a review of Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection at the DeYoung Museum

By Brianna Kalajian

Martin Parr's "Benidorm"
From it's very beginning photography has always had a whiff of the courtroom in it. Both photographs and the law traffic in evidence and try to correct or adjust our sense of reality and along with it our sense of justice. What are TMZ and the paparazzi, but a corrective dose of ugly reality against the publicist's hype: staged studio photographs vs. "gotcha" photographs. It's a war that's been going on as long as we've had photography and at stake is justice and reality. You look at a photo and say, this is the truth I've been waiting for, that's not a glamour shot, but a genuine shot, another celebrity caught without makeup. We live in a visually constructed reality, but yearn for one unadorned, stripped, and yet alive with photographic, possibly pornographic, truth. What is a candid, paparazzi shot, but a mirror of our own desperation for reality?

So, needless to say, I had high hopes for the DeYoung's exhibition, Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection. It is a clear attempt to get at photography's ongoing and evolving development as both social fact and constructed reality. The exhibit features some of the greatest pioneers of photography. There are the mind-blowing realists: Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Stephen Shore, who all attempted to capture the startling mundane essence of America. Then there are more recent photographers, steeped in the darkroom and computer manipulation, such as Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky and Ryan McGinely. Their photos are what we might call fabricated and have been helped by advancements in photographic technology. Is there work any less real than the realists or all those in between? Well, that's the implicit promise of the exhibit, to help us work through the problem of photography, reality and our desire to come to a true conclusion. As the curatorial opening statement promises, "Real to Real," rather than simply replicating the real, the photos in this exhibition challenge our assumptions about reality and illuminate our tenuous connection to it." This contrast of both historical and contemporary modes of photography also suggests "that reality may be a projection of one person's psyche or a fabrication of the artists inspiration." Needless to say, these are not only pressing questions for photography, but also for all art as well.

Andreas Gursky's "Blue Ayamonte"
When you enter the exhibit you are greeted with three eye-popping photographs that seem intentionally hung together because of the vibrancy of the multiple shades of blue in them. Two are by Martin Parr, from the body of work Common Sense called “Benidorm” and “Blue Meringue.” These images playfully correlate to one another. There is a clear association to the blue goggles worn by the sunbathing women in “Benidorm” and the blue fuzzy character with black googly eyes in “Blue Meringue.” Separating the two Parr photographs is Andreas Gursky's, “Blue Ayamonte” that depicts an unfinished building. The repetition of the black squares for windows juxtaposed against a vibrant blue sky behind it gives the image a surreal quality. It is as if we have been viciously lifted out of the real. This sequence of images is promising. Their proximity to each other makes you question reality in three different forms: a person, a place and a thing. It also places photographers of different aesthetic agendas, Parr and Gursky, into direct dialogue with each other.

The next photo is equally striking, Roe Ethridge’s “Thanksgiving 1984.” You are confronted with an almost three-by-four foot image of a young woman in a green dress, graciously laughing, in front of a thanksgiving dinner spread out behind her. The composition and scale of the food, woman and backdrop are disproportionate to reality. The image is obviously manipulated. What this image also depicts is the societal construction of an American Holiday, an ideal fantasy of a festive family or communal experience. The photograph makes you do two things: first, it forces you to question what you see; and second, you realize that the photo is a projection of the photographer’s own desires for happy family holidays and a welcoming maternal, albeit in this photo sexy, presence. At this point in the exhibit I am intrigued. The photographs are beautifully placed and the issues couldn't be starker.

