Installation view of “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015.” Photo by Thomas Griesel. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art.
In the mid-1820s, a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce, working in relative obscurity, managed to produce the first, experimental photographic images. Just over a decade later, in 1839, the French astronomer and physicist Louis-François Arago announced to his awed scientific peers that a process of fixing images of the world onto a light-sensitive surface had been successfully invented: photography was born. Between then and now, this chameleon-like medium has gone through rapid technological advances and appeared in a wide array of forms. So much so that many photographs today might seem unrelated to their 19th-century forebears.
So what is photography now? This month, both The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim Museum address this question in exhibitions that take stock of the state of the medium. Organized by curators Quentin Bajac, Lucy Gallun, and Roxana Marcoci, MoMA’s “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015” includes the work of 19 international artists and collectives and is a part of the museum’s long-running “New Photography” exhibition program, now in its 30th year.
“New is an adjective that can be defined in many different ways,” said Bajac of the exhibition. “If I try to define ‘new’ photography, I think that I should define it first by the fact that you have a great diversity of forms and methods.” This is reflected in the kind of work included in the show, which he enumerates as “prints on the walls, screens, magazines, self-published books, posters that you can take, photo-based sculpture, photo-based videos, straight photography, and site-specific installation,” among other projects. On view is everything from stacks of posters made from photographs of urban detritus found by Edson Chagas to Yuki Kimura’s sculptural installation incorporating austere black-and-white photographs of Kyoto’s historic Katsura Imperial Villa.
Such an array is a significant change from previous shows within the “New Photography” series, which were principally composed of photographs framed and hung on the walls. In organizing this year’s presentation, Bajac and his co-curators were guided, in large part, by their consideration of how the internet has shaped current approaches to photography. The phrase “ocean of images” in the exhibition’s title references the oceanic metaphors that have been applied to the internet and its uses. As he puts it: “From surfing the web to piracy and streams of big data, there’s really a feeling that information and images are liquid. And I like the idea of an analogy between photography and something liquid.”
While the influence of the internet on artists (not to mention on viewers) is an undeniably strong one, Bajac was careful to clarify that he and his co-curators are not aiming to establish fixed conditions for what makes photography new. “There are many ways to be an artist,” he explains, “and it’s always really difficult and even dangerous to establish too strong a connection between technological changes and an artistic practice.” In fact, he would like to divest viewers of the notion that photography can or should be defined at all. “I hope that the visitor will get the feeling that there’s no such thing as photography,” he said, “that there’s not one definition of photography.”
A more tightly focused exhibition than MoMA’s capacious presentation, the Guggenheim’s “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology,” which opens later this month, is organized by curators Jennifer Blessing and Susan Thompson. It includes the work of 10 international artists, made between 2005 and 2015, and is accompanied by a catalogue, which is meant to express the layout of the exhibition in book form. Like Bajac, Blessing is aware of the great breadth of photography today and recognizes that it cannot be neatly summarized. “Things are changing so quickly that you can’t make a statement about what’s happening now,” she explains, “because whatever you say is no longer relevant within a few months.”
Instead, she chose to home in on what she sees as notable threads running throughout contemporary artists’ approaches to the medium: blending old and new technologies and appropriating images to make work that is about craft, materials, and physicality—including photographic prints, photo-sculptures, slideshows, installations, and artist books—as much as it is about the nature of photography itself. Among the projects on view will be Leslie Hewitt’s photographs within photographs and Elad Lassry’s perceptually confounding, object-like photographic images. “More than other art forms, we tend to focus primarily on the image in a photograph. The image is only a part of these works that are very much about objects and space and how we experience them,” adds the curator.
Blessing calls this approach “photo-poetics.” As she explains, “What I initially meant to signal with the word ‘poetics’ was a kind of Aristotelian notion of understanding the nature, laws, and rules of, in his case, poetry. But applied to photography. In other words, photography that’s very self-reflexive, very interested in the medium itself. Then another meaning for poetics developed, which had to do with artists using language and text, and treating their found images almost like phrases in poetry.”
In keeping with these literary references, and to be true to the work itself, Blessing modeled the exhibition after an anthology. “It’s called an anthology because I wanted it to be a selection of 10 one-person shows,” she says. “In the catalogue and in the museum, the artists will have their own spaces.” Through this arrangement she also hopes to encourage viewers to spend time with each artist’s project, to read their work as they would a book, to become re-acquainted with looking more intently at images. “I think that anyone who is looking at pictures on Instagram or Snapchat, people who don’t know what a slideshow is like, will come into the exhibition and recognize that there is something really special about these images,” says Blessing.
That photography resists definition is part of what makes it so fresh. As Bajac offers: “I have the feeling that the history of photography is not a linear one but a kind of cyclic one. Every 40 or 50 years, the medium reinvents itself. And this is why after nearly 200 years photography still manages to appear quite new and democratic.”
“Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015” is on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Nov. 7, 2015 – Mar. 20, 2016.
“Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Nov. 20, 2015 – Mar. 23, 2016.