New York

Indrė Šerpytytė, 27 Vilniaus Street, Alytus, 2014, gelatin silver print, 19 3/8 × 24 1/8". From the series “(1944–1991) Former NKVD-MVD-MGB-KGB Buildings,” 2009–15. From “Ocean of Images,” 2015–16.

Indrė Šerpytytė, 27 Vilniaus Street, Alytus, 2014, gelatin silver print, 19 3/8 × 24 1/8". From the series “(1944–1991) Former NKVD-MVD-MGB-KGB Buildings,” 2009–15. From “Ocean of Images,” 2015–16.

“Ocean of Images”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Indrė Šerpytytė, 27 Vilniaus Street, Alytus, 2014, gelatin silver print, 19 3/8 × 24 1/8". From the series “(1944–1991) Former NKVD-MVD-MGB-KGB Buildings,” 2009–15. From “Ocean of Images,” 2015–16.

“Photography is a system of visual editing,” wrote John Szarkowski, MoMA’s long-presiding chief curator of photography. “At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time.” The belief that photography comes down to finding a spot in the landscape guided Szarkowki’s selections for “New Photography,” the annual showcase he inaugurated in 1985, and it continued to hold sway in the installments organized under his successor, Peter Galassi. Quentin Bajac, the department’s latest chief curator, broke with the Szarkowski era by rebooting “New Photography” as a biannual exhibition and titling its recent edition “Ocean of Images.” Photography, it would seem, no longer stands on firm ground.

That “ocean,” of course, consists of snaps, selfies, scans, screenshots, profile pics, memes, and other image files coursing through the aggregate of technologies called, for sheer cognitive ease, the Internet. The question for Bajac and his cocurators, Roxana Marcoci and Lucy Gallun, was how artists navigate its currents. Katja Novitskova epitomized the “post-Internet” sensibility that embraces digital circulation as both subject and support. Her freestanding aluminum cutouts of exotic spiders referenced how photos of rare species proliferate online; simultaneously, they served as Instagram bait for further dissemination. In Mood Disorder, 2015, David Horvitz uploaded to Wikipedia a portrait of himself styled as a stock representation of depression, then catalogued its repeat appropriation by content-mill websites. Special commissions traced photography’s traffic through commercial channels: The collective DIS commandeered the exhibition’s advertising campaign, and Lele Saveri reinstalled The Newsstand, 2013–14, a zine shop he operated in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, subway station with Alldayeveryday, a media company catering to clients like American Express, Sephora, and Urban Outfitters.

Despite this apparent willingness to compromise photography’s autonomy, the curators never abandoned Szarkowski’s criteria. The medium’s definition as “a system of visual editing” remained intact. Instead of executing the sovereign decision to stop and click, though, artists asserted mastery over the image by intervening in its appearance (e.g., the deliberately clumsy Photoshop manipulations of Lucas Blalock); material support (the plank-scaled snapshots of Lieko Shiga, or the contoured photo-objects of Ilit Azoulay); installation (the elisions of photographic and architectural space by Marina Pinsky and Yuki Kimura); or distribution (the takeaway posters of curbside bric-a-brac in Angola by Edson Chagas). As a whole, these strategies confirmed the growing influence of Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Though written in 1983, Flusser’s exhortation to photographers (or “functionaries”) to seek out new technical possibilities in the camera’s “program” has gained new relevance now that the photographic “apparatus” spans so instantly and self-evidently from black boxes to global networks.

If MoMA has thus helped secure Flusser’s position on the syllabus of photography’s classic texts, one hopes there’s still room for something like Ariella Azoulay’s extraordinary Civil Contract of Photography (2008). Like Flusser, Azoulay defines photography as an apparatus, but to a far greater degree insists on the connection between technology and state power. She challenges the assumption that any single figure can claim sovereignty over the image, positing instead that photography’s functionaries, subjects, and spectators are all inducted into “the citizenship of photography”: a relation of mutual recognition and obligation that overcomes borders and underscores the uneven distribution of civic protection. This sense of responsibility is palpable in Indrė Šerpytytė’s gelatin prints of wood miniatures fashioned after buildings in Lithuania once used by the USSR for interrogations—a modest experiment in how photography might testify to erasures in official state history. Were the exhibition more preoccupied with questions like those raised by Šerpytytė, the title “Ocean of Images” could very well be an evocation of extraterritoriality, of those principles of common passage and reciprocal aid observed in international waters, of the expectation that photographic practice can, and should, do more than stay afloat.

Colby Chamberlain