Posted by: 6x6pix | March 3, 2011

Photography at MOMA

It’s a great time to visit MOMA if you’re interested in photography. I spent the better part of the day there last Friday taking in the Women in Photography and Performance in Photography shows,  Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, and a tight collection of small black & white prints from the 1950s & 60s that are being shown as part of the massive Abstract Expressionism exhibit on view through April.

Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, filling all six rooms of the Steichen photography galleries, contains 211 photos made by 106 photographers from 1850 to the present. These are all photos by women, of women to a large extent, which to my (female) mind is a bit of a thin premise for so large a show, but as a survey it works fairly well. The highlights for me were the works by Tina Modotti, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, and pretty much everything in the last two rooms (work created since about 1970). The show seems oddly balanced in the earlier part of the chronology, with work by a few heavy-hitters like those I just mentioned, hanging side-by-side with lots of underwhelming photos by lesser names. But it does a great job of highlighting how women photographers really only started shooting from a decidedly female point of view in the late 1960s-early 70s. Prints by Carrie Mae Weems, Mary Frey and Nan Goldin are especially effective in this regard, but if you go, do not miss everything else — there’s amazing work here by Rineke Dijkstra, Carolee Schneeman, Diane Arbus, and Helen Levitt (yes, I already mentioned her — she’s that good).

There’s some extremely arresting work in Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960, and I was completely smitten with a few crisp, gorgeous prints by Harry Callahan, Paul Caponigro, and Aaron Siskind that are hung in a cozy little gallery as part of the AbEx show, but by this point I was starting to feel like I’d overdosed on photography. Surprisingly, it was the Warhol Screen Tests, often considered so boring they could be used as sleep aid, that revived me. These films, which Warhol conceived as “film portraits,” are lustrous, revelatory ruminations on the faces of various persons and personalities who hung around Warhol’s Factory in the mid-60s. Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsburg, Edie Sedgewick, Donyale Luna and others gaze languidly or aloofly into the camera for four minutes, and while not much really happens in any of these films, the effect of being surrounded by a dozen of them, projected at 7×9 feet, is mesmerizing and beautiful, and that’s even before you stop to think about who these people are/were, what their lives might have been like at the time, what became of them, and — maybe most compelling of all — what might they have been thinking as the camera rolled on? This exhibit is only up for a few more weeks (through March 21), so I urge you to make a trip down to see it while you can.

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