Top Photography Shows of 2011

While end of year “top 10” and “best” lists tend to be all effusive enthusiasm and back slapping congratulations, I’d like to go against the grain and state from the outset that I think 2011 was an underwhelming year for photography in New York. There were no game changing blockbusters, a surprisingly thin and forgettable program at our major museum venues, and not enough risk taking at our galleries. While I think we can reasonably chalk this outcome up to the challenges of real economic hardship across the board, I can’t really say with a straight face that we generated a massive amount of vibrancy or heat this year.

While I had a short hiatus during the summer which slowed me down a bit, I still reviewed a total of 138 photography shows this year, and likely saw (at least fleetingly) a roughly equivalent number that I didn’t review. Of all those shows in galleries and museums all over the region, only 7 merited 3 STARS (down from 10 last year that received that same rating and 12 in 2009). So my top ten isn’t really a top ten, it’s a top seven. 34 shows got a 2 STARS rating, and when tallied with the 3 STARS shows, there were actually 41 shows that should normally have been a top 50. Across the board, I think we were hunkered down, and it showed.

Having said that, the shows and exhibits listed below cut through that fog of uncertainty and provided some shining light and optimism we can build on going forward. In every case, the ideas were robust, the craftsmanship was meticulous, and the overall effect (from editing and sequencing to lighting and hanging) was superlative. These were the shows that hooked me immediately, dragged me in for close inspection and brain engagement, and left me in a head-nodding, smiling, state of wonder. A few additional words on each are below, now given the benefit of some small bit of hindsight, along with links to the original reviews.

Top Photography Shows of 2011 (all 3 STARS, alphabetically by last name/exhibit title)

Harry Callahan and Jackson Pollock: Early Photographs and Drawings @Pace/MacGill Gallery (original review here)

This show connected the visual dots that MoMA’s sprawling AbEX show failed to connect. The pairings and interplay here were simply astonishing.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia: ELEVEN @David Zwirner (original review here)

A rethinking of the staged tableau in the context of fashion. Proof that with the right support, commissioned work can still be very exciting art.

Jill Freedman, Street Cops, 1978-1981 @Higher Pictures (original review here)

This show was the discovery of the year for me. Freedman’s work captures New York’s finest with an amazingly consistent warmth and grace, with an eye for photographic storytelling.

Nan Goldin: Scopophilia @Matthew Marks (original review here)

This was undoubtedly the most polarizing photography show in New York this year. Some, like me, found the video lyrical and transcendent, while others found the whole endeavor arrogant, tired, or even desperate. I know that I walked away with a new respect for and understanding of Goldin’s work, seeing it with fresh eyes after all these years.

Self Reflections: The Expressionist Origins of Lisette Model @Bruce Silverstein Gallery (original review here)

This show entirely transformed my understanding of Lisette Model. Placed in the context of German/Austrian Expressionism, her whole body of work suddenly made visual sense to me. A testament to the power of getting outside the photography bubble and looking for historical connections in the other arts.

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936-1951 @Jewish Museum (original review here)

This exhibit is the educational winner of the year. It tells a complex story with inclusiveness and detail without becoming dry and overwhelming. For me, it filled in some important historical gaps, both introducing forgotten talents and placing the entire group in clearer photographic context.

Laurie Simmons, The Love Doll: Days 1 through 30 @Salon 94 Bowery (original review here)

This show of new work was amazingly assured and accomplished, taking themes she has explored throughout her career and extending them in a new and provocative way. Here was a bit of the risk taking I was talking about above; what could easily have been a throw away gimmick in the wrong hands was made thoughtful and shockingly real by Simmons.

In thinking more about what ties these seven shows together, I began to see a divergence in my mindset when evaluating contemporary and vintage shows. While in both cases, I was searching for some measure of innovation, originality, and inherent quality (however defined), for contemporary shows, I was more focused on likely long term durability and freshness of vision, while for vintage shows, I was more interested in new ways of thinking/seeing work I was already familiar with. As such, I decided to create two top 10 lists, one for each type of show, promoting the most worthy shows from the ranks of the 2 STARS brigade; these two lists are below. In some cases, when retrospectives bled into the present or when “new” work actually came from more than a decade ago, I had to make some determinations of just which bucket was most appropriate. In general, I think this separation has some meaningful and useful logic behind it, allowing for more apples to apples comparisons.

Top 10 Contemporary Photography Shows of 2011 (alphabetically by last name/exhibit title)

Philip-Lorca diCorcia: ELEVEN @David Zwirner (original review here)

Nan Goldin: Scopophilia @Matthew Marks (original review here)

Pieter Hugo, Permanent Error @Yossi Milo Gallery (original review here)

Rinko Kawauchi: Illuminance @The Gallery at Hermes (original review here)

Louise Lawler: Fitting @Metro Pictures (original review here)

Boris Mikhailov: Case History @MoMA (original review here)

Ray Mortenson: Full Scale/Meadowland Still Lifes @Janet Borden (original review here)

Laurie Simmons, The Love Doll: Days 1 through 30 @Salon 94 Bowery (original review here)

Lorna Simpson: Gathered @Brooklyn Museum (original review here)

Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide @International Center of Photography (original review here)

Top 10 Vintage Photography Shows of 2011 (alphabetically by last name/exhibit tile)

Harry Callahan and Jackson Pollock: Early Photographs and Drawings @Pace/MacGill Gallery (original review here)

Julia Margaret Cameron @Hans Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs (original review here)

John Divola, Trees for the Forest @Wallspace (original review here)

Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best @International Center of Photography (original review here)

Jill Freedman, Street Cops, 1978-1981 @Higher Pictures (original review here)

Robert Heinecken: Copywork @Friedrich Petzel Gallery (original review here)

Self Reflections: The Expressionist Origins of Lisette Model @Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here)

Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On @Artists Space (original review here)

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936-1951 @Jewish Museum (original review here)

Henry Wessel, Vintage Photographs @Pace/MacGill Gallery (original review here)

As I look to 2012, I remain as energized as ever to troll through the dreck in search of the revolutionary. I wholeheartedly believe in the real power of the simple gallery show review and its rightful place at the center of the critical discourse that surrounds this medium, and I expect to redouble my efforts in the coming year to see as much as I can and report on it as thoughtfully as possible. In my view, everything starts with looking at and responding to the pictures, and everything else, all the discussions of business models and art markets, social media and artistic memes, it’s all secondary (perhaps even an out right distraction) to the work itself. What we all need to do, whether we are collectors, or working artists, or just lovers of photography, is to see more shows. Resolve to double the number of shows you saw last year. If you can make that profound commitment, you’ll increase your odds of having the artistic moment that really matters: the one when a photograph interrupts your daily muddle and leaves you astounded, dumbfounded, and thoroughly amazed and befuddled. We’re making memories here folks, so here’s to a 2012 filled with mind-blowing contradictions, jaw-dropping shocks, and staggering, uncompromising photographic beauty.

One comment

  1. sd /

    What a post! And what a beautiful last paragraph, one of the most eloquent set of words I have read in relation to photography and the display of images. As an artist and (new) gallery owner, I also feel that there is power (as you describe) in the exhibition of photographs on walls, as well as in books.

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