Thursday, April 28, 2011

CoPA and contemporary photography

What is “contemporary photography?” On the face of it “contemporary” includes whatever is happening today and excludes work done before some unspecified point in the past. When applied to art and photography the meaning of “contemporary” is imprecise, elusive, and by definition always changing. For some it connotes “cutting edge” – work that pushes the boundaries of established practice, be it style, subject matter, use of medium, or concept. (An ironic conundrum for museums of contemporary art is what to call aging work in their collections.)

Perry Heideman
However, contemporary art, to use its general denotative meaning, is not always “cutting edge.” Never was, never will be. And while historians and some collectors will always be on the watch for what is new and different, novelty can be overrated and its value overestimated. (Market valuation of “contemporary art” during the 1980’s was an egregious instance of this phenomenon.) Art doesn’t have to be “edgy” to be meaningful, good, or creative. What it should be, in my opinion, is personal and original rather than derivative or formulaic.

Enter CoPA – Milwaukee’s Coalition of Photographic Arts – an organization whose stated goal is to “cultivate awareness of contemporary photography” with an emphasis on fine art photography. The annual exhibit that showcases the work of its membership is currently on display at the Mayer Building, 342 N. Water St. in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. 

I sat down to write a review of the show, which is a sprawling testament to the vitality and diversity of photography in Milwaukee, and which contains a range of styles, subjects, methods of presentation, and conceptual approaches that defies categorization. The edgy intermingles with the traditional. It is tempting to describe a few favorites and be done with it.
Michael Nowotny

But as I wander amongst the beautiful and stimulating images in the show, my thoughts are sidetracked by nagging questions about CoPA and it’s evolving identity. CoPA was founded in 2004 by a small group of photographers who wanted to network and to elevate the conversation about fine art photography in Wisconsin. Since then CoPA has grown tremendously and has changed. Many founding members have moved on. For some it no longer meets their personal networking needs; some feel that it is becoming more like camera clubs, which serve different functions for their members. (For an excellent description of the difference between a camera club and a group devoted to photographic arts, read CoPA president Robb Quinn’s essay on the subject.)

The current board of directors has struggled with this issue. Any successful organization with an open, self-selected membership is likely to face such an identity crisis. Success invites broader participation; an influx of new members risks a dilution of the original mission. 

William Zuback
 Full disclosure: I am not a disinterested observer. As both a founding and current member, I care about the direction CoPA takes and desire to see it function as intended. I believe that CoPA can be a voice for contemporary fine art photography. I also know that the challenge is real. New board members will be elected in May. Their leadership will be needed to realize CoPA’s potential as a vital force in the arts community of Wisconsin. But their deliberations would benefit from engaging in an energetic dialogue with those with diverse opinions who have expressed concern about the group’s changing identity.

Meanwhile, I consider the membership show to be required viewing for anyone who thinks they know what CoPA is about – or who simply wants to see a lot of wonderful photography. Of course, any open, non-juried show that includes over a hundred photographers is going to have a few weak spots, but overall the quality is remarkably high. When you come, I believe you will find some delightful surprises.

The exhibit is open daily from 12 – 6 pm through May 21.

For more information go to the CoPA website.

Robb Quinn
If you’re still with me and you do want a few selected favorites, read on. These are in no particular order. There are many more I’d like to have included!

Perry Heideman’s exquisitely realized and enigmatic urban fairy tales.
Joseph Baranowski’s angst-ridden triptych self-portraits.
Jennifer Loberg’s emotionally charged portraits of pain and disfigurement.
Robb Quinn’s 87-inch-long panorama of protest from Capitol Square in Madison.
Marcia Getto’s remarkably fresh take on El Rancho de Taos, NM, one of photography’s great iconic motifs.
Mark Johnson’s monumental yet surprisingly intimate, sensual, and alluring impression of Barbie.
Angela Morgan’s tiny image of an LP record rising incongruously, monolithic, amidst autumn weeds.
Judith Pannozo’s perfectly composed decisive moment of a strikingly stiletto-heeled woman balancing on the back of a bicycle.
William Mueller’s startling distortions in which ordinary objects metamorphose into brightly colored insects.
Tim Holte’s nearly volcanic explosion of ice on the shore of Lake Michigan.


  1. Thanks for this informative article on CoPA and its recent exhibition. I'm definitely going to share it with my photography class tomorrow.

  2. Thanks Edee. This was a good blog explaining where CoPa should be. The Robb Quin essay was also very good and should give us direction and vision as to where we will go into the future.