Photography Transformed: Selections From the Metropolitan Bank and Trust Collection, now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, reveals a wondrous secret: A Cleveland-based bank owns one of the largest corporate collections of contemporary art in the country, and one of the few devoted to photo-based works.
Tom Hinson, the museum's curator of photography, selected 49 works (by 48 international artists) from the bank's 700-piece collection to sketch the story of photography's last 25 years. In less experienced hands, this ambitious project could have resulted in a chaotic mess. But Hinson's selections, as well as his precise grouping and sequencing, entice the viewer from work to work, so the exhibition reads like a book one can't put down.
Hinson arranged the exhibition in three broad groups based on subject matter: portraiture, narrative works (real and staged), and urban landscape. Within each, he explores different artistic styles, themes, and technological advances -- no easy task, given the abundance of interdisciplinary artists and a constant supply of new materials.
Photography has been around since 1839, but the last 25 years have been a period of warp-speed change. Before the 1960s, the dialogue was between documentary photographers, who worked to capture objective photos, and pictorialists, who simulated the effects of traditional painting. Then some '60s rebels decided they were bored with paint and canvas, and began making art with nontraditional materials, including their own bodies. These body artists (now called performance artists) wanted to prove that their time-sensitive art existed, so they began to photograph, film, and later videotape their work. Add to this stewpot digital photography and laser printing, and the result is the stylistic diversity of Photography Transformed.
German photographer Hans Peter Feldman's "100 Years," an installation of 101 snapshot-sized photos of individuals two months to 100 years old, is emblematic of the exhibition in the way that it compels the viewer to keep looking and comparing. The cycle-of-life theme has been explored by many artists, most famously Edvard Munch in "The Dance of Life" and Paul Gauguin in "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Do We Go?" Feldman's fresh spin on this tradition uses black-and-white photos mounted on a wall in three staggered rows. The ingenious arrangement forces the viewer to look at the top and bottom rows from right to left, contrary to the way Westerners read text, and then to correct for the resulting cognitive dissonance by revisiting the rows from left to right.
Feldman works in the tradition of the famous German duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose influence, both as artists and teachers, permeates the show. The Bechers' installation, "Water Towers-G," consists of nine black-and-white photos arranged (as in "100 Years") so the viewer notices all of them, rather than one or two. The goal for the Bechers, who have been compiling a documentary archive of urban and industrial architecture since 1959, is an objective record of their subjects, with as little interference from the photographer as possible. To that end, the duo (and Feldman) use black-and-white film, and shoot at the same angle, in the same light.
Another Becher student, Thomas Ruff, argues that color and size -- two of the most emotionally charged elements in the artist's arsenal -- can be used to produce an objective photographic record. "Portrait, 1985," an eight-foot-tall, passport-style color photo of an attractive but expressionless woman, adequately meets this artistic challenge. But the piece may be unsatisfying for some viewers, who have been taught by traditional portraiture to expect a voyeuristic peek into the inner world of the subject.
More playful portraits are interested less in objectivity and more in the portrait as performance art. Vanessa Beecroft's deceptively formal-looking "Navy Seals," for example, is a color photo taken during a performance piece she "directed" by convincing a group of Navy Seals to stand at attention for two hours in a museum gallery. What's most fascinating is not the photo itself, but the story behind the performance. Was the Navy aware that its purpose was to "subvert masculine rituals" and question "traditional gender roles," as the wall text indicates? The "art" here is one of manipulation.
Other photographers use their own bodies to create art that explores gender roles. Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura's "To My Little Sister, for Cindy Sherman" hangs next to Cindy Sherman's "Untitled #85," a self-portrait of the artist in a red gingham dress, looking like a strung-out Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Morimura, well-known for appropriating masterpieces of Western art (like Edouard Manet's "Bar at the Folies-Bergère"), here casts himself as Sherman in a matching red gingham skirt.
Influenced by filmmakers David Lynch and Steven Spielberg, photographer Gregory Crewdson uses a documentary style to capture staged worlds of his creation. At first glance, "Untitled (Sewer Mystery)" looks like a newspaper photo, but then morphs into a surreal still from a sci-fi flick. Set at the intersection of two streets in a suburban subdivision, the color photo -- from Crewdson's aptly named "Twilight Series" -- records firemen dousing the flames of a burning car, while a policeman studies another fire in a sewer grate around the corner.
Each piece in Photography Transformed has a story waiting to be revealed, both on its own and in the larger current of artistic movements. "Like all [good] works of art, these works give up something new, reveal new information, every time they're seen," Hinson says. Thanks to the dialogue he creates in arranging the works, they reveal even more.