snapshot, gucci, michael o'sullivan, washington post, museum of contemporary art baltimore


my snapshot

DAYDREAM

(GUCCI'S WINDOW)

C-Print, 10 x 15 cm

2000/2001


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1,300 SNAPSHOTS, ONE SURREAL SHOW

By Michael O'Sullivan

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, November 17, 2000; Page N66

 

ON Nov. 7, I, like the rest of you, spent much of the day watching a great experiment in democracy, except this one actually worked.

That's because I'm not talking about the presidential cliffhanger that kept much of the country biting its collective nails into the wee hours of the night. I'm talking about a little art exhibition called "Snapshot," at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Did I say little? Excuse me. There are more than 1,300 pictures in this show and, trust me, that's a lot of art. It takes up most of nearly every wall in the museum--wait, make that literally every wall, minus the bathrooms and the back office. It is by turns banal, scary, grotesque, cute, surreal, silly, derivative and breathtakingly beautiful.

All the pieces in the exhibit are, as its name implies, intimate or personal photos of some kind, submitted by artists and art professionals who were invited by the Contemporary to dig through their family albums and junk drawers. Each entrant, whose contribution was primarily the addition of some sort of a caption, was then invited to pass the solicitation on to his or her associates, ultimately spreading the pool of submissions to well more than a thousand people from 24 countries.

Most of the pictures are of recent vintage, though a handful date from the 1960s and earlier. Many are candid (accidental-looking even), while a few appear obviously staged. Some, I am convinced, were taken by children. The interpretation of just what the term "snapshot" means was left wide open, leading to pieces like the antique-looking portrait of an Indonesian family submitted by Maria-Theresa Fernandes, who appears to have sewn threads and punched grommets into her artsy, sepia-toned print.

Other than size, there were no curatorial criteria brought to bear on what would or would not make it into the show. Every picture that arrived by deadline (and that fit into the small plastic sleeve provided by the museum) is hanging on the wall, arranged not thematically or aesthetically or chronologically or geographically but alphabetically by name. Filmmaker John Waters, who sent in a shot of actress Jean Hill and Divine celebrating the late drag queen's 40th birthday, is down about knee level. Conceptual artist John Baldessari's palm tree floats against a blue sky just above your head (well, my head anyway). Any higher, or lower for that matter, and you'd need a stepladder or cushion to see everything comfortably.

What you will find here: some of the most gorgeous Kodachrome blues you've ever seen, e.g. Pala Townsend's "Study I for Water Painting," Judd Tully's beach-house photo "Yves Klein Blue" and Angel E. Lopez's "En la Alberca de los Perillos (At the Perillo's Pool)"; at least 27 Polaroid portraits with the caption "Satre's Shot of Friday Night Dinner at Gabe's" (one of which has been submitted by someone calling himself Roy G. Biv after the mnemonic device for the colors of the spectrum); an elephant in the middle of a bowel movement, a six-legged goat and a sexually aroused male dog (thank you, Connie Imboden, Eric Swangstu and Nelson Santos Sarenco); and Richard Margolis's "Driving by the George Eastman House 7," a handsome black-and-white picture taken through a rain-spattered windshield that could easily hold its own in any blue-chip photo gallery.

The big surprise? The "names" (some of them, like performance artist Holly Hughes and photographer Andres Serrano, fairly notorious ones) are no better than the "nobodies," but then again, neither are they any worse. One camera, one vote. Petah Coyne, William Kentridge, Pepon Osorio, Kiki Smith, Buzz Spector--if you don't happen to recognize the famous moniker in the lower left-hand corner, none of these pictures would stop you in your tracks anyway, with the possible exception of Kentridge, who appears to have posed nude for a preparatory figure study for one of his drawings. This equanimity, it seems, is precisely the point. "Snapshot" attempts to needle our complacent assumptions of what art is and how letting art institutions interpret--and make exclusions about--what we see turns us into passive recipients.

Taken individually, few of the pictures here would pass muster as art by most conventional standards: There are far too many portraits of pets (though I defy you not to at least crack a smile at Cecilia Biagini's German shepherd "Sophia Loren") and family functions (and I'm so glad Jane Ann Wynn was invited to "Marybeth's Wedding" and not me). Taken as an aggregate, though, the show itself is the real artwork, and a whip-smart one at that. Yes, it challenges us to think about the nature of art and curatorship, but it manages to do so without smothering its sense of fun beneath a blanket of artspeak.

One of my favorite pictures in the exhibition is an inchoate silhouette: a shadow of an object unidentified as either animal, vegetable or mineral, although it looks kind of like it might belong to a playful alien. Apparently found--not shot--by Scott Marvel Cassidy, the picture is pure aura, and its aura is all the lovelier because it's something that someone threw away--or lost.

All of which resonates nicely for those with a Dada aesthetic (or for those who, like me, have an extensive file of found photos at home). Yet who else would give it a second glance in any other context than this?

Printed on the wall at the Contemporary Museum is this quote from Susan Sontag's seminal book "On Photography": "Time eventually positions most photos, even the most amateurish, at the level of art."

I'm not sure I buy that line about the power of time. The cloudy pictures of my family and friends that I shot with my little Instamatic 126 when I was a kid still look cruddy to me today, but a hundred years from now, who knows? I believe there is something else entirely that makes "Snapshot" click, and wonderfully so.

How do they do it, you might ask?

Volume, volume, volume.

