The Insistent Subject:

Photographing Time and Again

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through October 28

An age is often mirrored in the subjects its artists depict, and many recent artists’ interests seem to be narrowing toward the personal: those things that only one individual or one group of people can feel. Of the 16 mostly famous photographers whose work is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s excellent exhibit “The Insistent Subject” (about artists who’ve explored one subject over many years), 10 are living. Most of the six who are dead focused on subjects outside their immediate lives–nature, human movement, working people, cracking paint on walls. Of the 10 living, 7 photograph themselves, their families, or their pets. Of course, there can be expansively great self-portraits and merely decorative photographs of nature. But curator Denise Miller-Clark gives the viewer enough evidence on 14 of these photographers–the exhibit includes more than 150 pictures–to provide an in-depth understanding of the meaning and aesthetic merit of their work.

The three very different self-portraitists have all received much critical attention, and their work is interesting enough to reward careful viewing. But the meaning of their pictures is dependent on the fact that they’re self-portraits, a fact that also insulates the work from some kinds of criticism.

John Coplans, ex-painter and former editor of Artforum, makes large black-and-white images of his aging body, photographed with a clarity that proclaims each millimeter of his skin worthy of attention. Self-Portrait (Double Feet, Five Panels) shows his feet pressed together, his legs apparently crossed, in five side-by-side images revealing adjacent or overlapping parts of his feet, including scars, discolorations, scabs, and body hair. Self-Portrait (Three Times), in which three views of his nude midsection are superimposed, is dominated by his protruding abdomen. Coplans has been praised for his willingness to confront his own aging, challenging the conventional idea of a beautiful body by presenting his own as art–doubtless an admirable goal. But it’s not particularly original, nor does his work reveal any special vision beyond a serviceable photographic technique. In the end, I wondered whether Coplans differed much from the young photo or film student who trains his lens on his dick.

Lucas Samaras has been making Polaroid SX-70 nude self-portraits since the 70s, mostly in his own kitchen, often pressing on the picture as it’s developing to modify the shapes or colors. In March 11, 1976 he’s perched on a chair balanced atop another, and most of the area covering and surrounding his torso is a white field with black polka dots. In others his figure is similarly “enhanced,” his skin a solarized-looking red or blue or covered by some decorative pattern. Samaras relates these manipulated self-portraits to happenings, and one critic has called them “pseudodramas,” but do the polka dots hiding his nudity do much more than make his body seem mysterious, a bit alluring?

Cindy Sherman’s work has gone through several periods, three of which are represented here: all but her most recent shots are self-portraits in various costumes. In her early series “Film Stills,” she posed as the sole actress in frames imitating different movie styles. Later she appeared as various personae in large color images, and in some recent photos she’s vanished entirely. These shots don’t show any other person either, but rather rubbish on the ground or a pile of children’s toys–it’s as if Sherman can conceive of a world without her presence only as a wasteland.

Some critics have claimed Sherman’s work for feminism, and it’s true that by placing herself in the victim’s role–often photographing herself from above, vulnerable, perhaps the object of some unseen voyeur–she makes the viewer aware of some of the ways our culture does violence to women. But these shots are so obviously posed one can’t help but see Sherman as the one in control, inviting the viewer to gaze at her moist or “bruised” face: the viewer is manipulated, like it or not, into playing the role of the voyeur-aggressor. Sherman’s monomaniacal focus on herself suggests the ugly possibility that beneath her deconstructions of voyeurism lies something a bit simpler, something the young male photo student may feel–the wish to be looked at.

I found Sherman’s posed and costumed shots of herself weirdly similar to William Wegman’s witty if rather silly photographs of his weimaraners–as canoeists in life jackets, as Cinderella and her carriage horses. Both photographers deny the subject any authentic self but instead, in the best pomo fashion, construct a series of disguises or masquerades. Both entrap and manipulate the viewer: the way Sherman assigns us the aggressor’s role parallels the way Wegman pushes all our buttons to win us over to his dogs’ cuteness, with their appealing expressions and improbable situations. Just as Sherman constructs herself, Wegman makes his dogs into substitute humans, bred and clothed for our viewing pleasure.

