Photography at CAM

Tough Pictures is a collection of photographs exhibited in the small section devoted to new acquisitions just behind the main lobby of the Cincinnati Art Museum. This interesting concept for a photography show which is neither explained nor demonstrated by the images and accompanying wall text adjacent to the installation. Although failing to deliver on its suggestive title, Tough Pictures represents a hopeful sign that the Museum is getting very serious about collecting some very good photography. To complement the new acquisitions, or perhaps just to fill all the space in the alcove off the lobby, about half of the images in the show are works pulled from the extensive photography collection previously acquired by the museum. Some gems, old and new, are represented in this small show.

The new acquisitions in Tough Pictures plumb an extensive range of photographic history ranging from early 20th century pictorialism to this year’s directorial works. Of the two new pictorialist works, Emile Constant Puyo’s The Straw Hat eclipses the piece by the better known Arnold Genthe in its simple depiction of a female sitter with eyes twinkling at the camera, showcasing Puyo’s mastery of the rich oil pigment print technique. The soft female ballet dancer in Genthe’s Irma Duncan, Isadora Duncan Dancer, by comparison, seems merely a bland reiteration of the soft nature of the photographic description itself.

The directorial approach in photography, played out extensively over the past few decades by many great photographers—and many more dilettantes—is represented here by a new acquisition from this genre’s reigning practitioner Gregory Crewdson. Untitled (Winter 2006) is a meticulously lit and impeccably detailed photograph of an inscrutable narrative involving a female figure contemplating the snowy world beyond her back porch. This exercise in representing the intentionally arranged world with intense deliberacy on a grand scale provides much reward for the viewer. Yamini Nayar’s directorial piece Cleo, however, falls well short of satisfying. Instead, the piece which depicts a figure peering through a peephole as seen from the end of a long hallway delivers little formal or narrative intrigue.

American street photography from its frank portrayals of everyday life in the 1950’s to its more self-reflective iterations in ensuing decades is represented here as well, both in the form of new acquisitions and a smattering of images previously acquired by the museum. Of the new acquisitions in this category, Stephen Shore’s Room 125, West Bank Motel, Idaho falls, ID, July 18, 1973 is the most exciting by far. Shore has made a career of adapting genre specific techniques and equipment for his own purposes. His employment of the bulky 8×10 view camera, a device used extensively in studio portraiture and landscape work prior to the early 20th century, to photograph barren post-suburban landscapes in 1970’s middle America, still holds wonder as seen in the recent display of his work in the 1970’s color photography show Starburst at the CAM . He also co-opted the language of snapshot photography to produce a large body of work which records the details of his meanderings around the country in images of frozen dinners, motel rooms, toilets and the faces of strangers. The series isolates its subjects from larger contexts with intense rigor and with a sense of bewilderment at the lack of surprise and wonder in the world all around the camera. Room 125 crystallizes this coming of age notion in an expression of languid self realization as the photographer frames his lower torso laying on a bed in front of a television in a non-descript hotel room.

Philip-Lorca Dicorcia’s Todd M. Brooks; 22 Years Old: Denver, Colorado: $40 is a fine example of Dicorcia’s Hustlers series in which the photographer staged male prostitutes in a variety of subject appropriate environments: cars, parking lots and restaurants. This image which captures a young male figure in the back seat of a car as seen from the vantage point of the driver delivers a strong sense of alienation. As a narrative, the hustler is as detached from his own reality as is the viewer of this piece, both perspectives a realization of the difficulties of engaging in any meaningful sense with the “other”.

The most spectacular piece in the whole show is Edward Burtynsky’s Silver Lake Operations, #14 (Lake Lefroy, Western Australia). The work is an aerial view of this silver mine’s incredible impact on a large swath of barren land. The stunning framing and photographic description of the work which entices the viewer with minute details of mining equipment at the lower right portion of the frame, and with large areas of arcing red and white hues formed by mine tailings at the upper edge of this large work, never passes judgment on the activities shown here, as fraught as they are with political baggage. Instead, the work merely describes specific human activity in wondrous form as seen from a perspective never posited by the viewer. If the narrative of man’s impact on the earth enters the conversation of this image, it is both a terrible and beautiful story.

– David Rosenthal

The Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, Tel: 513.639.2995, Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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