Each year, MoMA presents a selection of photographers who are expanding the field in one way or another. Neither the best nor the only practitioners in this vein, this year's class (chosen by curator Roxana Marcoci with assistance from Katerina Stathopoulou) asks viewers to reconsider the efficacy of photography in the age of the iPhone.
Photomontage is the primary tool for most of the featured artists, many of whom also seek to convey a political subtext. None of them would ever be mistaken for a John Heartfield, of course; their approach to content is far too subtle. The exception, perhaps, is the duo of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. They’ve taken pages from Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 book War Primer (which combine the author’s poetry with newspaper photographs from World War II) and added or substituted famous photos from the War on Terror. One jarring example is diptych, pairing an image of former Army Specialist Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib with one of an American G.I. in the Pacific, calmly smoking next to a Japanese corpse.
Most of the other works, however, are far more obscure. Eileen Quinlan creates abstract still lifes that recall similar work from the 1980s by Barbara Kasten. Quinlan’s photos supposedly critique the economics of leisure activity, though you wouldn’t know it from her images of rolled up and folded of yoga mats. In likewise fashion, Annette Kelm steals the look of product shots for arrangements of bandannas that may or may not allude to their use in signaling sexual preference. Josephine Pryde’s handsome 2011 series, “It's Not My Body,” employs sonograms of fetuses; their purpose remains unclear, though, as the results could serve either side of the abortion debate. And without the wall label, it’s impossible to tell that Pryde’s portraits of guinea pigs are meant to be an examination of the slave trade.
Even when their meaning is illusive, however, there are some images here that so striking that they stand on their own. Lisa Oppenheim’s solarized prints of smoke and Anna Ostoya’s montages featuring obscure Eastern European artists deliver the goods visually, making it easier to overlook the fact that their points aren’t so readily understood.
One artist literally breaking down and through the standard photographic framework is Brendan Fowler, who is described as "free-jazz percussionist and a performer on the rock/DIY underground." He only began to make art in 2008, but he manages to adeptly combine sculpture, photography and performance with his wall reliefs of stacked framed photographs, each object smashing through the one on top of it. The violence of this set-up is only underscored by the banality of images—random snapshots of friends, arrangements of flowers, security guard jackets, birthday candles, storefronts and parked cars—which are piled in a way that suggests the aftermath of a terrorist attack or tornado. It would be great fun to watch him make these aggressive assemblages, but just as much fun to imagine how it's done.
Back in the day, MoMA’s annual “New Photography” showcase prided itself on granting first looks at fantastic newcomers, presenting compelling photographs. In contrast, this latest group often seems to straining to create some kind of traction for their work, but that may be just a sign of the times. The situation today for artists and curators alike is far different than it was back when John Szarkowski ruled as MoMA’s photography czar. He never had to contend with things like Tumblr and Instagram, and the whole democratization of photographic process, from technology to distribution. How do you argue for photography as an elite artistic practice when anyone can take a great picture? To put it more bluntly, how can the organizers of shows like this one continue to justify their jobs? The fact that this year's “New Photography” only fitfully provides answers to such questions may be all that anyone can hope for.—Barbara Pollack