictures their zing; when the staging in effect becomes the subject, we’ve dropped down an entirely different conceptual rabbit hole.

Given the other variants of this show we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s hard not to see this one as a latecomer trying to play a bit of catch up, digging through the storage boxes to connect to the newest trend. But that follower status doesn’t detract much from the solid (if sometimes expected) group of selections here. The Met may not be out front on changes in the medium, but when it consolidates its position and leverages its collection strengths, it brings heft and context to the deeper investigation of critical questions.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. As such, we will dispense with the usual discussion of prices and secondary markets typically found here.

Read more about: André Kertész, Bill Brandt, Cindy Sherman, Clarence White, Claude Cahun, Clementina Hawarden, David Levinthal, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Francesca Woodman, Frank Majore, Hans Bellmer, James Casebere, James Welling, Jan Groover, Jaroslav Rössler, Jimmy DeSana, Julia Margaret Cameron, Laura Larson, Laurie Simmons, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Morton Bartlett, Nan Goldin, Oscar Rejlander, Paul Outerbridge, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Pierre-Louis Pierson, Piet Zwart, Ralph Bartholomew Jr., Ralph Eugene Meatyard, René Magritte, Roger Fenton, William Henry Fox Talbot, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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