JTF (just the facts): A total of 47 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the foyer and main room of the gallery. All of the works are platinum contact prints, made between 1983 and 2010. The panoramic prints are each 7×17 (or reverse; 40 are horizontal views, 7 are vertical), and the prints are alternately available in editions of 5, 10, or 25. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: For her first New York City solo show in 8 years, Lois Conner reminds us how far she has traveled over the last three decades of her career, and what we’ve been missing.
Despite expanding her repertoire of subjects in the 1990s to include group and individual portraiture as well as contemporary office interiors (the 2004-2009 series that resulted in the droll little book Life in a Box), she built a solid reputation in the 1980s for her urban and rural landscapes. Photographed with an old-fashioned banquet camera and contact-printed in exquisite gradations of platinum, her pictures weren’t like anyone else’s at the time.
It’s with an ecumenical selection from this vast body of work that she and her new dealer have chosen to reintroduce herself. Conner is best-known (indeed stereotyped) for her landscapes of China, where she has photographed every year for more than 30 years. Many of the pictures that she has taken there are on these walls, albeit exhibited in what seems like a deliberate attempt to downplay her more familiar images from Guangxi in favor of less reproduced ones from Tibet, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Beijing.
The elongated dimensions of the banquet camera (source of the show’s punning title) inevitably call to mind Chinese scroll paintings when the landscapes are mist-shrouded and include, say, the spiky mountains of Guilin. This response isn’t as automatic (or happens scarcely as all) when she photographs elsewhere. Newcomers to her work may now better appreciate what a road warrior Conner has been. The travelogue here features stops in Turkey, Burma, India, and the former Czechloslovakia, as well as a cross-country tour of the U.S. that goes from Canyon de Chelley to the bayous of Louisiana, doubles back to Hawaii and the Badlands of South Dakota, and ends with the even badder lands of her home in New York City.
Conner seems incapable of making (or at least exhibiting) an ungainly picture. This tendency can be a problem. If there is a knock on her as an artist, it’s that she can be too willing to sacrifice ugly reality for elegance, her eye for modernist composition tidying up every mess she sees. Dirt looks like magical dust in her photographs of rural China whereas in, say, a Robert Adams, dirt is still a crude substance and recognizably dirt.
That may be one of the drawbacks of platinum. Not many photographers in the art world try to emulate anymore the impressionist tonalities of pictorialists such as Frederick Evans and Peter Henry Emerson, as Conner evidently does. Her pictures accept industrial facts more readily than theirs did, and her views of New York from warehouse rooftops refuse to exalt the spectacle of its energy. But the criticism that her prints are too beautiful for their own good is hard to refute. (Of course, the same charge could be leveled at Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—and that’s good company if you’re sentenced to art jail.)
One welcome surprise about this survey is rediscovering that Conner has been as graceful a photographer in New York City as in Guilin, and that her compositions, wherever she goes of late, are growing bolder and angrier. The left third of a 2010 image of St. Patrick’s Cathedral contains a glass tower that mirrors Renwick’s neo-gothic midtown landmark, as though devouring it in pieces. Her 2009 take on Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing is even less stable in its disruptive angles and reflections. Like Koolhaas himself, she seems content to let hostile forces reside in her pictures without always trying to harmonize them.
As a long-time friend of hers, I have to admit that I’m partial to her code of professionalism and staunch independence. Not many photographers anymore are as DIY as Conner is. As any reproduction will fail to convey the layers of darkness in a print such as Atchafalaya Swamp, Louisiana, from 1988, audiences will have to visit the Gitterman Gallery in person to learn what her many ex-students have known for years: in an art world crowded with fake or ephemeral talents, Conner is the real deal.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range from $3500 to $6500. Conner’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.