New York

“In And Out Of Power”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Throughout the past year Carol Squiers, curator of photography exhibitions at P.S. 1, has been attempting an interesting if sometimes maddening discourse on photography and its uses, without resorting to the restraints imposed by a written text. She has been using a room at P.S. 1 to stage exhibitions of the work of career photographers and of artists who use photography, interspersed with idiosyncratic selections of pictures from the mass media—mostly advertising and news. The resultant interplay of images and devices, freed from the formalities of an academic essay, has been fruitful, allowing for some surprising connections and disconnections. Yet the project has been maddening at times precisely because of this lack of form. We are often left with the impression that not enough thought has gone into any given presentation. As a result the whole enterprise lacks a sense that conclusions can be drawn, and that is both its strength and its weakness—for in refusing authority it allows for a more active participation on the part of the viewer.

This exhibition of photographs from the pages of the New York Times, collected during a four-month period last spring, provided a strange, discontinuous narrative given more sense by its context than by anything else. Quite a lot happened during those four months, or almost happened: there were the attempted assassinations of president and pope, an attempted coup in Spain, a flare-up in Northern Ireland, a near-revolution in Poland, a near-abortive space launching here. And of course a great deal of political to-ing and fro-ing in Washington and New York. A lot of activity, yet few of the pictures reflect this drama—a soldier waves his pistol at the Spanish parliament, some Irishmen overturn a truck, and of course there is Reagan’s puzzled dismay as the bullet strikes. Mostly the pictures are of small groups of men, important men, smiling and looking serious, always looking important. As Squiers observes in her press release, these pictures all have a reserve about them that is supposed to cue their viewers to the seriousness of current events, and to let them understand that serious people are taking care of things. All the shots are medium to long in range; all are informative rather than sensationalist; and all are of public scenes, except on the rare occasion that a woman or child is allowed to be the center of attention to underscore the gravity of a situation (grieving widow, worried wife, bewildered son).

What also becomes apparent in these front-page pictures is the refusal of public figures to meet the individual gaze of the camera. Intimate pictures, pictures of family and friends, usually establish that gaze as a sign of shared emotion, and it is that sign that is appropriated in advertising and in pornography when the producer wants to establish that something is especially for you, and only you. Politicians are rarely bashful about using that same sign of intimacy when campaigning, so why not when recorded in the pursuit of their daily business? Can it be that they share a secret shame with those accused we see being led to and from court huddling under overcoats? Or have they learned the actor’s trick of appearing more “natural” if ignoring the camera? But they are clearly not ignoring the camera—rather, they are ostentatiously posing for it, but avoiding eye contact. Squiers offers no analysis of this convention, merely a chance to observe it, but that in itself is a service few other photography critics are willing to provide. We still seem easily mystified by photography, and continued exposure to its variety is the only cure for that.

Thomas Lawson