at the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery of Northwestern University, through March 4

My favorite work in Special Collections: The Photographic Order From Pop to Now is Christian Boltanski’s The 62 members of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955 (1972). Boltanski enlarged 62 black-and-white photos from a 1955 Mickey Mouse Club magazine; the children had sent in the photos they felt represented them best. Each photo is mounted in a metal box, and in the present installation 60 are installed in a grid of six rows by ten columns. The boxes do not touch; there’s a small space between them. What might at first seem like simple nostalgia becomes more complex the longer one looks. While the photos are very different from one another, each seems carefully posed. The slight graininess caused by the enlargement process emphasizes each photo’s pastness, while the individual boxes underline the separateness of each child’s life. And because each photo is one surface of a box rather than a flat pseudowindow on a wall, the viewer sees it as part of a sculptural object rather than an easily entered image. The fact that each child selected his or her photo helps create a sense that the photo is a partial representation of that child’s life, but these are lives we can never know, from a time to which we cannot return. While the work’s subject is human life and human identity, its statement is about the impossibility of knowing others’ lives.

This piece is one of 56 works by 25 artists in this exhibit of art that uses photo images in artist’s books and as elements in two-dimensional wall arrays or three-dimensional installations. As exhibition curator Charles Stainback points out in his often-helpful catalog essay, all of these artists share an attitude toward photography that’s very different from that of the generations of photographers who worked to make each photo an autonomous work of art worthy of our great pictorial tradition. In contrast with photographers who used manipulative techniques to make photos that resembled paintings and artists such as Edward Weston who carefully controlled the parameters of light, composition, and contrast to produce a hard-edged style, the photographers in this show keep technique to a minimum. Many of these artists use found photos, usually from the mass media, while the artists who take their own tend to use the medium for its most basic recording function–we see faces or houses or streets presented with a frontal directness, almost as if the photo were a substitute for the objects it depicts. The artistry consists of the overall arrangement of these substitute things into a painterly or sculptural whole.

The 62 members of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, with its powerful juxtaposition of alienation from a world formed by mass-produced images with an almost nostalgic desire to recover a more direct connection to actual human lives, combines the two contrasting themes that characterize the best works in this show. One group of works, most of which use images borrowed from the mass media, articulates the ways in which our image-filled world alienates the individual from objects, suggesting that the relationships between us and our surroundings are inevitably mediated by media, secondhand. The other group of works, all of which use photographs made by the artists, seek to recover a sense of direct contact with the things of the world.

The most influential of the artists in the first group is Andy Warhol, represented by Crowd (1963), a photo-silkscreen of a black-and-white newspaper photo (itself possibly a composite) of a crowd, repeated four times in a two-by-two grid. The repetition and Warhol’s “sloppy” silkscreening (the repetitions are not identical, and smudges and ink stains are prominent) emphasize how removed the viewer is from the original subject. Warhol’s eye for surface texture is evident in the way the details almost vibrate, but in directing attention to the surfaces Warhol is further separating the viewer from the things depicted.

Alan Rath pushes the viewer even farther away in his Watcher of the Skies, VI (1991), the sole video work in the exhibit. This title is presumably a reference to John Keats’s On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, in which the poet compares his own aesthetic discovery with a “watcher of the skies” when “a new planet swims into his ken.” Rath’s title is obviously ironic, for what he gives us is a small video monitor pointing upward, displaying a close-up of an eyeball darting nervously about, occasionally freezing motionless for a few seconds. The frantic movements suggest a failed attempt to see outside of a video prison. The implication is that the self is no longer able to make the grand discoveries of astronomers and explorers, not even to have the transcendent aesthetic experiences of the Romantics; it’s now imprisoned in our media world, desperately trying to look beyond it but failing–as if there’s no longer any reality beyond video imagery.

To lose contact with the tangible world is to lose one’s own stability. This notion finds support in works by Dennis Adams, Robert Heinecken, and Arnaud Maggs, all of whom use multiple photographs of the same person to depict ever-changing personalities.

In Adams’s Patricia Hearst A to Z (1989), 26 silkscreen prints of enlarged black-and-white photos of the famous heiress are mounted in identical square shapes and arranged in a four-row grid; at the bottom of each is a different large block letter, from A to Z. To the right is a sheet listing key events–and bizarre reversals–in Hearst’s life, from daughter of privilege to “student of the year” to kidnap victim to self-proclaimed “urban guerrilla” to prison resident to wife of her former bodyguard. The photos, all close-ups, vary in graininess, clarity, and contrast. Her hairstyle, hair color, and facial expression also vary; in two of the photos she wears glasses. Adams’s Hearst is the ultimate postmodern character; she utterly lacks a stable inner self, so her persona is determined by her environment. The viewer who looks at each photo and then reads the chronology is unsettled by the shifting faces. There’s no stable center; all alternatives, from heiress to criminal, are equal.

