Monday, May 12, 2014

"What’s going on with Photography" By Carl Gunhouse

Alec Soth, 2013
My knowledge of art history and theory can be spotty at times, so bear with me. I understand the “Death of Painting” to be a point in the late 70’s when art folks believed everything that could be done in painting had been done and maybe Clement Greenberg had broken something. It occurs to me that contemporary photography is in the same place painting was after it was declared dead. Where any early division within or expectations for photography have eroded and anything is possible. In an attempt to deepen my understanding of the “Death of Painting”, I started in on some reading, and even a cursory internet search will point out that the “Death of Painting” apparently has been going on since the mid 1930’s to as late as 2012, when Roberta Smith can be found in The New York Times reassuring readers that the claims of painting’s death have been greatly exaggerated[1]. I did eventually stumble onto an essay by The Nation’s long-time art critic Arthur Danto, who in the 90’s gave voice to my understanding of a 70’s era end point to painting.

“The seventies was a decade in which it must have seemed that history had lost its way. It had lost its way because nothing at all like a discernible direction seemed to be emerging. If we think of 1962 as marking the end of abstract expressionism, then you had a number of styles succeeding one another at a dizzying rate: color-field painting, hard-edged abstraction, French neo-realism, pop, op, minimalism, arte povera, and then what got to be called the New Sculpture, which included Richard Serra, Lynda Benglis, Richard Tuttle, Eva Hesse, Barry Le Va, and then conceptual art. Then what seemed to be ten years of nothing much. There were sporadic movements like Pattern and Decoration, but nobody supposed they were going to generate the kind of structural stylistic energy of the immense upheavals of the sixties. Then all at once neo-expressionism arose, in the early eighties, and gave people the sense that a new direction had been found. And then again the sense of nothing much so far at least as historical directions were concerned. And then the dawning sense that the absence of direction was the defining trait of the new period, that neo-expressionism was less a direction than the illusion of one. Recently people have begun to feel that the last twenty-five years, a period of tremendous experimental productiveness in the visual arts with no single narrative direction on the basis of which others could be excluded, have stabilized as the norm.”[2]

Peter Galassi, MoMA, 1991
I do love “then the dawning sense that the absence of direction was the defining trait of the new period.” To Danto’s credit he almost acknowledges that being in the here and now makes for bad history and the function of art history is to wait and see, which artists and narratives have an effect on generations removed. So with that I throw my hat into the ring, and attempt to talk about what is going on in contemporary photography. Having come up as undergrad in the mid 90’s, I can still remember stories from faculty of the contentious rise of conceptualism and set-up photography in the 80’s. Or to quote Michael Kimmelman’s review of Galassi’s “Pleasure and Terrors” show, “The 80's also witnessed a deep split in the field of photography. On the one hand were the modernists who upheld the notion of documentary or candid images. On the other hand were the post-modernists who, in borrowing images from mass culture and in putting forth contrived and manipulated photographs, both challenged photography's role in shaping social conventions and cast doubt on the credibility of the medium itself.”[3] A split which in legend took on a heightened moral value in which friends stopped talking to friends over the value of manipulating the reality in front of the camera. When leaving for grad school I even remember my undergrad professors only half jokingly telling me that if I returned staging pictures of taxidermy in my basement (a direct jab at the high priest of staged photography Gregory Crewdson) they would disown me. 

Gregory Crewdson, Natural Wonder, 1992-97
I started the Yale MFA program in photography in 2001 and the success of the Yale Girls was at a high and Crewdson was at the peek of his fame. But it was refreshing to learn that most of my classmates had no strong affinity for set-up photography and none of them showed any interest in arguing over the value of straight vs. set-up photography. I felt as Danto described that the old battles were done, the avant-garde of post-modernism, or conceptualism was now a part of the foundation of our education. Roni Horn and Gregory Crewdson were no longer rebels, but on our critique panel, at a leading Ivy League art program. They were no longer the future. But there was no real feeling as to what might come next or even where exactly things were going. It was a moment as Danto described in the transformation between modern and contemporary art, which had “begun insidiously, without slogan or logo, without anyone being greatly aware that it had happened.”[4]

Alec Soth, Sleeping by the Mississippi, 2000
But in retrospect, in 2004, a year after I had graduated with an MFA and still making very straight photographs, stuff had started happening. Alec Soth had his first solo show in New York at Yossi Milo Gallery when they were still a tiny space upstairs across the street from Gagosian Gallery. Later in the year Soth was in the Whitney Biennial, and the following year the work from his solo at Yossi Milo was up across the street at Gagosian, the largest gallery in the world. It was shocking that the art world was wildly embracing an artist making straightforward pictures, which look a lot like Joel Sternfeld. If the mainstream galleries could champion a traditional straight photographer, it was certainly a sign that all things photographic were possible and traditional photography could be contemporary and relevant. Photographers just had to make visually engaging pictures of compelling subject matter. Soth’s work was what photography had always been, going into the world, stopping it, and framing it in a way that said something about the artist and their relationship to the world around them.

