Photography in the Age of Anxiety
I recently came across a paper I had written in graduate school about noted art critic Robert Hughes’ (1938-2012) views on art in the “Age of Anxiety.” According to Hughes, “The nightmare of Vietnam cast America into an age of anxiety…and the art will reflect that…” In my paper I expanded on Hughes’ pessimistic view of the future of art and noted that there was one exception to his opinion. That exception was that he was optimistic about the future of photography as a meaningful artform. He likely would have been as delighted as I am with 3 current exhibitions of photography-based art that are currently on view in Los Angeles. These exhibitions all explore the possibilities that the medium offers, and challenge us to appreciate photography beyond the depiction of the real world.
“Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography” at the Getty Center offers the work of 7 contemporary California artists who interrogate and reinvent the medium through quite diverse methods. For example, Alison Rossiter creates abstract works through the use of expired papers and film. John Chiara creates large-scale color prints using custom built cameras and photographic paper in place of film negatives. His subject matter is mostly uninhabited landscapes, and his careful observations combined with his unique methods demonstrate his skill and provide a sense of place. Matthew Brandt is fascinated with early photographic processes. This has led him to experiment with a wide range of materials including Kool-Aid, dead skin, honeybees, lake water, cheese whiz, and even human tears. He is responding to the original photo processing methods that always included fluids. He desires to find the ideal materials to create images that are infused with meaning. His playful yet transgressive approach to the medium is certainly captivating. For example, in a photograph of a friend, Brandt used his friend’s tears as the salt element in creating the image. This is one of many examples in this exhibition that are truly compelling.
L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice is featuring “David Hockney: Painting and Photography.” In Hockney’s continuous desire to develop and explore new methods of image making, we are presented with his newest endeavor. In this exhibition, “photographic drawings” are comprised of hundreds of digital images, all taken at close range. He then layers them to create a singular composition that has multiple vanishing points. This is similar to the approach that he used in his iconic Pearblossom Hwy (1968). In these images we are presented with the possibilities of the digital age and a re-examination of perspective. According to Hockney: “…because I am using many photographs, each having a vanishing point, I end up with multiple vanishing points in the end. This is what gives them an almost 3-D effect without the special glasses. I think this opens up photography to something new.”
The final photography-based exhibit that I visited this summer was at the UCLA Hammer Museum entitled “Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition.” The images on view provide examples that demonstrate careful staging and control in photographic work. “At a time when photographic images are so ubiquitous in our daily lives, this exhibition is an elegant and thought provoking reflection on the reality of pictorial representation.” Among the 53 works by 24 artists are examples by noted photographers Catherine Opie, Sharon Lockhart, Rodney Graham, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Jeff Wall and others. I was particularly intrigued by the work of Jeff Wall, whose work View from an Apartment (2004-5) eloquently demonstrates that photography does not always provide truth.
In our overly photography-obsessed society, it is wonderful to have groundbreaking examples that interrogate the medium in new ways—ways that remind us that photography is indeed a meaningful artform.
“Light, Paper, Process” at the Getty Museum thru 9/6/15.
“David Hockney: Painting and Photography” at L.A. Louver Gallery thru 9/19/15.
“Perfect Likeness” at the UCLA Hammer Museum thru 9/13/15.