One blurry picture of some guy's feet is nothing. An entire museum full is a lesson in aesthetics.

SNAPSHOT -- Through Jan. 3, at the Contemporary Museum, 100 West Centre St., Baltimore. 410/783-5720. Web site: www.contemporary.org. Open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays; Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 5. Admission is by suggested donation of $3. A searchable CD-ROM catalogue of the show is available for $35 ($28 for museum members).

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

 


 

PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW
Can Not-So-Ordinary Artists Make Ordinary Snapshots? Well, Not Really

By Sarah Boxer

The New York Times

March 8, 2002, Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 40

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. -- ''Snapshots,'' at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art here, presents an apparent democracy. All of the 1,300 or so photographs in the exhibition are roughly the same dimensions, 4 by 6 inches or smaller, protected by identical plastic covers and arranged in a grid formation in alphabetical order by the photographer's last name, beginning with Abernathy and ending with Zwiebel.

The idea behind ''Snapshots'' was to have a museum exhibit ''photographs that may have been found in the bureau drawers of any household,'' writes Adam Lerner, one of the curators who organized the first presentation of the exhibition, at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore.

This pictorial harvest is not what you would expect. It is not row upon row of pictures of babies, graduations, weddings, pets and family vacations, but rather a varied array of odd subjects. There is a photo of a girl half-submerged in a tub with her hands to her ears (titled ''Mermaid in My Tub''), a technicolor picture of a car full of mangoes, a hologram of a man holding a doll that vanishes (''The Proposal''), a group portrait of colored Bic lighters, a still-life of a towel with a fly on it, an abstract-looking picture of moths pinned to a board, a portrait of two feet with one toe missing (there are many foot portraits in the show), a close-up of rusted chains that look like sauced spaghetti, a portrait of a stuffed monkey (''Monkey Thinking'') and a close-up of a rabbit with its legs splayed and Christmas ornaments decorating its testicles.

These pictures are compulsively captivating. But how unprofessional are they really? I thought a snapshot was a picture that only friends and relatives could love.

In this exhibition, the names Nan Goldin, Paul McCarthy, Sally Mann, Christian Boltanski, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Cindy Sherman, Roni Horn, Garry Winogrand and Elliott Erwitt (who has a new book out titled ''Snaps'') keep springing to mind, even though their works are not on the walls.

Has the line between contemporary photography and ordinary snapshots become that blurry? (If you want to see what snapshots looked like when Kodak cameras were brand new, check out the small exhibition of circular format pictures at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, ''The First Snapshots: At Home and Abroad.'') Or were the contributors to this show savvy enough not to send in what was really in their drawers but instead something casual and unusual that would look good on a museum's walls?

The answer is almost certainly the last. And the reason is that many of the contributors are not just folks. The Contemporary Museum sent out a letter asking artists, photographers, art students, curators and critics from around the world to send in any snapshot they chose. Then in November 2001 the Aldrich did the same for its exhibition, collecting 120 more photos.

Well, for democracy's sake, take a look at both ends of the show, A and Z. Rebekah Abernathy's snapshot is a tilted view of a little girl straddling a blue bike with pink handlebars. The girl's face is cut off but you can see her white padded coat, some of her blond hair and the dirt road behind her. Michael Zwiebel's picture of two men standing at a gravesite was also taken at a tilt. And he, too, has cropped his shot. You can't see the subjects' faces, only their suits, the hair of a woman standing next to them and the coffin behind. So both photographers, though shooting from two ends of life, the beginning and end, and two ends of the alphabet, have the same idea of a snapshot, which is somewhat closer to a contemporary street photo than to something you would dig out of a drawer.

Maybe this is because the contributors guessed that there would be a number of famous artists submitting snapshots. Could the prospect of their presence have skewed the sample?

In fact, the pictures actually submitted by well-known artists are, by and large, not the artiest ones in the bunch. John Baldessari sent a color picture of a palm tree bullying a shorter streetlight against a clear blue sky. Isaac Julien took a picture of white phones on black tables. William Kentridge submitted a nude portrait of himself trying out an animated gesture in front of his drawings. Kiki Smith photographed her own work. Andres Serrano put in a portrait of Debbie Harry. And John Waters, true to form, submitted what looks like an honest to goodness snapshot of friends.

Meanwhile, many of the other contributors submitted more self-consciously inventive shots. Catherine Angel took a stunning black-and-white picture of three girls asleep in a spooning position that could have been made by Mr. Alvarez Bravo. Robert Caldwell's blurry snap of a girl in the woods and Benicia Gantner's blurry green landscape both resemble paintings by Gerhard Richter. Angeline Fairchild's picture of a woman pushing a shopping cart with her head in a giant silver ventilation tube looks like a surrealist Slinky. Evan Rapport and Jerry Lim's shot of the surface of dirty water looks like one of Ms. Horn's pictures of the Thames. Steven Sellars's wistful girl holding what could be a doll or baby could almost pass for a work by Ms. Mann.

''Snapshots'' is endlessly fun and varied. But it does not show what a snapshot is so much as what people, schooled in the ways of Lee Friedlander, Mr. Winogrand and Ms. Goldin, think a snapshot should look like. The photographer Lisette Model once declared, ''The professional cannot make a snapshot.'' It turns out that savvy amateurs cannot do it either. The age of photographic innocence is over.

''Snapshots'' is at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn., (203) 438-4519, through May 1.

© 2002 The New York Times


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