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A photograph of the British countryside has been placed among the oil paintings in the National Gallery – causing people idling past to do double-takes. You can see them wondering: “Is that a painting? It’s so smooth, so shiny, so flat.” The picture shows bright fields and skies, seen through a dark thicket: the sensation of looking out from a hidden nook makes it an introspective, hesitant work. Perhaps that’s why it hangs so well alongside a great landscape painting by the quiet and contemplative master of the genre, John Constable.
Richard Billingham’s shot has invaded the holy sanctum of high art that is the National’s permanent collection as part of Seduced By Art, an exhibition of past and present photography. The gallery is a temple to oil on canvas. What happens when you allow photographs among the daubs?
Billingham strikes up a sombre, sensitive conversation with Constable’s The Cornfield: the result is a comparison of the English countryside in the early 1800s and early 2000s, proving, as the show claims, that photography can have a meaningful relationship with great painting. That’s just as well, because the two other pairings in the main galleries are disastrous. Seeing Richard Learoyd’s photograph Jasmijn in Mary Quant next to Ingres’s 19th-century beauty Madame Moitessier does nothing for either. As for a Craigie Horsfield photographic nude, shown between two sensual paintings by Degas, it’s an elephant among elegance.
Yet Degas, as it happens, was fascinated by photography. The great 19th-century painter of modern life took photographs and brooded on the relationship between the brush and the camera. Elsewhere in the National hangs his portrait of Princess Pauline de Metternich. Based on a photograph, the work gives the princess the slightly cadaverous look of some Victorian snaps, almost as if he’d copied a 19th-century deathbed photo. It’s a shame the show did not place some of Degas’s own photographs among his paintings, instead of Horsfield’s grimly ponderous black-and-white nude; this life-size work was surely inspired by After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, the Degas work it partners (and thus, in turn, inspired by Degas’s own source, a drawing by Michelangelo). But arty quotation does not make art more powerful.
Is photography art? Clearly, some photography is, along with millions of camera-made images – from passport pictures to surveillance stills to my own snapshots – that are not. The trouble with Seduced By Art is that it has selected photographs that clearly aspire to be Art with a capital A. But why not put a passport photograph next to Giovanni Bellini’s Renaissance portrait of Doge Lorenzo Loredan? It is, after all, an exact depiction of someone’s facial features. Or what about a holiday snap next to something by the great 17th-century landscapist Claude Lorrain? That might say more, suggest more, matter more.
News of a museum’s major art acquisition isn’t usually accompanied by the question, “Why?” So it’s interesting to see it crop up in reports that a huge cache of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, plus his archives and youthful mixed-media art, has been jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust.
The specific gist of the puzzlement seems to be: Why Los Angeles?
Los Angeles Times
It’s pretty unusual for a living artist to have his or her own museum. But that honor is going to William Eggleston, known as the father of color photography as an art form.
Eggleston, 71, is lucky to be from Memphis, which is home to a museum for Elvis and to Stax, a museum for American soul music. Two years ago, a group of local philanthropists decided that giving Eggleston a museum would be good not only for him but also for the city. Together, members of the group have pledged more than $5 million to start the ball rolling.
Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts
Hiroshi Sugimoto is often venerated as a Zen master of film photography. But in “The Day After,” an exhibition that opened Nov. 6 at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea, he has assumed a new persona — that of a wild and visionary scientist.
The show focuses on Mr. Sugimoto’s latest work: a series of monumental “Lightning Field” photographs, all from last year, that seem to sizzle with majestic lightning bolts. Marked by incandescent whites, velvety blacks and subtle textural detail, they suggest the birth of stars and planets.
These photographs are the largest that Mr. Sugimoto has ever made, and they took him some four years of intensive research to perfect. “I have always been curious about science,” he said in a recent interview at his Chelsea studio. “But now it’s getting very serious.”
New York Times
The Brighton Photo Biennial, now in its fourth edition, has not impacted on the public imagination the way certain literary and art festivals have. This may have something to do with how British attitudes to photography remain, in the main, conservative, and with the lack of funding. No doubt the two are linked.
