MOMA’s old habit: ‘New Photography’

Anne Collier's 'Clouds' (Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery)
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It is sometimes easy to forget that photography as a medium for artists is coming upon its bicentennial.

Sure, it's still the relatively new kid on the art-history block, but a bicentennial means the medium really does have a past. (To offer just one example of photography’s rather august standing: the Museum of Modern Art began collecting photographic works in 1930, only a year after the museum’s founding, and it officially established its Photography Department in 1940.)

New Photography 2012, the 27th installment of the Museum of Modern Art's annual showcase of recent photographic works, is a kind of physical exam, an assessment of the vital signs of the art form. Judging by this year’s results, photography is in decent shape, for its age.

The show—assembled by Eva Respini, an associate curator of photography at the museum—exhibits the work of four women and a two-man collective. The five artists make use of a range of techniques and a somewhat expected palette of interests and pop-culture references, and all are prone to obsessiveness, resulting in individually cohesive bodies of work that engage each other in ways both potentially productive and occasionally predictable.

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None of them—the Shanghai-based collective known as Birdhead (Ji Weiyu, 32, and Song Tao, 33) the Americans Michele Abeles (35), Anne Collier (40), Zoe Crosher (37), and Iranian-born, Zurich-based Shirana Shahbazi (38)—is necessarily groundbreaking or truly up-and-coming. The smallish scale of the show, displayed in a single third-floor gallery (bisected by a partial wall), effectively foregrounds intimacy, arguably photography’s most distinctive traditional asset.

In these senses, at least, New Photography is a misnomer, or maybe an old habit. The feel is more of an intimate salon than an aggressive survey of those testing the outer limits of the artform. Sobriety, seriousness, and craft take precedence over boisterousness and wild creativity. This has its drawbacks, but all the artists represented are consistently engaging, and if the show implies that there is not much new under the sun, it also affirms that the view need not be any worse for that.

Birdhead's contribution is Song of Early Spring, a grid of black-and-white prints (one of which is pictured at left), shot in analog and tacked to the wall, bookended by two wood frames. The collective is described in the wall text as engaging in “compulsive picture making.” The duo’s images of everyday life in Shanghai depict people, buildings, and plants, juxtaposing the organic and the constructed, the urban and the bucolic, and, most trenchantly, authentic documentation and social-network self-fashioning. Those wood frames, evoking parentheses, imply the deliberate set-making of Facebook albums, and Birdhead's practice seems no less diaristic: half-mundane, half-romantic.

The photographs, in their attempt to capture the sometimes uneasy blend of tradition and postmodern urban life, hint at revelation. Looking at Birdhead’s collage, I was reminded of a line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea: “And then everything looks alike: Shanghai, Moscow, Algiers, everything is the same after two weeks.” But of course the point of Birdhead’s inclusion might be that appearances lie. What seems like a banal bit of youthful posturing, with its sense that nothing can be said to exist until there is pictorial evidence, becomes a potentially subversive attempt to insist on the right to self-document: Facebook has, after all, been frequently blocked in China. (Still, it ought to be acknowledged that Birdhead’s images are, for all their geo-political implications, finally just not that much fun to look at, at least individually.)

In the show’s most effective moments, there are glimmers of the excitement of mutual engagement. For example, Michele Abeles’s “studio constructions” of male nudes intercut with common household objects seem tailor-made to speak to Anne Collier’s still-life appropriations, re-photographed arrangements of found objects, like album covers and desk calendars and male centerfolds. (Collier’s Clouds, a chromogenic color print of a pair of L.P.s with cloud images, pictured at top, is perhaps the single loveliest image in the show, a funny and wistful little riff on pleasant days, ineffable moments, and the images hiding in our lives.) Both Abeles and Collier are, at least in part, jokesters, though their foolery is shot through with commentary. In Abeles’ Fuschia, Yellow, Green, Blue, Numbers, Man, Cement, Paper, a photocomposition compromised of the titular elements, a penis is suggestively presented alongside a ruler-like arrangement. This would mostly be merely cute or silly, but it becomes, in the context of an image like Collier’s Woman with Cameras #1—a black-and-white centerfold strategically, though not very effectively, covered by two cameras—an invitation, if not an unprecedented one, to a thought experiment.

Meanwhile, Zoe Crosher’s self-portraits (including B&W Back of Neck from The Reconsidered Archive of Michelle duBois, pictured above), in which Crosher styles and photographs herself as Michelle duBois—the alter-ego of an Oklahoman amateur photographer, frequent Mae West impersonator, and sometime sex worker whose archive of images from the ‘70s passed to Crosher—extend the exploration of gender and presentation and the borrowing of another’s style in order to explain something about one’s own vision of the world. Crosher’s project immediately, instinctively, puts the viewer in mind of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. The effect is further amplified by the fact that a survey of Sherman’s (rather more engaging) work—also organized by Respini—was on view at MOMA earlier this year.

But where Abeles, Collier, and Crosher make use of concrete, recognizable objects and personas to get at some metaphysical conceptions, the final artist included in New Photography, Shirana Shahbazi, deploys geometrical abstractions as a tutorial in art history and traditional craft. Her images in the show are mainly large-scale color blocks (though in the past she's done stark, bright still-lifes; her image at left, Composition-40-2011, combines the two). And she also, with her site-specific installation of wallpaper based on one of her own photographs, proposes the next logical step in the cycle of appropriation. In using a picture meant to evoke a decorative pattern as a decorative pattern, Shahbazi brings an interesting purposefulness to her essentially decontextualizing process of borrowing images, even when those images are her own.

New Photography 2012 is worth seeing, not because it is always particularly exciting or vibrant or new. But even when it reminds that everything must look the same after two weeks, let alone 200 years, this little show might also remind us that this could be a pretext for a manner of rejoicing, for the retelling of a not uninteresting story.

'New Photography 2012' is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through February 4, 2013.

Images, from top: courtesy Anton Kern Gallery; courtesy Birdhead and ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai; courtesy Zoe Crosher and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles; courtest Shirana Shahbazi and Galerie Bob van Orsouw, Zürich.