Searching for deeper realities through photography

A visit to MMOCA's exhibition of contemporary photos, on display through Nov. 12.

From Thomas F. Barrow's "Cancellations" series

From Thomas F. Barrow's "Cancellations" series

Richard Axsom, a senior curator at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, believes that people too often think "fine art photography" is limited to objective black-and-white pictures, a la the sweeping landscapes of Ansel Adams. A new exhibition Axsom organized at MMOCA seeks to dispense with those limitations by educating students and the public about the different formats, processes, and concepts at work in contemporary photography. Featuring works since the 1970s pulled from the museum's permanent collection, the show is on view until November 12 at the Henry Street Gallery.

As the exhibition's title hints, Reconfigured Reality shows work that disrupts the "truth claim"—the notion that photographs depict faultless reproductions of reality, rather than thoughtful and carefully arranged interpretations. These photographs are fictions, products of the photographers' subjective reality, evoking one of Picasso's aphorisms: "Art is a lie that tells the truth." Axsom says his goal in putting together Reconfigured Reality is to help us understand how new kinds of photography have developed since the late 60s and early 70s—a time when artists began to reject the camera as a mere recording tool and use photography in a more expressive, subjective way.

All the pieces in this exhibition, Axsom says, "walk and talk like contemporary photographs." Perhaps the most obvious hallmark of contemporary photography, as opposed to the traditional darkroom black-and-white photo, is the use of color. In the 60s, color film became faster and more color-fast, meaning that color contrast was possible in environments with full light, which opened up the color film market to fine artists. Most of the photographs in this exhibition use color, but two that use it exceptionally well are Miranda Lichtenstein's dye-coupled print "Untitled #6 (Bennett's Farm)" and Carl Corey's "At Random—Milwaukee" from his series Tavern. In Lichtenstein's piece, the vibrant blues of water and greens of trees pop dramatically against the dark background and faint outline of a farm in the distance. Corey's piece, a digital print from a long-exposure color film negative, is a rich, overwhelming explosion of red and pink in a setting that is usually thought to be dark and shadowy.

Miranda Lichtenstein, "Untitled #6 (Bennett's Farm)"

Miranda Lichtenstein, "Untitled #6 (Bennett's Farm)"

While staging has always been present in photography through portraiture, contemporary photographers often overtly use elaborate staging, costumes, and props. Cindy Sherman's collection of Untitled Film Stills, one of which appears in MMOCA's show, is a well-known example. Using wigs, makeup, and costumes to radically alter her appearance, Sherman used herself as an object to stage female stereotypes (e.g. schoolgirl, diva, city girl, housewife) and by doing so, subvert those stereotypes. In this exhibition, we're treated to #30 of Sherman's film stills—the cliché of "the battered woman."

Experimenting outside the 8" x 11" rectangular format is also an aspect of contemporary photography that this collection highlights. I was particularly impressed with Joanne Verburg's "Sensepolcro Diptych," a dreamy, pastel scene of an older man's late afternoon nap that is interrupted by the two frames of a diptych that compose the piece. Meanwhile, Paul Shambroom's "Dassel City Council, Dassel, Minnesota (population 1,134), (L to R): Nancy Nichalson, Ava Flachmeyer (Mayor), Jan Casey, Sherlyn Bjork (Deputy Clerk)" depicts the skeptical expressions of four women in the midst of a city council meeting, the banality of which is emphasized by the overwhelming size and detail of the piece.

Paul Shambroom, "Dassel City Council, Dassel, Minnesota…"

Paul Shambroom, "Dassel City Council, Dassel, Minnesota…"

If the show's aim is to introduce the public to an overview of photography and its methods, then Reconfigured Reality is particularly successful in the variety of materials and processes in its works. Dye coupling, inkjet prints, gelatin prints, scanned color film negatives, cibachrome, and even Andy Warhol's Polaroids make an appearance. My favorite works are two pieces from the series Decay Utopia Decay by Wisconsin-based duo J. Shimon and the late J. Lindemann, which use an 1850s process called ambrotype to amplify the subjects of time, memory, and deterioration. What results are two haunting and captivating portraits of a past way of life.

J. Shimon & J. Lindemann, “Prom Queen Picking Corn"

J. Shimon & J. Lindemann, “Prom Queen Picking Corn"

Of course, photography, however reconfigured, is itself a meditation on contemporary events. A 1975 work from Thomas Barrow's Cancellations series depicts an attractive sepia-toned landscape reminiscent of the old American West with a large artificial X that 'cancels' the landscape. That Barrow intervened in the production process and purposely scratched the negative of the landscape with a nail is a dramatic meditation on the impact of human intervention and corruption of the landscape at a time when the environmental movement was just getting started. Ultimately, this work and the rest are a primer for using photography to depict a deeper, subjective reality that's not immediately apparent.