Have you ever had a photo idea milling around in your head for a while, or done some preliminary shooting but have not quite gotten it right yet, only to step in to a gallery or open a magazine and see your idea realized by somebody else. So goes the world of photography. Sometimes you get beat to the punch. I shot a lot of stuff at salons and spas when I began my project, but it was during my technical training wheels period, while I learned 4×5. I have been planning to re-visit some of the sites to re-shoot. But low and behold, I opened up my NYMag this week and Elinor Carucci had a picture that has been in my mind for 2 years. And it was good! Damn her!
While the pictures are un-mistakenly her style and are designed to capture a very different mood, it brings up an interesting question. How do you deal with originality in photography? Is it enough to shoot with your ‘eye’ and apply it to any subject matter, even if it has been covered by someone else, or do you need fresh subjects? Or do you need to be innovative in your form & content. The current NY Times review of New Photography 2007 at the MoMA brought up this question. The review mentions what is a fantastic show of work from the permanent collection, which you must past through on the way to New Photography. The reviewer was at first confused and thought the Stieglitz & Co was the exhibit, only to be disappointed upon seeing the derivative nature of the newer work.
A consistently strong point of the “New Photography” series, including this edition, has been the international array of artists. But so far it has been weak in showcasing new developments and contextualizing contemporary photography within the collection, which helps explain the jarring transition from Stieglitz & Company to the current crop. You hate to be the spoiler, the insatiable art viewer constantly demanding that rush of something new. But when a show is called “New Photography 2007,” you feel within your rights.
In many ways I very much agree with Martha Schwendener, a lot of photography out there is uninspiring. While the work featured in the retrospective show really captured the pioneering and creative spirit of photography, much of the new work out there seems like a retread, of a retread of someone else’s image. The interesting question is why is photography recycling itself so much right now or focusing on process-driven work. I have a hunch that it the evolution of photography from an emerging art form into an institutionalized art is at fault. When most young photographers are going to the same 2 or 3 schools, get MFA’s and then work as assistants to established artists, is it a surprise that their work suffers from the weight of the photo cannon. I think it is unfair in a way to expect them to transform the medium, but perhaps photography will only start to grow when it is free from the art market and education system that is currently sustaining it. I often feel hindered before shooting, that I must deliver a fully realized project at bat, but maybe it is the willingness to fail that makes art move forward. We are not in a culture that embraces failure, but rather feeds on success.
In the midst of this confusion on original vs. referenced art, Tanyth’s Berkley’s employing the Arbus method of capturing societies outsider’s I think can be seen as an update on who is considered a “freak” in our current culture. While in Arbus’s time, she sought out people who were outside society by choice or by dramatic mental or physical difference, Berkley photographs people who our outside the current standard of beauty. Why I am personally uncomfortable sometimes with how her photographs make people even more ‘freak-like” I think she is trying to show the viewer their own prejudices about physical appearance. Much in the same way Peter Hujar made people confront their feelings about gay culture and lifestyle in the 70’s and early 80’s. And in that context, her referencing of Arbus makes sense.