Nicholas Nixon’s portraits of his wife and her three sisters in “The Brown Sisters Series” provide a refreshing alternative to the acknowledged or concealed pride with which self, family, and pets are displayed by others. In 20 photos taken over 20 years the four sisters face the camera, always lined up in the same order. The repetition focuses attention on change: the backgrounds vary, as do the sisters’ facial expressions and body positions; and of course they age. In one photo Nixon’s wife has her arms around a sister, but the next year she’s a little behind the others. The shifts in expression and body language suggest myriad dramas we cannot know, focusing attention on the variety of human emotions between and within people. The different degrees of depth in the sisters’ arrangement create an open feeling–one guesses the photographer left them free to arrange themselves. And this humanist’s interest in and respect for others is decidedly un-pomo.

Nixon at least meets his subjects equally, allowing their humanity to emerge, just as husband-and-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher (whom I count as one photographer) allow the industrial structures they photograph with such precision and objectivity to make their own impression. But with the exception of veteran Harry Callahan’s poetic and amazingly varied portraits of his wife and daughter, what’s absent from recent photographers’ self-oriented work is any sense of awe or wonder.

I was reminded of what I was missing by the work of one of the older living photographers. O. Winston Link has become known only recently for photographs he took in the 1950s, many at night, of the last steam engines to be used on major railway lines. Driving from one small town to another, he’d set up as many as 60 flashbulbs synchronized and powered by an apparatus he designed, waiting for the moment when the engine would roar through. The multiple bulbs allowed him a degree of painting with light, so that the rising steam was brightly illuminated in a magnificent drama of light and implied movement. In all of these compositions the engine itself, with its dark metal, forward thrust, and bright smoke, looks strangely alive. The lighting is as carefully controlled as it is in Sherman’s work, and townspeople were even posed for some images, yet the result is a deeply emotional paean to these now-extinct wonders, to what Link’s assistant later called “the animalistic soul of a steam locomotive.”

But it’s in the work of the dead photographers, mounted in a single room, that one can best see what’s been lost as a result of our consuming interest in our selves–as objects of desire, as victims, as sexual beings, as exhibitionists. Accompanying this interest is a focus on the mechanics and ideology of looking itself, a focus that sometimes seems to rule out the objective external subject; instead the viewer’s attention is directed to the power relations between camera and subject. In the early 20th century, when the physical world was still regarded as worthy of study, Karl Blossfeldt made elegant images of nature, many of them cataloging plant forms (initially for use by architects designing decorative patterns). A bit later, Edward Weston found music in the shapes of his green peppers, one of which photos is on view here. And August Sander in his deeply affecting 1920s and ’30s photographs of German workers displayed a faith that people very different from himself and from each other can be moving.

Sander shot most of his subjects full figure in the middle of the frame, and succeeded so well at finding diverse types that the Nazis, seeing in his subjects the untermenschen they wanted to exterminate, banned his pictures and destroyed many. But what’s most subversive about his photos remains subversive today: Sander simultaneously ennobles and exposes his subjects, revealing all their contradictions. The man in Unemployed Man, Cologne stands tentatively against a building, hat in hand, eyes a bit more confident than his body language would indicate; his bald head and erect figure also belie his hands’ humility. In Farmer a man stands in the middle of a road dressed in his Sunday best; presumably he’s the master of the fields around, yet his face is a mixture of self-assurance and doubt. There’s a hint of sadness in its deep lines and in his eyes. His clothes and the setting partly define him, but the camera’s distance from him and the complexity of his expression allow him a certain freedom–unlike Sherman in her photos, where she’s trapped in the role she’s assumed for herself.

Eadweard Muybridge’s photos from his Human and Animal Locomotion, like Blossfeldt’s plant studies, offer a sort of catalog. For these motion studies, which pointed toward cinema, Muybridge set up multiple cameras that, when tripped in rapid succession, would provide sequential views of how the subjects, seen against ruled lines, moved. Woman Kicking a Pith Helmet, Plate 387 is made up of three rows of 12 shots each; each row shows the same action from a different camera position. Muybridge’s stated goal was scientific, but these studies are works of art as well, directing attention not toward the personal but toward that which we all share: the mysteries of movement in space and time. And though Muybridge’s rational format–the ruled lines and rows of shots–makes his figures measurable, phases of the same movement seen from different angles also create a perceptual labyrinth. I was so fascinated by the different motions that go into kicking a pith helmet that I barely noticed that Muybridge’s subject was–like Coplans’s and Samaras’s–nude.