The Cultured Tourist

at Carol Ehlers, through February 20

National Exposure VI

at ARC, through January 30

Depth of Field

at Peter Miller, through February 13

By Fred Camper

In 1864 Marcus Aurelius Root listed some of photography’s “benefits” in a book described by critic Vicki Goldberg as “the first American …brief for photography as a fine art.” Among these virtues were the ability to keep others “within daily and hourly vision” via portrait photos and the fact that even “the humblest” could “behold” sights that previously “the traveler alone could witness.” The value of photography was that it could bring the world closer to us and keep it there.

But by the 1920s Paul Strand and others were making the modernist case that a photograph should first of all be true to its medium. Once introduced, this self-consciousness could not be reversed: most art photographers since have rejected the kind of naive identification of image with subject that Root took as a given. And a photograph that acknowledges its own nature and the circumstances of its making is going to be at least somewhat alienated from its subject, creating a veil of self-awareness.

Three current group exhibitions provide an excellent survey of the three primary ways photographers create distance. The Ehlers show–a survey of travel photography from about 1850 to the present–illustrates what might be called the “modernist” mode: through devices like self-conscious framing, these works acknowledge their photographic nature. In “National Exposure VI” at ARC, wry humor is the dominant mode–perhaps half the images contain subtle visual jokes on the principal subject. And four of the five photographers at Peter Miller (and several at the Ehlers “tourist” show) offer conceptual work that requires the viewer to step back from a purely visual experience.

At Ehlers, Ken Josephson’s New York State (1970) presents the modernist case with particular clarity. An outstretched hand holds the photograph of a large ship against an apparently empty body of water, reminding us that all photos are simply images printed on paper: the larger image seems as arbitrary and artificial as the inserted one.

The self-referential devices in a number of other photographs have emotional connotations. In Gary Winogrand’s undated Los Angeles Airport a businessman looks at a mostly empty tarmac through a terminal window, its plate glass enclosed by vertical posts that echo the photograph’s frame. Though the title establishes the setting as LA, the man holds a New York Times, a pairing that beautifully conveys the way air travel’s speed and apparent ease utterly dislocate us. A coin-operated telescope nearby goes unused, adding to the sense that there isn’t much to see in airports. Winogrand’s references to glass and looking of course recall photography, but his somewhat casual composition has an understated quality that underlines airport boredom.

Even more entrapping is Beat Streuli’s NY 91/93 (1993), a huge black-and-white print that monumentalizes flat opaque or reflecting surfaces–plate glass, printed signs, the backs of automobiles–to create an almost impenetrable maze. In such works, references to photography are also comments on the imprisoning nature of modern cities. The hotel rooms in Tim Maul’s two color photos are mostly dark; in Hotel Metropole, Bruxelles (1998), the main light source is a large color TV tuned to a test pattern, heightening the alienation produced by anonymous lodgings.

In the booklet for “The Cultured Tourist”–organized by a New York gallery, Leslie Tonkonow–Ingrid Schaffner offers some interesting observations on the history of tourism. Nineteenth-century travel images were often manipulated, even staged to correspond to the sights promised by travel writers. “Seraglios stuffed with gorgeous slave girls,” Schaffner writes, were a lot less common than advertised and were thus photographed using models and props. Apparently viewers were less interested in true contact with faraway places than they were in passively touring exotic sights, and this attitude informs most of the 19th-century prints on view. Many are composed so deliberately that they’re more symmetrical than paintings of the period; their balance between foreground and background creates a prosceniumlike effect, leading the viewer onto the “stage” and toward the principal if somewhat distanced subject.

Seeing these 19th-century devices alongside photographs like Josephson’s not only makes one more aware of them as devices–they seem more like self-conscious references to photography than perhaps they were. The older group photos follow standard conventions of posing, but they also seem to acknowledge the constructed nature of such scenes. Certainly Carlo Naya’s Ponte Rialto, Venice, taken in the 1870s, seems strangely artificial: the bridge that famously served as a meeting place is almost completely devoid of people, as dead as a butterfly pressed in an album. Such images tell us something fundamental about tourism: the quest for “views” is inevitably alienating, as the tourist seeks a preconceived perfection rather than the randomness of crowds.

Yet Maxine DuCamps focuses on decay in her Temple of Dendur, Egypt (circa 1850): heaps of stones in the foreground, some of which look like broken slabs from a building, fill the space between the camera and the temple itself, which reveals little. Here the photographer intelligently presents the inevitable distance between tourist and exotic site. Subsequent treatment has been a lot stupider: the Metropolitan Museum of Art dismantled and transported the Dendur temple to a hideous building specially constructed for it in New York, where it’s now a sort of theme park for the private parties and weddings that are among the museum’s fund-raisers. The public can see it too, of course, and better and closer than in the photo–except that it’s separated from the locale that gave it meaning. If a good modernist photo acknowledges the paradox of “seeing” an object in its image, Dendur at the Met is a throwback to a naive past in which tourists and photographers believed they could possess an object through its image.

