When everyone carries a camera and everything is ceaselessly photographed, who can claim to be a photographer? When cell phone images are instantly uploaded into the global cloud and available on demand anywhere on earth, what is the value of the photograph?
The Art Institute of Chicago has two current exhibitions that provide clues to the answers, if there are any, from two ends of a spectrum. At one end, “American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White” provides examples of three prominent historical figures. At the other is more recent work by the duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Their conceptual approach to the medium is telegraphed by the title of the exhibit: “Peter Fischli David Weiss: Questions, the Sausage Photographs, and a Quiet Afternoon.”
|Fischli and Weiss|
I freely admit being unimpressed by the Fischli/Weiss show, which is described by the curator as “exploring the ‘poetics of banality’.” I get tired of banality. It is so … well, banal (“devoid of freshness or originality”.) Conceptual artists seem to take banality as a challenge, trying to inject freshness and originality into the ordinary, the boring, and the ugly by elevating it with their ideas.
I have nothing against the conceptual in art and photography. Very little art survives without a basic underlying premise and even the most sensual or formal of art works exist within conceptual frameworks. However, I prefer concepts that I find meaningful or moving and images that are aesthetically pleasing or visually stimulating. I understand the work of Fischli/Weiss (after reading about it) but I still don’t feel a desire to spend much of my time looking at it.
By contrast, “American Modern” is full of photographs that are both meaningful and moving. Of course. It’s the kind of show that keeps a museum in business. You assemble the work of masters from a dramatic historical moment and you can’t lose, right? Right – except that the Art Institute has to satisfy two audiences, the general public that craves celebrity and the “aesthetes” who have “seen it all” before. Consequently, a show like this wisely includes some of the famous images that everyone expects to see and some less well-known and rarely seen ones. There were even a couple pages from a scrapbook by Berenice Abbott that provide clues to her manner of working. They show seemingly random, repetitive, and unremarkable shots that get set aside in the editing process; the kind of shots that now fill up digital hard drives and float in cyberspace. Maybe photography hasn’t really changed that much after all!
While I liked “American Modern” very much, the show that really moved me was just down the block in Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery (at 18 S. Michigan Ave.) “The Working Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” is a memorial tribute to Rogovin, who died in January. As the title indicates, this optometrist turned social documentarian trained his discerning eye on working people and in particular those “who make their livings under modest and difficult circumstances.” My favorites were double portraits of individuals showing each in their working environment alongside their home environment: powerful expressions of dignity and the human spirit. Exquisitely printed black and white images combined with engaging content – I was delighted to have stumbled across this exhibit.
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