Photography at MoMA: Has Photo-Based Art Become Too Dominant?

In a two-part series, art photographer Mark Steinmetz and Charlotte Cotton review the Museum of Modern Art’s latest opus – Photography at MoMA: 1960 – Now. They offer contrasting views about the Museum’s curatorial choices as the institution moves away from John Szarkowski’s legacy. Read Cotton’s take here.

So many of the photographs in the newly released “Photography at MoMA: 1960 – Now” feel like illustrations of ideas. A large number of them interrogate, in one way or another, the medium of photography or the role of mass media representations in society. Fewer might be considered interrogations of the world that we actually live in as it actually looks and fewer still could be considered interrogations of the self.

The selection is tilted towards photographs about thoughts, not feelings; by and large these are photographs that are carriers of ideas.

The book’s cover photograph, which was made by a pair of European photographers, Harry Shunk and János Kender, is attributed to John Baldessari, who presumably provides the hands in “Hands Framing New York Harbor, 1971.” The Shunk-Kender choice for cover signals a move towards selecting many more non-American photographers and also towards non-traditional approaches, such as collaborations among artists. It is reminiscent of earlier work by Kenneth Josephson who photographed postcards he held out at arm’s length. Josephson’s work had been included in at least two major books by John Szarkowski, a former director of photography at MoMA, but does not appear in this version, perhaps because the new curators are distancing themselves from Szarkowski’s legacy.

In his introduction, the present chief curator at MoMA, Quentin Bajac, quotes the historian John Tagg, who called Szarkowski’s work at MoMA, “a programme for a peculiar photographic modernism.” Bajac does not spell out exactly what Tagg means by the word “peculiar” nor does he make clear the extent to which he is in agreement.

In a 1975 essay, “A Different Kind of Art”, Szarkowski discusses the difficulty art audiences typically have with straight or un-manipulated photography: they are used to seeing the hand of the maker in an artwork (see again the cover image.) But in the best modernist photography, the kind that Szarkowski championed when other museums were not, from Atget to Robert Adams, the handiwork of the artist is carefully hidden.

Read the full article at Time LightBox …