Sunday May 17 is the last day to see the 2009 New York Photo Festival . See it if you can. These works are unlikely to be together again as they are in these pavilions.
Since Thursday, when NYPH09 opened, the festival has begun to reveal itself, not only through the exhibitions, but also through the programmed talks, the conversations that the festival has with the neighborhood and city that make up its context, and in the energy created when people get together around a common interest.
Ostensibly the common interest is “The Future of Contemporary Photography,” a theme that positions the festival clearly within the parameters of the art world. But if there is a takeaway from NYPH09, it’s that even as “art photography”, or photography in the art world, thrives, the power of that photography comes from photographers’ ability to speak to a public in a way that is often uncharacteristic of the contemporary art world. Is it Art? Does it matter? Jon Levy is fond of saying that “art needs photography more than photography needs art”-. He said it yesterday at his talk: “the photographs we like will exist whether they’re called art or not, the photographers will work whether it’s art or not”. This isn’t to disparage art but to observe that photographers may be driven in different ways than other artists, and in different directions.
Jon’s take is confirmed when William Ewing, in his presentation, explains that Ernst Haas had for years been ignored by the curatorial community. “His work was a little too… National Geographic.” Ewing, however, is exhibiting a recently unearthed selection of Haas’ early color work in All Over the Place. Ewing notes that Haas was doing color work that prefigured Eggleston, but that Haas was so far ahead of his time that he didn’t bother showing it to anyone. Similarly he commented on Home For Good photographer Venetia Dearden’s work on Somerset, observing that romantic portraiture and landscape has all but disappeared from contemporary art. This may be so but it has not stopped Dearden from producing her beautiful, clear-speaking work.
Ewing seems to be skeptical of the limitations enforced by institutional dogma while simultaneously recognizing the force of that dogma and the difficulty of managing its course. However, Ewing has, with All Over the Place produced an adventurous ramble unified by his enthusiasm and affection for photography. All Over the Place is basically a collection of work that he likes and that he would like others to see. I was initially stumped by the show, trying to understand how it all tied together. It turns out that I was trying too hard; All Over the Place is a happy expression of an experienced curator. During Oliver Godow’s talk Ewing noted that Godow’s abstractions are joyful; a considerable amount of work in the show- Haas’ prints, Joni Sternbach’s tintype surfers, Kevin Newark’s images of plastic bags floating in water that appear to be galaxies – are joyful, and much of the rest share in a sense of wonder.
The range of work included in All Over the Place is to be appreciated, from a digital recreation of the original Family of Man exhibit at MOMA, to the recuperated Haas images, through Jacob Holdt’s slideshows, widely traveled in the US but not in an art context, through a large selection of contemporary photography, to “We are all photographers now!” (aka The Flow), an interactive program assembled by graduates at Swiss university EPFL through which photographers around the world submit images that are then projected in the Powerhouse Arena from where a photograph of the projected image is sent back to the submitter.
If All Over the Place is a kind of transatlantic sampler of William Ewing’s tastes, I don’t know what kind of girl I am curated by Jody Quon is an equally personal but considerably more focused study that visitors will be able to access more directly. Quon’s pavilion is extraordinary, a sprawling selection of work that deals with how women resolve changing identities through a lifecourse. The projects on display speak all foreground either the artist or the subject’s subjectivity; they are about imagining what is possible from a certain position and speak in a language of dreams, possibilities, and fantasies. On one hand Edith Maybin creates prints that combine her body with her daughter’s head in a range of situations, melding girl with woman; adjacent, the collective Mondongo have created a small house, in which two girls’ faces are described by cut out breasts and penises, which also cover the roof and walls. Sam Samore’s grainy blown up face details (including a pair of lips that recall Man Ray’s painting of Lee Miller’s lips) in the context of this show become a comment on objectificaiton and desire from the point of view of a young girl. René and Radka’s dream tableaux are fantastic yet frightening. Everywhere in this show, the uncertainty of possibility becomes a source of anxiety.
Chris Boot’s Gay Men Play also explores a very specific set of issues around the way that gay identity is resolved in images about fantasy and desire. His space is divided in two. In a large, well-lit outer room, Stefan Ruiz’s portraits of men preparing for play at fetish-themed street events in Berlin and San Francisco present his subjects in their individuality, expressed not only through their garb, but also in their expressions and the histories inscribed on their bodies in tattoos, and piercings. Behind a beaded curtain at the back of the first area is a smaller, dark room with ottomans and gay porn magazines, nine video screens presenting the work of various artists and walls covered from floor to ceiling with Christopher Clary’s piece, an accumulation of pictures and filenames used for online personals. The work on the screens suggest subversion hidden beneath play which is then often hidden beneath violence or the suggestion of violence. Bruce LaBruce’s zombie orgy porn and Donatien Veismann’s fetish clowns deploy photography as a means to confirm that these fantasies can in fact be enacted; in doing so, they reinforce their status as fantasy. Karol Radzizszewski’s “Fag Fighters” is a satire of homophobia in which a gay male gang abducts and terrorizes straight victims. Boot’s show moves between the clarity of self-presentation (Ruiz’s portraits) and the variety of messier (indeed) enactments and representations of fantasy, another chaos of possibilities.
Our show, Home For Good is also about possibilities as we invite visitors to imagine themselves at home in the Dumbo Arts Center, on our couches, reading books and magazines. The stories and information on the walls and in the books persist; they are in your house and they interpret the world outside, speaking to one another within the DAC.
I took last year’s NY festival as a statement that a certain kind of image- the single traditional photograph produced as a precious object, the photographer looking at the world- was obsolete; that isolated investigations, post-photographic processes, online dissemination, explorations that foreground a semiotics of form, presented means to get at truths that the naïve image cannot.
This year’s NYPH is more all over the place (We are all all over the place now?) but also looks more intently at the world and brings together work that speaks to questions and themes that do not necessarily need to be addressed through photography, but that are necessarily addressed every day: the idea of home vis a vis our specific locations in history, the experience of a girl faced with womanhood, the aesthetic language of a politically and sexually infused subculture, and perhaps even the ways in which we shape and are shaped by institution.
New York Photo Festival
ends Sunday 17 May 2009