Points of View
Sixty-six artists, 243 photos, and the innumerable stories suggested by the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960
Published: April 6, 2011
Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960
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Tina Barney’s 1985 photograph “The Reception” hits you like a wall-mounted middle finger the first time you pass through the Baltimore Museum of Art’s current mammoth photography retrospective. First, there’s its location: on one of the first walls you pass after Seeing Now’s initial eye-calibrating gallery introductory space. This second gallery is devoted to the “Seeing People” section of the exhibition, and its positioning feels a bit like a curatorial affront. It’s sandwiched between two typically blunt black-and-white Diane Arbus photographs and Liu Zheng’s “Two Miners, Datong. Shanxi Province.” Both Arbus prints—“A Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester (Suburban), N.Y.” and “Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C.”—and the Zheng offer candid, probing peeks into people’s lives in austerely composed contemplative black and white. Barney’s print is this oversized, garishly colored photo of three rich people in what might as well be a boring snapshot. It’s trite. It’s annoyingly calling attention to itself. It’s almost vulgar. It’s, it’s, it’s—
It’s also oddly magnetic the second and third times you visit the show. You start to notice how some of the elements that initially annoyed have softened into the curious. Yes, it helps to recall that Barney spent the 1980s photographing the affluent lives of her Rhode Island family and friends, which somewhat explains the photo’s candid, ordinary mien. The exhibition’s wall text informs you that the woman on the left is Barney’s sister; the image itself comes from an actual wedding reception, meaning there are people who really and truly do this on purpose: the gold dress, the ridiculous hat, the actual Pablo fucking Picasso painting hanging on the wall. Who the hell lives like this?
By the fourth and fifth visits to the show, this tempestuous curiosity has sharpened into something like full-blown rage: Why am I even supposed to care about who these rich shits are? “The Reception” isn’t even all that technically interesting. The left-hand side of the frame is kinda in shadow and not crisp at all, as if another person wearing some kind of ostentatious headgear was standing near the photographer and obscuring part of the flash. But whatever it was didn’t prevent light from hitting the highly polished dark-wood paneling in the background and making it shine like a cheerleader’s glistening forehead after a particularly rousing bit of sis boom bah. The seated, pretty man in the dark suit has his right hand raised to just under his mouth, as if he’s about to cover it after witnessing some unfortunate display of unbecoming behavior. (In the 1980s movie adaptation of this photo, he’s played by Rob Lowe.) The woman in the chandelier-like gold dress is seated in such a way that her head bisects a flower arrangement on the table behind her, making her already obnoxious hat look like some architectural monstrosity George Lucas saddled Natalie Portman with in The Phantom Menace. And if you look real close you’ll notice just to the right of this woman, also on the table behind her, is some kind of figurine in a clear protective box—wearing something similarly shiny and gold and assuming a very similar pose to the photographer’s sister.
So these people sometimes inadvertently dress like their high-end art, you think to yourself, which really sends the brain into overdrive. What if that was some mass-produced toy doll of some sort on the table, and the woman was dressed declasse like it instead? As in, what if this scene wasn’t taking place in this socioeconomic milieu at all? What if the wood paneling was a naughty pine basement rumpus room? What if the man was wearing his “good” Carhartt jeans rather than a presumably tailored suit? What if that Picasso on the wall was a neon Bud Light sign or a kitten clinging to a clothesline with hang in there printed underneath? What if you could see the woman in the foreground’s skin not because her gown hung in such a way that exposed a diagonal stripe across the back but because she was wearing a tube top? What if it was still called “The Reception” but came from a completely different set of people than those depicted?
By the fifth visit all those “ifs” have you walking right through the intro gallery and heading straight for “The Reception” and beginning to wonder if this is the day when some BMA guards are gonna have to get all nightclub bouncer on your ass because you’re standing in front of this goddamned photo like Travis Bickle leering at Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy. Everything about this photo feels like a throwaway snapshot: the perspiration-shiny lighting, the pedestrian composition, the ordinary candor of the content, the ordinariness of it all. Change the setting and the clothing and more than likely every lower middle-class home in America has a photo exactly like it in some photo album from Aunt Shirley’s wedding to that no-good Uncle Jack. And if so, if these people weren’t these people, would this image even be hanging in a museum?
