The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Puzzlement

What is a Photograph?
R. Wayne Parsons
Photo by Matthew Brandt, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York. . Source:
Matthew Brandt, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York., "Grays Lake, ID 7" 2013

Those who follow photography closely will be familiar with the enthusiasm among some contemporary photographers for “alternative processes,” a term taken to refer to alternatives to the approaches that have been the industry standards for a century or more — either the almost-now-obsolescent silver gelatin process, or the digital technology that has rapidly replaced it in the last two decades or so. Characteristic of this mentality is a look back at the past, as these processes (including Daguerreotypes, tintypes, platinum/palladium prints, and albumen prints) were nineteenth century techniques that appeal to present-day practitioners not only for their nostalgia, but also because they yield attractive and distinctive results that are generally not attainable with modern techniques.

Photo by Mariah Robertson . Source:
Mariah Robertson, "154, detail" 2010

The misleadingly-named show “What is a Photograph” approaches the same issue of alternatives to “standard” photo techniques, though with an emphasis on contemporary attempts to find new ways to make photographs. The artists in “What is a Photograph?” are not seeking to recapture the past, but rather to move photographic practices forward in new directions; no one would confuse nineteenth results with those seen in the ICP show. The desire to experiment is hardly surprising, given that reward systems emphasize originality and doing “something different.”

This exhibition gives us “something different,” as of circa 1970 and later, an arbitrary demarcation that eliminates a good many twentieth-century innovators. Any curator of such a show has a wealth of work to choose from, and the choice displayed here seems idiosyncratic, without any underlying theme other than experimentation. The stated rationale has been to choose artists “who have reconsidered and reinvented the role of light, color, composition, materiality, and the subject in the art of photography” —- a vague and broad criterion that could include much more than presented here. But never mind, there is a good deal pleasing to both the eye and the intellect in this exhibition.

The techniques evident in the show range from the simple to the complex. At one end of the continuum is the straightforward low-tech approach of applying oil paint to the surface of a traditional silver gelatin print, as exemplified in this show by work of Gerhard Richter; his images, mostly small, are among the highlights of the show. As I understand from the short technical summaries in the wall texts, Jon Rafman’s methods are the most complex, using, among other things, computer algorithms to transform 3-D scans of Greek portrait busts into three dimensional abstract forms. He photographs and then prints them in two dimensions, adding an overlay of additional material in Photoshop. The complexity of these images is matched by their sophisticated visual appeal —- perhaps the most interesting works in the show.

Marco Breuer uses an unorthodox cameraless approach to image making. Photo paper is exposed to a variety of interventions, including heat and abrasion of its surface, to create inviting abstractions that remind one of abstract expressionist paintings. (Indeed, much of the work in this show is suggestive of this school of painting, to the point that a whimsical show title might be “How to be an Abstract Expressionist Photographer.”)

Photo by Alison Rossiter . Source:
Alison Rossiter, " Kilborn Acme Kruxo" 2013

Alison Rossiter works with outdated materials, literally. She acquired expired film and photo paper (some more than sixty years out of date) and treated them in various ways (no camera, please!) with light and darkroom chemicals to make black and white forms that also point to abstraction, some reminiscent of the ink drawings of Barnet Newman.

Other outstanding “known quantities” included in the exhibition are Adam Fuss with his varied and dramatic photograms, Lucas Samaras and his acclaimed manipulated Polaroid images, and Sigmar Polke and his painted silver gelatin prints.

Photo by Kate Steciw . Source:
Kate Steciw, " Armchair, Background, Basic, Beauty, Bed, Bedside, Bread, Breakfast, Bright, Cereal, Closeup, Cloth, Color, Contemporary, Couch, Crust, Day, Decor, Fox, Frame, Grain, Ingredient, Interior, Invitation, Irregular, Juice, Life, Living, Loaf, Luxury, Macro, Sofa, Speed, Style, Sweet, Texture." 2013

Although composited images are today among the most popular departure from traditional photo processes (no doubt due to the comparative ease with which Photoshop allows for their creation), they are scarcely, but ably, represented in this exhibition by the colorful creations of Kate Steciw.

A sometime problem with conceptual art is that while the idea may be interesting, the physical realization of the idea falls flat. While Letha Wilson’s piece “Grand Tetons Concrete Column,” for example, raises interesting questions about our relationship with our natural environment, the work itself appears more suited for a construction site than a gallery space. Similar comments could be made about Liz Deschenes’ Zoetrope series, a work of repetitive structures intended to create a variation of the Zoetrope experience as the viewer walks by. Unfortunately, the visitor is more likely simply to walk by than to engage with the work.

Although the show asks “What is a photograph,” it does not attempt an answer. A straightforward solution is to look at the roots of the word: “phos” for light and “graphos” for drawing in ancient Greek. Taken literally, then, photographs are images made with light-sensitive materials. Implicit in this definition is that cameras are not needed to make a photograph, and in fact a good many of the artists in this show left their cameras on the shelf. But the problem regarding what is or is not a photograph is with our concepts and the language used to express them, not the images themselves. What’s your definition of a photograph?

In sum, this is an interesting show that documents a few of the many experimental approaches some talented artists have used to break out of a traditionalist mold.

What is a Photograph?
Curator: Carol Squires

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Friday, January 31 to
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