Here’s something that will be news to no one: photography is in crisis. Shock horror! OMG etc, etc. It’s not really, of course, just bits of it. This group show of 14 artists who all use photography in their work spans 40 years, from the ’70s to now, and it looks at a paradox.
For the first 150 years of its young life, photography was all rebellious: it questioned value, talent and meaning: the frameworks that traditionally defined art. Then the internet and social media and baboon selfies and Tinder happened, and photography suddenly looked its age, a ubiquitous media parent/enabler: reliable, cheap, undemanding of love. What were artists to do? The answers vary.
Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff are the pre-internet old masters here. Once upon a time their work questioned the surface of the world and ideas of ‘reality’. So a grainy Sherman shot from her defining ’70s ‘Film Stills’ series seems removed from time and place and psychologically unanchored. Ruff’s enormous blown-up portrait heads are… big: they crush you with a billboard-size question of what it means to be human. Just as big and just as remote, Gursky’s bleak fractalisation of the Chicago Stock Exchange and Wall’s lightbox of a grim concrete outflow pipe above a strange, orange-flecked river both tempt you into the age-old photographic trap: it’s a photo, it must be ‘real’, mustn’t it?
These are all masterful works: you should go see them. But they’re also quite sure in their different ways that photography is a) important, and b) challenging. Other artists here aren’t so certain. If Richard Prince had realised back in the ’70s that it would be cats, not women, who would be the post-internet unit of visual currency, he would be the fucking Nostradamus of twentieth-century culture. His crudely enlarged and cropped images from ads undermined and mocked ‘art’ photography, opening up the field.
Even Wolfgang Tillmans’s work seems newly elusive in this context: an ever-changing pursuit of the ephemeral, from which a new beauty reveals itself. Bang up to date, Canadian Sara Cwynar surfs on the ebb and flow of online ‘value’: eBay items, found photos, that kind of thing. And there’s the rub: the younger artists in this show – for all their post-web sophistication – seem at a loss. Luckily, that’s probably exactly what photography needs right now. Crisis, what crisis?