Robert Heinecken’s T.V. Newswomen (1986) explores a similar theme but ties it to the requirements of television. Twelve prints are presented in a six-by-two grid, each a frontal image of a TV set displaying the color image of one of two different anchorwomen wearing various expressions. These women look somewhat alike–both have generically pretty faces–and similar expressions of theirs are mounted side by side. Heinecken’s point seems to be that media personalities’ images are so malleable that there’s less difference between two people than between the various poses each is compelled to assume.

Multiple expressions of the same person also form the basis of Arnaud Maggs’s gigantic 48 Views Series (1983). There are 162 sets of 48 “views,” each set consisting of eight strips of six photos of the same person that appear to have been taken in a photo booth. The poses and expressions vary from shot to shot, and none is particularly interesting. But while each documents 48 different states of a single being, the effect of the combination of some 8,000 images is to deny any one person or any one expression any special validity.

Annette Messager’s Mes Voeux (My Wishes) (1990) is somewhat more optimistic, if only because its multiple images appear to be describing a single person’s wishes. Dozens of tiny photographs, each mounted in a small frame, hang on the wall from strings, some arranged to partially or completely cover others. In smaller frames single words in French are written repeatedly in script, as if on a blackboard, describing different moods and stages of life (“birth,” “menace,” “calm,” “unease,” “pleasure”). The photo images are of male and female body parts, from eyes to genitals. This work suggests an artist with multiple desires–for direct contact with human bodies.

In his catalog essay Stainback connects most of the artists in the show to the modern movements and trends with which they’re usually associated; we frequently read of pop, conceptualism, and minimalism, as well as modernism and postmodernism. But in a bit of historical myopia he fails to mention–amid all the discussion of photo grids and the photograph as document–the great 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge created a multicamera apparatus that permitted him to take photographs of a moving animal or human in rapid succession; he then arranged the photos in grids and printed them in the massive, 11-volume Animal Locomotion. While Muybridge supposedly saw himself less as a fine artist and more as someone creating a kind of visual atlas for painters, many people since, including photographer and filmmaker Hollis Frampton, have found great value and inspiration in his work.

In seeking to discuss the artists in this show solely in terms of the present art world, Stainback emphasizes the modern and postmodern aspects of their art–and neglects the simpler, more traditional, even atavistic tendency that’s present in many of these works. At the very beginnings of art artists sought to reproduce the world around them. Making images of the world is one way to render it or some small part of it more comprehensible, a project that seems ever more urgent. This is what the second group of works in this show seem to be trying to do: rescue from the abstracting and self-referential aspects of modernism and from the all-images-are-equal chaos of postmodernism a more direct connection between the work of art and the objects of the world.

Conceptualist Douglas Huebler has stated his intention to “photographically document, to the extent of [my] capacity, the existence of everyone alive in order to produce the most authentic and inclusive representation of the human species that may be assembled in that manner.” One work from this project, Variable Piece no. 70 (In Process) Global 81 (1973), contains a large photo Huebler took of a column of soldiers in Rome. Above it is a six-by-eight grid of smaller images: half the rows consist of fuzzy enlargements of the helmeted soldiers’ faces, with few details visible; the alternating rows consist of Huebler’s small color acrylic sketches of how each soldier’s face might look without his helmet. In these sketches individual features are much more clearly visible than in the photos; the sketches even convey some sense of individual psychology in the manner of traditional portraits. While these small sketches are not aesthetically powerful in themselves, in the work as a whole they make a strong statement about the anonymity of military service and about the artist’s desire to recover each person’s individuality.

Equally distinguished is the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who for decades have been documenting industrial structures and then arranging their photos in large grids. Two three-by-three grids, both titled Typology Watertowers (1972), group water towers according to type: one group has exposed legs, while the others are solid. The angles are chosen to display each tower in maximum detail, so that our attention is directed not to the whole composition but to the towers, making the photo grids resemble collections of objects.

In a similar vein, Judy Fiskin has been photographing houses and small apartment buildings for her “Dingbat” series, grouping small square photographs with square buildings at their center. There’s a certain modernist play with representation here, in the implied equation between photo shape and building shape. But Fiskin, like the Bechers and Muybridge, is also a cataloger: one group is Peaked Roofs, another Geometric Facades. Yet some of the geometrical facades have peaked roofs, and some of the peaked roofs have geometrical facades; as Fiskin writes, “[The categories] started to fall apart if you were paying attention. . . . It was about dissolving order, but I did it in a playful way.” It’s also the case that by dissolving her self-made categories while leaving us a clear image of each building, she emphasizes the complexity and uniqueness of each structure; rather than allowing the category or the frame to dominate, each building’s physicality is restored to us.