And it’s shortly after asking yourself this question that the mind begins to reel: Could that be part of the point going on here? It starts to dawn on you that it’s taken you a long time to realize that you’ve been looking at a photograph of a set of people who you never see photographed in this manner at all. This photo is not about looking at wealth. This photo is about looking at family. It just took you forever to see what you’re looking at. And by the sixth visit to the exhibition, Tina Barney’s “The Reception”—this brazenly big picture, this vulgar anomaly—has become the one piece in the exhibition that has completely seduced the imagination.
Take the above less as a didactic exercise in what to think about Barney’s photo than a friendly suggestion on how to navigate the exhibition as a whole. Seeing Now is, by turns, overwhelming, exhausting, frustrating, illuminating, and profoundly disarming—and that’s just the response to one item in it. It’s an exhibition to revisit, to look through again and again and again, not only because of its size—more than 200 pieces from more than 60 artists, all culled from the BMA’s mammoth permanent collection and organized by BMA Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman—but because of what it’s trying to do. It’s an effort to use a singular collection of photography to examine the medium’s last half-century.
As such, it’s less the story of photography than a more loose, suggestive garden of forking paths. Organized into five sections—“Seeing Pictures,” “Seeing People,” “Seeing Places,” “Seeing Performance,” and “Seeing Photography”—Now offers ways to consider looking at photography, but no one clear route. As such, it’s more suggestion than hard narrative, more springboard for interpretations than focused critical examination. And it makes for an intriguing opportunity to get to know a medium and a collection through repeat visits. After all, Seeing Now is free.
For example, consider this: Say you’ve been collecting books or records for the past 50 years and then you were asked to use your collection to make a statement about literature or music for that past 50 years. What you produced would say as much about you as it does about the art forms. Your collection is shaped and formed by what you listened to/read over the years and why, who turned you onto it and when, gifts you were given by certain friends that made you seek out more, and other such social relationships as much as aesthetic ones.
In that way, Seeing Now says as much about the BMA as it does about photography. Since everything here comes from its permanent collection, you can discern its provenance, when it was acquired by or gifted to the museum, from the wall text. You can get a glimpse of an understanding of how the BMA built its sizable photography collection through this show.
The exhibition is ripe with such hypertextual narratives. Certain curatorial decisions offer their own commentaries: Moving through the “Seeing People” section, your eyes take in Rineke Dijkstra’s “Hel. Poland, August 12, 1998,” an image of a young woman in a bathing suit on a beach, and then move on to two other images of young people and water that produce very different emotional responses: Mary Ellen Mark’s “Amanda and Her Cousin Amy in Valdese, North Carolina,” in which a very young girl defiantly smokes, and Sally Mann’s “The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude,” in which the look on Emmett’s face tells you all you need to know about why it’s the last time he modeled nude.
In other words, if you put the time in, every new visit to the show offers something a little bit different. It took six visits for Tina Barney’s “The Reception” not to incense this writer, but during that time other things emerged as well: the comically distressing loneliness of the solitary tooth lodged in the open mouth of the man in Roger Ballen’s “Exhaustion”; the way a can has been bent and hole-poked to produce a pipe in Bertien van Manen’s “Night Party on the Lake with Marijuana, Beijing”; the fact that it’s the same house being slowly encased in foliage in William Christenberry’s three photos titled “Building with False Brick Siding, Warsaw, Alabama”; the teasingly seductive way you can’t even make out some of the faces in Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” series; the hallucinatory allure of Sabine Hornig’s nearly all-white “Window I” and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s nearly all-black “Arctic Ocean, Nordkapp”; the sheer unbearable fact of a pregnant woman shooting up in Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” series.
It’s an exhibition that makes you think about the photographers’ choices, how they shape how we look. Every shutter snap entails a myriad of decisions that produce visual information. Seeing Now casts photography as a Schrödinger equation of looking.
As such, it’s a problematic show for any one critical discussion, because there is no singular throughline. So City Paper hopes to try to address its polyphony head-on. We invited a handful of our photographers to visit the show and talk about work that caught their eye for whatever reason. Below are their thoughts, captured during interviews in the BMA galleries.
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