By Nick Stillman | Pelican Bomb
From the digital revolution all the way back to when photography was so primitive that an “operator” needed to affix a portrait sitter’s head to the back of a chair with an iron clamp, the beauty and trouble of the medium has always been its sequential possibility: take a (bad) photo, discard, take some more. This is what photographer Tim Davis meant recently when, writing about the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” he quipped, “Anyone who has ever had their picture taken knows that every photograph is a distortion.” Postmodernism, Photoshop, and the internet have resoundingly shown a generation of image consumers how pictures can lie. Mercifully, the second NOMA exhibition arranged by Curator of Photographs Russell Lord doesn’t stir up a debate that’s already settled. With their unaltered status by now thoroughly debunked, the photographs in “Photography, Sequence, & Time” float free of myopic speculation about their trustworthiness. We’re assumed to be skeptics in the 21st century. Lord, a 19th-century specialist, wants to know why.
“Photography, Sequence, & Time” is packed with various riffs on the sequential impulse as it has manifested throughout the history of photography. Given this vast scope, the looming bogeyman is, naturally, technology. The mechanical aspect of photography was a source of prejudice against it even before Kodak’s brilliant 1888 ad hooked technophobes with cash to burn: YOU PRESS THE BUTTON, WE DO THE REST. Almost as if demonstrating how early photographers combatted the dismissal that they were mere button-pressing Industrial Revolution-era automatons, several of Lord’s 19th- and early-20th-century selections have a vaudevillian quality. In one anonymous piece, a shirtless Frenchman pours himself a glass of wine and gazes amusedly at his disembodied head as it surreally floats alongside him. In the same frame, a third representation of that man again salutes his fellow selves with a wave. Étienne-Jules Marey and Charles Fremont’s Two Men Hammering on an Anvil, 1894, a ghostly time-lapse depiction of the titular action, prefigures the hokey but mesmerizing manipulations of time the Futurists would obsess over 20 years later. Examples of these early multiple-exposure “trick” photographs dot the first few galleries, the most disquieting appearing on a book page within Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, 1883, where an albumen-print frontispiece demonstrates composite “types”: the faces of health, disease, and criminality. Hitler’s genocidal endgame exists further down this spectrum, and a few rooms over, Lord cannily inserts three chilling Margaret Bourke-White images of a Nazi-era German sausage vendor, mid-salute.
While time-based execution dictates the form of the pieces appearing in the show, there is also a thoughtful interrogation of the fluctuating nature of generational zeitgeists. By the 1950s, the rationalist-spiritualist dialectic of the late 19th century had given way to dominant technocracy (elegantly figured by Berenice Abbott’s A Ball Bouncing in Diminishing Arcs, 1958-61), which the following generation rebelled against (a full set of Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots, 1971-73, is an especially multivalent countercultural document), awakening many to the fact that first-world lifestyles are often maintained at others’ expense (the energy of the newly independent Malians in Malick Sidibé’s Les Copains, 1970, is infectious), leaving a current generation to confusedly negotiate the desire for a strong economy and labor market with fair factory practices and a vague but palpable yearning for meaningful “communication” (Paul Graham’s diptych Rockefeller Center, 23rd April 2010, 1:50.50 pm, 2010, the newest piece in the show, was especially poignant in this regard).
Happily, the exhibition provides an occasion to show NOMA’s eight examples from Walker Evans’ Subway series, 1938-41. After finding fame through his frankly frontal portraits and rural American genre scenes made for the Farm Security Administration, Evans returned to New York and plunged into a type of sequential photography perfected a generation later by paparazzi hawks like Ron Galella- voyeurism. It’s a theme prominent in “Photography, Sequence, & Time.” Two E. J. Bellocq photos, c. 1911-13, picture the same Storyville siren in identical poses, one while daintily clothed, the other nude. A selection of small Joost Schmidt photos made in 1930 during his tenure as a Bauhaus staffer gaze down predatorily on nude bathers, and two candid Robert Doisneau shots from 1948 show Parisians ogling a steamy portrait in a store window.
If there is a contemporary epitome of sequential photography, it is most likely surveillance imagery and the possibility of every moment having its corresponding document. Surveillance imagery per se doesn’t appear in the exhibition (although it could have and maybe should have), but Lord’s approximately chronological hanging demonstrates a corollary shift in people’s relationship to time. In 1887, technology wasn’t good enough for Eadweard Muybridge. To make his famous Animal Locomotion series (two examples of which are included), he took photos with multiple cameras to achieve his signature tightly-spaced intervals that describe an animal’s movement through space. Increasingly throughout the 19th century, time sped up as technology adapted to?and eventually generated?the demands and desires of the West’s entrepreneurial and mercantile class. Nearly 100 years later, Hiroshi Sugimoto made Cabot Street Cinema, Massachusetts, 1979, a photograph of an entire film from the back of a theater taken with one very long exposure. Sugimoto thus conflated photographic and cinematic technologies, resulting in an image with a ghostly white screen, glowing and blank. Technology since, say, the inception of photography in 1839 has ostensibly created so much time for people, and yet so few people in the 21st century seem to have any free time. Sugimoto’s condensation of a few hours into one image bespeaks an essentially different position on time than Muybridge’s, an evolution tracked throughout “Photography, Sequence, & Time.” Rather than “make” or “manage” time (both making and managing being quintessentially 19th-century activities), Sugimoto’s cinema series suggests a submission to time’s fold?absorbing time, forgetting time, un-managing time.
“Photography, Sequence, & Time” is on view through December 2, 2012 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.