Feature

Exhibit of the week: Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960

The Baltimore Museum of Art's exhibit of the history of photography over the past 50 years includes 200-plus prints and raises questions about the art of picture taking.

Baltimore Museum of ArtThrough May 15

Contemporary photography is suffering “a crisis in confidence,” said Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. That’s the unsettling sense one gets upon exiting the final room of this “sure-footed history of the past 50 years of picture taking.” With 200-plus strategically chosen prints—including many from such household names as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand—the quality of the work is high throughout. But the questions it raises get thornier: “Does a photograph merely record its subject or, by the very act of taking a picture, transform it?” Also, does a camera necessarily have to be involved? Take, for example, Marco Breuer’s 2009 Shot (C-917), a sheet of photo paper that was blasted with a shotgun, then processed in a darkroom. “The resulting abstraction, riddled with holes surrounded by burnt-orange coronas, is beautiful. But is it a photograph?”

That kind of question didn’t trouble photographers of the 1960s, said Tim Smith in The Baltimore Sun. Working in a medium that had just found firm footing in museums and university fine-art departments, Robert Frank and others found ways to capture multiple layers of meaning in their images. In Cape Cod, a 1962 work, Frank presents a beach scene featuring two seated figures, a naked young girl dancing in the shadows of a fluttering American flag, and a tabloid newspaper bearing the headline “Marilyn Dead.” The image “looks at once carefully staged and strangely natural,” which makes it all the more compelling. We yearn to discern where subjectivity ends and the editorializing begins, just as we do when viewing a series of color-saturated interiors, from 1983, in which William Eggleston “captures the stylistic horror and wonder that is” Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

You’ve seen the show wrong if it inspires you to seek a “unified” definition of what photography is, said Cara Ober in Baltimore’s Urbanite. It’s a medium characterized by “its complicated relationship to the truth.” In fact, the very complexity of that relationship is what makes photography such a versatile, boundaryless means of expression. No doubt, it helps us to see differently. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Arctic Ocean, Nordkapp, for instance, appears at first to be a purely abstract composition. But move closer to this two-tone bisected rectangle, and it’s revealed to be an image of ocean and sky in which a time-lapse effect makes visible various “subtle changes in air, light, and water.” Photography, it seems, “can alter our perception of time.”

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