Learning to Love Photography

John Haber
in New York City

Donna Ferrato, Leigh Ledare, and iheartphotograph.com

Art is in a productive time, but also a time of mediocrity, market, and doubts. Anything goes, but nothing takes the lead. Conservative styles and media flourish as never before, but as larger and larger spectacles. National, cultural, and gender boundaries are giving way, but just try to find women at some of the fanciest galleries and museums. An unsettled time is doing wonders for at least one medium, however. I mean photography.

Take just a handful of 2007 exhibitions. Leigh Ledare and Donna Ferrato work in a familiar enough mode—between document, freak show, and confession. Yet she has been at it for years without much sign of it in New York. At the same gallery, iheartphotograph.com asks if the Web can replace old paradigms with democracy. Yet it places photography closer to all those boundary-breaking installations after all. Leigh Ledare's The Gift (Rivington Arms, 2007)

As a much-needed postscript, I follow Ledare's career through fall 2008. It atones for the scandalously rushed mention of his 2007 exhibition here, with the review surely promised all along. Ar elated reviewd looks at artists who work between staged photography, Surrealism, and the movies, including Thomas Demand, Julie Blackmon, Clark and Pougnaud, Benjamin Fink, and Alex Prager.

Status seekers

Everyone knows what photographers do these days, right? They follow in the tradition of documentary photography, or they feign abstraction. They work big and cold, like Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, perhaps with pricey, theatrical photograms like Vera Lutter's. They appropriate and satirize America like Richard Prince, rub one's face in it like Nan Goldin, or reconceive it as a fiction like Cindy Sherman. When they stage it, they stage it big, like Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and others that Johanna Drucker might praise. And they refer to only the most successful fictions, like Sherman's bouts with Hollywood and fashion.

Yet a list that extravagant already reeks of optimism. Could photography have entered a golden age? Perhaps not, but the choices are multiplying, and they point to still others that hardly fit. Abstraction used to mean aspiring to painting's formal elegance. Now it can mean shattered glass and a shattered male gaze in artists like Eileen Quinlan. Even documentary photography has turned from the streets to real-time data, as in the chilling blacks of Christina McPhee.

Fine art is a mess. When Jerry Saltz talks of a "superparadigm," he does not mean it as a compliment. He also asks if the market is "making us stupid." No doubt installations and the Web allow artists to settle for cheap effects. Photography, too, naturally suffers from impulsive work and inflated reputations. However, it also has a new opportunity.

A reproducible medium has had to settle for a lower status. Critics have hoped that this would deflate the avant-garde as well. Now it can hope to sell, and it can draw to new effect on digital media and digital prints. And now that art is fragmenting into niche markets, photography can quote the indies along with Hollywood. Photography also deserves the chance to step off the page and off gallery walls.

Shows can also cross these possibilities. Quinlan and other women artists appeared in a summer 2007 group show, "Strange Magic," but its title linked it to modernist painting, digital effects, and cult film. Like Scott Alario, Claire Seidl avoids any tricks beyond long exposures, and her subject amounts to personal, family photographs. However, her gallery placed her in context of abstraction and Minimalism, and it worked.

Those links will get you started, but they leave out still more. Starting with an already overworked model, one can open a new gallery—or leave the gallery behind.

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 (and he will appear again in "Greater New York"). 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 included Love 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 iheartphotograph.com 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 inkjet 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.

Katja Mater's My Portfolio #3 (Higher Pictures, 2006)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 and his "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 not too 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.

A postscript: Leigh, call your mother

Leigh Ledare loves his mother, honest. In little more than a year, the photographer has had two solo shows and group appearances, with her at the passionate center of them all. He shows her on video, accepting a necklace. He multiplies her image, as on a contact sheet. But where does that leave him? Critics of the male gaze in art may well ask, but not before he asks himself.

One might not have thought to ask before. From his name and his attention to a woman's self-image, one might not even have guessed his gender. In a group show, he showed her with her hair spray. Once an aspiring dancer, she looked equally anxious for her present and former beauty. Ledare's first solo show (really half a shared show) pushed her further into Diane Arbus territory, but its very frankness made his empathy and tenderness more evident. It also exposed more flesh, and a skeptical eye might wonder at the nature of that tenderness.

Had he entered Oedipal territory? Had he been there along, and if so, where was the absent father? Where, in fact, was Ledare? "You Are Nothing to Me," his fall 2008 show's title has it—but without specifying the you. "You Are Like Air." Yet he also brings himself into the frame at last.

Once he enters, his fantasies take on a life of their own. A chair strapped only to itself appears to be waiting for them. Ledare literally slices up the male gaze, in a collage that layers an eye over a woman's breast. He hires others, too, to perform his wishes. The anonymous models appear alone and in couples, but a couple in bed touching turn their eyes away from each other. Ledare pairs another model with a page of text, laid out as spontaneous typewriting, about the awkwardness of an artist's scrutiny.

Surely it comes from her, and surely she speaks for anyone in her position. Maybe, but he does not say, and others since modern art have insisted that a woman choose her pose, choose her identity, or stare back. I have heard a model for Philip Pearlstein call the experience relaxing and even empowering. Then again, I lusted after her. To complicate things further, the name of the father is a male narrative, and feminists have scrutinized Freud for it. Ledare leaves a book on the floor by Melanie Klein—a woman, an alternative tradition within psychoanalysis, and an early analyst of troubled children.

He also puzzles explicitly over his needs, in photographs with his legs spread toward the camera. In a handout, he gives these the text of personal ads, in what often sounds like a woman's voice. His mother appears one last time with new dignity and the ability to age, her hair trimmed as a recovering patient, something he anticipated in a video of her hospitalization last winter. Perhaps this show has too many ideas for its own good, to the point that one wonders if his talents will survive his mother. William Wegman, after all, ran out of jokes after Man Ray died, and that was just a dog. Just to ask, though, puts one in the grip of his feelings.

BACK to John's arts home page


Leigh Ledare shared a show at Cohan and Leslie through May 4, 2007, and had a solo show at Rivington Arms through October 25, 2008. Donna Ferrato ran at Higher Pictures through June 29 and iheartphotograph.com through December 8. A related review looks at Thomas Demand, Julie Blackmon, Clark and Pougnaud, Benjamin Fink, and Alex Prager.


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