Share this article

print logo


In Focus: Themes in Photography

Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Through Jan. 30, 2005

The burning ethical question of the age: Should one loving spouse Photoshop out dark circles under the eyes and smooth out the wrinkles in the forehead before offering to the corresponding loving spouse that oh-so-close-to-perfect vacation photograph?

You dotted out the red eye and boosted the blue in the sky a little. Why not this minor subtractive surgery?

"In Focus: Themes in Photography," the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's mammoth -- it fills the entire 1905 building -- exhibition of photographs from its collection, will not provide the answer to whether one should employ digital botox on one's spouse or not. But this impressive show will, in no uncertain terms, demonstrate how photography has steadily grown away from the idea that the camera is an instrument of unassailable truth.

While housemates may, on ethical grounds, hesitate to add pink to a sallow cheek or give a slight lift to a sagging jaw, many contemporary photographers feel free to change things at will -- shifting, slicing, fitting, pasting, fusing, brightening, texturizing, deforming and abstracting, all in the search for, not photographic verisimilitude, but for the best and most compelling "picture."

Thomas Ruff, a German photographer who is prominently featured in the exhibition, said in a 1993 interview (with Philip Pocock) that "photography pretends to show reality." This may be unnerving for those who still work under the assumption that photography is able to "capture" reality like a sure-shot hunter going after an elusive prey. Ruff ups the ante when he goes on to say that most photographs -- even the old, darkroom productions -- present a reality that is "manipulated and prearranged."

This may be a hard pill to swallow for anyone who sees photography as the ultimate "truth-telling" medium. In the predigital era, the "doctored photograph" (quaint phrase, that) was a clear deception. When a Soviet airbrush artist eliminated two astronauts who were in disfavor or a Time magazine airbrush artist erased a woman's navel that was (evidently) also in disfavor, the intention was to con the viewer.

It was a particularly nasty cheat because we had come to expect that the camera would always faithfully corroborate what was out there in the perceived world. It was a sort of unwritten covenant between viewer and photographer that said, you get what you see. Thus it was that a faked photo could be seen as an assault on the one technological instrument that promised objectivity and with it an even bigger assault on the fertile life view that surrounded it.

This is why Ruff's idea that photography's fidelity to reality is a pretense is so revolutionary: It institutes an entirely new worldview. Photographers of old always dodged and cropped, heightened and altered exposures and focus to the limits of their technology. But nowadays, thanks to digital technology, the photograph can be a thoroughly artificial object that, if its maker so desires, can be made from scratch, much like a painting. In the early days photographers, unsure of their aesthetics, imitated painting, finding sharp neoclassical form or impressionistic vagueness in their subjects. Today it's an aggressive act to find ways to expose the limits of photography while making huge, synthetic images that compete with or surpass the free structures of painting.

The prominence of the synthetic photograph is exaggerated in the incomplete history that is the "In Focus" exhibition. Painting and sculpture with a strong formal or conceptual base has been the Albright-Knox's chief focus, with later, somewhat tentative forays into figurative art. It's not surprising that its photographic collection would emphasize the big, abstract and formal photograph or work with a conceptual base.

Consider these few examples: Andreas Gursky's imposing "Atlanta" is a photograph of complex, repeated architectural elements that has all the geometric rigor of the most highly structured abstract painting. Elger Esser's image of a flat Netherland landscape, again a very large photograph, is so radically reduced that it functions as an old-style abstraction in which ragged-edged horizontals cut through a field of white. The division between sky and land (or is it water?) is so nominal that the photographic exposure that (presumably) launched the image can only be imagined as a ghostly memory. Ruff's own huge vertical photograph, "Stars," has a black just as unyielding as Esser's white. The dense black sky makes the stars seem like a bland tapestry of points of light. Ruff, who once considered astronomy as a career, offers a view of the night sky that is consciously reductive; it is spaceless, each orb of light barely mustering the energy to break through the black. Any "majesty of the night" is forestalled, the rectangle of the image carrying as much force as what it contains.

Like "Stars," Ruff's mammoth untitled portrait is peculiarly passive. It's like an ID photo done for some future time when identification is done by the shape and size of skin pores. It's kind of monstrous in its clinical way, but not monstrous enough to make it uncanny or haunting. It's just an overlarge guy who is there, looking out unblinkingly the way the stars do in Ruff's unemotional universe.

