Learning to Love Photography

by John Haber

Donna Ferrato and iheartphotograph


Lower pictures

Forget the “privileged moment.” Now photographers cannot get enough of that nasty, persistent thing called reality. Yet the ugly face of things no longer has all that much to do with classic documentary photography. It uncovers not ordinary life or the urban jungle but dress up and bare skin. It offers some fashionably ironic characters in a fashionably dark room having a truly mean party.

Call it the underprivileged moment, and it has so approached a norm that it may need its own taxonomy. It can ask whom to call the voyeur and whom the freak, as with Diane Arbus, or whom in a place like New York to call the outsider, as with Garry Winogrand. It can approach confession, as with Catherine Opie, or just self-involvement, as with Sam Taylor-Wood. It can treat an era as celebrity portraiture, as with Billy Sullivan, or an open party, as with Peter Hujar. It can mix tell-all with youthful arrogance, as with Ryan McGinley, or heavy make-up with a lament for years lost, as with Nan Goldin. It can supply hints of an unresolved narrative, as with “Family Pictures” recently at the Guggenheim, which had some of the same familiar faces.

Put the fashion down to the death of irony or to a hunger for something to feel. Put it down to anxiety about the future or to confidence that art can encompass anything. Put it down to a need to gawk at art’s superstars or to too many cell phones and video cameras. Either way, it rubs your nose in something, and then it has the temerity to remind you that you missed out. If you have no good answer, you already know why the genre can make you so annoyed. You also know why it can make you pay attention.

I could have placed most of the artists under more than one heading, like Leigh Ledare. His apparent freak show turns out to be a sympathetic portrait of his mother-even more so in a sly and funny video not in the show. And Donna Ferrato almost manages to combine them all. Starting with its dense hanging, her first New York solo show suggests a photographer with a great many ideas. Packed against one another, the very frames mime the press of bodies in a club scene. At other times, they imply a story that even her all too frank actors are unable to tell.

My first taste of Ledare actually came a week earlier still, in the opening group show of Higher Pictures. With the gallery’s second exhibition I wanted to scream, “Oh, no, not another Nan Goldin wannabe!” Oh, no-except that Ferrato’s photos in fact date from the 1970s and 1980s. She followed the idlers or the crowds into Plato’s Retreat, Studio 54, and the Manhole disco in San Francisco. Starting in 1991, with the publication of Living with the Enemy, she also gained attention for her portraits of domestic violence. While her photos of the 1990s do not appear here, they may supply a connecting thread.

One remembers the sordid moments-a blow to the head, a sucked cock, a licked woman’s heel, or bodies side by side without fully living in the same space. In a color sequence, a couple passes through the stages of need, self-abuse, mutual abuse, and dysfunction. However, Ferrato’s later books have also includedLove and Lust and Amore, and she is basically telling a love story with an unhappy ending. In the packed club pictures, all black and white, the bodies share more than enough in another way. I find her images less clear, haunting, or chilling than Goldin’s. They almost beg one to turn away, and yet they bring to photography a physical presence.

Heart to heart

When I hear about art in an online community, a review practically writes itself-unless, of course, this computer writes it for me. The bloggers will work in browsable, digital media, so photographs with a healthy assist from Photoshop. Thanks to the Web, young, new faces from New York to Europe can exhibit together, with a rush of images that breaks boundaries as well. Their URL will suit the slacker generation, and I can almost see Jason Schwartzman unable to complete a portfolio. They will represent democracy in action, about as far from Madison Avenue dealers as one can get.

And they do, except for the last part. Eight netizens of are exhibiting on the Upper East Side, and their Web site supplies the curator, Laurel Ptak. She also includes herself, proof that democracy and art will always some kinks to work out. Better yet, the mostly digital prints have a striking physical presence, only starting with Zach Gage’s Sweat Scans. Stefan Burger poses his ink-jet prints on wood and concrete stilts, with one foot in a pail of fine sand. Roy Stanfield’s collage tumbles across five-foot acrylic sheets leaning against metal piping, like illegal advertising on sidewalk scaffolding.

No doubt they have to take their art beyond their studio, their monitor, and their own heads. Even if they surf for their images rather than snap them, photographers necessarily engage the world with their camera, often as not on commission. Burger’s pail supports a crowded outdoor wedding scene, like a future house built on sand. In another a man appears to jump from a high floor of a construction site while others look on form its girders. It puns on Yves Klein’s “leap into the void,” but with perhaps a hint that East Germany held too many concrete blocks and too much surveillance. In its title and look of magazine covers from the 1960s, Stanfield’s Philosophy Club, too, recalls an era when ideas were hip and memories-or people-disposable.

Others take as subject a virtual image collection, but even these have the shadows and luster of objects in space. The dark components of Ptak’s Google Image Piles overlap and extend to the edge of the sheet, emphasizing the pile rather than the largely illegible images. Katja Mater calls her C-prints My Portfolio, and they, too, seem to plummet in three dimensions. Sherri Caudell Brennan includes backpacks and a huge paper clip, so that abstraction or still life could serve as a slice of student life. Eva-Fiore Kovacovsky’s ghostly still lifes could be paying tribute to early photography or Man Ray, but her Styrofoam cup is necessarily in the present tense.

I admired Kovacovsky’s elegance, smiled at the philosophy club, worried that a cat or mouse might leave its droppings in the sand pail, and delighted in the soft edges of Mater’s dispersed portfolio. It did not occur me to worry about the pretexts until later. By then I could no longer decide whether Burger’s graininess echoes vintage photographs or jpegs enlarged in place of high-res prints. Ulrich Görlich’s big colored oval splat against a grassy landscape could sum up the funky possibilities. Has a blimp landed or has graffiti, and is he filling out the picture or effacing it? Maybe these artists will grow and deepen, but with luck nottoo fast.

Everyone does know what photographers do, or do they? Madison Avenue or not, these exhibitions make a case for alternatives. Sometimes the Internet crowd seems less engaged with the content of images or critical associations, but they get new mileage out of dancing around the edges.