Viewers looking through Sophie Barbasch’s artists books from the “Training to Be a Girl” series. (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

In addition to supplying critics with fodder for the talent-scout game, MFA shows can also be useful barometers of change, signaling new approaches to a familiar medium. So the fact that four out of six graduates from the Photography MFA program at RISD incorporated a variety of media like sculpture, video, artist books, and performance art in their thesis exhibition says a lot about the mercurial role of photography in contemporary art.

On view at ClampArt is work by Scott Alario, Sophie Barbasch, Kevin Barton, Rob MacInnis, Keith Yahrling, and Ji Yeo, who are part of a growing trend of artists approaching photography as a component of a larger process. Photographs return as a documentary tool for parsing new lines of inquiry, as they mine collections or archives of information to uncover questions about identity, gender, and personal narrative. These graduates have more in common with late 1960s conceptualists and less with artists like Jeff Wall, Wolfgang Tillmans, or Andreas Gursky who popularized the oversized approach to photography in the 1990s.


Sophie Barbasch. “Goodnight call” (2013), telephone installation

Sophie Barbasch, intrigued by the interchangeability of photographic and textual fragments that lurk in dark corners of the Internet, presented a series of works based on propositions she solicited via Craigslist. In “Goodnight Call,” 2013 viewers listen to messages from men who were asked to leave Barbasch a voicemail pretending to be longtime lovers saying goodnight. On a shelf nearby are several artist books filled with email printouts from ads that ask questions like “What do you do about heartbreak?” or “Tell me why I am a good girl.” The collection of male responses is generic yet personal, familiar yet anonymous, tragic but hilarious; they reveal gestures informed by gender. None of these works include Barbasch’s photographs, though she sees a correspondence between text and image. “The text layouts are like images floating without a frame, a disembodied fragment with no context,” she explained to Hyperallergic, “Like a photograph, it relates to a promise and subsequent denial of clarity.”

Another artist following a similar archival impulse is Kevin Barton, who spent the last several years acquiring prints by mid-century commercial portrait photographer Norman Schroth, amassing nearly all of Scroth’s oeuvre — nearly 12,000 images — from eBay and sorting them by age, gender and physical likeness. Barton then piled several negatives of similar faces and poses to create four fictitious portraits that obscure myriad characteristics into a single, idealistic “central type” common in the 1940s and 50s. The black and white prints are frenetic, ghostly reminders of a society’s effort to mainstream identity into normative roles of the nuclear family.


Kevin Barton, “Beautiful Child” (2013), inkjet print (edition of five)

Rob MacInnis readily admitted that he “… used to take photographs. Now it’s mostly installation and video installation.” What hasn’t changed, however, is his interest in the representation of nature. Initially, MacInnis explored the photograph as a communication device capable of mitigating our reception of nature in a series of portraits of farm animals that relied on techniques usually reserved for high fashion photography. In his video “Tree Surround,” MacInnis strapped over thirty speakers facing inwards to a tree, and blasted a mathematical transposition of the Big Bang theory by scientist John G. Cramer at full volume. The video is like a photograph in that it imposes a calculated depiction of nature upon the viewer. “I was thinking about how to get people to experience something ritualistic between technology and nature,” MacInnis explained, adding “It’s an absurdist attempt to establish dialogue between two opposite representations of nature.”


Scott Alario, “Rock Candy Wand” (2013), resin and wood

Scott Alario’s gelatin silver prints document the imaginative antics of his four-year-old daughter. Recently, he began producing small sculptures — fetish objects — to enhance these narratives, like “Rock Candy Wand,” 2013, a small resin and wood symbol of the sweet childhood power to believe what you make. Alario translates the performance between the camera and subject into a part-autobiographical part-fictional folk tale. While individually the pictures border on cloying, together they are lyrical and beautiful.

Five photographs by Keith Yarling that document a pilgrimage through America’s original thirteen colonies, intended to shed light on individual and collective freedom in the US, aren’t as successful. Shots of historically charged sites — “St. Michael’s Cemetary” and “Battle of For Washington,” for example — intentionally lack warmth, but the melodramatic series doesn’t manage to transcend the sum of its cold and detached parts.


Keith Yahrling, St. Michael’s Cemetery, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. January 12, 2013.

Ji Yeo presents two large portraits of woman with distorted notions of beauty and fame, and a video confessional of sufferer of a severe eating disorder. In this case, the added video is gratuitous; the elderly and emaciated image of “Joanna,” is not unambiguous. And unlike MacInnis’ video it doesn’t add much to the conversation about the role of photography.


Ji Yeo, “Joanna” (2012), archival inkjet print (Edition of 3)

For a long time, photography was not considered a medium worthy of fine art; RISD only implemented its program in 1963. But it became popular with artists and museums alongside the rise of digital production and the Internet. RISD now receives around 200 applications yearly, of which only six or seven are offered spots in the program. Recently, Douglas Eklund, a photography curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art told the New York Times, “Photography has always been on a long road. But now it’s out of the ghetto.” That may be true, but as the RISD show demonstrates (and the recent ICP Triennial corroborates) artists are revisiting the original experimentations and uses that arose from photography’s humble beginnings. It’s a refreshing change most welcome after an era of monumental and medium-specific photography.

The 2013 RISD Photography MFA group show runs through tomorrow, July 20, at ClampArt (531 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).

Holly Shen Chaves is an independent curator, writer, and artist liaison. She is currently Curator for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's Ambulatory Care division, developing an arts program to exhibit...