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Reconfigured Reality: Contemporary Photography from the Permanent Collection
Contemporary Photography from the Permanent Collection
December 2, 2016—November 12, 2017
Opening Reception on Friday, December 9, 2016
MADISON, WI— Today, people increasingly rely on images to communicate, particularly photographs. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art traces the recent transformations of this vital medium through Reconfigured Reality: Contemporary Photography from the Permanent Collection. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, this exhibition presents an overview of developments since 1970 that have helped define contemporary photography.
From the time of its introduction to the public in 1839, photography has undergone continuous technical and conceptual change—from the first daguerreotypes to today’s digital prints. The black-and-white print produced from film was a common model of modern photography for most of the twentieth century. Much has happened, however, over the past several decades to expand upon this notion. Newer and older technologies and formats, many of which have been adopted by photographers in Reconfigured Reality, have opened photography up to fresh perspectives.
These new approaches include:
- the ambitious embrace and manipulation of color, as seen in the pervasive luminescent red of Carl Corey’s 2090—At Random, Milwaukee (2008);
- the large format photograph such as JoAnn Verberg’s 5’ x 2’ Sans Sepolchro Diptych (1991);
- an exploration of vintage processes to express contemporary concerns, including J. Shimon & J. Lindermann’s use of the nineteenth-century ambrotype in J.S. Mounting Tractor (2012);
- the staged photograph depicting fabricated narratives, such as Cindy Sherman’s reenactment of a female movie stereotype in her Untitled Film Still #3, (1979);
- the altered photograph as in Thomas F. Barrow’s untitled photograph (1975) from his Cancellations series that was printed from a deliberately scratched negative;
- conceptual strategies like the photograph within a photograph of Kenneth Josephson’s New York State (1970);
- the globalization of social documentary photography as seen in Narayan Mahon’s Cemetery, Nagorno Karabakh (2006) that records a desecrated Muslim graveyard;
- personal storytelling as represented by Andy Warhol’s documentation of a celebrity party in his Little Red Book 027 (1971), a flip-album of Polaroid prints.
What contemporary fine art photography has amply discredited—and which, in fact, applies retroactively to the entire history of photography—is the narrow view that the camera is a recording device only, not a creative tool, and that its purpose is strictly representational. Laid to rest now is the notion that the camera can ever capture the “objective” world—as testified to in Reconfigured Reality. Despite the extraordinary technical shifts and proliferation of the photographic image, great photographs continue to be what they have always been. In the hands of gifted and creative photographers they are personal accounts that manifest poetic or critical reflections about the world.
The origins of contemporary photography coincided with the elevation in the 1960s of photography from its traditional craft status to a fine art. This notion had been pioneered earlier in the twentieth century, notably by American photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, the latter the founding director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) in 1940. One of the first commercial enterprises in the United States to advance photography as art, the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, was opened by Alfred Stieglitz in New York in 1905. Three years later Stieglitz renamed it “291”(after its address on Fifth Avenue). He broadened the context for new photography by showing it alongside the most recent developments in European and American modern art. Stieglitz was also notable for introducing fine art photography into museum collections.
These developments, however, did not lead photography to be universally accepted as art. The popularity of general interest magazines—the “picture press” as it was called—like Life and Look, which since the 1930s had assigned a pivotal role to documentary photography on their covers and in articles, had helped change minds. A growing interest in the subjective nature of the photograph was no doubt a critical factor. In mainstream contemporary art, the photographic image in Pop art during the 1960s—painted or printed—also contributed to revised attitudes.
By the 1960’s, the new status of photography was being reflected in the establishment of photography departments in art museums and auction houses, the appearance of courses in the history of photography at the university level, the emergence of photography criticism, the proliferation of photography dealers and collectors, and the formation of major photography collections, both private and institutional. Of further note is that the early social history of contemporary photography saw the growing acceptance and inclusion of women photographers, in part the result of feminist reforms that challenged, by implication, the male dominance of modern photography.
Contemporary photographers have also had new platforms for the promotion and distribution of their photographs. In addition to galleries devoted to photography and the photobook (a publication of a single body of work by a photographer intended to reach a broad audience), some artists have more recently gotten their work out to the public in the form of “zines,” small circulation, self-published works of original or appropriated texts and images. More recently, fine art photographers have benefited from photo and text-sharing apps such as Instagram, which have provided a new generation of distribution platforms.
Other formats and stylistic hallmarks of contemporary photography, in addition to those already enumerated above, include the appropriation of borrowed photographic sources, for example, off the Internet; the inclusion of the photographic image in multimedia installations; the multi-paneled photograph and the photo collage. Most significantly, recent developments in contemporary photography have seen the near complete replacement during the first decade of the twenty-first century of film-based cameras and chemical processing with digital photographic devices and printing.
Digital photography allowed for an even greater manipulation of the image, further distancing the idea of an impartial record from the reality of photography’s abilities. As with all phases in photography’s history, the digital photography has a vibrant existence. It has found a natural and populist home in the online photo-sharing services provided by the camera phone, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram, and Snapchat. The digital photographic image has become the pervasive visual language of our time.
Reconfigured Reality will be on view in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Henry Street Gallery through November 12, 2017. Exhibitions in the Henry Street Gallery are generously funded through an endowment established by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.
Hours at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are Tuesday–Thursday (noon–5 pm); Friday (noon–8 pm); Saturday (10 am–8 pm); and Sunday (noon–5 pm). The museum is closed on Mondays.
Admission to exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is free of charge. Housed in a soaring, Cesar Pelli-designed building on State Street, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art offers exhibitions and education programs that engage people in modern and contemporary art. The four galleries offer changing exhibitions that feature established and emerging artists. The Rooftop Sculpture Garden provides an urban oasis with an incredible view. The award-winning Museum Store offers contemporary American craft and fine jewelry, while Fresco, the museum’s rooftop restaurant, features local, seasonal ingredients in fine American cuisine.
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