By Michele Leight
The Museum of Modern Art
unveiled its annual
fall showcase "New Photography 2007" on September 25,
featuring outstanding work in recent photography by three artists,
Bernie Searle, Tanyth Berkeley and Scott McFarland, that demonstrate
the diversity, innovation and international scope of this hugely
popular medium today.
Organized by Eva Respini,
Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, "New
Photography 2007" is on view from September 30, 2007-January
1, 2008 in the Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery on the third
floor. Ms. Respini remarked that the show would not be possible
without the support of JGS, who have also sponsored previous "New
Photography" shows (see The City
article "New Photography 2005).
Twenty-two years after the
Photography" exhibition in 1985, this wonderful series continues
to surprise, delight and inspire, bringing us 18 images of less
familiar - but no less important - contemporary artists, from
Canada, South Africa and the United States. Over the years, works
by 63 artists from 13 countries have featured in the annual "New
Photography" exhibition. Photography buffs might take note
that The Museum of Modern Art also has holdings of 25,000 photographs
in its collection, which began with the foundation of the museum.
The MoMA was humming with
activity as I walked
past the enormous plate glass windows overlooking the Abby Aldrich
Rockefeller sculpture garden, now subdued and minus the crowds
in the fading light - but always beautiful. A wall of glittering
Manhattan towers rising up in the background was a reminder how
precious this oasis is.
The first image that greeted me
on the third
floor was Bernie Searle's swirling "On Either Side,"
(2005)," which at first glance looks more like a painting
than a photograph. Film also came to mind instantly, which is
no coincidence because Searle is known for her films and video
installations, which she says has been a major influence on her
Ms. Respini began her remarks
with the good
news that two of the artists were present - always a treat - but
sadly Scott McFarland could not make it because he was unwell.
She introduced Bernie Searle, from South Africa, who draws on
personal experiences and memories in the creation of her videos,
installations and photographs. Ms. Respini described how a handful
of family snap-shots spanning three generations resulted in the
series "About to Forget," from which three of the photographs
on display derive: "On Either Side" (2005), a "On
Either Side (Traces)" (2005), and "Still Passing By"
Beginning with crepe paper
cut-outs of silhouettes
of traditional "group" family photos, Ms. Searle then
immersed them in water, which caused them to lose definition as
the red pigment bled into the water, evoking the illusiveness
of memory and the gradual fading of family ties. The resulting
"painterly" effect is extremely convincing and belies
the discipline and technical wizardry such a process demands.
If we tried it, the result would be a sludgy mess, certainly nothing
as ethereal as Searle's.
"Still Passing By 1" overtly
the frame-by-frame sequencing required in film-making, an observation
enthusiastically picked up by Bernie Searle when we spoke. Like
many artists, she was extremely generous about sharing her working
methods and techniques, and explained that a single digital image
in "Still Passing By" yielded three images, offering
more possibilities than traditional print film. It was a revelation
to learn that these beautiful photographs were achieved with digital
However, after all the talk
about digital film
stills, "Approach," (2006), Searle's most recent work
on view at the show, is comprised of seven large, crisp, chromogenic
color prints that form an undulating pattern - a recurring theme
in her work. The undulations in "Approach" are mounds
of discarded grape skins created during the harvest of a vineyard
in South Africa, made by machinery that crushes the grapes and
ejects the skins from an overhead funnel.
Searle photographed herself
ascending and descending
the peaks and valleys of an apparently endless mountain range.
The beauty of the landscape is contrasted by her grape-stained
smock and physical exertion, a throwback to the winemaking culture
established by the Dutch and French colonial settlers in the 17th
century. In "Approach," Ms. Searle who was born in Cape
Town, South Africa in 1964, references her country's tumultuous
past, but her beautiful images are universal.
Searle's work blurs the
boundary between painting
and photography, with the precision of film and video as the binding
force, and the results are outstanding. Searle recently had a
solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (2006-2007), and
her group exhibitions include "Global Feminisms" at
the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the 49th and 51st Venice
Bienniales (2001 and 2005).
