Top Photography Shows of 2012

Art criticism comes in many forms and guises: academic, obtuse, snarky, long winded, analytical, fawning, nitpicky, snappy, even soaring once in a while. But regardless of its style and trappings, at its root, art criticism is pure unadulterated reaction, a conscious process of looking, seeing, thinking and finally ordering and recording. It is a public dialogue between artist and viewer, a matching of influence and response, an attempt to connect and communicate.

I’ve often thought about what my personal criteria for a great photography show might be, and whether there is some kind of framework or system that can be created to handle the nearly infinite diversity of artistic expression found in the medium. Over the years, I’ve come to see that such questions are exercises in structured self delusion; as much as I might like to classify and organize, there isn’t any right answer to be found. Quality is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and while training and experience certainly form a foundation for making informed judgments, in the end, a review is a reasoned opinion, nothing more, nothing less.

One thing I can testify to is that great photography shows have an undeniable feeling of transcendence. At least for me, I never wonder about whether a show should be rated 2 STARS or 3 STARS. It’s never close, up for discussion or subject to persuasion or analysis; it’s always patently obvious. Every time a show merits 3 STARS, I stand in the middle of the exhibit and I gaze in circles, warmed by the physical flush of endorphins running through my bloodstream – it’s absolutely a feeling rather than any scholarly cerebral thought. And like a junkie chasing a high, I wander the galleries and museums of our city month after month looking for my next fix. In 2012, I visited 300+ photography shows (between 4 and 12 most weeks on average) and I found this tingling feeling a sum total of 8 times. A quick calculation tells us that my hit rate was less than 3%, so I might have done better looking for needles in haystacks.

The shows and exhibits below run the gamut from vintage to contemporary, from gallery to museum, from black and white to color, from analog to digital, and from single body of work to career retrospective. In short, there is no pattern. If you follow the links to the original reviews, you will be able to trace my original train thought in each case (the “why” of each rating), tracking my questions and conclusions and parsing my reactions and logic. But even many months later, the elemental 3 STAR glow of these particular shows is wholly undiminished in my brain; that physical rush clearly carves a deep rut in my memory. So while the countless others I saw last year have already begun to slowly wash away into the fog and I eagerly look ahead to what might be discovered in 2013, these 8 remain fresh, alive and durably astonishing.

Top Photography Shows of 2012 (all 3 STARS, alphabetically by last name/exhibit title)

Robert Adams, The Place We Live @Yale University Art Gallery (original review here)

Richard Avedon, Murals & Portraits @Gagosian Gallery (original review here)

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective @Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (original review here)

Lee Friedlander: Nudes @Pace Gallery (original review here)

Gerhard Richter, Painting 2012 @Marian Goodman Gallery (original review here)

Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life @International Center of Photography (original review here)

Cindy Sherman @Museum of Modern Art (original review here)

Weegee: Murder Is My Business @International Center of Photography (original review here)

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