At the root of this impassive view of life is the artist team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Ruff, Thomas Struth and Gursky all studied with the Bechers at the Dusseldorf Academy. The Bechers' work in the show includes 15 head-on views of industrial facades that seem to exhibit the cataloging instincts of a butterfly collector applied to architecture. All emotion is checked by the presentation of these like-sized and like-shaped buildings as representative types -- the way phrenologists used to line up human faces with supposedly psychologically telling physical characteristics. The Bechers also show a shot of Buffalo's H-O Oats silo. It's such a thoroughly uninflected view that any nostalgia and architectural romance that you might have gathered around this silver monument will be stripped away.

Struth was an attentive student, as shown in his unflappable color photograph "Tudong, Shanghai." Like Ruff and Gursky, scale is an important asset. Size in Struth's picture asserts the monumentality of the modern megalopolis, a quality that is leaked away by Struth's relentless even-handedness. In such a work, nothing dominates anything else.

Even some of the show's thematic categories -- a group effort by gallery curators -- reflect the artificial, piece-by-piece nature of much of today's photography. "Alternative Natures," which holds "Stars" and the Esser, suggests that an alternative to nature is indeed needed. The viewpoint, once let loose, filters backward in time, making what we might have otherwise accepted as a "natural" shot seem a contrivance. Alvin Langdon Coburn's sweet 1910 view of the Cadiz is suddenly seen as a Whistler look-alike etching with ships' rigging rigged from the get-go. Edward Steichen's velvety "Nocturne-Orangerie Staircase, Versailles" is abruptly revealed as a cagily manipulated image with all the romanticism of its veiled light invented by its author, not found waiting in his subject.

There's more to the story of these two early photographers, of course, but once the photo-as-construct cat is out of the darkroom, it causes no end of complications. When, for example, is a photograph "straight" and when has it been jerry-rigged by Adobe adorners? Did Jean-Marc Bustamante simply (!) find this perfection of nature in all its incredible clarity, complete with pitiable stumps in the foreground, or did some virtual hacker chop down the trees? I'm told that it is a straight, nonmanipulated photograph. But this is hardly comforting: If things like this matter -- and my mental jury is still out and may get hung on the subject -- I would have to know the conditions of each and every photograph, a research project that might help or might not.

The boys breaking through a hedge in Jeff Wall illuminated box (the size of a small RV) look like they have been caught in the act by the camera, but the too-good-to-be-true quality suggests that we're dealing with the seamless montage of Photoshop (we are). And Gregory Crewdson big picture of a boy in his underwear fishing around in a drainpipe has the theatrical feel of a stage set - which is exactly what was constructed for the occasion of the photograph.

There is, still, much work in this show that is most likely realized through the lens of the camera. Catherine Opie's marvelous 14 untitled images of Malibu surfers retains the sense of real place, even if it may allude to a spiritual condition as represented by the Catholic Stations of the Cross. John Pfahl's images of Niagara Falls (in the room labeled "The Sublime") also have the sense of an in-place camera doing the main work -- although their candidacy for the "sublime" may be weakened by Pfahl's underlying conceptual stance. You can't be thinking things out when you're about to pitch yourself into the unknown that is the sublime.

But nowhere in this vast display will you find images of the disjointed, the grotesque, the painfully melancholy (well, maybe that Steichen), the sleazy or even the commonplace that fascinated so many 20th century photographers. Not one of these many photographers "sings the bawdy electric" (as Claes Oldenburg said in his choice Whitman paraphrase), and few capture life on the fly as photographers from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Weegee did. The list of the missing is daunting: Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, William Klein, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano. There is no journalistic photography, no fashion photography and, other than the gentle Milton Rogovin, no socially critical photography.

Albright-Knox chief curator Douglas Drieshpoon acknowledges the lack of photographers of the "decisive moment" and those with "jaundiced eye."

"These are the gaps of the collection," says Drieshpoon, who coordinated the exhibition. "This is the rub of being a small institution: If we had a curator of photography, these gaps would have been filled."

Until they are filled, I say go ahead and enjoy the grand heroics of the new "constructed" photography. Photography has never before been freed from its link to nature. It has at times suffered by being an art that is hung between the limits of technology and chemistry. Now photography is in a new ascendancy where anything goes -- even including a little fudging of the wrinkles, if such reality-bending contributes to household harmony where truth-telling otherwise reigns.