New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 16 May 2 to 8, 2012

Beauty in Decay

Photography and Ruin
Don Burmeister
Untitled Ambrotype (no. 84) by Myra Greene. Source:
Myra Greene, "Untitled Ambrotype (no. 84)" 2007

If all of these early spring flowers are getting you down, or if those $600 million mega-bucks seem to have passed you over for some strumpet living next to a Walmart, maybe what you need to do is head over to the Main (Your Name Here for $100 Million) Branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd St. to take in some “Photography and Ruin.” Paired with a print exhibit called “In Pieces” you might think that you were in for some moody images of old castles and down at the heels cathedrals. And although the print show delivers the expected goods, Photography and Prints Director Stephan Pinson has turned the tables on the photography side – the ruins of the title are the photographs themselves.

Chronologically the show starts from an uncared-for daguerreotype from the 1850’s that has been held by many hands and which has eroded into a corona of metallic tarnish surrounding a just perceptible image of George Washington, (a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington to be exact.) But conceptually, at least according to the wall text, the show started from an unlikely source, a recent piece by the Dutch artist Robin Waart. “Polaroidpolaroids” consists of 101 polaroid photographs of 101 different polaroid cameras. The ruin portion (reminiscent of the Walker Evans Polaroids of the 1970’s, those unstable ‘positives’ that turned from rather humdrum snaps into exquisite moldering relics in just 40 years) seemingly lies in the future,. Apparently we are only at the beginning of a long process here. The theme of the show then is not ruin itself, but rather how photographers have taken the idea of the ephemeral as inspiration.

Darko, expires May 1928, processed in 2011 by Allison Rossiter. Source:
Allison Rossiter, "Darko, expires May 1928, processed in 2011"

There are a few different approaches. The blandest is by Bruce Nauman, who has a large folded sheet of 15 black and white photographs of burning photographs each of which was taken from a book by Ed Rushche called “Various Small Fires.” Maybe you had to be there. A couple of photographers are in the show seemingly against their will. Arthur Rothstein and Rowlie Gwathmey both have prints taken from negatives they subsequently destroyed. The prints themselves seem not to have noticed.

Most of the other exhibiters are contemporary photographers who have experimented with various processes that deliberately give their images an aged or bedraggled look. One of the most effective was by Denny Moers who uses various fixing agents and toners on his black and white prints. The immediate reaction is: ‘These are pictures that weren’t rinsed enough in the darkroom’. But then you notice the uncanny resonance between these stains and the imagery of the photos.

Other photographers in the show use antique processes with irregularities and sloppy darkroom techniques to add a touch of authenticity to their images. By far the most interesting images were the ones most faithful to the organic processes of the materials and the least artistic imput. That is to say, the work of Allison Rossiter. Using photo paper produced in the first few decades of the 20th century, in many cases she just develops the paper out. Especially intriguing are three prints made from “Darko” paper. Whether by partial exposure, mold, an undeveloped image or by the conscious application by the artist of developer and light, the images appear to be mysterious landscapes, almost, but never quite understandable.

Although this show is rather small (aside from those 101 polaroids) it is also rather remarkable. All the prints are from the Library’s permanent collection. Who would have thought that the Public Library included such a strong and unusual group of contemporary photographers? How wonderful.

Photography and Ruin

NY Public Library Schwarzman Building,
Fifth Ave & 42nd St.
Midtown         Map

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Friday, March 2 to
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Hours: Mon, Thur-Sat, 11 to 6; Tues - Wed, 11 to 7:30