'Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960' at the Baltimore Museum of Art
By Michael O'Sullivan
Thursday, March 24, 2:19 PM
There's a crisis of confidence in contemporary photography.
That's the take-away from "Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960." The exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art is a sure-footed history of the past 50 years of picture taking that culminates in a pretty shaky assessment of the current state of the art.
Exactly what, it asks, is a photograph? The answer, to the extent that there is one, is unclear.
Not that it hedges on the issue of quality. Smartly curated by Kristen Hileman, the work on view is conceptually strong. But it does raise some thorny questions. Does a photograph merely record its subject or, by the very act of taking a picture, transform it? What is its appropriate subject? Something beautiful or something ugly? Can it even be trusted? And where does the photographer belong -- behind or in front of the camera? Speaking of cameras, why do you even need one?
It asks some of these right off the bat.
The first thing you're likely to see when you walk in the door isn't even a photograph. Mounted near the show's entrance is a 2008 video work by Kota Ezawa (the sound coming from it is so distracting, it's hard to pay attention to much else). Titled "Lennon Sontag Beuys," the two-minute, 10-second loop is a digital animation based on clips of musician John Lennon, writer Susan Sontag and artist Joseph Beuys.
How exactly does that fit into a photo show? For one thing, the animated Sontag, perhaps best known for her essay collection "On Photography," is expounding about -- what else? -- photography. For another thing, you can hear clicking shutters on the sound track. And the footage that Ezawa appropriated was shot, of course, with a camera.
That work -- and another nearby piece by Mel Bochner, "Misunderstanding (A Theory of Photography)," that includes a single negative and several index cards containing quotes about photography -- serves notice that this isn't your grandfather's photo show.
Still, a substantial chunk of "Seeing Now" includes long, lingering looks at the past. In fact, nearly half of the show's 200-plus images come from a mere six photographers: Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon and Garry Winogrand, who are known for their black-and-white documentary street photography from the 1960s and early 1970s. Clark's work documenting teenage drug culture in Tulsa is quarantined in a room of its own, with a parental advisory due to the strong themes of sex, violence and addiction.
As the show's title suggests, "Seeing Now" also includes more recent work. Consider, for example, Marco Breuer's "Shot (C-917)." That punningly titled work, from 2009, is a sheet of photographic paper that was blasted by a shotgun, then processed in a darkroom. The resulting abstraction, riddled with holes surrounded by burnt-orange coronas, is beautiful. But is it a photograph?
As with Ezawa, several other artists here cadge their source material from other photographers. Hank Willis Thomas, Larry Sultan, Mike Mandel, Cady Noland, Carrie Mae Weems, Thomas Ruff, John Waters and Andy Warhol all contribute photographs based on other people's pictures. (In the case of filmmaker John Waters, the original is not a photograph, but of a framed painting of him as a young boy, which Waters has photographed, and then drawn his trademark mustache on it.)
The notion of authorship -- of photography certainty -- has been irreparably undermined. If picture taking in the 1960s was all about seeing the world as it is, "Seeing Now" suggests that the photography of today is all about taking a second look, including at the medium itself. Its strength lies not in the answers it finds, but in the questions it asks.