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“Everyday Epiphanies,” the current show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, Contemporary Photography Gallery, is actually an extension of the Met’s William Eggleston retrospective “At War with the Obvious” on display around the corner. (These almost meaningless titles could easily be transposed one with the other.) In “Epiphanies” the works range from an early 1969 photograph by Dan Graham to several digital pieces completed within the last year. The show neatly explores both the context of Eggleston’s work in the 1970’s, and the influence he had on the development of succeeding generations of photographers.
Two distinct genres are represented: one, the vernacular, personal landscape, which can be traced back through Eggleston to Walker Evans; the other, the personalized, environmental portrait, a genre that Eggleston occasionally, and memorably explored. Epiphanies can be found in each, although, as is often the case, they are well spaced.
The show starts with an early color work by Dan Graham, “View from Highway Restaurant Adjacent to Housing Development, Jersey City, N.J.” The wall text rather wistfully ties thes view to an epiphany by suggesting that an advertisement for a 69 cent chicken special is an embodiment of taijitu yin-yang symbolism, but one wonders if Graham may have had a more profane view of these numbers. It seems that rather than a quest for mystical epiphany, the whole point of Dan Graham’s work from this period — he was simultaneously photographing the ‘architecture’ of housing tracts in Staten Island — is more an in-your-face challenge to the ‘fine-art’ photographic orthodoxies of the time.
A closer approximation to a classical epiphany image is Sally Mann’s “Jessie at Five”. An image with a classic composition — the bright, central Jessie surrounded by darker, less distinct children — it has a purity of form closer to that of an earlier generation of photographers (one thinks of Minor White’s), than to the vernacular snapshots of the younger generation represented in this show.
Not that there are not dramatic photographs from this group — pieces by Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia are carefully lit, portentous portraits, more like moody early scenes in a literary art film, than moments of epiphany. (The cinematic quality seems to be at odds with the “everyday” aspect of the title as well, for that matter.)
Two younger portraitists bring the show into the more contemporary, conceptualist world. Nikki S. Lee, ‘embeds’ herself into various American social groups, adapting their clothing, makeup and activities. Leavened with a healthy dose of hipster-strength irony, she tries to blend into these groups, arranging self-portraits that combine the reality of the lives of the people around her with the dress-up charm of a low-rent Cindy Sherman. Her images are generic, their tension coming from empathy with the people around her and the first generation American Lee.
One of the newest pieces in the show can hardly be called a portrait, but it does show faces, actually hundreds of them. Presented on a flat screen monitor, “Not Human” by Brian Lattu is described as a video piece, but actually is a newer medium, an outgrowth of the traditional slide show — screen-saver art. Lattu has gathered hundreds of photographs from various sources, then processed them with computer software that finds the ‘faces’ in each. The picturess are then centered and rotated so that the eyes of the found faces are level, centered horizontally, and placed exactly 1/3rd down from the top. The resulting images are then set to rapidly dissolve one into the next. The illusion created is that of faces morphing one into the other under changing surroundings. the show never stops. Politicians morph into cheesy beauty stars who morph into bridal mannequins who morph into high school students who morph into Donald Trump, etc. etc. The cacophony of images experienced today may be the underlying message here, but with no evident rhyme or reason to the sequencing but the whole exercise seems to be more of a conceptual trick than something you would actually want to spend time looking at.
One image that somewhat fits into the portrait category and maybe into the epiphany category as well, is “Heart Shaped Bruise” a 1980 image by Nan Goldin. The epiphany for this viewer being that is almost a one-picture synopsis of Goldin’s entire oeuvre.
Substantial sections of the exhibit show the work of two artists in depth: the early color work of the conceptual sculptor Gabriel Orozco, and very early color work of photographer Stephen Shore.
The Shore work, presented in a long vitrine, is of 30 or so ‘Drug Store Prints” taken in 1972 on Shore’s first cross-country trip. Having sold 3 photographs to MoMA when he was 14 years old and then having worked as a teenage photographer in the Andy Warhol Factory, Shore was well positioned in the photo world, and indeed this collection of several hundred color snapshots from his trip was bought and exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974. The show entitled “American Surfaces,” was only the second photography show devoted to a living artist at the Met, the first being Alfred Stieglitz.
Despite the historical significance of these particular images, the most surprising thing is that they were really just the sketches for Shore’s future work. Over the next decade Shore returned to the same milieu to photograph them with the large-format camera, eventually producing in 1982, one of the classics of modern American photography “Uncommon Places.”
Clearly present is Eggleston’s influence on choice of scene, but equally present are Lee Friedlander’s Monuments and Walker Evan’s straightforward reportage, and perhaps strongest influence being, Andy Warhol. The subject matter: everyday meals, motel toilets, straight-forward snapshots of people (albeit ordinary people, not Warhol’s preferred superstars) are the everyday objects at the core of the early Warholian viewpoint.
Over the next years Shore strengthened the elements only hinted at in the snapshots. Most particularly, the use of color. Rarely a central element in the early snapshots, color became a prime element in “Uncommon Places.” And the use of the large format camera resulted in a tightening of Shore’s compositions and allowed for the presentation of ‘Big Color’ images. The brashness of the snapshots, so forceful in 1974, becomes more accepted in the later pictures, allowing for the more, dare we use the word,‘epiphanous’ quality in the later work to emerge.
For Gabriel Orozco, the approach to photography could not be more different. Traveling the world as a conceptual sculptor in the 1990’s he would produce ephemeral objects, most of which existed afterwards only as photographs. Rather than a photogapher hunting for images, he was firmly committed to making them. So while the sculptures themselves are generally constructed of rag-tag materials, the photographs are hardly ‘everyday’ images.
Overall, this show has a rich assortment of thought-provoking photography and is well worth the visit. The videos that are also part of the show are another matter. Sitting in a darkened room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by tens of thousands of fabulous objects and images from around the world, one does wonder if watching a video of plastic bags blowing in the wind is really the best use of one’s time. (Pro tip: skip the videos and see the new European painting installation instead – fabulous!)