The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

The Photographic Object

Whatever happened to photography? Not that it ever went away. No, it went viral, slipping into everyone's hands and onto the Internet. It passed more easily into fiction, now that one no longer needs to learn printing and double exposures to "enhance" it. It entered painting and sculpture, with such artists as Jacob Kassay and Eileen Quinlan, once chemistry and collage could bring photography's smoke and mirrors to abstraction. Somehow, in a digital age, it became an object.

Of course, it also began as one. Early photos served as constant companions and remembrances, in lockets, where they largely took over from painting the role of portrait miniatures. A cell phone's images may seem disembodied, but they function much the same way.

Photo by Adolphe Humbert de MolardUntitled1848 . Source: Andrea Rosen
Adolphe Humbert de Molard

Civil war photography also conveyed a grisly reality that painting tuned out, especially with the development of stereograms that could be experienced as objects in themselves. Box cameras and darkrooms had a palpable dimension that was even harder to ignore. With a camera now in everyone's hands—and the felt need to confirm one's existence by deploying it—photography has merely come full circle.

Before you blame that couple posing in front of you in the museum, though, it has happened before. "The Photographic Object," at Hauser & Wirth through July 25, recreates a 1970 exhibition at MoMA curated by Peter Bunnell, give or take creative substitutions.

Coming largely from the West Coast, the exhibition managed to subvert both Minimalism and Pop Art. And coming at the end of a touchy-feely decade, the object here tends to objectify the human body. If you could not decide whether Robert Heinecken most glorifies and degrades TV sets or human flesh, the show votes plainly for the latter. Only here that flesh need not belong to women.

Photo by Ellen Brooks . Source: Hauser & Wirth
Ellen Brooks, "Untitled" 1970

In fact, nostalgia dictates that it belongs first and foremost to Astroturf and molded plastic. Ellen Brooks, who studied with Heinecken, uses the first as "leisure turf" for her couples, lolling in black and white over 3D forms. Robert Brown and James Pennuto use the latter for what could be raw earth, automobile bodies, or someone you know. Carl Cheng uses it, too, for other American fantasies in dime-store display cases, while Michael Stone puts his on sale racks, with images right off the TV. Jack Dale and Michael de Courcy stick to cubes, like actual black-and-white TV, while Dale Quarterman and Lynton Wells mount their portraits standing upright, like lazy spectators. If you lose track, Richard Jackson adds his social security and draft numbers to film negatives—and if you go hungry, molds by Robert Watts supply food.

Photo by Carl Cheng . Source: Hauser & Wirth
Carl Cheng, "Sculpture for Stereo Viewers" 1968

If this all seems a very long time ago, where does one go from here? As it happens, the gallery and curator look in different directions. In its Chelsea branch, the same gallery borrows a room off to the side from Sterling Ruby, as if to rescue him from overstatement. Not every contemporary artist in "Fixed Variable" breaks the frame, but all eight are in search of sculptural presence.

Photo by Letha Wilson . Source:
Letha Wilson April,2013

Letha Wilson does it with concrete ripping through landscape photography, John Houck with creased prints of visually active patterns, Kate Steciw with found images fashioned into tables or partitions drenched in ambient light, and Josh Kolbo with what might pass for photograms were they not Pringles and billiard balls—and if they did not hang like a shower curtain. Matt Keegan, Lucas Blalock, and Chris Wiley simply frame and manipulate images of gratings and architecture.

Color and mass need not exist apart, they argue, nor transparency and texture. In contrast to the excess of the late 1960s, they make a case that formalism has an afterlife, even as the boundaries between media and genres are breaking down. The curator uptown, Olivier Renaud-Clément finds a similar lesson in a second show in Chelsea, by connecting photography's present to a deeper past.

"Back Grounds: Impressions Photographiques (2)," at Andrea Rosen through August 9, sounds ever so quaint, and it includes nineteenth-century daguerreotypes of European ruins. It also has a selection of Equivalents, in which Alfred Stieglitz looked to clouds for an equivalent to abstract ideas, sensations, or photography itself. Yet they make a strong context for artists unwilling to choose among the three.

The one holdover from the 1960s, Chargesheimer's liquid silver, looks the most organic. And the one closest to Stieglitz. Sherrie Levine today, simply appropriates him—in her endless assault on "authenticity." They also look the least shadowy, the least sculptural, and the least alive. Liz Deschenes uses photograms in slim industrial frames to reshape the room's architecture, while Gaylen Gerber drapes a curtain through it. Elsewhere Gerber, James Welling, and Martin d'Orgeval stick to movements across surfaces, with layered Plexiglas in bright colors, chemigrams, and photographs of cast shadows. Compared to Stieglitz, Deschenes, and "Fixed Variable," they approach formulas, but in the service of the viral object.

Photography has moved away from the object multiple times. With a Leica, photojournalism and street photography could become less reliant on a clumsy apparatus. A photo's very claim to naturalize representation meant that nothing stood between image and vision. Yet photography also felt the pull to critique that assumption and to reassert itself as art, along with the medium as object.

Does this seem increasingly old-fashioned, like a yen for vintage prints and fine leather binding? All three shows suffer from nostalgia for a pre-digital age. Still, they recover a sense in which photography means more than clicking. Someone struggling with the soot and glass of a cliché verre would have understood.


Shows mentioned in this essay:

The Photographic Object, 1970 at Hauser & Wirth Gallery, 32 E 69th St.

Fixed Variable, at Hauser & Wirth Gallery, 511 W 18th St.

Back Grounds, Impressions Photographiques (2) at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 W 24th St.

The Photographic Object by John Haber


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