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by Ben Davis
The Photography Show 2006, put on earlier this month by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers at the Seventh Regimental Armory on Park Avenue in New York, Feb. 10-12, 2006, coincided with the biggest snowstorm in New York history, a Nor'easter that closed the city’s airports and dumped a record 27 inches of the white stuff in Central Park.

Inside the armory, things were rather less histrionic, with orderly rows of booths manned by more than 80 dealers from around the globe, including A Gallery for Fine Photography (New Orleans), Apex Fine Art (Los Angeles), Sandra Byron Gallery (Sydney), Kathleen Ewing Gallery (Washington, D.C.), Galerie Johannes Faber (Vienna), Fay Gold Gallery (Atlanta), Paul M. Hertzmann (San Francisco), Robert Klein Gallery (Boston), Galerie Priska Pasquer (Cologne), Serge Plantureux (Paris), Joel Soroka Gallery (Aspen) and Vision Gallery (Jerusalem).

The New York contingent included Bonni Benrubi, Barry Friedman, Howard Greenberg, Edwynn Houk, Hasted Hunt, Hans P. Kraus, Robert Mann, Laurence Miller, Yossi Milo, Yancey Richardson, Staley-Wise and Throckmorton Fine Art. The AIPAD photo show is now in its 28th year.

One work that stood out amid the crowd was Adventure no. 6 (2004) by the Australian artist Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960) at Steven Kasher Gallery, a kind of three-panel photonovella showing a fiery explosion in the top section, a cartoon plane circling an island in another, and a pair of glamorous James Bond girls in a cockpit in the third.

Moffatt has long been known for her interest in narrative, and her new work seemed to win out amid all the other competing wares at AIPAD through sheer stridency. It brings together a number of themes that are indispensable to contemporary art’s interest in photography: the reduction of humans to decor; a media-soaked irony; and a resolutely anti-photographic handling of the photographic image.

But I was also drawn repeatedly to a wall of works by French photo pioneer Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) at the booth of New York’s Hyperion Press. Lartigue’s images of leisure time and practical jokes among his upper class clan, early examples of the snapshot esthetic, radiate an innately ludic sense of reality, capturing people in enigmatic positions and in the middle of strange games.

A print of Lartigue’s most famous image, a speeding sports car with its tire captured as an elongated, elastic O, immediately argues that these early-20th century images are just as Puckish in relation to their material as Moffatt -- without the exaggerated Postmodernist pyrotechnics.

The whole thing reminded me of an observation made by gonzo Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in Astra Taylor’s charming documentary, Zizek! These days, he says, it is cynicism that is truly naïve. The popularity of irony, the notion that everything is mediated and self-conscious -- these ideas are touchstones of contemporary culture. But in the past, it wasn’t that people were unaware of the hallowed postmodern truth that there’s no authentic, "real" personal expression -- in fact, Zizek argues, it was simply accepted as too obvious to mention.

If this is true, then the problem of contemporary art’s relation to photography may not be one of direct assault -- ostentatiously pointing out the constructedness of it all -- but more one of drawing back, of finding ways of looking that simply take artifice as given, and moving on.

Christopher Williams at David Zwirner
One champion of the "direct assault" strategy is the California photo conceptualist Christopher Williams (b. 1956), who recently had an exhibition of his work at David Zwirner gallery, Jan. 11-Feb. 25, 2006, and who’s also included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

Williams is a maker of original Richard Princes. While Prince re-photographs advertisements and magazine images, framing them to produce a sense of alienation, Williams has made his name redoubling this critical operation -- his original images are manufactured to resemble the high-gloss, airless atmosphere of advertising photography (he proudly absents himself from the creative process, ceding these responsibilities to a team of technicians).

At Zwirner, for instance, a series of three views of a motor bike seem to showcase its features clinically, while another, a black-and-white series featuring a young woman soaping her hair in a shower, seems a test reel, as if a creative director was searching for the perfect expression to sell Irish Spring or Zest. An image of spontaneity -- a shower -- is being carefully staged.

Other images feature still-lifes of neatly centered boxes of film or camera lenses, wallowing in placeless white spaces. Still others are unremarkable exteriors of apartment complexes or outdoor markets.

