The Poetics of Place @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 39 photographic works by 28 artists/photographers, the images variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the large, single room gallery space with a dividing wall.

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

  • Robert Adams: 1 gelatin silver print, 1969
  • Darren Almond: 1 chromogenic print, 2000
  • Lewis Baltz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1982-1983
  • Lothar Baumgarten: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1989
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher: 1 gelatin silver print, 1973
  • Matthew Brandt: 1 gum bichromate print, 2014
  • Laura Burns: 1 gelatin silver print, 1994
  • Jean-Marc Bustamante: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1980/2000
  • Lois Connor: 1 platinum print, 1986/2011
  • William Eggleston: 1 dye transfer print, 1972
  • Roe Ethridge: 1 chromogenic print, 2001
  • Walker Evans: 9 Polaroid SX-70 prints, 1973
  • Dan Graham: 1 chromogenic print diptych, 1966-1978
  • Jan Groover: 1 gelatin silver print diptych, 1973
  • Jan Henle: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1991-1994
  • Sarah Anne Johnson: 1 chromogenic print, 2011
  • Donald Judd: 1 set of 15 chromogenic prints, 1965-1973
  • An-My Lê: 1 gelatin silver print, 1994
  • Sally Mann: 1 toned gelatin silver print, 1993
  • Damián Ortega: 1 set of 6 chromogenic prints, 2002
  • Toshio Shibata: 1 gelatin silver print, 1990
  • Robert Smithson: 1 photostat and plastic overlay with wax pencil, 1973, paired with 1 chromolithograph from Cliff Bray Photos, 1930
  • Wolfgang Staehle: 1 single channel digital photography display (color, silent, 24 hours), 2004-2006
  • Joel Sternfeld: 1 chromogenic print, 1979/2003
  • Carrie Mae Weems: 1 gelatin silver print, 1983
  • James Welling: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1977/1978

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One way to look at the history of landscape photography is to see it as a series of conscious reactions. With a generous amount of sweeping oversimplification, we can gather 19th century Grand Tour photos, the delicate scenes of the French calotypists, the majestic American views of Watkins and Muybridge, the soft focus wonders of the Pictorialists, and the further refinement and strict clarification of Ansel Adams and a whole host of early Modernists all under the umbrella of deliberate “grandeur”. For much of the first century of the medium, a landscape was nearly by definition a celebration of the awe inspiring (or sometimes humble) beauty of the natural world, and most of the photographers who pointed their cameras at the land and its most notable built structures were, regardless of their particular styles or processes, trying to capture moments of inherent power and glory.

This broad survey show, drawn entirely from the permanent collection of the museum, takes that first layer of history as given and begins its story with the next round of photographic landscape reactions that occurred in the late 1960s, 1970s, and even into the early 1980s. And as we would expect with the benefit of several decades of hindsight and artistic settling, the Met does a crisp job of hitting the important themes that have now become agreed-upon orthodoxy of a sort, filling roughly half the exhibition with examples of these various threads of thinking.

Four reactionary and largely simultaneous paths are followed. The rigorous deadpan investigation of suburbanization, industrialization, and environmental damage that later took the name of the New Topographics is effectively represented by works by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and the Bechers. The thoughtful and often incisive introduction of color is found in prints by Joel Sternfeld and William Eggleston. A more conceptual view of the land is taken up by Jan Groover and Dan Graham. And the large scale markings of Land Art/Earthworks are captured in photographs by Robert Smithson and Donald Judd. Each represents a splintering away from traditional landscape grandeur, and an urgent desire to engage the land with new eyes.

The next phase we encounter is the reaction to the reaction(s), and here the Met’s thesis gets much muddier. Since the early 1990s, landscape photography has reinvented itself once again, but both the causes and effects are less clearly articulated in this show. While this curatorial effort is meaningfully better edited than many of the other thematic group shows that have graced these same walls, as with most of the Met’s attempts to come to grips with the trajectories of contemporary photography, this exhibit suffers from a cautious inclusiveness that steps back from authoritatively explaining what’s happening.

One theme that does come out of the more recent work is a conscious return to a more personal (and less rigidly objective) engagement with the land, in some cases bringing a political edge to the interaction. Carrie Mae Weems sees feminine shapes in the curves and openings of African buildings. An-My Lê captures the quiet village lyricism of bamboo poles crossing a shining Vietnamese stream. And Sally Mann resonates with shadowy tonal layers of the Virginia farmlands that have been her home for decades. In each, we feel a search for connection, or a natural return to something singular and primal.

Other photographers also seem to be chasing a deeper engagement with the land, but are doing so with an emphasis on process. Matthew Brandt includes actual dust gathered at Madison Square Garden in his gum bichromate reprints of older views of the demolished/rebuilt landmark. Sarah Anne Johnson adds an intricate overpainted grid that radiates outward across her image of the Arctic. Darren Almond reverses the usual landscape parameters of night and day, making long exposures lit by the full moon and filled with flared brightness. And Wolfgang Staehle channels the Hudson River School painters, turning a sublime view into a 24-hour time-sliced portrait of gradual change. For these artists, old school hand-crafting and new fangled technology both offer conceptual avenues for personal engagement, allowing each to extend the definition of a photographic landscape in exciting new directions.

While other reactions to reactions are also on view (like Jan Henle’s textural red clay image riffing on Land Art or Roe Ethridge’s treacly forest scene taking grandeur to a commercial extreme), in the end, the show doesn’t quite coalesce into a clear analysis of the past twenty years in landscape photography. Instead, it offers us a handful of possibly relevant stopping points to consider, without entirely connecting the dots to explain their overall context or significance. With this show as evidence, these thematic group shows of photography are slowly improving, but they still need to go further to articulate a more definitive (and educational) point of view.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show drawn from the permanent collection, there are of course no posted prices. Given the breadth of work on view, we will forego our usual discussion of secondary market prices/histories and gallery representation.

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Read more about: An-My Lê, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Carrie Mae Weems, Damián Ortega, Dan Graham, Darren Almond, Donald Judd, James Welling, Jan Groover, Jan Henle, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Joel Sternfeld, Laura Burns, Lewis Baltz, Lois Conner, Lothar Baumgarten, Matthew Brandt, Robert Adams, Robert Smithson, Roe Ethridge, Sally Mann, Sarah Anne Johnson, Toshio Shibata, Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Wolfgang Staehle, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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