Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing camera-phone images taken by pairs of artists, on view on the second floor of the museum. The individual works are displayed as physical prints and as slide shows/video on large screens on the white walls, and as images on smaller touch screens and in photobooks placed on tables. All of the works were made between November 2016 and April 2017. The following artist pairings are included in the exhibit:

  • Sanford Biggers/Shawn Peters
  • Cao Fei/Wu Zhang
  • Teju Cole/Laura Poitras
  • Njideka Akunyili Crosby/Nontsikelelo Mutiti
  • Cynthia Daignault/Daniel Heidkamp
  • Nicole Eisenman/A. L. Steiner
  • Nina Katchadourian/Lenka Clayton
  • Christoph Niemann/Nicholas Blechman
  • Ahmet Ögüt/Alexandra Pirici
  • Rob Pruitt/Jonathan Horowitz
  • Manjari Sharma/Irina Rozovsky
  • William Wegman/Tony Oursler

No information on the number of works, processes, physical dimensions, or editions for the individual images was available. The exhibit was curated by Mia Fineman. (Installation shots below. Given the cycling video screens, touch screens, and book formats in use in this exhibit, the material was not particularly conducive to representative sampling.)

Comments/Context: When smartphone cameras first arrived on the photographic scene, the first question that seemed to get asked (or at least implied) was whether an artist could make real art with such a thing. On the surface, this was merely an irreverent technical question – did the technology embedded in this “toy” generate images that were high quality enough to be viable as final artworks – and quite quickly, enough famous photographers made solid work with iPhones (and the robustness of the cameras evolved in each successive generation that was released) to unequivocally put that question to rest.

But in the background of that first credibility test was a deeper issue concerning what smartphone cameras were doing to communication – with texting images, and then Instagram, and then Snapchat and beyond, something was clearly changing. Pictures were increasingly casual, and immediate, and impermanent, and people were using them to communicate fleeting emotions and thoughts, without regard to any of the so-called rules (as a test, ask nearly any fine art photographer over the age of 30 what they think of filters or where the throwaway ugly selfie fits in the canon). These kinds of photographic images were slowly (and almost imperceptibly in the context of our contemporary culture) becoming their own kind of language, which has profound implications for what the medium might become.

It is extremely rare to find a conservative institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art out on the frontier of figuring out what amorphous trends like this might mean. The Met usually waits, letting other institutions do the early exploratory work, watching as the answers start to coalesce. It can then come to the party, undeniably late but generally with a level of authority that consolidates opinion. So it is altogether remarkable (and refreshing) to see this grande dame roll up her sleeves and get messy, in the form of this smart exhibit Talking Pictures. With a level of insight largely absent from the recent contemporary photography offerings at this museum, the Met is truly and thoughtfully asking the right questions here, even though the answers don’t rise to the level of the definitive proclamations we would usually expect from this venue.

To try to reveal the shifting nature of how smartphone photography is being used to communicate, curator Mia Fineman set up an experiment. She commissioned 12 artists (of appropriately different backgrounds, geographies, and artistic work styles) to each pick another artist friend and have an extended photography-only conversation for a period of several months (the images were shared in iCloud rather than sent back and forth, and while this reduces the immediacy of the exchange a bit, it is a workable approximation of reality that does a better job of consistently archiving the results than scraping feeds and phones later.) It seems the only constraint Fineman put on the artists was that no text or captions could be exchanged – only images (or short videos) could go back and forth. The subject matter, frequency, style, and overall approach to the picture making was up to the participants, and the unedited, unabridged, and highly uneven results are on view in Talking Pictures.

One of the key takeaways from this show is that conversing using the evolving language of photography is not a one-size-fits-all game – there are lots of ways to use pictures to exchange information, and someday they may become something akin to separate dialects, with their own structures, grammars, and assumed behaviors. The projects on display span a wide range of modes of interaction, effectively running from intimately talking with someone to indifferently talking at them, with varying degrees of responsiveness and implied interest on the part of the two participants.

At one end of the spectrum are exchanges that are highly interactive, and these tended to be the most intriguing in terms of back-and-forth artistic cross pollination. The collaboration between Christoph Niemann and Nicholas Blechman is the most tightly coupled of the pairings, where each picture forces a specific artistic reaction, leading to an endearing one-by-one chain of connected ideas, executed in everything from drawing and illustration to hybrid photo collages (all of which were ultimately photographed). Displayed in photobook form, each page turn pushes the aesthetic narrative along, each image building on the next in a strict but consistently engaging call-and-response progression – it’s the most memorable combined work in the show, by a decent margin.

The collaboration between Manjari Sharma and Irina Rozovsky is also bustling with activity, their pictures marching along with calendar-driven efficiency, each photographer contributing an image in succession each day. Shown as prints pinned to the wall, their pictures track their two parallel pregnancies, and the echoes of gestures, silhouettes, and rounded bellies found in their images confirm a heightened degree of awareness between the two – at that moment, their lives were on similar tracks, and their diaristic photographs reveal a feeling of deliberate and at times magical synchronicity. (As an aside, the artists who are photographers have a distinct advantage in this new world of photographic communicating, as they have already mastered the methods and techniques of effective photographic picture making – Sharma’s and Rozovsky’s photographs are much more formally controlled and exactingly executed than many of the more casual and improvisational images made by the other artists.)

