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By **Rachel Somerstein**

Rachel_Somerstein-small.jpg“Photography is in crisis.” So claims Brian Wallis, chief curator and director of exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, in the text that greets visitors to ICP’s Perspectives 2010 (up through Sept. 12th). Leaving the show, it’s easy to agree. Visit the excellent For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, also on view at ICP through the 12th, and you’ll feel even worse about the prospects for the medium’s future. According to that show, photography was once focused, understandable, and made in the service of a clear objective. Talk about crisis—today it’s vague, unfocused, and not even photography!

But if that’s how the two shows make you feel—and it’s understandable if they do—you’d be wrong.

Perspectives 2010 features works by five artists: Lena Herzog’s black and white photos of grotesque selections from wunderkammer museums, like deformed skeletons and conjoined fetuses; an installation by Hong-An Truong that uses sound and film to offer an unfocused commentary about colonial-era Vietnam; Matthew Porter’s appropriation of typically “masculine” TV images (muscle cars, mountains, cowboys); one hundred and fifty photos by Ed Templeton, showing the gritty side (wounds, drugs, and blow jobs) of Huntington Beach, California; and an installation of books and a peacock feather by sculptor Carol Bove, nary a photograph in sight.

These photographers may not be talking about the same things at the same time. But as emerging photographers working with “straight” photography in a manner both focused and powerful, they resist the thesis posed by both shows.

True, these selections hint at the crises facing the medium. The rise of digital photography has posed troubling questions regarding appropriation, to say nothing of licensing and distribution. And, indeed, now does seem the time to question what art forms “count” as photography—possibly sculpture (Bove), TV images (Porter), films set to vintage Simon and Garfunkel (Truong).

And as guest curator Maurice Berger’s All the World to See documents, today’s photographers are working in a fractured mediascape as didn’t exist during the Civil Rights era. At that time, images ranging from racist depictions of black “domestics” culled from women’s magazines to photographs of German shepherd police dogs lunging at demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., were seen in the same magazines and on the same broadcasts at more or less the same time of day, plus or minus a few hours. Such a level of syndication and unification, among audiences and media alike, no longer exists.

But the neat dichotomy posed by these shows belies the true vibrancy of emerging photographers. Consider Curtis Mann, who makes photographs as he destroys them; Mohamed Bourouissa, who stages tense, candid-seeming shots of young men in the Paris suburbs; or Jessica Labatte’s photographs of complicated, messy, bold-colored installations. These photographers may not be talking about the same things at the same time. But as emerging photographers working with “straight” photography in a manner both focused and powerful, they resist the thesis posed by both shows.

Copyright 2010 Rachel Somerstein


Rachel Somerstein is staff writer at Next American City. Her essays and criticism have appeared in ARTnews and n+1, among other publications. She is working on a book about photojournalism and on a novel.

To read more blog entries by Somerstein and others at GUERNICA click HERE .


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One Comment on “Rachel Somerstein: Two Shows at the International Center of Photography

  1. Hi, I remember being at I.C.P. and reading those exact first words …” photography is in crisis,” by Brian Wallis, it hit my heart as I am a serious documentary photographer and I.C.P. just accepted 3 of my photographs into their permanent collection. It was so depressing like photography is dying. I think it’s just changing as everything always is.

    I recently graduated the MFA program at SVA and I was always so surprised how much the idea of ” documentary ” got trashed, deconstructed, killed, before it got a chance to speak. I found the ” conceptual ” crowd really superficial and they were all so smug with themselves and talked a lot of rubbish during critique…. it was just painful sometimes. It seemed sometimes that people had enrolled in a photography based program simply to ignore the positive qualities of photography, so they could play with eggshells or balloons and add a concept to it.

    I don’t think that photography is in ” crisis, ” I think it’s landscape is changing dramatically. There is more demand for it now more than ever. Good photography seems to be out at the moment, but the pendulum of trends swings back and fourth and we all should not be too quick to jump on bandwagons.

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