Since it opened nearly 50 years ago, the Museum of Modern Art has been looking at contemporary art and making statements about it, teaching others how to look, and, often singlehandedly, establishing new criteria.
John Szarkowski, MOMA's curator of photography, has now taken on the task of explaining and establishing a much-needed new critical framework for the past 20 years of American photography, in a show called "Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960," which opened Friday:
It promises to be one of MOMA's most controversial shows in recent years, photographic or otherwise, not because it is so shocking, but because for most viewers it will seem so bad, so boring and banal, so empty.
The question which haunts the show is whether it really, represents American photography over the past two decades.
The dominant motif of American photography in that period has been a movement "from public to private concerns," says Szarkowski, who has focused the show on the generation that came to artistic maturity and recognition after 1960.
"Our first obligation was to show that body of work which stands for the most interesting, adventurous and vital work done since that time - the work which has 'juice,' and which is most capable of influencing other photographers," he explains.
"The old division between 'straight' and 'synthetic' (or manipulated) work no longer conformed to what I sensed as the main arguments in current photography."
Thus Szarkowski developed the thesis that serves as the basis for his show, clearly stated in his introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue: "In metaphorical terms, recent photography's vision of two ways: either as 'mirror' - a romatic expression of the photographer's sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as 'window' - through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality."
Thus the title, "Mirrors and Windows." And to reinforce his theme, Szarkowski has had the gallery walls painted variously gray and white, the gray walls hung with the "mirror," or more subjective photographs, and the white walls with the "window," or more objective ones. Viewers in a hurry might best stick to the white walls until they near the end, when the strains begin to merge and the show ends up in a muddle, in a room which has been painted, perhaps symbolically, off-white.
Most viewers, of course, will find something to like among the 200 examples by photographers as various as Diane Arbus, Paul Caponigro, Mark Cohen, Judy Dater, Bruce Davidson, Les Krims, Sol Lewitt, Ray Metzker, Joey Meyerowitz, Tod Papageorge, Stephen Shore, George Tice, Jerry Uelsmann and Garry Winogrand.
The overall impression, however, is that American photography, at this juncture at least, is groping in two directions at once. It is trying to find its way into the art world with experimental technqiues and new formats based on other media (collage, cut-and-reconstruct, series, narrative and provocative juxtaposition); while at the same time struggling to get away from the other pictorial arts by establishing an esthetic found in photography alone.
This latter trend has resulted in something called "snapshot chic," which denies traditional pictorial composition by first omitting significant subject matter and then insisting upon tipped horizon lines, harsh lighting and other devices characteristic of "bad" snapshots.
The resulting "bad" photographs, best exemplified in the works of William Eggleston and Garry Winogrand, are now called "formalist" in the contemporary photographic lexicon. Which puts photography right where painting was 10 years ago.
Szarkowski's perception of the past two decades, not surprisingly, is more positive. "It seems to me that the generation represented here has defined new lines of experiment that are likely to remain persusaive for some years to come," he says.
What he's ended up with, however, might better be called "Old Themes and Derivations."
From the first walk-through until the last, it is clear that the earliest "window" pictures in the show (which is hung chronologically) are the best, notably the work of Elliott Erwitt, Art Sinsabaugh, early Lee Friedlander (before he joined the "though" brigade), Irwin B. Klein, Ken Josephson and Ernst Haas, who seems to be on the wrong wall.
The early "mirror" photographs from this era are over-abundant with close-ups of rocks, a genre derived from Edward Weston and Minor White, who did it better.
After that, rather than "Mirrors and Windows," the choice seems to be between the hokey and the boring. There are endless, visually meaningless experiments with various techniques along the long gray wall - which seems to swallow up the photographs, good and bad - film and plexiglas constructions derived from the romantic composites of Jerry Uelsmann; inkless intaglio and photoengraving like Naomi Savage's two-part "Before Hand," which, like several other works in the show, has nothing more than a punning title to recommend it.
Further meaningless messing with media is manifest in other example in Kwik-Proof on vinyl, gum bichromate, toned mural paper, etc., etc.
Did Szarkowski choose the above (and others too numerous to mention) solely because they were experimental and innovative? Nobody was put in unless I felt the work had intrinsic beauty," says Szarkowski.
But one is hard put, indeed, to find any intrinsic beauty in the endless variations on the female nude - some in mysterious and provocative poses, as in the work of Duane Michals, where mystery wholly replaces content, and in les Krims' Kodalith print of a lady, nude from the waist down, her top (clothed) half hidden under a pile of leaves. As bad as much of the company is in this show, Krims' photographs finally are put into the perspective they deserve: Even here, they are utterly meaningless as art or photography.
And then there is the whole parade of cut-up-and-reassembled nudes which go from mildly interesting in Ray Metzker's photomosiacs to the many Metzker derivations, which get worse as they get bigger, climaxing in the shows' absolute nadir, Robert Heinecken's "Cliche Vary/Autoertoicism, 1974," yet another cut-up-and-reassembled nude, this one provactively half-clothed in black stockings. Cliche indeed. This is one of the few recent photography shows in which the question "is it art?" becomes not only relevant, but can only be answered far too often with a resounding "no." In many cases, it isn't even photography.
One of the most controversial figures in the exhibition is bound to be Gary Winogrand, a photojournalist who has producted several photo-essays (published in book form) that are valid and striking social documents - notably "Women Are Beautiful," which he sets out to disprove pictorially. The controversy stems largely from Szarkowski's seemingly over-blown claim that among the "windows," Winogrand is "the central photographer of his generation." Szarkowski may well have been desperate.
Winogrand's downbeat '60s-negative photographs are aggressively nonart, except perversely in one series in the show that takes a harsh look at the art crowd of the '60s, fertile territory for social comment, to be sure. Larry Fink took up that cause and moved on to other parties, while other derivations from this starkly lit, tilted, seemingly uncomposed, snapshotlike photography-a-la-mode go on and on. It is also a genre from which a great deal of "juice" has been sapped, fulfilling Szarkowski's chief requirement. Sapped dry, in several examples on view here - a terminal case being the harsh photographs of four young girls by Nicholas Nixon.
But the reason for Szarkowski's enthusiasm is important and valid. For in this work the photographer has sought a new form which has nothing to do with the traditional, nicely composed esthetics of painting, but every thing to do with the esthetic potential of the camera. It is a whole new "formalist" approach, searching for a new route within photography. It's not the cut-it-up-and-glue-it-down school, which cannot be taken seriously.
The one good thing that does begin to happen during the course of this show is the emergence of color. Beginning early with the work of Ernst Haas and Marie Cosindas, color takes a deep breath with William Eggleston (who even in the absence of interesting subject matter manages to convey palpable mood solely through his use of color and then moves on to say something explicitly poetic in the work of Joel Meyerowitz, whose "Hartwig House, Truro, Cape Cod" and another view of a clothesline overlooking the sea, are among the stars of this show.
Christopher P. James' hand-painted photo of a commencement tent and Eve Sonneman's red blanket on a gray beach also use color to worthy ends as does Larry McPherson, whose curvaceous cow lends a touch of humor to this poker-faced exhibition.
The exhibition ends in the aforementioned off-white room, with two giant cut-up-and-assembled (this time with staples) portraits of critic and author Susan Sontag, one made from photostats of bits of pages from her book. "On Photography," the other from darkroom debris. Both are based on an actual photograph of Sontag by Jill Krementz.
It's enough to make you want to pull down the shade on the windows, cover the mirrors, and look at a good painting.