New Photography 2009 at MoMA Isn’t About Photography

Installation view of Sarah VanDerBeek and Walead Beshty

It’s about so much more.

Confused? Don’t be. The New Photography 2009 show at MoMA looks pretty straightforward. It is 2 rooms of really really large prints. We’re still taking flat plane here, but this is no Ansel Adams. These images are collaged, staged, and manipulated into their final appearance as prints. It suggests that contemporary photography is toying with the bounds of photography while incorporating it as one tool of many in one’s artistic practice, thus redefining or pushing the concept of what photography can be.

Sterling Ruby, Artaud
For example, Sterling Ruby comprised the image left with photographs of graffiti he saw in Italy which he digitally manipulated while also adding the slash/drip mark pattern digitally. So he starts with the traditional photographic image and transforms it into something else.

Installation view Carter Mull, left, and Sterling Ruby

MoMA’s website points out that for all of the artists “their images all begin in the studio or the darkroom and result from processes involving collection, assembly, and manipulation. Many of the works are made with everyday materials and objects, as well as images from the Internet, magazines, newspapers, and books. Some of the artists also work in other mediums and their pictures relate to disciplines such as drawing, sculpture, and installation.” Yet methods of incorporating photography vary among the six artists. When I was there yesterday, I happened in on a gallery lecture and found their diverse artistic practices fascinating.

Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real Time
Hewitt’s work looks the most traditional. It is carefully staged still lives and, like in the image above, it has both personal and historical levels. The inclusion of photographs, in this and other works, prominent.

Daniel Gordon, Red Headed Woman

Daniel Gordon’s creatures are assembled from clippings from magazines and photographs. He creates an image or tableau, photographs it, and then takes it apart to reuse the parts in other scenes. What I found interesting about this is that he considers the final photographic print the work of art rather than documentation.

Walead Beshty, Three Color Curl

Walead Beshty hasn’t actually taken a photograph in this work, but made one. The artist exposes photosensitive paper to light to make it develop different shades and shapes of abstract color in these large scale works. (Which are hung vertically at the Met, despite the image here being horizontal.) While he is updating a black and white process that artists such as Man Ray used, his work fundamentally differs from photography as we think of it.

Beshty does not use a camera to reproduce a copy of an original thing, a traditional definition of photography. All the artists, except Leslie Hewitt, were included for going beyond that simple definition of photography whether through creation of the original or manipulation of the copy. Certainly we are all familiar with digitally enhanced images; they fill magazines. Yet they only enhance, not transform. This exhibition suggests that such traditions are no longer necessary. But then what is photography?

2 thoughts on “New Photography 2009 at MoMA Isn’t About Photography

  1. Bleurgh. Some distinction needs to be made.

    Everyone knows what a painting is.

    Everyone knows what a song is.

    We should know what a photograph is… it’s (literally) an image, drawn with light!

    The last example is a photograph, then. The others are mixed-medium maybe, or just ambiguously: ‘artwork’.

    But yes, I am noticing the shift away from just straight-up photography. I hope there’s still a market for fine-art stuff.. 🙂

  2. I think there will always be. But it’s interesting how much the photography was concerned with other media and manipulation. Photography didn’t seem necessary for some of the works.

Leave a Reply