MCA DENVER EXHIBIT “More American Photographs”

More American Photographs at the MCA Denver

            At the MCA Denver, More American Photographs was a mix between selections of photographs dating from 1935-1944 taken by different photographers during the day. The Farm Security Administration, The FSA with the help of Roy Striker gathered photographer to help depict what was happening during the Great Depression in the United States. It was to document what was happening and to preserve the history of our Nation. The exhibit included the works of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans who were originally commissioned by Roy Striker. The famous Migrant Mother image is placed in the gallery along side other Lange photos. Arthur Rothstein’s photos are mounted in the gallery as well.

Also, the exhibit showed twelve contemporary photographers who show a new perspective on the modern United States creating a response to the older photos shown. The collection of contemporary photographs show the multiple faces that embody our country today including both rural and urban societies, migration, gentrification, environmental negligence, and multiculturalism. These different contemporary artists are supposed to be an “updated” version of daily life in the United States and the diversity of the American citizens. The exhibit had a lot of really nice photos showing an accurate depicting of the “American face”. But there were some photos that really demeaned and degraded the photo realm. Some of the photos rather than having artistic quality, aesthetics in general, or conceptual information, degenerated the exhibition with their lack of talent and lack of meaning and influence.

One contemporary photographer in the exhibit that work was the most effective and stood out was Catherine Opie. Her concept for the project was to photograph local shopkeepers in her area in Los Angeles, California. Opie goes into detail in her Art 21 interview about why she chose these particular people to photograph and how the curator, Jens Hoffman, came about the idea to her and the other commissioned photographers.

The curator, Yens Hoffman, approached a group of photographers, and he wanted to extend the body of work, that farm security administration, the FSA, did in the 1930’s under Roosevelt that was headed by Roy Striker. Roy Striker was the one who got Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to make these great documents of the depression. The curator, Yes Hoffman, asked a group of contemporary photographers to basically believe he is Roy Striker and he is reexamining and evoking the FSA period of photography. And I chose to photograph the shopkeepers in my neighborhood (Opie Art:21).

Her fascination with panoramic city and landscapes with no people is something that Opie focused on for a bit of her career. Soon after, she realized the importance of people in their surrounding areas. Opie states in her Art:21 interview the importance of having people in their natural landscape or city setting.  She wanted to make American landscapes, the notion of American landscapes in terms of identity (Opie Art:21).  Her inspiration for her collection of work came from the local shopkeepers in her area in Los Angeles taken in 2011. The works in the MCA included Tavir (Gas Station), Claudia (Hairdresser), Rita (Pupuseria), Bravo (Plumbing), and Toan (Water Guy).  These photos were all taken with a strobe flash as well as natural lighting. These photos stood out the most to Opie because of their light. Opie believes that if there is a dominance with the strobe light, the photo is no longer an artistic photo or proper form of documentation, but photojournalism. She believes that there is something unsettling and discomforting with photojournalistic images. The reason for this specific body of work had to do with her natural fascination with community and the relationships one create within them. Opie stated in her Art:21 interview that, “Early on, I was always looking the formation of community in relationship to finding myself within the populous. One of the reasons that I have been driven to the idea that of creating moments of representation of my time is not only finding myself in that, also this unbelievable human need” (Opie Art:21).

The most prominent photo in her collection with the most feel to it was Bravo (Plumbing). Her photo of Bravo is bravo in the center surrounded by different tools for plumbing all around his head, making the eye circulate the image. Bravo is in the center standing behind his counter, directly below him is a sign that says “Key Made 92¢”. He has a very full mustache and is leaning on his counter. In the background, there are beer bottles and some other empty bottles of liquor. The lighting on his face is extremely soft creating this slightly aerated look to his face. As organized as the space is supposed to look, there is this sensation of clutter and mess that overwhelms the viewer. This piece just stood out the most out of all the pictures being presented.

Another one of Opie’s pieces that really stuck out and had an impact was the piece entitled Rita (Pupuseria). This woman is in her shop making food. The image has a very industrial feel to it because of the equipment she uses to fry the dough on for her customers. Rita has a welcoming smile on her face with her hair pulled back tightly. She is wearing a navy blue apron that is hard to differentiate from her black attire. The open windows surrounding her in the shop frame her nicely. This allows the eye not to wonder but to stay focus. Again, the natural lighting in the shop creates a softer portrait of Rita without creating a false interpretation or artificial environment. The lighting also creates soft light throughout the entire shot accentuating the bland and pastel colored walls.

One artist whose body of work was extremely upsetting to see and should have been dismissed from this particular exhibition was the work of Roe Ethridge. To be honest, the work of Roe Ethridge in general is sub-par and do to outside research would be a waste of time. The photos that Ethridge shot for this exhibit were taken in different part of Florida. One shot that was extremely upsetting and an insult towards the exhibition was Coke Can, Belle Glade, Florida 2011. The image consisted on a Coca-Cola can that was crushed and slightly destroyed; rocks and debris framed it. It’s extremely upsetting that the artist decided to photograph a popular, already highly commercialized icon and transformed it into his own art. There is nothing original about taking a picture of a coke can and making an activist statement with it. This picture in particular is tasteless and degrading to the photo realm. Regardless of the artist’s intent, conceptual meaning, and “aesthetics” of the can really was not apparent to the viewer. If anything it was upsetting and a shame towards the photo realm.

The rest of his shots had to do with a slightly over-weight woman walking out of a bank, and a car that was sinking into some body of water. If these photos actually represented something and had aesthetics and some artistic beauty, the likelihood of this review would be different. The fact that Ethridge has a state of the art digital camera and can print large images is probably the reason why he is able to get into museums and galleries. If there was some form of intent behind his photos, it was clearly hard to see in his images on display.

Overall, the theme of the exhibit was apparent and present and it was really nice to see the drastic change overtime in American culture and history. A lot of the images depicted the American populous accurately and artistically. Even though, some images created feeling of rage and hatred, the overall feel of the exhibit had tones of creativity, art, and accurate documentation.  There were a lot of excellent photos done by well-known photographers from either the past or the present that embodied the American persona during the hardships and the flourishing moments. These documentations, even though some were questionable, really gave an accurate depiction to the face of America.

Works Cited

Opie, Catherine. “Change.” Interview. Art:21. PBS, 04 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2012.             <http://www.pbs.org/art21/watch-now/episode-change&gt;.

One Response

  1. The photo with the Coca-Cola can on the beach was not art. I believe, and you seem to agree, that art needs to have aesthetic, emotional, and skillful qualities that this photo simply does not. Putting a crushed can of soda on some rocks and then blowing the photo up real big says nothing. One would be wasting their time if they try to analyze the artists intention or meaning. Anything can be over analyzed, but then it comes down to it, the photo needs to have something interesting. The “More American Photographs” exhibit started out with these giant meaningless photographs. Poor choice curator, poor choice.
    Thanks Camille.

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