JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the front and rear gallery spaces. All of the works were made between 2009 and 2013. 22 of the prints are pigment prints, variously sized 12×12 (in editions of 10), 20×20 (in editions of 5), 20×16 (or reverse, in editions of 5), and 30×30 (in editions of 3). The other 3 prints are gelatin silver prints, sized roughly 39×31, in editions of 3. This is Henkin’s first solo show in New York. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: For a young photographer new to New York city, the atrium at the Guggenheim, the spire of the Chrysler Building, and the lushness of Central Park are tantalizingly seductive subjects – enticing, enthralling, and dangerously obvious. Countless master photographers have broken their picks on these and other well known landmarks, trying to chisel out photographs that capture the spirit of these places while at the same time imprinting them with their own artistic stamp. A handful have succeeded at finding something durably new, and many more have tried valiantly but come away with mostly forgettable (and now forgotten) images. Pointing a camera at one of these icons is a daring move, as it requires walking the precipitous knife edge between timeless glory and yawn inducing boredom.
Lauren Henkin has stepped up to the challenge of seeing Central Park with three distinct photographic styles, a Swiss Army knife of approaches all on view in this single show. Many of her landscapes seem to draw from a 19th century Romantic or Hudson River compositional style, albeit updated for the 21st century urban environment. Tiny figures are dwarfed by rugged rocky outcroppings, dense forests, and think greenery, with dazzling skyscrapers towering in the hazy distance like craggy mountain peaks. The photographs collapse distance and play with scale, giving us an intimate feel for the imposing natural features of the park, while placing them in the larger context of the grand city beyond its borders. Wildness stands in contrast with modernity, moments of quiet solitude capped with broader awe.
Henkin’s images of trees in the park peel away that initial romantic veneer and dive down into crisp New Objectivity-style specimen investigation. Bulbous trunks seem weighed down by ponderous age, with rolls of textural rutted bark hanging and drooping, each fragment seen with Renger-Patzsch-like clarity. The pictures engage the viewer in a kind of visual braille, pulling our eyes across each and every bumped nook and cranny.
Henkin’s photographs of grassy meadow loungers apply a more conceptual framework to the park, turning lazy sprawled bodies into a gridded typology of angled forms. Like Siskind’s divers, her isolated relaxers seem to twirl and spin, a bent leg or an arm behind a head giving way to fetal curl or a face down snooze, the soft carpet of mown grass a constant backdrop.
What ties these disparate aesthetic approaches together is Henkin’s meticulously executed black and white prints. This is an artist who isn’t afraid to revel in the tactile lusciousness of a terrific print, and her attention to texture, surface, and tonal gradation is a welcome antidote to the churned out digital dreck we are becoming increasingly accustomed to seeing. These are prints that reward nose to the frame looking, where the subtle rag of the paper is seamlessly integrated into the shimmering middle range grey scale of the image. Print junkies will happily find their fix here.
In the end, Henkin’s pictures of Central Park, and particularly their affection for the primacy of the luxuriously hand crafted photograph, are a return to the values of decades past. Her forward trajectory as an artist will likely hinge on how she can leverage that passion for the physical photographic object, and extend her craftsmanship in new directions.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The pigment prints range from $1500 to $3500 each, based on size, while the gelatin silver prints are $5000 each. Henkin’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.