The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Hide and Seek

Now You See It: Photography and Concealment
R. Wayne Parsons
Photo by Thomas Demand . Source: metmuseum.org
Thomas Demand, "Vault2012" 2012

“Now You See It: Photography and Concealment” at the Met is another riff on the popular but long-since-discredited saw that “the camera never lies.” The point of this exhibition is that photographs do in fact lie, conceal as well as reveal. Sometimes it is a conscious effort on the part of the photographer or subject, and sometimes it is an accident of history.

The largest work in the show is Thomas Demand’s photograph of his set, constructed from cardboard and paper, purportedly showing a storage room with looted art masterpieces. Aside from its overall moody excellence, the piece really does fit the concealment theme in that the “paintings” in the photo are all turned to the wall.

But many images are related to the theme in a way that is obvious but trivial.

One is Weegee’s 1942 photograph of two just-arrested toughs in the back of a paddy wagon holding their hats to hide their faces. This is yet another example of Weegee’s ability to document New York City’s underside, something we are all familiar with by now. It’s a great image, but to see it as an example of concealment (which it obviously is) neither holds much interest nor adds to our understanding or enjoyment of the photo.

Photo by Bill Wasilevich . Source: metmuseum.org
Bill Wasilevich, "Jimmy “One Eye” Collins after Arraignment" 1946

Another example is Lutz Bacher’s conceptual series based on Ron Galella photos of Jackie Kennedy (Galella, you may recall, was the paparazzo who relentlessly stalked Jackie until a court issued an injunction forbidding him to come within fifty feet of her.) Bacher has cleverly turned the tables on us by re-titling the images to create the impression that Jackie is the instigator here and that she WANTED Galella to pursue her. Bacher’s series is witty and fun ( perhaps not so much if you are a Kennedy) although it’s hard to see how concealment is of significance here, even if Ms. Kennedy’s face is never fully shown in the seven photos.

Photo by Grace Ndiritu  . Source: metmuseum.org
Grace Ndiritu , "The Nightingale" 2003

Faisal Sheik is represented by a series of eighteen aerial photographs of the Negev desert in Israel (the largest number of any artist in the show.) These are interesting images, as aerial photos so often are, and show Bedouin villages now altered by subsequent efforts of the Israelis, and, in a few cases, the British before them. Yet it is hard to make a case for concealment, as the areas have been altered and their features erased by subsequent usage, most often for military purposes, but also for forestry, farming, and industrial use. Without the guidance of a knowledgeable expert it is often hard for the average viewer to determine which elements in these images are traces of the Bedouins rather than simply signs of later activity. Also, in the absence of informative labeling, it is hard to discern Sheik’s purpose in these photographs. Are they efforts to document displacement of the Bedouins, or simply to illustrate change and development? Or just interesting visually?

Photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard  . Source: metmuseum.org
Ralph Eugene Meatyard , "Occasion for Diriment" 1962

Although this is a small exhibition, there are a high percentage of excellent images. Among my favorites are works by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (one of his famous mask pictures), Chris Burden (who signals his three-day disappearance by a blank page in a photo album), Paraguayan photographer Fredi Casco (who draws outlines of people on the reverse of group photographs to highlight “the subtle gestures of cooperation and compliance that supported Paraguay’s authoritarian regime”) and Helen Levitt (children playing in a box).

If for no other reason, the show succeeds by virtue of the high quality of the work selected. But success does not validate the operative concept; quite the contrary, the many interesting images serve to underscore the fact that so many have only a tenuous connection to the theme. In sum, weak idea, strong images.


Now You See It: Photography and Concealment


Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
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212 535 7710
metmuseum.org

Monday, March 31 to
Monday, September 1, 2014
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.
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