NEW YORK — At a time when photographs are as common as the cell phones that can take them, some young photographers are choosing to construct their own subject matter and develop different methods to ensure the uniqueness of their images.
“New Photography 2009,” curated by Eva Respini and currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, shows the work of six photographers, three of them Yalies. The artists — Walead Beshty ART ’02, Daniel Gordon ART ’06, Leslie Hewitt ART ’04, Carter Mull, Sterling Ruby and Sara VanDerBeek — all try to go beyond more conventional methods of photographic composition in their work.
“These six artists have different working methods and pictorial modes … but their pictures all begin in the studio or dark room,” the introduction to the show says. The six artists have all either photographed objects they created in the studio or dramatically altered their photographs in the dark room. This year’s “New Photography” exhibit maps a move away from point-and-shoot photographs that focus on subject matter toward an approach rooted in multiple media, with an emphasis on different methods.
Hewitt’s photographs are sculptural. At a glance, they look like upside down pictures of still-lifes. But one thing stands out: each of her photographs has a photograph in it. Hewitt first created photographic compositions that, seen in a studio would look very much like sculptures, and then photographed them.
These photographs within each photograph draw attention to her medium. Though Hewitt is taking pictures of what appear to be sculptures, she only allows the viewer to see the photograph and never the sculpture itself.
Hewitt’s upside down photographs also allow her to emphasize that she is not documenting reality but something she has created. Because photography today is so easily accessible, photographs seem to be losing their personal qualifications — anyone can take a picture of anything that exists. Hewitt has managed to find a response that is acutely personal while remaining image-based in its presentation.
Beshty, another Eli artist featured in the exhibition, has found an entirely different way to make his photographs personal. His works are technically photograms, photographic images made in a darkroom without a camera. Beshty sets the rules for how he will make his photograms: his project involves going into the darkroom with his materials but without a specific end product in mind. During the two hours he spends in the dark room developing his images, he becomes simply a catalyst to the development, working with color and material to produce abstract images that he cannot see in the dark. The final images reflect the rules he has established for creation, not the way he plays. Unlike Hewitt, Beshty creates an idea for what he wants but then allows himself to become a machine-like part in the physical process of creating.
Like Hewitt, though, Beshty does want to create something very specific, something that no one else could create without adopting his set of rules. His images can be reproduced once they have been printed, but the original process is so unique that he could probably never make the same image twice. Like Hewitt’s sculptures, Beshty’s rules make his work personal even though he does not specifically choose how each piece will turn out.
The work of Beshty and Hewitt represents an interesting curatorial decision that links all photographers featured in “New Photography 2009.” Curator Respini has chosen to use ‘new’ to refer to changing method. This is not necessarily a show of the best new photographers — there are still many artists taking beautiful pictures in a more classical way — but Respini’s choice exposes how photography may need to develop in order to remain relevant as an art form in an image-saturated world.