Roe Ethridge's "Thanksgiving 1984"
As you enter into the heart of the show, you are free to follow in any direction you desire. There are four rooms and each has a different theme: "Everyday", "Losses", "Spectacular" and "Excess." First of all, I should say that there are splendid photographs in each of these rooms. I have seen many of them before and you cannot doubt their importance to the history and culture of photography, but I started to have problems with the exhibit as soon as its ideas became so thematic. A good example is Alec Soth’s beautiful photograph “Kim”. It depicts a single African-American women sitting alone on a vibrant red couch in a red room with cut out valentine hearts hanging on the wall. The woman's gaze is empty and distressed. In close proximity to this photo is the word "losses." One might simply assume that the woman is at a bar or a club. There are two drinks on the table in front of her but she is the only one photographed, isolated from everyone else. What happened to her date? She looks lost in contemplation, causing her to appear detached from the world. I look at the photo for about five seconds and move on. But let's stop there for a moment. I'm not sure that the heading "losses" adequately expresses the true intentions of Soth. When I think of it again, I think that losses is only a superficial take on what is a much more contested and deeper reality. “Kim” is clearly about more than loss, but about, to use another word from the show, the “excessive” presence and brutality of everyday racism. This woman’s detachment goes much further than merely being stood up. Unless you mean she’s been stood up by the entire culture.

You see the same problem of curatorial straightjacketing of Soth’s photograph in the presentation of Tim Hyde’s photo “Untitled 2003” (Los Angles), which is also in the “losses” section. It is a large photograph that is separated horizontally, the bottom half depicts a redwood forest finished in a painterly style, and the top half is a deep blue sky. The only element that bridges the two halves is a palm tree, set to the right side of the image. The palm tree seems fitting in the top half of the photo but is completely out of place with the bottom. It looks as if the image has been digitally manipulated or collaged but in actuality it exists in space. The title including “Los Angles” also gives the viewer a clue to the “truth” of this photo being potentially a stage, backdrop or street mural on the side of a building or a Hollywood set. Okay, so I get that one could speculate that the word “losses” in reference to this photo can evoke a response (deforestation), but again, the photo has a deeper and conceptual presence that cannot be simplified. The complexity of this photograph goes beyond any one word to describe or inform the viewer.

Diane Arbus' photo of "Mrs. T Charlton Henry
Similar problems occur in other sections. There’s a Diane Arbus photograph that I’ve never seen before, so I was extremely interested. I love Arbus’s work because of her determination in capturing the odd in everyday people. This photograph in particular, is an elegant image of Mrs. T Charlton Henry, with her extravagant appearance that so obviously states her societal importance. She looked all dolled up with her hair resembling a giant helmet along with her formidable sneer of superiority. Arbus depicts Mrs. T looking her best in the comfort of her home. What bothers me about the photo’s position in the exhibition is that the photo so obviously is working beyond the curatorial designation of the “everyday.” I do not believe, but more importantly Arbus makes clear that this woman dresses like this everyday, although she makes me understand that Mrs. T wants me to believe that this is her normal everyday behavior or garb. The photo is alluding to the extravagant reality of this person’s imagination, which to grab a word from the exhibit, seems excessive. This is the problem with this kind of curatorial labeling. It diminishes our understanding of the potency and the artistic potential of these photos.

Alec Soth, one of the featured photographers once illustrated during a lecture, his idea of what makes an interesting concept or sequence. He presented what looked like a bunch of scatted dots, as if someone had been playing a game of connect-the-dots. Soth's point is that each scatted dot creates its own context, its own set of relations, and that the dots are free players in the game of meaning. What “Real-to-Real” does is take some of the riches and most provocative imagery of 20th and early 21st century photography and confine it to a concept. These are Soth’s dots in chains. The photos are straight jacketed and restricted to the curator's assumptions about theme and meaning. Everything becomes linear and static and what you gain in purpose you lose in a loss of ambiguity. This is purely a curatorial disadvantage.

In the exhibition press, Julian Cox, chief curator (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) states, “A photograph is a slippery, ambiguous social construct, and it can convey much more than the story it may seem to tell. The Traina collection traffics in this inbuilt ambiguity and unleashes the viewer on a visual and sensory odyssey that has no fixed result.” I would agree with his statement about the power of ambiguity of a photograph, although the fixed titles prove to be a contradiction to his alleged intentions of this exhibition. It is as if the curator chose four headings and grouped the collection to fit under each word. The exhibition is trying to create an experience that seems forced and unnecessary. The work should speak for itself and instead the images seem flat. These two-dimensional masterpieces are trapped in a one-dimensional concept.

©Brianna Kalajian & CCA Arts Review

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