Nostalgia And Longing Plays Out In Guggenheim’s Photo Poetics Exhibition

I recently attended a guided tour of the new photography show at the Guggenheim in New York. The exhibition is titled Photo-Poetics and our guide was the artist and educator, Filip Noterdaeme. He spoke of this show as a grand ‘adieu’ to the medium of photography.

 “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” at the Guggenheim, curated by Jennifer Blessings, is a group exhibition featuring more than 70 works by ten artists, most born around 1975. Nine out of the ten photographers are women. They include Claudia AngelmaierErica BaumAnne CollierMoyra DaveyLeslie HewittElad LassryLisa OppenheimErin ShirreffKathrin Sonntag, and Sara VanDerBeek.  The Israeli artist, Elad Lassry, is the lone male artist in the show. 

At a time when everyone is snapping pictures all day long with their phones, and photography film has all but disappeared, this show questions, with longing, what has happened to photography as we once knew it. Each artist reflects on the medium of photography — none of these photographers simply snap a moment in real time. All the photographs are studio made. Each image is carefully thought out. In many cases, you have to read the museum’s wall text to understand the picture’s context and subject matter. There are no ready narratives.  Like poetry, each photographic image is offered as a thought, a suggestion, meant to trigger lingering contemplation. It’s a very cerebral and conceptual show. I was glad I had a guide.

Filip Noterdaeme stood in front of a work by Ann Collier in which she had re-photographed a 1975 magazine advertisement selling cameras. He used this piece to illustrate what the entire show is all about. As Noterdaeme explained, fine art photography today is redefining the role of the photographer — photography is no longer about spontaneously capturing a beautiful moment in time. Collier does all her shooting in a studio, with props. In her choice of props, she is acting as a curator. Her photos of other photos or her photos of photo books are meant to chronicle what is rapidly disappearing from photography.  While her work is beautifully rendered, the images are presented coldly, with a scientific, clinical feel to each image — scientific evidence of a past age.  

The German photographer Claudia Angelmaier also takes pictures of pictures. And she too has removed any ‘real time’ setting or spontaneity from her work. Angelmaier photographs reproductions of reproductions.  She backlights postcards found in museum gift shops and then photographs the back of the card.  The postcards — commoditized souvenirs of art, date from museum shows twenty years ago. The art work pictured on the card’s front appears muted, only faintly discernible, while the caption information and museum insignia on the back remains fully legible. One of Angelmaier’s images is of the Richter painting “Betty.” While the captions on the back of the card are clear, only a ghostlike, barely visible image comes through from the painting depicted on the other side. “Betty” has been turned away from us. My sense is that Angelmaier is making a statement on photography — both it’s uses and abuses. Her work addresses the way we get our culture from reproductions, rather than the actual art. The photographs are soft, stirring and beautiful. Another piece of her’s I particularly enjoyed was a wall of works, hung salon style. The wall had various framed etchings of rabbits. It’s a funny riff on reproduction, considering how vehemently and rapidly rabbits reproduce. 

Lisa Oppenheim has a series in the show called “The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere.”  This 2006 series is of photographs of sunsets that US soldiers in Iraq took and sent home. Oppenheim was living in Europe and was disgruntled with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When she returned to the US she found the soldiers’ sunset pictures on the image-sharing website Flickr. In each photograph, the artist holds up a soldier’s photograph at arm’s length, in front of a sunset she experiences in her own native New York.  So in  ‘real time’ the artist reshot the  soldier’s sunset images as the sun set within her world. She has cleverly married two moments into one.  The series also provokes a train of thought as to why soldiers would take and send photos of sunsets. It’s worth thinking about. She uses the soldiers’ extremely seductive sunsets to bring the war home. Although the soldier images were all sourced from the internet, Oppenheim chooses to present the series through an old fashioned 35 millimeter slide projector, harking back to the one Nan Goldin used in the 1980’s in her “Ballad of Sexual Dependency.”

I personally was most drawn to Oppenheim’s sultry black and white sky shots of voluminous clouds. They are curious and compelling. Wall text explains that these foreboding yet beautiful clouds are in fact the actual smoke that came from smoke bombs used in the Ferguson, Missouri protests. There are no protesters or police — we know those images all to well from our media screens.  Oppenheim instead tells the story of Ferguson with only images of the rising smoke.

The Photo-Poetics show is best summarized in the work of Elad Lassry — studio shots of ordinary, mundane objects. Each clean, glossy photo is tightly framed in a thick, slick, colorfully painted frame. Lassry’s constructed painted frames create an object out of the photographs. They feel like the boxes Joseph Cornell used to display and hold the objects. The most striking piece is called “Bengal’ — a full frame of a full-bodied cat. The cat peers out of the frame at the viewer in a way that confronts and also hypnotizes. We can’t not look.  There is no escape, no trickery, no forgery and the cat is not for sale. As the cat looks at us from inside his box, he seems to say ‘take my picture.’ As it turns out, our guide told us, Lassry’s cat image is the most widely photographed image in the show. When he said that, I noticed the piece would look great on a phone.  A photo of the piece would be a photograph of a photograph of a photograph! Like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, this shows says that the aging medium of photography is ready for it’s close up. 

Photo-Poetics Guggenheim in New York November 20, 2015–March 23, 2016

Words/Photo Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2015



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