PRINT December 2012

Vince Aletti

Paul Graham, 53rd Street & 6th Avenue, 6th May 2011, 2.41.26 pm, diptych, pigment prints mounted on Dibond, each 56 x 74".

1 Paul Graham (Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York) The British photographer has been looking closely at the American social landscape for some time now, always alert to its funk and flux—its drifters, strangers, and loners. For “The Pres­ent,” he stalked the streets of New York, inviting comparison to precedents from Strand to Winogrand to diCorcia but staking his own solid claim. Printed from big to huge and hung as diptychs and triptychs, the work focuses on pedestrians passing through a location just seconds apart, incorporating time and incident but stopping to observe ordinary moments with startling clarity.

2 “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life” (International Center of Photography, New York; curated by Okwui Enwezor) Enwezor (working with Rory Bester) traces the history of injustice and resistance in South Africa through the work of nearly seventy photographers and photojournalists, many little known outside their country. With some five hundred photos, films, magazines, and posters filling every corner of the museum, there’s almost more than one can take in, but the material is consistently engaging, with sharp attention to the effects of the struggle on daily life. The largest wall is filled with pictures of protesters, both black and white, holding signs. One sums it up: WE WILL NOT BE INTIMIDATED.

3 Richard Avedon (Gagosian Gallery, New York) David Adjaye’s architecture was somewhat overbearing, but the show’s focus on Avedon’s four mural-size photographs from the turn of the 1970s was just what we needed. The photographer’s sympathies were clearly with the counterculture—represented by the Chicago Seven, Allen Ginsberg, and (in 1969, at least) Warhol’s Factory—but the generals and bureaucrats of Vietnam’s Mission Council got the most wall space, held in tense and tragic standoff with orphans and napalm victims.

4 Cindy Sherman (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Rineke Dijkstra, and Francesca Woodman (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) The convergence this year of retrospectives (curated, respectively, by Eva Respini; Jennifer Blessing and Sandra S. Phillips; and Corey Keller and Blessing) for three important women photographers was significant. I only wish it had been more exciting. None of the shows were entirely satisfying, often due to issues of layout or design, but each had its moments. Seeing all of Sherman’s “Centerfold” photographs in one place was a high point of 2012 for me; spending time in the dark with Dijkstra’s sweet, self-conscious dancers was another. And the work of Woodman’s that survives is frequently astonishing. All reasons to celebrate.

5 Vivian Maier (Howard Greenberg Gallery and Steven Kasher Gallery, New York) Another reason: the out-of-the-blue discovery of this terrific photographer, a nanny who made pictures in her spare time but rarely printed and never published or exhibited them. Her work, nearly all of it made on the street in New York and Chicago, zeros in on her fellow citizens—and herself—with both curiosity and skepticism. At her best, Maier deserves comparisons to Lisette Model, Lee Friedlander, even Walker Evans. She was good—probably better than she knew, but she was confident enough to produce nearly 100,000 negatives in her lifetime. So this is just the beginning.

6 “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; curated by Mia Fineman) Since its inception, photography has been promoted as realer than realism, the ultimate proof, but it also learned how to dissemble very early on, hand-coloring, collaging, montaging, and otherwise toying madly with the truth. Fineman is especially good with this historical material, but she has plenty more to follow, including a fascinating section devoted to propaganda and the erasure of political figures from the photographic record. And, she reminds us, manipulation was at the heart of much modernist work, so Dora Maar and Claude Cahun are in the house, along with Yves Klein’s marvelous but counterfeit Leap into the Void.

Gabriele Basilico, Via Giovanni Ferrari, Milan, ca. 1978–80, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". From “Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography in Context, 1950s–Present.”

7 “Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography in Context, 1950s–Present” (Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, New York; curated by Maria Antonella Pellizzari) Although Hunter’s cramped lobby venue could barely contain this smartly focused survey, the site has never been better used. Pelizzari concentrated on the postwar Italian urban and suburban landscape as seen by Luigi Ghirri, Gabriele Basilico, Paolo Monti, and others. Whether glossy or grubby, it’s a wasteland with little sense of history, but its sense of alienation is immediately familiar from the contemporaneous films of Antonioni, Pasolini, and Fellini—excerpts of which were looped on three monitors, giving the exhibition coherence and grit.

8 Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland) No question, Vreeland embodied the caricature of the flamboyant, dictatorial fashion editor, but she was also a visionary and a provocateur. The film, directed with verve and intelligence by her grandson’s wife, is grounded by the screen-filling covers and spreads that Vreeland devised for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in collaboration with brilliant art directors Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman. Avedon, Penn, and a host of others helped her realize a fantasy of drop-dead chic and sophistication that remains definitive of the modern fashion magazine.

9 George Dureau (Higher Pictures, New York) When the New Orleans painter turned to photography in the 1970s and ’80s, his subjects were mostly African-American men—neighbors, friends, lovers. Shot in black-and-white and posed against white studio or domestic backdrops, the men have a striking graphic and physical presence. The work is inevitably compared to Robert Mapplethorpe’s later Black Book project (1986), but it has more in common with that of another contemporary, Peter Hujar, whose take on the male nude was similarly charged. Dureau wasn’t just aroused by his subjects, he identified with them, and the results are genuine portraits.

10 Toilet Paper Maurizio Cattelan’s latest periodical looked at first like a slimmer version of his ’90s-era Permanent Food—another compendium of appropriated images in radically different styles. But here Cattelan, aided and abetted by Pierpaolo Ferrari, concocts his own photographic period pieces and gives each of them a double-page spread for maximum impact. The results (including images of a nun shooting up, a four-armed man, and a jewel-like array of severed fingers) are vulgar, nasty, surreal, unsettling, hilarious—and proof that Cattelan’s “retirement” has done him a world of good.

Vince Aletti reviews photography exhibitions for the New Yorker and photography books for Photograph. His show of Frank Horvat’s fashion work is on view at Presentation House in Vancouver through December 23, and, beginning in 2013, he will publish a series of photobooks with Acne.