PRINT December 2013

Vince Aletti

Mike Brodie, #3069, 2006–2009, C-print. From the series “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” 2006–2009.

1 MIKE BRODIE (YOSSI MILO GALLERY, NEW YORK) Brodie’s photographs of young hobos riding the rails could not be better. Everything comes together here: slightly faded color, casually beautiful composition, grit, spontaneity, soul. Like Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, Brodie has an insider’s view of an outsider’s life (now twenty-eight, he started jumping trains at seventeen and made most of these pictures in his early twenties). His work combines you-are-there authenticity with just enough distance to see through youthful bravado to moments of confusion, tenderness, and pain. These are great American photographs about a great American subject: freedom, no matter how fucked up.

2 RAGNAR KJARTANSSON (LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK) I didn’t see every minute of Kjartansson’s The Visitors, 2012, but repeatedly immersing myself in the nine-screen video installation was still one of this past year’s most memorable and moving experiences. In a sense it was the ultimate music video—a wonderful old house full of musicians performing the same song in different rooms, synced up for our pleasure. The screens framed the gallery space; the music—repetitive, mournful, lovely—filled it. I’m not sure why it nearly brought me to tears, but the layered and intimate collaborative process on view—the lyrics were adapted from a poem by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, and the musicians were the artist’s close friends—ending in a ragtag parade into distant fields, also made me ridiculously happy.

3 “PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR” (METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY JEFF L. ROSENHEIM) It was photography’s first big war, and although the camera wasn’t yet fast enough to capture the action as it happened, photographers helped to make its aftermath unbearably real, showing landscapes scarred by the violence of combat. But no matter how remarkable, the Civil War battlefields on view here are mute compared to the eloquent portraits of the men who fought and died on them. Rosenheim filled his show with small, often exquisitely framed pictures of soldiers from both sides—men who give the human cost of war a face variously stoic, anxious, innocent, and determined. A room devoted to matter-of-fact yet compassionate pictures of the wounded and maimed tallied that cost, limb by shattered limb.

4 “COLLECTED SHADOWS” (PARIS PHOTO; CURATED BY TIMOTHY PRUS) London-based Archive of Modern Conflict has built a collection of primarily photographic material, that is as mysterious as it is eclectic. Given a large gallery in the Grand Palais for last November’s Paris Photo fair, Prus, the group’s founder, mounted one of the most eccentric and exciting shows in town. Organized like a feverish stream of consciousness, with work scattered high and low on deep purple walls, “Collected Shadows” included pieces by the likes of Robert Frank, Gustave Le Gray, and Josef Sudek, surrounded with images by anonymous or little-known authors. Entering the exhibition felt like stepping into someone’s dream—and recognizing it as your own.

5 VOICI PARIS: MODERNITÉS PHOTO-GRAPHIQUES, 1920–1950” (CENTRE POMPIDOU, PARIS; CURATED BY QUENTIN BAJAC AND CLÉMENT CHÉROUX) The only show in Paris that could compete with the heady experience of “Collected Shadows” was another dreamscape—a deep dive into the subconscious led by some of European modernism’s great visionaries. With exceptional and often unfamiliar work by Brassaï, Erwin Blumenfeld, Martin Munkácsi, Man Ray, and a host of lesser-known mavericks, the show was an immersion in the photographic avant-garde at its most delirious, provocative, and inspiring.

Artist unknown, Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, “Tom Cobb Infantry,” Thirty-Eighth Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, 1861–62, hand-colored ambrotype, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4" framed. From “Photography and the American Civil War.”

6 JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT (GAGOSIAN GALLERY, NEW YORK) This sophisticated wild child understood how graffiti and expressionism fed on one another. He was a hip-hop artist, a jazz improviser, a man possessed. He created a witty new hieroglyphics: words and symbols we’re still deciphering. I went back to this show—better than any museum has mounted for him—every week and never got enough.

7 ZANELE MUHOLI (YANCEY RICHARDSON GALLERY, NEW YORK) The South African photographer filled the gallery with black-and-white portraits of handsome young black subjects, each confronting the viewer eye to eye. As gay women or transgender individuals marginalized, if not abused, in their own countries, they present themselves with a certain wary defiance as Muholi pulls back for a long, admiring view. Gathering the works together and setting them side by side, she underlines a sense of community that allows the individual portraits to share a collective weight and impact. The result wasn’t yet another investigation of gender and identity; it was a revelation.

8 “STREET” (METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY DOUGLAS EKLUND AND IAN ALTEVEER WITH JAMES NARES) As the eponymous centerpiece of this savvy exhibition of street-related work selected from the Met’s collection, James Nares screened a single piece of his own: Street, 2011, a video he made while cruising the sidewalks of New York. Projected nearly life-size at one end of a darkened room and silent save for a sound track composed and performed by Thurston Moore on twelve-string guitar, Street tracks through the city in seductive super-slo-mo. At this languorous pace, every gesture, every fleeting expression, has emotional weight, and ephemeral moments—a trail of soap bubbles, a flicked cigarette, pigeons in flight—become dramatic events. Nothing much happens, but the city has rarely looked more soulful or vivacious.

9 BILL BRANDT (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY SARAH HERMANSON MEISTER) MoMA’s annual “New Photography” shows have lately been packed with trendy pictures about pictures, so Meister’s solid, smartly edited show of this often radical modernist was a welcome relief. If the German-born Brandt seemed to understand the British better than they did themselves, his sympathy always had a cutting edge. He trained a sharp eye on the privileged and the poor, and his portraits of cultural figures (Francis Bacon, Martin Amis, Edith Sitwell) are incisive but hardly flattering. He wasn’t kind; he was tough and blunt and, more often than not, definitive.

10 SELF PUBLISH, BE HAPPY That’s the name of a website that showcases self-published photo books—an ideal place to start looking if you want to get a glimpse of a phenomenon that shows no sign of slowing down. Traditional publishers may be nervous these days, but artists are increasingly taking things into their own hands and making books that don’t need to excite the marketing department, because they connect directly to a growing audience with an insatiable appetite for quirky, occasionally genius printed matter. The International Center of Photography’s best triennial so far, “A Different Kind of Order,” acknowledged the new wave with a changing display of artists’ books, and no contemporary library is complete without a teetering pile of them.

Vince Aletti reviews photography exhibitions for the New Yorker and photography books for Photograph. Acne published Rodeo, his book of photographs by Bruce Bellas (Bruce of Los Angeles) this year, and he is curating a show of paintings and drawings by Robert Kitchen (1950–2009) for White Columns in spring 2014.