The job of photography curator is one of the toughest in the art world today. As contemporary artists feed an image-hungry culture, making and disseminating pictures with unprecedented speed on every possible platform, photo curators are tasked with picking and choosing from a glut of wildly multifarious works that can claim to be associated with the medium. So it’s not surprising that MoMA’s curators, facing the 30th anniversary of the “New Photography” series—a small new-talent survey initiated in 1985 by John Szarkowski, the legendary founder of the museum’s photography department—have decided to shake things up a bit.
As MoMA chief photography curator Quentin Bajac said in a recent conversation with the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry: “When John started that series in the mid-‘80s, there were very few institutions dealing with photography. There were few photo galleries, very few platforms…. The times have changed.”
Bajac and MoMA senior photography curator Roxana Marcoci (working with the assistant curator Lucy Gallun) have changed pretty much everything about the show. They’ve expanded it from the usual five or six artists to 19, colonizing some of the galleries normally given to the permanent photography collection. They’ve made it biennial, rather than annual, and robustly global. And as Marcoci noted in the talk with Lowry, in place of Szarkowski’s simple talent spotlight they are offering a curated exhibition with a title, “Ocean of Images,” inspired in part by the discussion of fluidity in Jeff Wall’s 1989 essay “Photography and Liquid Intelligence.”
The change most evident to visitors will be the trumpeting of the buzzword “Post-Internet,” particularly in the show’s first gallery where video works by the collective DIS brazenly appropriate futuristic online personalities as well as MoMA’s own logo. Elsewhere in the show is a clever Wikipedia intervention that went viral by the artist David Horvitz, who added his image to the page for “mood disorder.” Their presence here suggests a real attempt to grapple with the “new,” if sometimes at the expense of “photography.”
But that promise quickly fades, as the show retreats into familiar MoMA-isms—obsessions with the archive, the Situationist city map, the photomontage, the conceptual photo-object, and the legacy of the “Pictures Generation” artists, to name a few. It’s telling that “Ocean of Images” begins with DIS but ends with Katharina Gaenssler’s Bauhaus Staircase, a photo-wallpaper installation that dutifully revisits the history of that famous school of art and design while referencing Oskar Schlemmer's beloved 1932 painting Bauhaus Stairway at MoMA.
There are plenty of new names, at least, to add to the ones above. But many of these less familiar artists cling to safe, well-defined models. Miskha Henner’s multi-volume photo book Astronomical, an attempt to comprehend the enormity of the universe, leans heavily on On Kawara’s One Million Years and other conceptual-art efforts to document unfathomable expanses of time and space. Edson Chagas’s stacks of prints on wooden pallets inevitably recall the giveaway posters of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, even if the images themselves (of discarded objects from the artist’s home country of Angola) speak to his own biography.
Even the show’s most charming work, Lele Saveri’s pop-up ‘zine shop The Newsstand, fits squarely within the parameters of Claes Oldenburg’s Store. Too often, there’s a sense that to qualify for inclusion in “New Photography,” a work need not be or even look like a photograph—so long as it resembles something that’s already in MoMA’s collection.
The works that do actually look like photographs tend to reprise ideas from earlier editions of “New Photography.” John Houck and Lucas Blalock, for instance, pick up more or less where Michele Abeles, Elad Lassry, and Daniel Gordon left off with teasing still lifes that flirt with commercial photography and purposefully confuse analog and digital means of picture-making.
“Ocean of Images” also illustrates the dangers of equating new photography with young photographers, overlooking some mid-career and veteran artists who have been testing the limits of the medium and doing some of the best work of their careers. Arguably the best Post-Internet photography exhibition of the fall season belonged to the “New Photography” alumnus (’96 edition) Wolfgang Tillmans, at David Zwirner.
With its expanded artist list, this iteration of “New Photography” has, at least, lost some of the clubbiness of recent editions, which were dominated by abstract and conceptual photography. (The list for the Guggenheim’s current group show “Photo-Poetics,” which includes artists like Anne Collier and Sara VanDerBeek, reads like a “New Photography” yearbook.)
And if you look at “Ocean of Images” as less of a survey and more of an effort to historicize the confounding sprawl of contemporary photography, you’ll find it edifying. At the talk on the day of the press preview, Bajac spoke about the parallels between the Post-Internet age and the cinematic culture of Germany in the 1920s and '30s, the context in which the early film critic Siegfried Kracauer called still photography an “outmoded medium.” The message: Photography has been under threat from new kinds of image-making for a good century, and it's still around.
If MoMA’s curators want this show to function like a real biennial, though—and signs are that they do—then they need to really go for it, to relax not just their material definition of the photograph but also some of the curatorial conceits that have governed photography at MoMA since Szarkowski’s tenure.
Speaking with Lowry, Bajac and Marcoci described an “anything goes” selection process that included visits to studios and fairs around the globe and a lot of scrolling through Instagrams. But as on Instagram, all the research in the world won’t turn up anything genuinely new if you already know precisely what you’re looking for.