New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 1 January 10 to 16, 2012

Editor’s Picks for 2011

Don Burmeister
Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Steiglitz. Source:
Alfred Steiglitz, "Georgia O'Keeffe" 1919

Now that 2011 has been safely chucked into the finished bin, we can take a look at some of the trends observed on this round of the ongoing drama, “The New York Photo Scene.”

Certainly neither the Recession nor Occupy Wall Street stopped the discerning 1% from throwing tons of money at photographs. Christies saw most of the top action, getting a record price of almost $3.9 million for a photograph by Cindy Sherman “Untitled #96” – a somewhat bland, but typical piece from 1981. This pushed aside Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent II” which had sold for $3.5 million a few years before. Gursky, however, came back strong and had the last word in November when Christies found a buyer with 4.3 million dollars lying around for “Rhein II” –– one of Gursky’s first international hits. (Note to aspiring photographers: keep the edition size small and include a number in the title!)

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the Gursky sale was the tacit acceptance of the computer-modified image, at least in the art world photograph. Although photojournalists still get their knickers in a knot about the ubiquitous presence of image processing software, there are few images today that do not go through Photoshop at some stage in their production. Certainly in the art world, the authenticity of the artist’s vision trumps the authenticity of any given scene or portrait.

The computer’s range of image manipulation has become an ongoing conversation among artists. In the New York gallery scene last year we saw a range of manipulations: from ham-fisted Hanna Hoch imitators through skillful uses of software to create specific stylistic effects. For example, we had Erwin Olaf's series for the De La Mar Theater, smartly imparting the style of 20th century theater lobby posters to contemporary photos. And there was the new work of Gursky himself which uses satellite imagery to create highly realistic, albeit not-quite-accurate, worlds.

Even when not blatantly altered in Photoshop, the technical quality of images seen this year was generally high with some notable exceptions. Also, still on a technical note, the medium of choice has definitively gone over to ink-jet prints, now monikered “pigment prints.” The archival qualities, the range of tonalities, and the variety of substrates available, not to mention the ease of use and production, have proven irresistible to most photographers exhibiting recently.

Jack, Paris (detail) by Nan Goldin. Source:
Nan Goldin, "Jack, Paris (detail)" 2010

The New York Photo Review listed almost 894 New York photography shows in 2011 (and reviewed 172 of them!) so there were many, many shows that left their traces in this editor’s mind. Here are five that seem to have bubbled up to the top.

In the historical category the standout show last year was the Metropolitan Museum’s Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand. Gathered entirely from the Met’s photography collection, which was built on the bedrock of Stieglitz’s own personal bequest and then on later gifts from Georgia O’Keefe, it highlighted the central role Steiglitz played in establishing New York as a photography (and art-world) capital. His use of close, personal subject matter presented in a highly stylized framework continues to be a trope followed by many contemporary photographers. My only regret is that this work is not permanently on display at the Met, accessible to every visitor, every day.

Two contemporary inheritors of the Steiglitz mantle had significant shows in 2011. The current queen of the personal narrative, Nan Goldin, had a large show this fall, Scopophilia, that hinged on her after-hours access to the Louvre Museum in Paris. This access allowed her to reach back across the centuries to find the same vain and beauty-obsessed characters that have peopled her photographs for the past 30 years. As in the past, Goldin skates very close to the edge of kitsch. Displaying her own work side by side with some of the best paintings in the Louvre is a bit of a challenge, to say the least, and frequently she does not come out the best for it. Ultimately, the most salient feature of this exercise is its revelation of the common attitudes and sensibilities, over time, among artists and their models.

A younger, and even more narcissistic narrative was presented by Laurel Nakadate. Nakadate was given a large, multimedia platform at PS 1, where she created a small temple of photographs devoted to herself, as well as showing a number of her creative, provocative and somewhat creepy videos. The show was impressive in a slightly over the top way. I found that her simultaneous show of small photographs at Tonkonow Gallery was much meatier and more sustaining. The temple to Nakadate at PS 1 was made up of a selection of self-portraits taken over the course of a year, presented as large, probably 40 x 60 inch, icons. The Tonkonow show consisted of 365 small ‘dailies’ that provided interesting insights into how the photographer approached and developed her themes. The intimate size of the images proved to be a better communicator of her ideas than the overly large final products at PS 1.

But enough with the people pictures already! The last two photographers to make the list had shows featuring that perennial and manly subject – telephone wires. The first is by Andreas Gefeller. This relatively young (born 1970) photographer’s “Japan Series” showed highly manipulated images of espaliered trees and telephone poles. In both he photographed from below and eliminated the supports, thus emphasizing the minimalist lines and junctures of wires and branches against the sky. The images were engaging, both to us guys who like to look at hardware, and to those more sensitive souls who are pulled in by intriguing spider webs of tensile lines.

The second show with lots of telephone wires and one of my favorite shows of the year was Lee Friedlander’s at the Whitney. (Although technically this show was in late 2010.) Born in 1934, Friedlander was not being feted with a lifetime retrospective (he already had that at MoMA in 2005.) This was new work. America by Car included 192 images, all taken from the front seat of various cars and all vintage Friedlander: compositionally complex, culturally on-point, and characterized by that rarest of photographic talents, visual wit. As this reviewer almost wrote: “When I grow up I want to be able to see like Lee Friedlander.”

What a year.

by Don Burmeister

Don Burmeister is the editor of the New York Photo Review.