A more common approach to these exchanges was the photographic equivalent of the following verbal dialogue:

Artist 1: Here’s something I saw that I found interesting or inspiring. Or here’s something I made recently.

Artist 2: Cool. Here’s something I saw that I found interesting or inspiring. Or here’s something I made recently.

Artist 1. Cool.

(Repeat.)

This isn’t really a form of collaboration exactly, it’s information transfer, and unless there is some lucky parallelism (which does indeed occur from time to time), the images tend not to be related in any meaningful way. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation on how many of the pairings tended to interact – photographs can be used to effectively keep people up to date with where a person is and what that person is doing/thinking, and that immediacy keeps personal connections fresh and vital even if the actual interactions are limited. So while there are serendipitous echoes and one-off responses in the pairings of Sanford Biggers and Shawn Peters, Cao Fei and Wu Zhang, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Nontsikelelo Mutiti (for example), in each case, the whole was not much more than the sum of its parts.

Given that these projects took place in the months after the 2016 elections here in the United States, politics and protest inform several of these visual conversations. Moods of caricature, cynicism, and more overt outrage simmer through the pairings of Nicole Eisenman and A. L. Steiner, Ahmet Ögüt and Alexandra Pirici, and Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz, and the partnership of Teju Cole and Laura Poitras basically runs aground in the aftermath, with Poitras going radio silent part way through the project, refusing to return even after a series of Cole’s gentle floral entreaties.

Playfulness is perhaps the opposite reaction to weighty seriousness, or at least a potential stress reliever, and two of the collaborations offer a bit more in the way of clever visual interplay. Nina Katchadourian and Lenka Clayton seem to revel in formal repetitions of patterns, going back and forth with quick cut similarities and echoes (hitting the classic tropes of cats and feet in the process), while William Wegman and Tony Oursler experiment more elaborately with short video snippets, geeking out on the engrossing swirls of green mouthwash bottles, spinning rolls of tape, walking in the snow, and running in the subway. These are both shown on video screens using a slide show effect, the back and forth made explicit, assuming the viewer is willing to invest the time to follow the breadcrumbs.

While trying to make sense out of how the language of photography is metastasizing in the smartphone age is the primary goal of this exhibit, there’s a second equally compelling (and urgent) methodology question also being tested here – how can museums effectively display streams of photography like these so that viewers will both engage with them and ultimately absorb what they have to offer? – and Fineman is smart to use this exhibit to actually road test some alternatives. Four options are tried – physical prints on the wall, photobooks on tables, video screens on the wall offering slide show effects, and small touch screen tablets on tables where users can control the pace by swiping – and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, given the parameters of this project.

The success of paper prints lies in their ability to show the whole body of work in one scan of the eyes, making it easier to see connections and resonances; they also handle crowds and casual viewers well (but take up the most space). The other three modes require more of an investment of effort, and this must inevitably drive some people away. The photobooks actually worked well in my mind, the rhythm of the page turns reinforcing the back and forth of the artistic dialogue; Cao Fei and Wu Zhang’s book was too big however, frustrating any attempt to understand the entirety of the output. The video screens and the touch screens trade off advantages – the video screen is internally paced, allowing for passive group viewing, but bogging down when there is too much to see (i.e. too many video clips that need to be shorter), while the touch screens are self-paced, but awkward to navigate (with lots of slow swiping) and single use. I found the touch screens the least effective mode of engagement, even though they in some ways parallel the smartphone experience from which the pictures were derived. Seeing all four methods at work in one place clearly exposed the challenges facing museums as they struggle with how to display work like this effectively. I hope the Met is tracking what viewers are actually doing in some way, as this could be a valuable case study in what really works and what doesn’t.

In the end, almost the last reason to go to this thought-provoking show is to see the photographs and videos on display. There are so many meta issues embedded in this curatorial construct that the structural ideas themselves are largely more compelling and nuanced than the results. A few pairings rise above the fray to show us something glorious and unexpected in their joint investigations, but most feel just like two friends sharing visual moments that became top of mind. In short, there is no answer here, no neat and tidy conclusion about what this evolving mode of photographic communication is or should be going forward. But the fact that the Met took these unlikely risks and created this insightful and layered experiment is exciting, as it means that the complex issues surrounding the development of photography as a cultural language have been quietly legitimized, and are actively moving toward the mainstream.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show (and all the work was commissioned for the exhibit), there are of course no posted prices. Given the diversity of work on view and the large number of artists included, we will forego the usual discussion of gallery representation and secondary market history usually found here.

Read more about: A.L. Steiner, Ahmet Ögüt, Cao Fei, Christoph Niemann, Irina Rozovsky, Jonathan Horowitz, Lenka Clayton, Manjari Sharma, Nicholas Blechman, Nina Katchadourian, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Rob Pruitt, Sanford Biggers, Shawn Peters, Teju Cole, Tony Oursler, William Wegman, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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