The images are baffling, and if they make you feel like there has to be more, there is. Indispensable to Williams’ strategy is the rupture between the visual and the informational -- it’s always the context that you can’t see that’s important. Through researching, one learns that the machines and locales that he has so professionally photographed are, most often, slightly out-dated or second rate, culled from economic backwater contexts and often involved in strange political currents.

An uninvolving image of a stacked set of folding screens, for instance, turns out to belong to a Jean Prouvé house that was shipped to the Congo, where their design proved unsuitable to local conditions -- a snapshot of the thoughtless mentality of Europe towards its others.

Particularly in the context of such socially critical, post-colonialist subtexts, however, there’s something suspiciously high-handed in basing work on supplementary, "official" explanations -- accessible to a select few -- that complete the picture. After all, globalized reality is precisely one in which people find countless ways ingeniously to re-duty and re-interpret foreign items.

Perhaps it does make an image of a stack of temperately lit, gleaming plastic cobs of corn more intriguing to know that the intention behind it is a critique of photography’s historical ties to evil agribusiness. But, on this level, why not also read the unassuming image as connecting the blood-thirsty Aztec empire’s Corn Ceremony to our own contemporary addiction to petroleum, the key ingredient in plastic? Or as a savage critique of Britain’s 1804 Corn Laws?

The hunger for didactic explanations seems an attempt to cut debate short, when the pregnant, unsutured feeling of Williams’ images is itself their most dynamic effect. A series of a smiling model, posing next to a color bar with a bright yellow towel wrapped around her hair has a slightly unsettling quality that makes you return to it. The yellow is irritatingly familiar, until you realize that it is what you've been programmed to recognize as Kodak yellow. Counterpoised to this, the model’s effort to look pleasant in the successive frames has a sort of drama to it -- the strained human attempt to be treated as a prop.

Florian Maier-Aichen at 303
Running concurrently at 303 Gallery, a show by German photographer Florian Maier-Aichen (b. 1973), Jan. 14-Feb. 25, 2006, presented an artist whose work can be viewed as a logical complement to Williams’ (he is also included in the coming Biennial). Whereas Williams offers images starting with a manufactured esthetic and then unspools a human interest story behind them, Maier-Aichen presents scenic panoramas of nature that subtly reveal themselves to be polluted by image manipulation.

Some of the manipulations are subtler than others. Red plants are a signature. One large print presents a dramatic slice of the Pacific, an expanse of dark water meeting a hilly coastline covered in burgundy woods, cut by a highway. Another, Above Lake June (2005), is an aerial topography of a landscape of craters and red vegetation. What’s striking, however, is that what could be cloyingly whimsical instead is made to come off as matter-of-fact and scientific -- somehow the abnormal pigmentation seems logical.

If Christopher Williams estranges the banal, Maier-Aichen normalizes what is usually thought of as estranging. Seamless integration is his hallmark. In Untitled (Insel Vilm) (2005), a cruise ship is pictured traversing the water. The scale has been tinkered with to make the boat appear somehow out of proportion with the nearby shore, but this manipulation does not advertise itself, it simply floats uneasily in the background of your consciousness.

Ditto with an aerial panorama of suburban sprawl, glowing darkly at night and stretching off to a horizon of low mountain peaks. The image is a composite, made by stitching together mismatched landscapes of town and mountains. But even close inspection makes it difficult to say that this view is science fiction.

This fluid boundary between natural and manmade landscapes, as well as between natural and synthetic images, is the underlying theme of the whole suite of works at 303. Not a human subject is to be found in these large photos, as if it were a matter of abstract image types moving automatically, bumping up against one another like machine parts.

An untitled photo presents an image of two smokestacks, captured as one is being blown up at the base and crashes into the next. This image of old machinery being trashed is a complete pastiche, created inside a computer -- and, as such, a nice allegory for the passing of the analogue world.

But the significance of Maier-Aichen lays not in any "statement" he is making about photography’s nature. It’s the way he takes a step back from statement-making to focus on the use of the myriad tools at his disposal.

The best photo in the show is the untitled shot of a frozen, snowbound landscape, a large tree on the left the only clearly discernable object. The background has been reduced to a muddy blue that makes it difficult to determine the depth of the composition, giving it a sense of immense openness and crowding at once. The air appears clear, but in the front corner, a lamppost shines and a heavy snowfall appears to be passing through the cone of light.

Elegantly theatrical without being exhausted in contrivance, this photo makes you want what every good image makes you want, to look again.

BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.