Tanyth Berkeley's life-size
personal, like Searle's, although they do not appear that way
at first. The elegant, elongated format and mannerist style of
her work keep the viewer at a distance, yet the characters portrayed
are well known to her, outside the mainstream or "ordinary,"
except in New York City, where staunch individualism is highly
Berkeley's women are not
yet "Grace in Window" (2006) with the light accentuating
her pale blond hair, seems to belong more to the world of Vermeer's
quiet interiors and porcelain domestic beauties than 21st Century
Manhattan. Ms. Respini said "Claire" (2007) was a recent
work, on view for the first time. The statuesque beauty with a
mane of pale blond hair is attired in a full-length gown that
makes no concession to fads or fashion. She wears the dress, not
vice versa. She has the nobility, the uniqueness, not her clothes.
Berkeley represents Claire in
the same way
that Van Dyck might have approached a royal or wealthy patron,
with corresponding emphasis on extraordinary lighting and sumptuous
colors, but wearing idiosyncratic attire rather than extravagant
silks and ostentatious jewels.
Another Berkeley photo, "Rick
the second from the left in the above photograph, strikes a dandyish
pose one might expect to find in a portrait by James McNeil Whistler
or John Singer Sargeant, his stylish, shabby-chic suit proclaiming
his non-conformist personality.
The protectiveness of the
her subjects is palpable, highlighting her personal relationship
with them. Berkeley's photographs are dignified and refreshingly
devoid of the clinical-quality "posed portraits" can
often assume, thanks to the individuality of the sitters, who
are distinctive in their own way, living their chosen lives as
actresses and dancers, rockers and artists muses, going noiselessly
against the grain of the world's most ambitious and upwardly mobile
Tanyth Berkeley was born in
in 1969, and now lives and works in New York. She recently held
her second solo exhibition at Bellwether Gallery in New York City
(2007). Recent group exhibitions include "Greater New York
2005" at P.S.1/MoMA in Long Island City, New York, and "White
Out: Lighting Into Beauty" at the Denver Museum of Contemporary
Art in Colorado (2005).
Scott McFarland's enormous
images are a tour
de force of digital photographic virtuosity that appears deceptively
simple to the eye at first because the "process" is
almost totally concealed.
In reality "process" has been
even arduously applied. The more one looks, the more visible
deliberations become. Both his method and the subjects he chooses
to portray are artificially constructed to appear natural as he
digitally combines multiple negatives to create exquisitely detailed
photographs that record the passage of time.
A wonderful example is "Orchard
the Effects of the Seasons (Variation 1)" where McFarland
focused on an overgrown garden throughout the year as different
plants bloomed and faded. Amazingly, he captured all four seasons
within a single image. The seamless blue sky underpins the composition,
leading the viewer to believe this is one moment in time. Instead,
spring flowers and the orange leaves of autumn are visible
and viewers realize they have been tricked.
The date on the photograph,
some idea of the time it takes to achieve such an amazing image.
In classical paintings of the past, the artist would combine seasons
or sequenced episodes of a story or event manually, with paint
and brush. Here, an artist equipped with a mechanical device seeks
a similar effect in a photograph.
"Echinocactus grusonii" is as
as a film set - yet it is derived from nature, with a "twist"
of course, because the light has been manipulated digitally. The
professionalism and discipline required of such a photograph is,
again, time-consuming and rigorous.
Scott McFarland was born in
Canada, and lives in Vancouver. Recent exhibitions include "The
Constructed Image: Photographic Culture" at the Museum of
Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto (2007), "Acting the
Part: Photography as Theatre," Vancouver Art Gallery (2007)
and "Clickdoubleclick: The Documentary Factor," Haust
der Kunst in Munich (2006).
A reception following the
exhibition was held
in the famed central hall of the Museum of Modern Art lit with
pink light, and it was filled with gorgeous Joan Mitchell canvases.
The soaring cathedral ceiling offered one of the most expansive
and liberating internal landscapes possible in congested Manhattan,
and the wine was welcome after a long day.
As we left the party packed
with guests, we
ran into Ms. Searle, all dressed up, with a fine young man beside
"I'd like you to meet my
she said, with a warm smile. Family ties, it seems, have been
maintained, in New York at least.
Soon caught up in the whirl of
motion and honking
car horns that is midtown Manhattan's 54th street, we passed a
flaxen-haired blond hurriedly making her way to the entrance of
The Museum of Modern Art. It was "Grace," in proper,
21st century attire, still unique in the pulsating throng.