At the dawn of the 20th century, photography exploded in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. With its meteoric rise came the widely held perception that photographic vision was objective vision. For many who have experimented with this new technology, the automatism of the camera left no room for subjectivity. Apparitions: Portraits of the 20th century, now viewable by appointment at Deborah Bell Photographs, includes a number of works that take the opposite position. The exhibition – a mix of portraits of 12 different photographers, spanning from 1912 to 2011 – showcases human experimentation and the stains, cracks, tears and distortions that accompany it. The strongest works in the exhibition are those that exclude mechanical reproducibility, instead imagining the photographic print as a unique art object.
For example, the eccentric Dutch artist Gerard Petrus Fieret, who is represented by five works, has rarely printed the same negative more than once. He was notoriously paranoid that his work would be plagiarized, reproduced against his will, and so he stamped each piece several times with his copyright, signing his name in bold letters on the face of the print. (Fieret was also a pigeon lover, which led to many of his prints munching on the edges – the ultimate hallmark.) The resulting photographs, mostly of women, are therefore not only important as aesthetic visions of ‘a moment in time, but also as recordings of the current life of printing. Fieret once said: “What I’m aiming for with my photography is anarchy… An intense life, a passion – a healthy passion for life – that’s what it is. The photographs on display convey this intensity with their deep shadows and dynamic compositions, while his female subjects appear remarkably at ease, taken from strange and candid angles.
The exhibition also presents one of EJ Bellocq’s 1912s. Portraits of Storyville masterpieces, which has an equally unique history. Bellocq, born in 1873, remains an enigmatic figure, obscured by contradictory historical accounts, which seem to have falsely exaggerated his physical appearance, describing him as a “hydrocephalic half-dwarf”. After her death in 1949, 89 glass plate negatives of prostitutes were found in her office; these were then purchased and meticulously printed by Lee Friedlander in the 1960s. Although Bellocq was a well-known amateur photographer during his lifetime in New Orleans, these are his only surviving works, in large part due to concerted efforts de Friedlander to preserve and promote them.
Many negatives were cracked or damaged when Friedlander picked them up, and the piece on display at Deborah Bell Photographs is one example. In it, a beautiful young woman is lying naked on a wicker lounge chair, her gaze directed towards us; a fissure in the negative runs through her body like a scar, almost perfectly parallel to the curvature of her spine. She is neither Olympia nor the Venus of Urbino; her pose is slightly stiff, her gaze vulnerable but fearless. Above his hip, the emulsion was eaten away in dark spots, like clouds or vengeful spirits. While Bellocq himself certainly never intended the picture to come out this way, these imperfections contribute to the meaning of the piece, as a literal expression of Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctual.
Apparitions: Portraits of the 20th century is not aesthetically uniform, however: alongside the disorienting multiple-exhibition portrait of surrealist Maurice Tabard by Roger Parry hang three works by August Sander, the photographic pioneer of the German movement of the new objectivity. Sander is famous for his documentary typologies of the German people during the Weimar Republic, all taken head-on with great precision. Sander’s subjects are never obscured, and his photographs do not deviate from a very literal portrayal of reality. He photographed the spectrum of German society, including those on its fringes; for example, one of her rarest portraits on display, “Actress [Trude Alex]”(Circa 1930) depicts a stage artist suggestively smiling at the camera. Her provocative demeanor sets her apart from other Sander subjects, while the intensity of her gaze seems to widen the usual distance between subject and viewer. His humanity, with all the idiosyncrasy that this entails, is undeniable.
If the exhibition sometimes deviates from its main subject – with for example two long cinema exhibitions by Hiroshi Sugimoto – it is nonetheless a very interesting visit, featuring a number of gems of the history of photography (too much, in fact, to explore in depth here). Appointment-only tours can seem intimidating, but with the price of admission to New York City museums nearly double the city’s minimum wage, shopping malls are increasingly becoming the most accessible way to see. these priceless pieces of art history – at least before they disappeared from private collections. Make an appointment today.
Apparitions: Portraits of the 20th century continues at Deborah Bell Photographs (16 E 71st St # 1D / 4th Floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until January 21.
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