Review: Charles Swedlund’s ‘Buy Photographs’ Highlights His 1970s Work

by Ken Johnson

Charles Swedlund

The New York Times


Charles Swedlund’s exhibition of playful images from the early 1970s offers an amusing trip back to a time when conceptually minded photographers were looking for ways beyond the Modernist, black-and-white print. Now 80 and having his first solo exhibition in a New York gallery, Mr. Swedlund is a Chicago native who taught for many years at Southern Illinois University until his retirement in 2000.

This show presents photographs that have been turned into puzzles, games, stereoscopic pictures and flip books. Two bubble gum vending machines are stocked with plastic capsules containing little prints; purchase a $20 token from the gallery, and you can obtain a print for yourself. “Buy Photographs — Not Gold!” is a set of wooden coins painted gold with a small, circular print attached to each. “Do-It-Yourself Portfolio” presents 10 35-milimeter negatives, a print made from one of them and instructions to the buyer to produce his or her own photographs using the negatives.

Many of Mr. Swedlund’s works feature images of naked women. “Pyro (Burn Photograph)” is a small box containing a picture of an unclothed woman reclining, a book of matches with the same image printed on its cover and a short text saying that the matches are for burning the photograph and not for lighting cigarettes.

While evidently unabashed in his frequently satirical use of the female nude, it seems Mr. Swedlund was not oblivious to the rise of feminism in the art world. “Ms. Is Housebroken” is an offset print that unfolds to reveal a series of small blurry pictures of a dog defecating outdoors. Mr. Swedlund, in fact, owned a dog named Ms. It’s shockingly funny in a head-shaking sort of way, and it’s also historically interesting. It recalls a generation of haplessly unenlightened men struggling to come to terms with women’s liberation.

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