Fiskin’s houses appear to be in Los Angeles, which is documented with similar clarity in Ed Ruscha’s photographic books. Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) is an accordion-fold book, only part of which is displayed (its full length is more than 20 feet). Two narrow strips of photos run along its length, the photos directly abutting one another. At times the photos are matched so that a roofline continues into another roof in the adjacent photo, or a car is matched to the same part of another car, creating the illusion that these photos are of contiguous spaces, in the style of a 19th-century panoramic view of a city in which matched photos create a literally continuous space (Muybridge did one of San Francisco). It’s important to Ruscha’s effect that the space is not actually continuous: we have the expressed interest in documenting an entire space together with a modernist acknowledgment of the limits of representation. Photos can never become a whole space, just as Huebler will never photograph everyone. But for Ruscha, as for the other artists, a realistic acknowledgment that imagery can never produce a true picture of the world is coupled with a strong desire to use imagery to recapture, if only in pieces, some of the wholeness of the world that was lost to image making as early as the 16th century, when the unifying effect of Renaissance perspective began to be supplanted by less-centered mannerist and baroque styles.

Dutch-born California resident Robbert Flick seems to owe a considerable aesthetic debt to Ruscha. His One Thousand Signs–along Lincoln Blvd. looking East. Culver to Wilshire to Culver (7:30am-5:15pm) (1990) is a 20-by-20 grid of tiny, jewellike color images of LA streetscapes, each containing one or more signs. Here too some photos are juxtaposed to create the illusion of continuous street or building lines; in other pairings the same building or street extends across the black borders from one photo to the next. Flick’s Silver Saddle Ranch (1982), a nine-by-nine grid of black-and-white images, chronicles a car trip following the advertising signs for an apparently promising real estate development. All the photos seem to be taken from a moving car; in some, a side-view mirror or window post is visible. Almost every image includes an advertising sign, many of which rhyme in the style of the old Burma Shave signs (“Don’t miss it: It’s great / Come before it’s too late”). Some signs list attractions (“archery,” “trap and skeet”). Near the end of the sequence we see a large sign depicting the overall plan of the development, and in the very last image we see only barren desert. Did the driver decide to pass up all the attractions, or is this a development that never was? Either way, the disparity between the ads and what we see makes an obvious social comment about advertising and a subtler modernist comment about the failure of imagery to live up to the expectations it raises. This car-trip grid and Ruscha’s street book make Stainback’s essay assertion that these works “shun the notion of pictorial re-representation”–that they are not using imagery to present the physical world–difficult to fathom.

While most of this exhibit’s works take as their subject either the human figure or human-produced objects, two artists’ images are drawn from nature. Susan Eder’s Flower Value Scale (Price Pyramid) (1989) and Fish Value Scale (Price Pyramid) (1991) arrange lush, brightly colored photos of flowers and fish in a pyramid, with the rarest and most expensive specimen at the top and the less expensive ones lower down; the lowest fish, for example, are guppies. These works display the kind of carefully balanced contradictions common to many works in the show; the artist’s self-conscious, critical, modernist intellect that categorizes and even judges the things shown contrasts with a more “primitive” desire to celebrate the glory of the thing itself. Eder’s photos, which have the stunning slickness of commercial nature photography, encourage the viewer to notice that the cheapest things are every bit as interesting and varied as the most expensive, making the work’s statement about the futility of human ordering schemes clear.

Of all the works in this show Garry Fabian Miller’s grids display the deepest fidelity to the natural world, in that they take their forms from natural processes. His Co-Existence Human Air Parasite Sun Vein Leaf Tree Breath Fragile (1988) presents a grid of color images, six rows by 16 columns, each of a single leaf. In the top row the leaves are rich green, with only a few bug holes; in the lower rows the leaves are more bug-eaten, discolored, decayed. There’s a reference here perhaps to William Henry Fox Talbot, who devised an early photochemical process at the medium’s very inception that he used to make contact images of, among other things, leaves. But a perhaps stronger connection is to more recent eco-art, in which artists include actual objects from nature, including dead and living plants. For though Miller’s images are flat photos, their color is so rich they seem at first to be actual leaves. Once again, an artist is using a photo as a kind of substitute object; here the overall form of the work follows not that of a street or a car ride but that of the natural decay of leaves.

Despite their contemporary clothing, these artworks are performing art’s oldest function–the re-presentation of the most significant objects of the world. The subject matter, rather than being arbitrary or trivial, is of crucial importance: children’s favorite images of themselves, the square houses we live in, a “resort” we might visit, the towers that provide us with life-giving water, the male and female body parts we desire–these are the modern equivalents of the magnificent animals, objects of the hunt, that our forebears drew on cave walls. In our swamp of endlessly multiplying imagery each new wave of images seems like a myriad of copies of the previous wave, increasingly distant from the objects they depict. But these artists seek to restore to imagery some of its premodern iconic power to invoke the things it depicts.

It is this desire, not a rejection of “art” photography, that I believe underlies the direct, frontal perspective of so many of these photographs, whether taken by the artists or appropriated. Underlying that desire is another, perhaps even more atavistic one–the drive that moves a child’s first discoveries, first experiences with naming: “House. Man. Fish. Water tower. Leaf. Street.” The best of these works can restore to the viewer a genuine feeling for the people, objects, and spaces of the world, and the arrangements offer tentative comments on the meanings those things might have for the artists, and us.