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This Year's Models: Searching for Fresh Approaches in Photography

Posted By Administration, Monday, November 26, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bright letters announce "New Photography 2007" on a wall outside the Museum of Modern Art's photography galleries. Just inside is a room of vintage-looking black-and-white photographs. Contemporary photographers are showing a strong interest in early photography, so your first thought is that the curator has unearthed someone recycling the ideas and methods of Eadweard Muybridge, Alfred Stieglitz or Clarence White.

A detail of Berni Searle's "Approach," which is made up of seven prints.
But no. These are pictures by Muybridge, Stieglitz and White. Keep walking; the annual showcase of emerging photographers is in the next room. After that accidental spark of excitement, though, the show itself is something of a letdown.

"New Photography" is generally limited to three or four artists, which puts pressure on the chosen few to deliver something fresh. None of this year's photographers accomplish that. The one who comes the closest is Tanyth Berkeley, who lives in New York, has shown in Chelsea and was included in the 2005 edition of P.S. 1's "Greater New York."

Ms. Berkeley is from the Diane Arbus school: Her work involves a lot of social engineering. She identifies people on the street or subway, and over a period of time coaxes them into posing. (Arbus used urban parks as her hunting grounds.) Ms. Berkeley's art is often described as showcasing odd beauty or challenging stereotypes of female beauty.

"Grace in Window" features one of her favorite subjects, a woman who is either an albino or close to it. Posed with her eyes closed before a light-filled window, her eyelashes barely register. She looks like an ethereal alien.

Ms. Berkeley's full-length portraits are more complicated. Here the approach that got Arbus in trouble — exposing differences, which led to accusations of exploitation — raises the same issues. Her photographs of transgendered people completely abandon Arbus's carefully constructed empathy for the subject. Gazing becomes staring, possibly at pathology, given the people's extreme thinness and their evident fondness for surgical procedures.

Scott McFarland, who lives in Vancouver, uses digital techniques to create crystalline color photographs that depict unsettling tableaus and suggest uncanny narratives. Sound familiar?

Earlier this year MoMA mounted a retrospective of Jeff Wall, the master of the digitally enhanced (or fabricated) faux-narrative photograph and one of Vancouver's most famous artists. Mr. McFarland's picture of a young family watching a keeper feed porcupines at the Berlin Zoo could be a Wall from around 1989 or a student facsimile. (It's no surprise, then, to discover that Mr. McFarland once worked as Mr. Wall's assistant.)

Mr. McFarland's photographs of nature controlled by human beings — an orchard digitally manipulated to present all four seasons at once or a series merging different areas in a botanical garden — recall Thomas Struth. Mr. McFarland's aesthetic and techniques feel overly familiar and dated.

Serialization, a hallmark of late-20th-century art, is Berni Searle's focus. Ms. Searle, who lives in Cape Town, has photographed herself climbing up and down giant mounds of grape skins discarded after a vineyard harvest, and then joined the images in a long horizontal frieze. Another series uses crepe-paper silhouettes traced from family photographs and immersed in water as repeating motifs.

Ms. Searle is good at creating visual effects: the rhythm of the rising and falling grape-skin mounds; the sandstorm look of the crepe-paper silhouettes in water. But her conceptual basis feels weak, particularly when it is spelled out in hackneyed wall texts.

A consistently strong point of the "New Photography" series, including this edition, has been the international array of artists. But so far it has been weak in showcasing new developments and contextualizing contemporary photography within the collection, which helps explain the jarring transition from Stieglitz & Company to the current crop. You hate to be the spoiler, the insatiable art viewer constantly demanding that rush of something new. But when a show is called "New Photography 2007," you feel within your rights.

By Martha Schwendener

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