In DIRECTOR'S CUT: RECENT PHOTOGRAPHY GIFTS TO THE NCMA, 23 photographs and two series by 20 artists offer a chance to reflect on recent developments in photography—and how they affect our engagement with scenes and subjects.
We also glimpse the breadth of the North Carolina Museum of Art's holdings in this medium, which have increased from 22 photographs to more than 400 during Lawrence J. Wheeler's 20-year tenure as director. One can't help but notice how digital our world has become in that span, when digital cameras came to outsell film cameras, Polaroid stopped making instant film and Kodak retired its signature Kodachrome film as well as the chemicals to develop it.
One of the most dramatic trends in contemporary photography is the large size at which photographs are often printed, which transports us to landscapes and confronts us in portraits. While large formats have been technically possible for more than a century, more artists began printing big in the 1980s. We see this technological legacy in Sarah Pickering's "Cigarette" (2007), where we can almost feel the heat of the fire burning in a plush chair. Bill Jacobson's "Some Planes, #436" (2007), a large yet quiet vertical landscape composed of half pale sky and half arid landscape, fills our view so convincingly it's as if we could step inside. In contrast, the show includes only three silver gelatin prints, which dominated black and white photography printing in the 20th century.
In this context, the smaller "Venice, Italy, 1965," by Elliott Erwitt, which shows framed paintings in a gallery, functions as a reminder of earlier periods in photography's history.
Size can also influence how we relate to the people in the portraits. Andrew Moore's "Cañeros, Las Tunas, Cuba" (1999) confronts us with a line of 10 serious men, dressed in denim and woven straw hats, with white bags, a plastic jug and a burned landscape behind them. Their presence carries even greater weight because of the large scale, which forces us to relate to them and even worry about what causes them to work so hard.
While much has changed, photography's ability to capture moments in time remains paramount, as is most elegantly conveyed in William Christenberry's series of 16 hand-size prints, "Coleman's Café, Greensboro, Alabama" (1967–1996). Shown in a grid, these photographs document the effects of time on a roadside café: new signs, painting, benches appearing and disappearing and, most dramatically, collapse. A recent complement is Kate Joyce's "Concessions and the Cup Holder" (2011). This series of 15 prints—each about the size of a piece of notebook paper—documents the remains of concession-stand food in stadium seat cup-holders: differences in colors and containers, straws and plastic ware, and the transgression of a cup of French fries.
Documenting everyday sites, Christenberry and Joyce reveal the strange beauty that can result from paying attention. This pursuit can produce an aftereffect on our own vision, transforming our attentiveness to buildings we pass daily, or to cup-holders in the ballpark.
Like photography, moving pictures have undergone a digital shift, changing the ways they're recorded, stored, edited and shown. Houston-based artist Allison Hunter used digital footage and editing tools to create the five videos in her NCMA installation, ZOOSPHERE (2010). For each video, she removed most or all of an animal's surroundings and caught it in a loop, some a few seconds long, some a few minutes.
Descending into the Museum's lower level, visitors will be drawn immediately to the large projection on the floor, where a four-minute loop of koi fish and sea lions plays. This video's power to engage is because of its novel use of the floor as a screen and its stark placement in the center of the gallery. It's also the one video that allows these creatures the context of their watery habitat, which reveals something innate in them.
Four videos, two on each wall, surround the central attraction. Two show short loops of the eye of a Komodo dragon and the body of a snake. The small size of the screens constrains our ability to see the creatures while decreasing our desire to do so.
Two large screens on the opposite walls show the green and yellow underbelly of a tropical frog as it climbs upward and a frenetic meerkat. It's apparent that Hunter is interested in the ways in which we view and relate to animals. I was hoping to be mesmerized by unusual views of these creatures, but the shorter loops made me pay too much attention to the ways they repeated instead of contemplating them.
On the day I visited, children were constantly interacting with the koi fish and sea lions, reaching a hand into the projection and then sitting, even lying, in its beam. They asked the adults they were with how they looked, or if they could take a photo or video of them. We carry around tools that allow us to capture pictures or videos at any moment, but as these two shows at NCMA remind us, a lot more work than that goes into being able to achieve an impact with the images one creates.