Critics’ Picks

View of “The Order of Things,” 2015.

View of “The Order of Things,” 2015.


“The Order of Things”

The Walther Collection
Reichenauerstrasse 21
May 17–October 10, 2015

Thematically organized within three buildings, over a thousand photographs in “The Order of Things” challenge the medium’s standard typologies by interrogating portraiture and object-based inventories. Karl Blossfeldt’s iconic black-and-white botanical close-ups dialogue with J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s series capturing African women’s hairstyles from behind. These natural and human-made architectures, both rich in texture, soft shades, and minute details, set up a direct confrontation with August Sander’s Faces of Our Time, 1910–29, which documents the characteristics of Germans from various classes. Our reliance on identifying individuality through comparison and distinction is challenged by Zanele Muholi’s images of queer South African women or Guy Tillim’s child soldiers of the DR Congo. Deploying homogenized studio-photography conventions—straightforward poses and neutral backgrounds—both artists nonetheless disrupt our expectations via contextualizing titles, thereby dismantling underlying assumptions about gender, sexuality, and uniformity in portraiture.

A sinister chapter of the medium’s history emerges from a display of mug shots juxtaposed with books of ethnographic studies, whose similar aesthetics seem to emerge from equivalently disdainful perspectives. Juxtaposed with Kohei Yoshiyuki’s night scenes of sexual interactions in a Tokyo park, the images not only comment on the colonial gaze’s desire to standardize, but on voyeurism’s inherent role in human perspectives and thus photography.

Focusing on methodical, vernacular depictions of urbanity, meanwhile, overlooked architecture in works such as Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations 1963, or William Christenberry’s pictures of America’s changing rural landscapes, expose the social and economic substructures of our man-made environments.