The 1970s are making a comeback, at least in New York's contemporary photography galleries. The exhibition "Seventies Color Photography" at Marianne Boesky Gallery sampled over a dozen of the period's pioneers, including Richard Misrach, Joel Sternfeld and William Eggleston, all three of whom also have solo shows on view at galleries in Chelsea and midtown. This retrospective view offers ample evidence of a prescient blurring of the boundaries between documentary and fine art photography, not to mention the development of the sophisticated visual language that's taken for granted in color photography today.
Richard Misrach began his career taking black and white photographs of street people in Berkeley in the 1970s, but he soon turned to color and away from the straightforward documentary photograph. With his ongoing series of minimalist color photographs, collectively dubbed "Cantos," he has taken nature, and often the desert, as his subject, commenting regularly on the disastrous effects of people's interaction with the natural world, picturing nuclear test sites, bomb craters, desert fires and dead animal pits, but also gorgeous desert landscapes, night skies and views of the Golden Gate Bridge from his own front porch.
Now, Misrach's new work is on view through Feb. 21 at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea. Called "On the Beach" (the name of a novel by Nevil Shute about the survivors of an atomic war), the photographs of large expanses of water and sand are both breathtaking and unsettling. In some, it's simply the endlessness of the water or sand that generates a feeling of anxiety and isolation, in others, it's the God's-eye, surveillance view.
In one photograph (all are untitled) taken from a considerable height, a man in jeans lies on a rumpled blanket, his shirt off and covering his face, arms splayed out from his sides. We are looking down on him, and there is nobody else in sight, nor are there any visible footprints leading to him: he could have fallen out of the sky and landed there, for all we can tell.
In another image, a person floats, alone, in the middle of a huge expanse of water; there's no visible shoreline, no other people. It's a beautiful photograph, and also fairly terrifying. Two other photographs of dark water, the tops of the waves gilded by the setting sun, share something with Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascapes, but where Sugimoto's images, devoid of people, are abstract and meditative, Misrach at least hints at the presence of humans, for good or ill. If his previous work has shown us the many ways we've ruined the earth, these suggest that we are ultimately inconsequential, and that the sea, and sand, could swallow us whole.
Many of the photographs in Joel Sternfeld's American Prospects, originally published in 1987, are also about place, and they also depict a dysfunctional relationship between humans and the natural landscape. Less politically charged than Misrach's works, which can depict bomb sites and dead animals, Sternfeld's pictures take a wryer view of what happens when people try to tame the land.
The January exhibition at Luhring Augustine Gallery on West 26th Street, titled "American Prospects and Before," revisited Sternfeld's work from this period. Phoenix, Arizona, August 1979 shows a raggedy group of horseback riders filing through the hills just outside Phoenix, playing at conquering the wild west. In Wet n' Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980, families in a wave pool seek the thrill of the ocean in the safety of a theme park. A new edition of American Prospects has recently been published by D.A.P. and the photographs have been reprinted in a larger (42 x 52 in.) format.
Luhring Augustine is showing a dozen works (seven for the first time), along with an earlier series, dating from 1976, of pedestrians in various cities during rush hour. As Richard Woodward noted recently in the New York Times, American Prospects "set a standard for clarity, sociological breadth and sardonic humor." It also set the stage for such contemporary photographers as Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, or even Simen Johan, among others who go to certain lengths to create fictional tableaux that end up looking like the scenarios that Sternfeld seems to have simply found and photographed.
In this vein, the lone ragamuffin child on the beach in Great Salt Lake, Utah, August 1979 is just as weird and uncanny as any Crewdson creation. The child peers into a huge kettle grill, which stands next to a battered picnic table on a rocky, barren beach. It's hard to imagine why anyone would picnic here, and like many of his other pictures, it throws into relief Americans' weird taste for spectacle and recreation.
The first exhibition of color photography at the Museum of Modern Art was held in 1976, and it was a show of William Eggleston's work. Eggleston began photographing in color in the mid-1960s and quickly made the most of its particular visual poetry, ultimately ushering color photography from the peripheries into the mainstream of the fine art photography scene. But Cheim & Read's show, "William Eggleston: Precolor," on view through Feb. 21, focuses, as its name suggests, on Eggleston's rarely shown early black-and-white work.
The Cheim & Read exhibition features more "street work," and more photographs of pedestrians caught unawares, than you'd expect from Eggleston's color photographs -- in other words, more evidence of a kinship with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. But the show also offers ample evidence of his attraction to the ordinary, almost invisible things nobody else would think to photograph, and his way of finding there a remarkable richness and visual complexity.
The automobile, that uniquely American fetish, and all manner of signs (there's a liquor store at night, lit up like a birthday cake in a dark parking lot) are recurring tropes, as well as rumpled, empty rooms. He seems to have been drawn early on to picturing the transience of Americans -- he photographed cars but also diners, restaurants, airport terminals and highways, places you pass through. There are 69 photographs on view here, and the meaty show illustrates Eggleston's dry, deadpan and acutely observant view of America just before it burst into color.
Four examples of Eggleston's color work can be seen in "Seventies Color Photography" at Kennedy Boesky Photographs, including a picture of people knee-deep in the flooded parking lot of the Pullen Grocery Store that's a nice example of his eye for improbably harmonious arrangements of things and people.
The show's riotous sampling includes Bill Owens' Pot (1979), an image of a bright red toilet that echoes in its rich hues Eggleston's photograph of a red ceiling from 1973, Greenwood, Mississippi (not shown here); Mark Cohen's fantastic (Untitled) Boy with Cigarette (1977), which captures all of the giddy defiance and self-consciousness of adolescence; and Stephen Shore's formal portraits of a television set and a plant. Many of these photographers have flown a bit beneath the art world's radar, but as this show suggested, it's clearly time for a longer look.
(One might note here, that after a three-year partnership, Marianne Boesky and Marla Hamburg Kennedy have decided to go their separate ways. The two dealers are continuing to co-represent Mary Ellen Mark and Thomas Flechtner.)
Still, the show reveals something of Arbus' approach as a working magazine photographer, including the selections she made from her prolific contact sheets. In two days in 1969, she took a remarkable 322 photographs of the family of the television actor Konrad Matthaei, for example, and her choices are revealing of the kind emotion and intensity she was looking for (and suggests why Leslie Matthaei, one of the daughters, decided at the last minutes that she did not want any photographs of herself included in the catalogue).
The image of 11-year-old Marcella Matthaei, standing stiffly with her arms at her sides, looking almost fearful from behind her heavy bangs, has been frequently reproduced and is on the cover of the show's brochure, but the contact sheets hold plenty of more conventional, and even uninteresting, photos of the family.
The mass of material from Arbus' 1969 portrait commission was the initial inspiration for this show, which was organized by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum and the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Other photographs of other "families," however, seem to have been shoehorned into the category. Arbus' assignment to photograph the 1960s uber-family of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson for Esquire (one picture catches Harriet grimacing impatiently next to Ozzie on their lawn) certainly fits the bill, but Arbus' "mothers" include everyone from Blaze Starr, vamping, and Mae West to Flora Knapp Dickinson, of the Washington Heights Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a granny in a long black skirt and pearls.