Roe Ethridge on the cover of Artforum, 2003
In 2005, when Alec Soth was legitimizing straight photography, Roe Ethridge had already graced the cover of Artforum, going on his third show at the hip and prestigious Chelsea Gallery Andrew Kreps. With a show that if I recall it correctly involved a lot of pictures of strip mall signs listing stores. At the time I was intrigued by the quality of his image making, but perplexed as to what the work was about. Even Frieze described the work in terms of a dated modernist vs. post-modernist struggle over the value of objectivity “their cumulative effect suggestive rather than illustrative of his fundamental inquiry into our ready assumption that photography will tell us something true.”[5] Slowly but surely Ethridge’s work bored its way into my head and I eventually asked Tim Davis, a mutual friend, what Ethridge’s work was about. Davis described him as a working stock photographer, who was trying to justify his trade as an artistic medium. A task that he has certainly pulled off with ease, by essentially curating shows of his own vernacular photographs. Pictures that were unquestionably well crafted, but often superficial, with varying styles and subject matter that were added one next to the other until they made a weird sense, at their best they described a place or moment in history. I took a group of intro to photography students to the Ethridge’s break out Rockaway show and they seemed to immediately get that he was describing a working class beach community. Because at its core Ethridge is making very complex art that works best when you don’t think to hard.

Roe Ethridge
Over the past decade Soth and Ethridge have become ubiquitous; both appeared in the Whitney Biennial (2004 and 2008 respectively), both showed at Gagosian (Chelsea and Beverly Hills respectively) and both have published numerous books while maintaining high-profile professional careers in editorial (Soth with a Sunday Times Magazine cover) and commercial (Ethridge with a W fashion spread) photography. While neither has received a high profile museum show, it seems to be only a matter of time. By any standard they have been the most successful photographers of the last decade, spawning a photographic approach that can be spotted in a generation of photographers like Christian Patterson, Daniel Shea, Joshua Lutz, Greg Halpern and countless recent MFA shows. This style of work is a hybrid of Soth’s traditional narrative style, where the picture contains a clear well crafted idea, and Ethridge’s free-form editing, where placing a vernacular image next to a large format landscape, next to a black and white snapshot, next to a drawing, is all fair game and hopefully creates meaning.

Alec Soth, Sleeping by the Mississippi, 2002

Roe Ethridge, Le Luxe, 2011

What is fascinating about their rise is that Ethridge and Soth have been able to be very successful without butting heads or creating opposing camps of thought. Hell, at Paris Photo Los Angeles the two sat down to a public conversation where they came off as low-key, bearded, white men who very much liked each other’s work. If Thomas Friedman got anything right with his book The World Is Flat it was that the inter-connectedness of the digital age has leveled our culture. The art world has become so widely dispersed that there can no longer be a king maker, a namer of things like Clement Greenberg. Platforms to talk about and see art are so numerous and accessible it is no longer so much a back and forth of competing ideas as a number of people speaking at the same time, so it is nearly impossible for any one idea to gain traction, creating an environment where Ethridge and Soth never had to compete for the same wall space or even the same eyes. The old battles are dead. Photography is in a post-partisan age where all things are possible and acceptable. Of course as I write this Soth and Ethridge have already become passé for people younger than myself who have already moved on to Lucas Blalock’s playing around with photoshop or a hundred other people I am too old to have even heard of, and maybe ten years from now it all be even clearer what was important. But I'll call it, Alec Soth and Roe Ethridge are who will be remembered of photography from the last decade (and possibly a harder to define multi-headed beast of abstract photography that I feel less equipped to try and parse).

[1] Roberta Smith, “Like Watching Paint Thrive” The New York Times, June 28, 2012
[2] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997)
[3] Michael Kimmelman, “Joys and Terrors On the Home Front” The New York Times, September 27, 1997
[4] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997)
[5] Megan Ratner, “Roe Ethridge” Frieze Magazine, March 2006

Essay by Carl Gunhouse, 2014 

No comments:

Post a Comment