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A Veteran Exhibition Showcases New Standouts: “New Photography” at The Museum of Modern Art

Some exhibitions spark riots, some spawn movements, and some, slowly and steadily, can change the course of an entire medium. The Museum of Modern Art’s recurring “New Photography” exhibition, now 28 years old, is an example of the latter.

 Over a generation (save for a seven-year hiatus ending in 2005, during which the museum was temporarily housed in Queens), it has established a notable track record in cementing careers and identifying the next new thing in the medium—whether Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s subtly theatrical narrative moments, showcased in 1986, or Vivien Sassen’s vivid-yet-enigmatic photographs from throughout Africa, included in the 2012 iteration.

The exhibition is not meant to be a survey of the field, but rather a showcase of recent work by young standouts. However, in recent years a few overarching trends have emerged. If the medium has seemed to close in on itself with the conceptual practices of artists like Sarah Vanderbeek (included 2009) and Elad Lassry (2010) — based in commercial product photography, their work relishes the static, hard-as-a-rock quality a photograph can take on when it captures an object just-so — it has also opened up to embrace a panoply of new techniques, pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally passed as photography. Michele Abeles (shown in 2012) created bursts of color and a flurry of jostling planes in photographs indistinguishable from collage, as if Dada had arrived in the post-internet age via a brief detour through the 1980s. Daniel Gordon (2009) brought sculpture-based photography to a new level with his vivid mash-ups of objects culled from the internet, juxtaposing a DIY aesthetic of torn, pasted images with high post-production values. And last year, Shirana Shahbazi’s abstract photographs once and for all showed that photographs can be about anything, or nothing, at all.

This year, the boundaries of the medium have all but disappeared. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have created an artist’s book; Brendan Fowler stacks photographs like a mad framer; Lisa Oppenheim collects found photographs and turns them into photograms; and Anna Ostoya incorporates painting, collage, gold leaf, and papier mâché into her work. These artists—they really cannot be called photographers in the traditional sense of the word—join the illustrious alumni of “New Photography,” from Thomas Demand and Rineke Dijkstra to Paul Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans.