New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 49 New Years Listings Update December 18 to 31, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Children of the Pictures Generation

New Photography 2013

Photo by Annette Kelm . Source: Courtesy the artist; Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; and Johann König, Berlin. © Annette KelmAnnette Kelm, "Untitled" 2013

Just as acceptance by the Paris Salon was an almost necessary imprimatur for painters and sculptors, not to mention collectors in the late 19th Century, to be in MoMA’s annual “New Photography” show gives an artist a significant seal of approval today–– both in the world of high-end galleries and the swarming museo-academic complex that symbiotically feeds off them.

“New Photography” has greatly expanded since the first exhibition in 1985, when Judith Jay Ross was selected alone. This year’s offering boasts a total of 8 artists, six individuals and one collaborative pair, yet even with the expanded roster, it is not really a survey, rather more of a themed show that could be subtitled “Children of the Pictures Generation.” For certainly one of the striking aspects of this show is that most of the pieces do not contain newly generated images, but rather, re-workings of existing photographs. Ergo — the artist as picture jockey.

Born between 1967 and 1978 (average age 40) the artists represented here grew up and learned from the older generation, absorbing their obsessive concern with mass media imagery, made even more accessible now via the internet. New Photography 2013 has 62 pieces (although you would be hard pressed to call some of them ‘photographs’) that range from the totally engrossing to the embarrassingly puerile. Lets start with the engrossing and save the puerile for dessert.

Photo by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin . Source:  Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, "p 10-11 War Primer 2" 2011.

“May he die like a dog. That’s my last wish.

He was the arch-enemy. Believe me, I speak true.

And I am free to speak: where I am now

Only the Loire and one lone cricket know.

In the center of the first gallery, commanding pride of place, are 16 vitrines, each holding a copy of an English translation of a picturebook by Bertold Brecht, Kriegsfibel, or as it was translated ‘War Primer’. The original was published in East Germany in 1955, although the English translation was not published until 1988 in the U.K. (Currently out of print, you can still get one on Amazon for about $300.) The book consists of 69 compositions, generally with a photograph clipped from a newspaper or magazine on the top and a 4 line epigram by Brecht below. The clippings were collected during Brecht’s exile from Germany (1933-47) and apparently the pages and epigrams were composed sporadically during that period as well. (See J.J. Long, 2008 for more about the book, and its ‘para-textuality’.) The photographs in the original were mostly scenes of World War II, ranging from Hitler addressing a rally, Churchill holding a tommygun, to pictures of bombing run victims, and soldiers, both dead and alive. Brecht’s epigrams annotate each picture with nuanced and surprisingly relevant insights. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, the creators of the contemporary work, have taken each page and silkscreened images of recent wars and mayhem gleaned from the internet onto each page, leaving the translated epigrams unchanged. Sometimes the original image is nearly completely covered, and in others only parts. An image of Londoners camped out in the underground is superposed with a still from a video of an aerial attack in Iraq.

Photo by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin . Source:  Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, "p. 22 War Primer 2" 2011
Brecht’s epigram reads:

There was a time of underneath and over

When mankind was master of the air. And so

While some were flying high, the rest took cover

Which didn’t stop them dying down below.

Brecht frequently included the original magazine captions and headlines with his pictures, and Broomberg and Chanarin provide the URL of their image with a descriptive sentence or two. The combined interactions of the images, texts and epigrams provide a rich, disturbing and ultimately serious polemic about war then and now. And frankly, the rest of this exhibition is trivial in comparison.

Photo by Josephine Pryde . Source: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Anne Ehrenkranz in honor of Gayle Greenhill. © Josephine PrydeJosephine Pryde, "Scale XVI" 2012

Flanking one wall of the Brecht annotations are pictures of an unusually fluffy guinea pig, in a second room we can see large meditations on an unusually interesting corner of a yoga mat, and in a third we can see large photograms of various fabrics and a doily, (the last piece, by Lisa Oppenheim is actually quite engaging).

Photo by Anna Ostoya . Source: Courtesy of the Artist and The Approach, London LN2013 1262Lisa Oppenheim, "Leisure Work III" 2013

There are some pieces of note in the show. Photo collages by Ana Ostoya create a strong visual rhythm with strips of gold leaf over an underlying collage of newspaper photographs. In one, two mirror images of an eye give the whole piece a vaguely Egyptian sarcophageal feel. Although the underlying collages don’t initially make a whole lot of sense, the overall strength of the compositions invites more and perhaps more insightful viewing.

Photo by Anna Ostoya . Source: Courtesy the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York. © Anna OstoyaAnna Ostoya, "Lee No. 1" 2013

The photographs by Annette Kelm (see the top image) have the distinction of being the only set of entirely ‘straight’ photographs in the show, including a rare portrait “Julian, Italian Restaurant”. (Ana Ostoya also includes some portraiture.) The other images look very much like product shots, with two takes of a set of paisley neckerchiefs, and 4 takes from a set involving tulips, striped fabric and some strange U shaped brackets, perhaps from a bicycle lock. Producing multiple subtle variations is an essential skill to a professional product photographer, never knowing the whims of the Art Director. But it is hardly news that making product photographs is a business. In this museum context it seems more like laziness – if the composition of a picture doesn’t matter to the artist why should it matter to the viewer?

Finally, dessert. Brendan Fowler is a musician best know for his one man band BARR. In 2009 he “ became really curious about what an object-based practice would look like...” and began to produce sculptures of smashed together framed photographs, mostly backing board and broken glass. One of these was shown in the New Museum’s “Younger than Jesus” show in 2010. The mashups series has continued, and we see four of them in this show. Come-on MoMA! Is there such a shortage of photographers that you were desperate for a bit of filler? Even Fowler calls these things sculptures, there are barely any bits of photograph left in them. I’d bet the Sculpture department would send a quick ‘thank you for sharing’ letter if offered them. Is the Department of Photography at MoMA so frustrated by the abundance of tepid images that it harbors secret desires to smash them all to bits?

Fortunately, or maybe not, there is no shortage of photographs in the world, so no need to wonder ‘whither photography?’ But it is a little sad that at the institution that first championed Eugene Atget, whose studio carried the sign “Documents pour Artistes,” that “New Photography” is devoted essentially to artists who use photographs as documents, the raw material for creating art. Forget about those unhip shlubs carrying around their 4x5’s or Canon’s. Judging from this show, it seems that photography as an independent art form is a battle that needs to be fought all over again.

New Photography 2013
Curators: Roxana Marcoci and Katerina Stathopoulou

The Museum of Modern Art
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Saturday, September 14 to
Monday, January 6, 2014
Hours: Weds to Mon, 10:30 to 5:30, Fri to 8

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat