ANDY WARHOL, American, 1928-1987

Photobooth Self-Portrait, circa 1963

Gelatin silver print

Each: 7 3/4 by 1 1/2 inches

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Rogers Fund, Joyce and Robert Menschel, Adriana and Robert Mnuchin, Harry Kahn and Anonymous Gifts.

in memory of Eugene Schwartz, 1996

Illustration courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Sunset of Modernism?  Photography On Photography at the Met
By Brian Appel


At its core, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography is trying its very best to throw a question mark around the notion of truth and vintage and on the traditional role of authorship when it comes to the medium of photography.

Artists as varied as Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Thomas Ruff, Roe Ethridge, Kota Ezawa and a host of other Post-War photographers—all of whom prefer the designation as artists who use the camera rather than photographers—have all played their part in focusing attention on the artificiality of the image, and, simultaneously, shifted the viewer’s focus from one of the main tenets of the medium of photography—its inherent ability to tell the truth.

No survey of post-1960 contemporary photography could exist without the inclusion of Andy Warhol’s distinctly American utilization of the medium of photography and the long shadow it projects. “Photography On Photography”, the Met’s second exhibition of photography in Menschel Hall, is represented by one of Warhol’s earliest.

Switching from the ‘pirating’ of portraits of movie stars from the machinery of Hollywood (Marilyn Monroe’s cropped publicity still from the 1953 Henry Hathaway directed film noir classic “Niagara” is arguably his most famous) to self-portraiture utilizing the ‘lowly’ four-for-a-quarter film strip, charted a turning point for Warhol.

“Photobooth Self-Portrait”, c. 1963, represents one of the first examples of his use of serial, repetitive composition that would perpetuate the self-invented and intriguing public personae that he would create during interviews and public events. It was, as importantly, a vehicle to portray a subject in relation to time—a central motif in his own work as a filmmaker and a puckish wish to subvert or overturn the established conventions of the still photograph.

Evoking the nature of a film strip, and along with that a sense of narrative, Warhol’s use of the photobooth played both a conceptual and practical role in his photography. By working with serial imagery, he had more material from which to work, and, shooting at length was a performative strategy that was calculated to ease the self-consciousness of the sitter and call attention to the session as an “acted” event.

The photobooth work also enabled the artist to take picture after picture without concern for focus or light levels, telescoping his “Screen Tests” from the mid-60s with its fixed camera and lighting set-up and his portrait work that began in earnest in the 1970s with the Polaroid “Big Shot” camera that provided the very flattering, bathed-in-light effect that the photobooth so readily provided.

Untitled (three women with heads cast down), 1980
Ektacolor photograph
Each: 20 x 24 inches
50.8 x 61.0 cm
Edition of 10 + 2 AP
Copyright Richard Prince
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York

In the late 1970s, Richard Prince created controversy by re-photographing existing photographs taken by others from the world of advertising. Within the art world, this became a major discussion concerning authorship and authenticity of photographic copyright issues.

Prince’s work follows the lineage of artistic conceptual thought of the great modern masters Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. As with Duchamp’s ground-breaking use of the ready-made and Andy Warhol’s appropriation of popular imagery for his artistic subject matter, Richard Prince’s work twists the familiar fabric of the popular and the kitsch to the laudable status of Fine Art while deliberately tapping into an established visual lexicon.

Culled from print advertising and fashion editorial in the pages of mass market magazines, Prince’s triptych, “Untitled (three women with their heads cast down)”, 1980, radically alters the connotative implications of the subject matter from his other works with women. Gone are the coquettish features and come-hither sparkle, replaced instead by nuanced overtones of servility and subjugation. Prince deploys a strategy in the present work that presents an upfront challenge to our privileged, aloof, male-dominated vantage point, from which we habitually commodify the worst types of stereotypes.

THOMAS RUFF, German, born 1958

Portrait (A. Siekmann), 1987

Chromogenic print

82 11/16 by 64 15/16 inches

Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation

Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1999

Illustration courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Ruff is perhaps most well known for his large-scale, close-up portrait series of his fellow art students taken in 1988-1989 at the Dusseldorf Academy of Arts. Following up in the tradition of his teachers, the conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher and the early 20th century German photographer August Sander, Ruff’s dead-pan photographs challenge the traditional role of the portrait photographer as an avatar of the individual essence of the sitter. Ruff’s inexpressive blow- ups—immediately reminiscent of passport photographs, mugshots or other institutional identification photos—challenge the traditional role of the camera to its most mechanical function: an instrument that merely records that which is in front of it. The abstract quality and neutrality of the billboard-size face, “Portrait (A. Siekmann)”, from 1987, causes the viewer to look at the surface of the face as a topological structure rather than a surface that, through gesture, pose and expression, reveals truths about character.

In a postmodern world supersaturated with imagery, it seems the only conceivable radical act is to acknowledge the impossibility of photographic originality.

ROE ETHRIDGE, American, born 1969

Marina, 2004

Chromogenic print

40 by 50 inches

Purchase, Neuberger Berman Foundation

Gift, 2004

Illustration courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roe Ethridge’s images do not select and incorporate pre-existing photographs in the manner of Richard Prince, but they do have the déjà-vous quality of images that are already in circulation.  Borrowing from commercial photography crossed over with fine art, “Marina” from 2004, looks a little like the kind of low-cultural imagery we see every day at the stationery store’s greeting cards section or in your stock photography catalogue crammed in the back of your mailbox.

Rather than re-photograph images found in generic mass-cultural magazines, Ethridge takes his own photographs that literally “re-produce a world that is already made over in pictures”. The sun- bleached blue tint of the color photograph, with its slightly off-balance formal composition of “previously owned” pleasure crafts, punctuates Ethridge’s slyly mocking statement on “middle-class luxury aspirations” and the limits of making art in a culture devoted to commerce.

KOTA EZAWA, German, born 1969

The History of Photography Remix, 2004-2006 (detail)

40 Chromogenic transparencies

Variable size

Purchase, Henry Nias Foundation Inc.

Gift, 2007

Illustration courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

San Francisco-based Kota Ezawa is another artist who makes the viewer stand back and reconsider new readings upon past moments in photographic history.

Ezawa appropriates, alters and assembles iconic imagery derived from seminal moments in media history—Patty Hearst with automatic weapon at a bank robbery, an early salt print of a botanical specimen by William Fox Talbot, Andy Warhol in fright wig holding a camera—through a labor- intensive combination of computer technology and handwork that cleans them from existing systems of value and meaning. “The History of Photography Remix” from 2004-2006, comprises forty images of culture-sampling moments that have been flattened, simplified, and color-altered— the artist has created his own “shadow version” of the history of photography in the form of a 35mm slide show.

Contemporary art can only be understood as a breach with the preconditions which shape the discourse of modernism—in photography’s case with its capacity to reveal features of reality invisible to the naked human eye. The photographic activity of postmodernism operates in complicity with these modes of photography but it does so only in order to subvert and exceed them.

In an era when the traditional recording mediums of film and photography are giving way to their virtual successors, the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s idiosyncratic survey of 23 artists from their permanent collection goes a long way in exploring the various moods and meanings that postmodern artists use to make sense of their world.

This article was commissioned by PLUK magazine international based in London, where it will appear in its fall 2008 issue.


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