“What Is a Photograph?”

Jacob King reviews the current exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York.

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David Benjamin Sherry, Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite, California, 2013. © David Benjamin Sherry, courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York.

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Liz Deschenes, Untitled (zoetrope) #1 and Untitled (zoetrope) #2, 2013. © Liz Deschenes, courtesy Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York.

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Adam Fuss, Untitled, 2001 © Adam Fuss, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

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Travess Smalley. Capture Physical Presence #45. 2011. © Travess Smalley, courtesy Higher Pictures, New York.

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Floris Neusüss, Nachtbild (48), 1991. © Floris Neusüss. Coutesy the artist and Von Lintel Gallery, New York.

If the question is “What is a photograph?,” the new exhibition of that title at the International Center of Photography presents what is certainly a very curious answer. Including works by twenty-one artists, ranging from vintage, over-painted photographs by Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke to recent Photoshop constructions by Artie Vierkant and Kate Steciw, this show explores, in the words of curator Carol Squiers, “the range of creative experimentation that has occurred in photography since the 1970s.”

The 1970s saw both the birth of the market for vintage photography and the movement of photographs, for the first time, into exhibition spaces designed for paintings and sculptures—a shift reflected in the works of conceptual artists such as Vito Acconci, Douglas Huebler, and John Baldessari, and in the large-scale studio portraits of Richard Avedon (whose first exhibition at New York’s Marlborough gallery was in 1975.) While unacknowledged in its press materials, the ICP exhibition in a sense traces the legacy of this move; what is on display could largely be grouped into two categories: photographs as paintings, and photographs as sculptures. In the former category are the works of Richter and Polke, Marco Breuer’s burned and effaced sheets of photo-paper, the opaque vertical color fields of James Welling, Floris Neusüss and Adam Fuss’s large-scale photograms, and Matthew Brandt’s photographic abstractions which are dipped in lake water; in the latter category are the object-and-photograph sculptures of Marlo Pascual, Mariah Robertson’s photo-paper scroll draped across ICP’s atrium, Vierkant’s colorful cutout shapes, and Liz Deschenes’s sequence of rectangular boxes which contain blackened photosensitive surfaces (and resemble a Donald Judd wall relief.)

Sigmar Polke, Untitled (Mariette Althaus), Early 1970s. © 2013 Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

At best this is an extremely partial view of the photographic production of the past few decades, and the contrast between this assemblage of works and an exhibition of Robert Capa’s color photographs, on view in ICP’s upstairs galleries, is astonishing. Capa’s images show events that he witnessed and places that he visited over the years, from Paris to Vietnam to Moscow. I was reminded as I walked through the show, that photographs had the potential to show us something that existed out there, at a certain moment, in front of the camera’s lens. And not only this, but photography was once defined by its capacity to be reproduced across different media: a single photograph could appear on a contact sheet, in a magazine, on a billboard, in a book, or as a framed print; at the ICP, Capa’s photographs hang on the walls in frames, while vitrines display copies of various magazines in which they appeared.

Robert Capa, [Skier sunbathing in front of the Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland], 1950. © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/ Magnum Photos.

Looking closely at the wall labels in “What is a Photograph?,” a visitor would discover that the works in this show were nearly all unique objects — a remarkable thing to consider for an exhibition that takes up photography, a medium once defined as the very essence of mechanical reproducibility. Further, most of these “photographs” thoroughly efface any reference to what may have once stood before a lens: the intensely saturated David Benjamin Sherry photographs, for instance, resemble fields of paint strokes more than landscapes; Travess Smalley’s scanned collages, unique prints on heavy wove paper, look more like psychedelic Matisse cut-outs than records of something that existed before a camera; same with the works of Alison Rossiter, who processes and exposes old 35mm film stock, with the resulting images resembling blurred, hazy ink-drawings (with no visible subject matter.)

If these works, as Squiers claims, examine “the structural properties of photography itself,” when, I wonder, did capturing a moment in time cease to be a structural property of the photograph? Or, as this show seems to suggest, has photography entirely lost its ability to represent things? (And does the future of the medium really reside in the colorful, sleek pastiches of Smalley and Steciw, which seem bent on salvaging a painterly experience of uniqueness and singularity analogous to the pictorialist gum prints of the early twentieth century?) Of course, anyone with a smartphone, Instagram, Facebook, or access to the Internet knows that not only is this not the case, but what is happening today is more or less the opposite: as more and more social interaction (from dating to professional networking) takes place online, an utterly unprecedented amount of our experience is mediated through photographs, nearly all of which represent things or people in the world, and which circulate and reproduce themselves, profusely.

Labeling it a “strangely blinkered and backward-looking show,” Ken Johnson criticized “What is a Photograph?” in The New York Times for a certain lack of novelty. For me, however, the trouble is much deeper: it is not that this show looks backwards (which it does), but rather, that it looks backwards to produce a certain history which at once marginalizes photography’s digital transformation and yet at the same time is a product of that shift. For as a response to the question “What is a Photograph?”, this selection of works tells us very little about any ontology of photography, and far more about a certain anxiety plaguing photography museums today: as the taking and sharing of photographs becomes integrated into nearly all aspects of daily life, and as the backlit screen becomes the photograph’s native support, under what circumstances do the white walls of a museum or gallery become an ideal environment for reflecting on contemporary photography?

Kate Steciw, Armchair, Background, Basic, Beauty, Bed, Bedside, Bread, Breakfast, Bright, Cereal, Closeup, Cloth, Color, Contemporary, Couch, Crust, Day, Decor, Fox, Frame, Grain, Ingredient, Interior, Invitation, Irregular, Juice, Life, Living, Loaf, Luxury, Macro, Sofa, Speed, Style, Sweet, Texture. 2013. 1 and 2 of infinite. © Kate Steciw.

This is a difficult question, certainly. But articulating the relevance of the photography museum in the twenty-first century by displaying a group of photographs that resemble paintings and sculptures only produces an extreme polarization: the gap between the photographic “objects” on view here and the myriad ways that photographs exist and circulate today is almost comical. While the exhibition included a number of interesting works, a viewer could walk through the show without ever knowing that a photograph could be viewed on a cell phone, that it could exist as a digital file, that it could circulate on the internet, that it could be tagged, or even that it could frame and reproduce something which was once before the camera’s lens (let alone that it might exist in an application like Snapchat.) Many works in the ICP’s last triennial, A Different Kind of Order (2013) — in general a far better show for thinking about this question of “What is a Photograph?” — did address the contemporary circulation and production of photographs in digital networks. But, tellingly, the two works that did so with the most perspicacity, Hito Steyerl’s Abstract (2012) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012), were both videos, which could appear just as well on a LCD screen as on the white walls of a museum.


Jacob King is a writer and curator living in New York. His texts have appeared in a number of publications, most recently, Mousse Magazine, May Revue, and Rhizome.org.

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