Challenging the notion that photographs present an objective vision

At the beginning of the 20th century, photography exploded in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. With its meteoric rise came the widespread perception that photographic vision was objective vision. For many people who tried this new technology, the camera’s automatism left no room for subjectivity. Appearance: Portraits from the 20th Century, which can now be seen by appointment with Deborah Bell Photographs, includes a number of works that take the opposite view. The exhibition – a mix of portraits of 12 different photographers ranging from 1912 to 2011 – shows human experiments and the stains, cracks, tears and twists that follow. The strongest works in the show are those that exclude mechanical reproducibility, instead of imagining the photographic print as a unique art object.

For example, Dutch artist and eccentric Gerard Petrus Fieret, who is represented by five works, rarely printed the same negative more than once. He was notoriously paranoid that his work would be plagiarized, reproduced against his will, and so he stamped each piece several times with his copyright and signed his name in bold across the print. (Fieret was also a lover of pigeons, which led to many of his prints being snatched around the edges – the ultimate trademark.) The resulting photographs, primarily of women, are thus not only significant as aesthetic visions of an earlier moment in time, but also as records of the ongoing life of the print. Fieret once said, “What I aim for in my photography is anarchy … Intense life, passion – a healthy passion for life – that’s what they’re about.” The photographs shown convey this intensity with their deep shadows and dynamic compositions, while his female motifs seem remarkably calm, shot from strange, candid angles.

EJ Bellocq, “Storyville Portrait” (ca. 1912), printed paper print, later printed by Lee Friedlander. © Lee Friedlander (Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

The exhibition also shows one of EJ Bellocq’s 1912 Storyville portraits masterpieces that possess a similarly unique story. Bellocq, born in 1873, remains an enigmatic figure, disguised by conflicting historical accounts, who seem to have erroneously exaggerated his physical appearance, describing him as a “hydrocephalic semi-dwarf.” After his death in 1949, 89 glass plate negatives of female prostitutes were found on his desk; these were later purchased and carefully printed by Lee Friedlander in the 1960s. Although Bellocq was a well-known amateur photographer during his lifetime in New Orleans, these are his only surviving works, mainly due to Friedlander’s joint efforts to preserve and promote them.

Many of the negatives were cracked or otherwise damaged when Friedlander grabbed them, and the piece shown at Deborah Bell Photographs is one such example. In it lies a beautiful young woman naked on a wicker chaise longue, her gaze directed at us; a crack in the negative runs across her body like a scar, almost perfectly parallel to the curvature of her spine. She is neither Olympia nor Venus from Urbino; her posture is a bit stiff, her gaze is vulnerable but not scared. Above her hip, the emulsion has been eaten away in dark spots, like clouds or vengeful spirits. Although Bellocq himself certainly never intended the image to come out in this way, these imperfections contribute to the meaning of the play, as a literal expression of Roland Barthes’ concept of point.

August Sander, “Actress [Trude Alex]”(Ca. 1930), gelatin silver print, printed 1979 by Gunther Sander. © Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung-Kultur-August Sander Archiv, Cologne (Courtesy of Galerie Julian Sander, Cologne; ARS, New York)

Appearance: Portraits from the 20th Century is not aesthetically uniform, however: next to surrealist Maurice Tabard’s disorienting multi-exposure portrait of Roger Parry hangs three works by August Sander, the photographic pioneer of Germany’s New Objectivity movement. Sander is famous for his documentary typologies of the German people during the Weimar Republic, all taken frontally with a sharp focus. Sander’s motifs are never blurred, nor do his photographs deviate from an extremely literal depiction of reality. He photographed the spectrum of German society, including those on the fringes; for example, one of his rarer portraits in sight, “Actress [Trude Alex]”(Circa 1930) depicts a female stage artist smiling suggestively at the camera. Her provocative attitude sets her apart from Sanders’ other motives, while the intensity of her gaze seems to puncture the usual distance between subject and observer. Her humanity, with all the idiosyncrasy it entails, is undeniable.

While the exhibition occasionally deviates from its main theme – for example, with two long exposures of cinemas by Hiroshi Sugimoto – it is nonetheless worth a visit, featuring a number of gems from the history of photography (actually too many, to go in depth here) . Visits by appointment only may seem daunting, but with the price of museum admission in New York City rising to almost double the city’s minimum wage, commercial galleries are increasingly becoming the most accessible way to see these priceless pieces of art history – at least before they disappear in private collections. Make an appointment today.

Appearance: Portraits from the 20th Century continues on Deborah Bell Photographs (16 E 71st St # 1D / 4th Floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until January 21st.

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