Naked before the Camera @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of 75 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung (or displayed in cases) in a series of three connecting rooms on the museum’s second floor. The exhibit was curated by Malcolm Daniel. (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers/artists have been included in the exhibit, with the number of images on view and details in parentheses:

Room 1

Brassai (1 gelatin silver, 1931/1950s)

Nadar (1 salt, 1860-1861)

Julien Vallon de Villeneuve (1 salt, 1853)

Charles-Alphonse Marle (1 salt, 1855)

Franck-Francois-Genes Chauvassagnes (1 salt, 1856)

Eugene Durieu (1 albumen, 1853)

Felix-Jacques-Antoine Moulin (1 daguerreotype, 1850)

Unknown (1 daguerreotype, 1850)

Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1 albumen, 1857)

Unknown (1 albumen, 1870)

Gustave Le Gray (1 albumen, 1856)

Unknown (2 salt, 1856)

Thomas Eakins (1 platinum, 1885)

Louis Igout (1 book of albumen pose studies, 1880)

Unknown (1 book of albumen figure studies, 1890s)

Room 2

Nadar (1 albumen, 1860)

Oscar G. Mason (1 book with collotypes with applied color, 1880)

Alphonse Bertillon (1 book with gelatin silver prints, 1902)

Bertrall (3 cyanotypes, 1881)

Paul Wirz (2 gelatin silver, 1912, 1922)

George Washington Wilson (1 albumen, 1892)

Circle of Albert Londe (1 albumen, 1890)

Eadweard Muybridge (1 collotype, 1887)

Paul Wirz and Paul Baron de Rautenfeld (1 book with gelatin silver prints, 1925)

Brassai (3 gelatin silver, 1931, 1932/1950, 1932/1960)

Man Ray (2 gelatin silver, 1930, 1935)

Franz Roh (1 gelatin silver, 1922-1925)

Hans Bellmer (1 gelatin silver with applied color, 1936)

Andre Kertesz (1 gelatin silver, 1932)

Bill Brandt (4 gelatin silver, 1949, 1953, 1960, 1979)

William Larson (1 gelatin silver, 1966-1970)

Lady Ottoline Morrell (2 gelatin silver, 1916)

George Platt Lynes (1 gelatin silver, 1930)

Germaine Krull (1 gelatin silver, 1928-1929)

Edward Weston (3 gelatin silver, 1925, 1936/1954, 1936/1960)

Paul Outerbridge (1 carbro, 1936)

Unknown (4 gelatin silver, 1950s)

Guglielmo Pluschow (1 albumen, 1890s)

Unknown (1 daguerreotype, 1850)

Unknown (1 daguerreotype in wooden viewing case, 1854)

Room 3

Irving Penn (2 gelatin silver, 1949-1950)

Emmet Gowin (1 gelatin silver, 1967/1982)

Harry Callahan (2 gelatin silver, 1950, 1954)

Robert Mapplethorpe (1 gelatin silver, 1976)

Jennifer Johnson (1 platinum, 1995)

Diane Arbus (2 gelatin silver, 1963, 1968)

Garry Winogrand (1 gelatin silver, 1971)

Larry Clark (1 gelatin silver, 1972-1973)

John Goodman (1 gelatin silver, 1976)

John Coplans (1 gelatin silver, 1984)

Hannah Wilke (2 gelatin silver, 1978)

Jim Jager (1 gelatin silver, 1980)

Mark Morrisroe (1 gelatin silver, 1987)

Mark Beard (1 book of Polaroid transfers, 1992)

Robert Flynt (1 book of inkjet prints, 2009)

Comments/Context: I have to give the Met credit for trying to be more daring, at least in its own way. The flashy marquee lights with NAKED in all capitals announcing this small show are something one could have never imagined seeing in this hallowed institution a few years ago. But don’t be fooled by the attempt at an erotic peep show atmosphere. While there are more full frontal penises than normal and a masturbating 19th century woman makes a cameo appearance, this is still a very conservative show, with a strong bias toward the old rather than the new. There is no bondage Araki, no explicit Heinecken, no confrontational Newton, no S&M Mapplethorpe or Opie, no huge blurry Ruff pornos. We’re naked, but we’re still at the Met.

As usual, the Met’s powerhouse holdings in the 19th and early 20th century are the most impressive and coherent part of the exhibit. The first room of 19th century work holds some of the standouts of genre; the Nadar and Durieu nudes on view are two of the most elegant photographic nudes ever made, and the Eakins double male nude in platinum is an undeniable masterpiece. Moving into the next room, it becomes clear that Malcolm Daniel has taken an extremely broad reading of “naked” in this show. Where Stieglitz, Steichen, and the Pictorialists would normally be (most likely left out because they were recently on view, but still a glaring omission), there is a wall of scientific photographs (hermaphrodites, diseased bodies, and corpses), followed by another containing ethnographic and anthropological images (Indonesian pygmies, Zulu girls, and natives from Papua New Guinea). The challenge with this approach is that “naked” umbrella is so huge that nearly anything fits under it; I couldn’t help but feel like randomness was starting to take over and the connections between the works were becoming less relevant.

The story then jumps to European modernism and surrealism with Brassai, Man Ray, Roh, and Bellmer, followed by an interlude of distortion with Kertesz, Brandt and William Larson. The ground is still pretty solid with Weston (doesn’t the Met have better Charis on the sand prints than these two?), Penn, Callahan, and Gowin (I think a Minor White male nude would have worked well here too), but roughly post 1950, I lost the trail, and the show becomes more of a jumble. While the Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti Smith is of course an icon, I’m surprised than a more formal Mapplethorpe nude (either male or female) wasn’t chosen. The Arbus portraits make sense (although they are very rippled/warped), but the Garry Winogrand street scene and the Hannah Wilke inclusions left me puzzled. With such a broad curatorial definition, anything goes I guess, but all three rooms could have been filled with images of naked performance artists, why the two of Wilke in particular? Another real mystery is why there is no color photography at all in this show, aside from the Outerbridge carbro on a side wall.

So while the intentions were good here, I think the execution is lacking, especially in connecting the vintage black and white work to the contemporary world. This isn’t the first show in these rooms that has run off the rails as it left the 1950s. The Met needs to do a better job of connecting the dots between its vast holdings and more recent artistic activity when it takes on a broad topic like this one, or it should be happy to stay focused on its areas of traditional strength. The photography on view here is certainly of high quality, but the thematic construct is too diffuse to be very enlightening or educational.

Collector’s POV: Given this is a museum show, there are obviously no posted prices for the works on display.

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Read more about: André Kertész, Bill Brandt, Brassaï (Gyula Halász), Diane Arbus, Edward Weston, Emmet Gowin, Eugène Durieu, Franz Roh, Garry Winogrand, Hannah Wilke, Hans Bellmer, Harry Callahan, Irving Penn, Man Ray, Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), Paul Outerbridge, Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas Eakins, William Larson, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One comment

  1. Christopher Alexander Gellert /

    I would agree that the focus of the show is probably too diffuse, but given the exceptional quality of some of the work on display, it's definitely worth a visit.

    If you'd care to take a gander at more of my thoughts, take a peek at my own blog post on the subject (the blog itself devoted to arts and culture in general, though I'd like to include more emphasis on visual art).


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