New York

“New Photography 12”

It’s back. Every October since 1985, the Museum of Modern Art has opened a “New Photography” exhibition. This annual event has always functioned more successfully as a back-to-school ritual—where the city’s photography community could regroup, air kiss, and reassess its own balance of power—than as a barometer of what was new or interesting in an ever-changing field. Initiated in the final years of John Szarkowski’s reign as director of the museum’s department of photography, the series’ early installments—with press releases trumpeting “the Museum’s tradition of commitment to the work of less familiar photographers of exceptional talent”—were lost opportunities. The last time Szarkowski and his staff correctly pointed toward a “new” direction for the medium was in 1976—the year the museum mounted an exhibition of William Eggleston’s color photographs.

By the late 1970s and well into the ’80s, the new energy in photography was generated by artists who, recognizing photography’s importance in visual and popular culture, embraced the medium as a conceptual tool rather than as a continuum of the tidy history of art photography that had been so elegantly crafted and nurtured at MoMA. By failing to find anything of value in the appropriation of images, in experimentation with the scale and presentation of photographs, in multimedia installations that relied upon photographic images, in speculating on the difference between pictures and photographs, MoMA’s photography department, and timid photography departments across the country that followed MoMA’s lead, missed the boat.

It was only when Peter Galassi succeeded Szarkowski in 1991 that the department’s myopic view of the medium began to broaden. Under Galassi’s direction, well-meaning but conceptually scattered “New Photography” exhibitions, curated by various department members, tried to catch up with the alternative spaces, commercial galleries, and more responsive museums that had become the real guardians and promoters of new photographic practices.

That’s why walking through “New Photography 12,” curated by Thomas W. Collins, Jr., the museum’s Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, is a relief. MoMA has finally caught up with the status quo. Six artists—none American, and most with a solid history of recent exhibitions and publications—contribute to a sometimes lively and intelligent exhibition. Richard Billingham’s moving, seriocomic images describe life at home in England, with an alcoholic father who can barely stand up, a tattooed mom who does jigsaw puzzles and a dog who sniffs out the crumbs they leave behind. Thomas Demand’s large, smart, and too-tasteful Cibachromes of cardboard models owe more than a small debt to James Casebere, and look right at home at MoMA, where their pristine De Stijl optimism belies their creepy sources.

Osamu Kanemura’s photographs of Tokyo backstreets nearly explode with signage, electrical wires, lights, scaffolding, hanging plastic ornaments, railings, balconies, and construction litter. Like Lee Friedlander’s and John Gossage’s chaotic, but brighter prints from the 1970s, these dark photographs show an out-of-control world held together only by the edges of the photographic frame. Sophie Ristelhueber’s brilliant, tiny artist’s book, Fait (Done/fact, 1992), documents rocket fragments, shell craters, and detritus of the Gulf War with images that capture the immensity of war’s destruction and loss. In this installation, however, twenty large and glamorous color and black and white prints from the series hung austerely, look great but are neither as rigorous as the topographic works of Lewis Baltz nor as decorative as the desert landscapes of Richard Misrach.

Georgina Starr, known for quirky installations, photographs, and video works that reflect on personal experience with pathos and humor is ill-represented by The Seven Sorrows Collection, 1994, an overworked and underproduced vamp on loneliness, art history, and museological language. And finally, Wolfgang Tillmans’ sprawl of erotic and documentary images, of juxtaposed snapshots and mural prints—where a celebrity shot of Michael Stipe on a car phone makes as much sense as a nearby picture of a woman pinching her nipple and shooting milk into the air—suggests a postmodern “Family of Man” in the making.

Taken together, the work in this exhibition pays homage to photographic genres straight from MoMA’s own history book; landscapes, still lifes, street photographs, portraits, and riffs on what the department once dubbed “social documents”—pictures of people who, for one reason or another, are not thought to be like you or me, and can therefore be stared at, guilt free. What sets “New Photography 12” apart from earlier shows in the series is that it favors encounters with photography that are experimental rather than literary; its artists value expression and observation equally. If the show has a freshness about itself, it’s because the scale, physicality, color, and subject matter of the works exhibited, as well as their installation and attitude, is so different from what we’re used to seeing on these familiar walls. That works that would appear solid, but unremarkable in another setting (like unframed prints Scotch-taped or push-pinned to the wall, or pictures of naked men, for that matter) seem new at MoMA tells us how much catching up the department has done and points up how much more is left to do.

Marvin Heiferman is a freelance curator, and coauthor of Love is Blind and Growing up with Dick and Jane. “New Photography 12” is on view through 4 February 1997.