Systems: Review of Various Photographs and New Typologies at NYPH
©Ryan McGinley, in Various Photographs, NYPH
Various Photographs, the exhibition curated by Tim Barber, occupies the smallest space at the New York Photo Festival, but contains the most images. Of the four main exhibitions, it’s also the most loosely defined. The show is, as Barber offers in his statement, “an absurdist rant, a free-form poem, a run-on sentence, a splintered report on recent histories.”
Drawn from the “Various” section of Barber’s website, Tiny Vices, these pictures represent an inversion of the curatorial process. Photographers approached Barber with their work for display on the site, not in the show. Barber’s selections are based on his sensibilities as a photographer and editor.
The photographs, all printed to the same size and in identical frames, line all of the walls of one room and one room divider in equally spaced rows, each image with the photographer’s name underneath. The desired effect appears to be of a democracy of images, with each image a window into a different world. It’s a very webby sensibility, a portal through which worlds and experiences are accessed.
As a layout it’s somewhat different than the Tiny Vices site that asks the viewer to look at images one at a time, in sequence. In both cases, the viewing experience is largely defined by having no idea what is coming next. Clicking to the next picture or moving down the gallery wall is rewarded by a pleasant surprise, the pleasure of seeing a completely unanticipated picture in all of its particularity.
Certain themes emerge in the pictures. There is a strong thread of magical realism and mystery. There are not a lot of faces, there’s some stuff exploding and burning. There are animals, there are city scenes and nature scenes. My impression was that there were a lot more women then men in the photographs. The pictures have a lot of different looks but the overall effect is of a strange and beautiful world, and of intersecting but unfinished stories.
© Boogie, in Various Photographs, NYPH
Various Photographs is the largest concentration of unqualified “straight” photographs at the festival. Their claim to the future of photography has everything to do with how they came to be organized, the very geeky spirit of openness and sharing that made photographers want to share their work through Barber’s website. The other curated exhibits suggest that photography’s future has something to do with interrogating or playing with modernist ideas about the “nature of photography”, of how a photograph communicates or is art. Various Photographs looks forward at new ways in which images can circulate, enabled by contemporary technologies and by the ethos surrounding those technologies. These pictures and this exhibit are not about the internet, but they are very much a celebration of the worlds that the internet has made accessible. Their claim to the status of “art” is modest but direct. The terms of the exhibit, largely, are to allow the pictures to be an investigation on its own terms.
© Jan Banning from Bureaucrats in New Typologies, NYPH
In contrast to Various Photographs, the exhibition New Typologies, curated by Martin Parr, uses groups of pictures to make an argument about how photographs can act as a conduit between information and knowledge. Repetition, generically, isn’t particularly new as a strategy in photography, and what Parr has done is to draw attention to a range of different ways in which repetition is deployed in recent work. In some cases, as in Jan Kempenaers’ photographs of socialist monuments, the differences seem to be swallowed up by the sameness, while in others such as Jan Banning’s series of portraits of bureaucrats around the world sitting behind their desks, repetition highlights differences.
While creating typologies is a scientific practice, it is also necessarily a political one (and often a bureaucratic one!). By drawing the lines that define an idea, a thing, a practice, there is the possibility that the categories created will be accepted as natural categories. Most of the examples in this exhibit, however, identify “counter-typologies”, suggesting organizational logics that challenge existing categories. Political and social investigation informs many of these groups. Sarah Pickerings’s pictures of explosions initiated by the UK Home Office draws attention to the relationship between political decisions and phenomenon (such as explosions), as do Donovan Wylie’s pictures of the demolition of the Maze, Ananké Asseff’s portraits of Argentine middle class gun owners, and Banning’s bureaucrats.
WassinkLundgren’s series of pictures of Chinese junk collectors picking up the bottles that the photographers had left out is also ostensibly such an intervention. (The statement WassinkLundgren are making is surely more about themselves. Their baiting of poor rubbish collectors feels like a prank; if they were making a statement about about Chinese poverty they surely could have done it another way? Unless it is meant as some kind of experiment in power imbalance?)
© Jan Kempenaer, in New Typologies, NYPH
Bannings’ pictures are, for me, the most satisfying; they are about the world now, they are complicated pictures and highlight the individuality of each bureaucrat while attending to the apparatus that they occupy and the imperfect material environments through which regulations are enacted. Wylie’s and Pickering’s pictures are beautiful and mysterious. The former feels like a eulogy on an era moving into the past, and have some reminding documentary power in preserving, poetically, the destruction of a prison. Pickering’s explosions look like little blossoms and feel like something new being born, their future still unknown.
The one group of pictures that stands separately from the others is Michel Campeau’s studies of traditional darkrooms, which is not a series of similar, repeating images. These are surely the most beautiful and most joyous pictures of darkrooms that I have ever seen. They are visually rich and evocative, and they are clearly made with affection.
© Michel Campeau, in New Typologies, NYPH
There is a sense in which Barber’s entire Various Photographs could be understood as a typology, one that is described by an emergent process rather than a historical contour. I can’t help but think that Various Photographs is in fact the next typology, an organizational logic that sorts the world not into channels and tubes, not according to the lines of sameness and belonging, but according to a system in which images of the world bring themselves together into groups. The basis may not be a scientific, categorizing model, but rather far ranging communities of practice, communities of feeling.