Though Colin Westerbeck writes that the sixth installment of ARC’s “National Exposure,” for which he selected the work, demonstrates that photographers are turning away from postmodernism and toward more traditional photography, the humor in many works here has a pomo edge. In this show the human presence is often seen ironically: as artists’ ecological consciousness increases, many now represent figures and signs of human habitation, like buildings and roads, as intrusions. Even in spaces designed for humans, such as the Loop, it sometimes seems as if we don’t belong. Orjan Odelbo’s Windy City #2 shows five figures at the corner of Adams and Dearborn in a modest snowstorm; they face in different directions and seem largely unaware of their surroundings, suggesting that we retreat into ourselves in the face of a little snow.

We’re no more at home in two photographs by Peggy L. Casey from her “Transient Series,” self-portraits in “low rent motel rooms,” as she describes them. In both we see only a fragment of her figure, blurred by a time exposure and reflected in rectangular mirrors, making it seem as if she were barely present, her identity at risk. Even the very large figure in Joel Wanek’s Over the Atlantic–giant eyes filling an airplane movie screen–merely makes the human presence more tenuous: the movie image dwarfs the shadowy passengers, whose heads we see mostly from behind. Looking at the screen, the passengers look in the direction they’re traveling, yet like the tourists suggested by the Ehlers show, they’re blind to the outside world, seeing only reflections of themselves.

Some of the best photos here are even more ambivalent about human constructions. One image from Sheila McLaughlin’s “Opus” series shows a star-shaped drive-in-movie ticket booth in almost surreal isolation, its warm colors contrasting with the evening blue around it; the aggressive points of the star seem almost pathetic advertisements for the lot and blank screen. In John E. Axelrad’s Split Slab a concrete slab in front of a building has a deep crack, leading the eye toward the background and undercutting the building’s rectangles; its jagged shape, echoed in the image’s distant mountains, reminds us that the forces of decay and disruption helped shape the earth.

My favorite image in this vein is Brandon Juhasz’s Cleveland, OH. Tree trunks along a two-lane road through a forest have been neatly sawed through; the road’s shiny black surface stands out, almost as if it were slicing through the trees. Juhasz’s pointedly ironic, almost surreal image illuminates a profound truth–that roads and other human constructions disrupt nature’s order, severing that which should not be severed. In that sense the anomalous road represents an underlying reality.

The conceptual work at Peter Miller is in a way the most distanced from its subjects of all. Of course a purely conceptual photograph is a contradiction in terms. But while one experiences the meaning of Josephson’s New York State and Juhasz’s Cleveland, OH while looking at the image, in this show it’s almost necessary to turn away from the photos for a time and think.

Nevertheless, Ken Fandell’s two large digital prints are visually striking. If Only…(Yosemite) is ten feet wide, with multiple creases in the paper; the taped-together panels are each about 30 by 40 inches. The image appears to be a standard landscape view of Yosemite Valley–except that it’s extremely fuzzy. This softness and the folds in the paper create a distance between the viewer and the scene, but more important the folds refer to the artist’s process. Fandell used images from personal Web sites displaying vacation pictures: the fuzziness results from the way he digitally enlarged these low-resolution snapshots. The folds come from Fandell’s carrying the work around with him for days as “a way of internalizing the vacation site.” I liked this work’s contradictions: an oversize view worthy of 19th-century landscape painting in which the image is obscured; a photo the artist didn’t take that he treats almost as an icon; a monumental work that can be carried. Fandell gives appropriation a new twist by taking it seriously.

Nina Levy’s photographs of herself with her own sculptures of her head, set against a black background, touch on familiar themes of body image and identity, but the photos have a creepy power reminiscent of Levy’s quirky glass sculptures of heads and figures. In Distraction we see her bare arms holding her fake head in place of her own, while in Remedy she seems headless because she’s covered her head in black while holding the fake one in her lap. Levy makes the viewer consider her process–and the whole idea of replacing one’s own head with a sculpted version that may be more “perfect” but is also dead.

James Luckett’s three photos from his “Fealty” series are both modernist and conceptual, working as much through their texture as through ideas. Taking images from unknown photographers, bought in thrift stores, and from “distantly related family members,” he superimposes them to produce richly layered prints that give figures in ordinary locales a strange exoticism: a man standing in a stream fishing in front of a house seems to be on some spiritual journey. The prints are bright reddish brown, almost setting the landscape ablaze; two of the three show men with their backs to us, while the third is an open-mouthed child, perhaps crying.

Luckett’s use of superimposition recalls the origins of photographic prints in transparent slides or negatives; the figures suggest snapshots, mementos of people now gone. Trying to see which part of the image comes from which layer of superimposition, the viewer is caught up in an effort to untangle what he sees–almost as impossible to do as the past is to retrieve. This inaccessibility gives Luckett’s images an emotional wallop, and in fact he writes in his statement that they relate to his search for images of his father, who “disappeared” when Luckett was five years old.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joel Wanek/Gary Winogrand/Nina Levy.