Wandering the vast hallways of The Photography Show, presented by the Association of International Photography Dealers (AIPAD), and held this year at Pier 94 on Manhattan’s Westside, feels a lot like flipping through the pages of a photography textbook, one that starts with early tintypes and ends with the rise of saturated dye transfer prints used so often in the 1970s. For photography buffs the show is an indulgence on par with any of today’s popular vices, and for the wealthy, picking up a Sally Mann for $12,000 must be the ultimate thrill. The heroes of photographic history — Stieglitz, Sanders and Atget, Frank, Arbus and Sherman — are there, and tantalizingly within reach.
Viewers looking for images reflecting anything other than the annals of history, celebrity portraits, or cultural and political icons, however, must dig much deeper, as topical messages are few and far between. In this era of digital and mobile photography, where Instagram has upwards of 800 million users, The Photography Show is shockingly black & white. Expecting Ryan Trecartin-like experimentation that pushes the boundaries of photography, screens were noticeably absent. Despite these limitations, a few themes emerged that felt both topical and noteworthy, beginning with a surprising fixation on children, adolescence, and innocence.
While portraiture is still the genre du jour, the focus on childhood avoided feeling voyeuristic, and created instead an honest probe into the future. Will the next generation be society’s savior, as many current headlines suggest, or are they being damaged beyond repair? Take, for example, the work of Osamu Yokonami, a Japanese photographer who questions what he sees as the homogeneous socialization in Japan, where youthful schoolgirls seem to blend together wearing identical uniforms. Placing them in lush landscapes or forcing awkward, grade school portraits, Yokonami highlights individuality on the cusp of both freedom and oppression. Behind it’s cuteness, his 1,000 Children project, featuring small portraits of uniformed little girls, each balancing a mandarin orange on her shoulder, collectively paints a haunting portrait of fading innocence.
The images of Julie Blackmon at Robert Mann Gallery deal with similar issues but through a very different lens, as Blockmon uses cinematic-inspired sets to capture her own family enacting moments from a suburban childhood. Highly composed, overly artificial and yet somehow completely believable, Blackmon’s images bring the feeling of dystopian angst into her perfectly crafted scenes. Sian Davey, represented by Michael Hoppen Gallery, is a psychotherapist, photographer, and mother, and explores the tensions of adolescence in her stepchildren and their social circle. Creating portraits full of insecurity and uncertainly, it’s tempting to imagine how these teenagers’ lives will evolve, evoking in her viewers a sense of nostalgia over the painful remembrances of our own adolescence.
Shifting from the politics of youth to the politics of identity, All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party, one of The Photography Show’s special exhibitions, presents a selection of contemporary African American artists who collectively address issues of generational inequality, past and present brutality, and contemporary identity. Around the perimeter of the exhibition space are the arresting images by Mickalene Thomas, whose large, lush photographs look almost like fashion editorials, both empowering and direct as the gaze of her subjects meets us squarely in the eye. On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, this micro exhibit is a probing look at its past and present influence.
The work of Ryan Vizzions, documenting the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, takes the politics of representation in a different direction, capturing the flight and poise of the Sioux. In the face of unfair and excessive law enforcement, Vizzions’ glossy photojournalism addresses the dismal historical precedent of Native American marginalization.
Not many photographers represented ventured beyond of portraiture, but the few galleries that did offered a welcome departure. The work of Polish artist Pawel Zakat Gallery Warsaw takes everyday objects — rocks, balloons, food, nature, cardboard — and turns them into painterly and playful idealizations of the everyday. Pale pink balloons floating perfectly above a pristine white table is a tongue-in-cheek still life, while an ordinary rock or a cardboard house of cards shot with large format resolution play with the idea of absurdist abstraction. The photographs of Mark Lyonat Elizabeth Houston Gallery document empty and abandoned car wash stations, turning them into spaces of contemplation rather than function. Through perspective and geometry, the photographs are both interiors and landscapes, serene and yet watchful, and titles like “Foam and Wash” and “Raging Waters” leave us wondering about the heyday of the car wash.
Art fairs like The Photography Show, in my opinion, should continue to push collectors and viewers to challenge themselves and the medium itself. Are they doing that at the moment? Not really.
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