At first glance, the three exhibitions at Jackson Fine Art through April 7 seem diverse to the point of unintelligibility: the vivid color of Chip Simone’s Chroma seems the polar opposite (sorry) to the monumental black-and-white photographs of icebergs in Todd Murphy’s Narrow Road to the Far South, and neither has much in common with Vivian Maier’s small, usually spontaneous street photographs. That, however, is presumably the point. Taken together, the exhibitions span an astonishing range of genres and subgenres of contemporary photography.
Many of Chip Simone’s color studies revivify a painfully familiar subgenre in which significant or amusing patterns are found in details of ordinary street scenes. The most multilayered (literally) of these is Beauty, Worcester, 2008, a shot through a window in which the models’ head shots in the window display are overlaid with the word “beauty” in cracked paint, with the semi-transparent reflection of the subtle architecture across the street appearing to the left of the word. Others of this particular subset are simple art-historical jokes based on found objects: Lascaux Doorbell, Atlanta, 2009, features paint splatters accidentally or intentionally reminiscent of cave paintings, whereas Black on Black Wall, Worcester, 2010, is a composition on a black-painted wall that replicates Ad Reinhardt. White on White is more of a stretch, being another instance of the familiar subgenre of photographs of attractively arranged utility meters, in this case painted the same color as the wall that forms their support.
In general, it’s the chromatic imagination (hence the exhibition title) of these works that pushes them into museum-worthy categories. (This show is a reprise not only of Simone’s book but of his High Museum of Art exhibition.) We have all seen these sorts of photographs many times from many photographers, but seldom so spectacularly reflective of a consistent color sense across so many subgenres or categories. The carnival-midway-at-night subgenre is transmuted by a particularly radiant red on the brightly lit sausage stand, for example.
The unusually vivid blue of (surprise) Blue Truck Bed appears at the gallery entrance because the rectangular shape of the truck bed, set against a consistently white background, constitutes a nearly identical formal relationship with Todd Murphy’s icebergs, presented in seven immense photographs that fill the back gallery.
Todd Murphy’s 2011 title spin on Basho’s haiku sequence Narrow Road to the Far North suggests a contemplative agenda, and indeed these photographs are a celebration of the sublime that reminds us of the appeal that Arctic (rather than Antarctic) ice held for painters from Caspar David Friedrich to Frederic Edwin Church. Murphy’s icebergs glow white between the clearly defined ocean waves of the foreground and the dim grey sky of the background—or, startlingly, may appear as a dark mass against an even darker sky. In every case, they revisit the debate over beauty and the sublime: every minor detail of the ice and the surrounding water is beautiful, but the scale of the photographs, echoing the effect of the icebergs as they would be seen in actuality, bespeaks that emotion of fear inspired by threat, mingled with awe at Nature’s immensity and independence from human wishes, that was regarded as the essence of the sublime in nineteenth-century theory.
The works by Vivian Maier in the viewing room visit several aspects of the contrasting end of the spectrum (again, apologies for the joke about unfortunate metaphors) of black-and-white photography. There are several landscape and still-life images—Winnetka, IL (Interior with Telephone), 1968, is a particularly lovely example of the latter, and New York (View of Bridge), ca. 1951–55, an imaginative version of the former that transforms an all-too-familiar subject into a study in atmosphere—but it is Maier’s mostly spur-of-the-moment photographs of human figures that have earned her the posthumous fame that she apparently neglected to seek. (Her story is now well known: most of her 100,000 or so photographs were not even printed in her lifetime, neither from the negatives in Maier’s possession nor from the ones sold out of an unpaid storage unit, a phenomenon with which financially strapped and work-stressed photographers with reams of undeveloped rolls of film—never mind negatives—will be familiar.)
Maier’s photos in this exhibition (including a few of the small prints made before her death in the late 1990s) range from appealing close-ups of children to haunting geometric studies, such as the 1955 Untitled (Shadows and Figure Under Boardwalk), that are as psychologically charged as they are formalistically pleasing. Formal geometry regularly intersects with the street-photography aesthetic of the decisive moment: the 1961 Untitled (Chicago, Woman Holding Hat on Street) would be no more than another amusing hat-nearly-blows-off-in-the-Windy-City image if it were not for the way the street sign against which the woman leans echoes the verticality of the mailbox in the right midground and the building in the left background.
There are, literally, too many images in Maier’s oeuvre to categorize more than tentatively. Maier clearly learned her craft well in the years from her first photographs in 1949 to her departure from New York for an economically tenuous life as a caregiver in Chicago, and though we can identify the stylistic influences in many of the photographs, the fact remains that Maier absorbed her influences brilliantly and brought a distinct sensibility to them.
Juxtaposing Maier with Simone and Murphy affords us a unique opportunity to contemplate the ways of tradition in photography (and art in general) versus the inflections and modifications that individual photographers bring to those traditions.
Anyone who attends the world’s global biennials knows how overpowering traditions can be, even when the traditions in question have been imposed by curatorial fashion only a year or two previously, so it is always worthwhile to revisit the old, unfashionable topic of tradition and the individual talent.
The exhibitions by Chip Simone, Todd Murphy, and Vivian Maier continue at Jackson Fine Art through April 7, 2012.