SANTA FE, New Mexico — From 1973 to 1977, Susan Sontag wrote a series of essays for the New York Review of Books contemplating the historical and contemporary meaning, purpose, and place of photography as a fine art medium in a democratic era. These writings were collected and published in her book On Photography (1977). In her essay “Melancholy Objects” Sontag claimed, “photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation … between photographer and subject — mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine ….”
Around the same time that Sontag wrote these words, a faction of artists across the United States, including a circle of experimental photographers centered around the University of New Mexico (UNM) such as Thomas Barrow, Betty Hahn, and Joyce Neimanas, and artists within other university communities, were busy challenging the definition of photography itself by reviving antiquated techniques, inventing alternative processes, and using media never intended to produce or hold a photographic image.
By mixing their own chemical recipes, cutting, painting, writing, and stitching into the pristine surfaces of silver gelatin prints, and taking advantage of timely technologies such as the Kodak verifax and Xerox photocopier, the artists whose works are exhibited in Transgressions and Amplifications: Mixed-Media Photography of the 1960s and 1970s at the New Mexico Museum of Art (NMMA) subverted the automatic nature of the increasingly popular amateur snapshot and the cool formality of black-and-white “fine art” photography. These artists were also influenced by sociocultural and global events of the mid-20th century, including counterculture movements, second-wave feminism, the Space Race, and the Vietnam War. Their experiments laid tracks that 21st century New Mexico artists like Holly Roberts, Will Wilson (Diné), and Joel-Peter Witkin — all UNM grads — traverse today.
Transgressions and Amplifications exhaustively explores its subject through examples sourced from the NMMA’s collections as well as the collections of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the Center for Creative Photography at Arizona State University, and the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. The show presents a survey of works by artists who used photographic processes as a step along a path toward creating something else: paintings, stitchings, books, sculptures, assemblages, memoirs, baseball cards, etc. Many pieces restore the “objectness” of the photograph that is lost when a viewer looks past the surface of a print and sees a picture of something else, a moment in time, another reality.
This turn away from the photograph as a technically precise capture of a well-lit staged or candid scene is illustrated by a pair of artworks found about one-third of the way through this nearly 100-object exhibition. Edward Weston’s “Cabbage Leaf” (1931) and Betty Hahn’s “Lettuce” (1972) are hung one above the other. Weston’s small silver gelatin print of a single cabbage leaf elegantly cascading from central rib to rippling ends is technically impeccable, displaying fine details rendered in a broad range of grays on a velvety black background.
Hahn’s mixed-media abstraction, which is almost twice the size of Weston’s print, represents a substantial methodological departure. She has thrown technical perfection out the window in favor of color, chemistry, and material experiments. Printed in shades of viridian using a gum bichromate mixture on fabric, the shapes have fuzzy edges, whispery lines cut across leaves, and the extent of the print itself is messy and imprecise. Additionally, Hahn has gone into the image with a needle and three colors of thread to draw lines and create edges. The stitching brands her work with a decidedly female hand, with sewing belonging to the domain of women’s domestic work, calling attention to the maker’s gender in an artistic medium then dominated by men.
Throughout the gallery are several eye-catching examples of photographic processes combined with printmaking techniques, such as Joan Lyons’ “Last Born” (1969), a high-contrast screen print of a headless woman’s body with an infant’s head imposed upon her pelvis as seen from above as if through an X-ray, and Robert Fitcher’s “Untitled” (c. 1974), a saturated blue, hot pink, and ochre cyanotype and gum bichromate print referencing both NASA and the Vietnam War. Sharp collages and montages like John Cheney Wood’s vaguely narrative “Untitled” (1968) silver gelatin print and graphite collage and Thomas Barrow’s Dadaesque spray-painted photogram “Ready Made V” (1979) are composed of high-contrast graphic shapes that grab attention from across the room. Erotic images like Joyce Neimanas’s “Daytime Fantasies” (1976) with its subdued silver gelatin print, applied pigment, and handwritten text dedicated “For Robert,” and her husband (the presumably aforementioned) Robert Heinecken’s “Daytime Color T.V. Fantasy” (1976), a visceral photolithograph of a headless female torso on a TV screen, have voyeuristic appeal.
Interspersed among these striking pieces are dark and heavily layered works that are challenging to read, like those made by Bea Nettles and Betty Hahn. Then there are works so far removed from the reality photographs commonly represent that they become interminably technical and self-referential. For example, Van Deren Coke’s diminutive photogravure “Ambrotype of my Great-Grandfather” (1973) does not depict the artist’s great-grandfather but the cracking emulsion of an antique family photo. That is not to say these artworks aren’t as interesting as the more aesthetically attractive pieces in the show. They are exciting for those who are passionate about seeing the artists’ hands in their work. The point is that primarily, Transgressions and Amplifications isn’t about stunning imagery — it is an exhibition for process lovers.
That being said, there are a few places where the exhibition stumbles. An unfortunately small section under the heading “Plurality for the People” ostensibly shows works from the 1980s and ’90s by artists from diverse races, backgrounds, and orientations. There are only four pieces in this section, and they are hung in a literal dark corner (the walls have been painted dark gray) of the exhibit.
Another dubious choice comes in the form of educational panels surrounding a handful of artworks. Each of these panels asks, “What’s wrong with this picture?” in text large enough to be read from across the gallery, and provides an answer in terms of the “transgressions” and “amplifications” that each piece commits. In a contemporary museum exhibition looking back at the work of artists who took a revolutionary and subversive approach to photographic image, this question comes across as anachronistic, even sanctimonious. “What’s wrong with this picture?” is an unnecessarily provocative question that aims to draw the visitor closer to the highlighted artworks and engage them with curatorial commentary.
Lastly, an uncharacteristically spare, poster-sized Andy Warhol lithograph of Mick Jagger and a Rauschenberg lithograph composed of film stills from the 1967 film “Bonnie & Clyde” seem out of place — as though they were only included for name recognition. Warhol and Rauschenberg were not involved in the same university-centered communities the other artists in the show worked within. The only connection these prints hold to the rest of the exhibited works is their incorporation of photography.
If you have a few hours to spend deeply examining and analyzing each artist’s mixed-media image-making methodology and appreciating the evidence of their hands in each work, Transgressions and Amplifications is a fascinating and informative exhibit worthy of slow and careful study. It may appeal more to collage and assemblage artists and printmakers than fine art photographers, but with such a massive collection of works in varied styles and materials, surely any museum goer — artist, art appreciator, or Santa Fe tourist escaping the late-summer sun — can find a photo-based artwork to admire, if only for the amount of effort its creator put into subverting the instant.
Transgressions and Amplifications: Mixed-Media Photography of the 1960s and 1970s continues at the New Mexico Museum of Art (Plaza Building, 107 West Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through January 8, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Kate Ware.