If anyone can rebrand the Brighton Photo Biennial as a serious contender, though, Martin Parr can. Back in 2004, he was invited by the organisers of the annual Rencontres D’Arles to be guest curator. That year’s Arles festival, in its range and ambition, remains the standard by which all subsequent Rencontres have been judged. Back then, Parr indulged his love for vernacular and found photography, and his passion for new, often eccentric, talent as well as great photographers he felt had been overlooked.
A portfolio of abandoned buildings photography on The Coolest.
Nicholas Nixon first came to public prominence 35 years ago. He was one of 10 photographers in what would come to be seen as a landmark exhibition. “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’’ looked at the interaction of settlement and environment. It was nature photography that encompassed both the man-made and natural.
The Boston cityscapes that Nixon had in that show seem very far, except geographically, from the 75 black-and-white images in “Nicholas Nixon: Family Album,’’ which runs through next May 1 at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s a long overdue MFA recognition for Nixon, who has taught at Massachusetts College of Art and Design since 1975. The temptation to hail him as a local hero is great, except that Nixon stopped being local in reputation almost as soon as he moved here, in 1974. He had his first Museum of Modern Art show in 1976. He’s had subsequent solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, MoMA again, and numerous other museums.
Yet if “New Topographics’’ has nothing in common visually with the MFA show, which consists of photographs of Nixon’s wife, their children, and her sisters, they share a fundamental thematic bond.
The West haunts American photography as the South haunts American literature — if for opposite reasons. Lush and complicatedly peopled, the South is burdened with history. “The past is never dead,’’ William Faulkner wrote in words that are as much boast as warning. “It’s not even past.’’
The West, in contrast, could have been created with the camera in mind: stark and empty and bracingly new (terrifyingly new, too). The South may feel foreign to us, but the West looks alien. In documenting it, photographers from Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson in the 19th century to Ansel and Robert Adams in the 20th to Richard Misrach today have made it seem at least a little less alien.
Mark Ruwedel belongs in their company. His West is riotously austere and beautifully desolate: a Beckett landscape so empty of human life that even Beckett’s lost souls would feel out of place there. Yet one crucial aspect distinguishes Ruwedel’s work from that of his predecessors. As much archeology as art, his images explicitly remind us that the West has a past, one immensely longer in duration than the past of cowboys and Indians we see in westerns. “California is west of the West,’’ Theodore Roosevelt once said. The parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, and California that Ruwedel photographs aren’t west of the West. They’re so desolate they almost seem underneath the West.
Outside Tokyo and its other metropolises, Japan is dying a strange death. It’s due to demographics. First: advances in medicine and a diet high in raw squid have helped to make Japan the oldest society that has ever existed in the long history of human societies. Second, because of its ridiculously low birth rate and frosty attitude to immigrants, Japan is now the first large industrialised country to experience a population decrease as a result of natural causes. In short, as its oldsters get even older, and its youngsters spend all their time commuting on packed trains in identical black suits instead of having wild unprotected sex, Japan’s population is shrinking. Very rapidly, in fact. In 2008, it lost 79,000 people. If such trends continue, the Japanese child and working-age population will decrease by almost half in the coming 50 years, while the ranks of the elderly will swell.
What does this mean? To Richard Hendy, whose ongoing online essay Spike Japan is some of the funniest and saddest writing on contemporary Japan today – and to whom I am in debt for the statistics in the preceding paragraph – it means rust. Lots and lots of beautiful rust.
A self-proclaimed “luster after rust”, Hendy travels the Japanese hinterland taking photos of crumbling architecture and shuttered buildings. He goes to the remote, and not-so-remote, places from which the population is disappearing. He tracks abandoned railway lines. He takes pictures of deserted schools. He wanders through silent factories. And he revels, if that’s the right word, in the melancholy beauty of his adopted country’s air of neglect. He says things such as “What a patchwork quilt of corrugation” or “Look how delicately the embers of rust lick up and down the ridges and furrows; how the windows shed tears, grow beards of rust”. Meanwhile, he unspools a wry and uniquely informed commentary on Japan’s twin woes: economic (aka “the malodorous pall of the Bubble”) and demographic. Together, these two demons have all but utterly consumed hundreds of towns, thousands of villages. Hendy is determined, in his odd way, to honour them.