Monday, December 1st, 2003

Triennial of Contemporary Photography

Woodmere Art Museum
9201 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19118
Corner of Germantown Avenue and Bells Mill Road in Chestnut Hill


Jessica Todd Harper Becky with Christopher 2003, pigmented inkjet print, 32 x 40 inches
Jessica Todd, Harper Becky with Christopher 2003, pigmented inkjet print, 32 x 40 inches
Charmaine Caire At Your Service 2000, pigmented inkjet print, 24 x 20 inches
Charmaine Caire, At Your Service 2000, pigmented inkjet print, 24 x 20 inches
Ray K. Metzker, Untitled, 1962, gelatin silver print, 6 x 8 7/8 inches
Ray K. Metzker, Untitled, 1962, gelatin silver print, 6 x 8 7/8 inches

As the first in a projected series at the Woodmere Art Museum, the Triennial of Contemporary Photography is not only an attempt to showcase the diverse currents in photography in the Delaware Valley, but also a purposeful bid to update the museum. Due to a positive change in their financial circumstances, and with an impressive wing designed by Venturi, Scott-Brown soon to begin construction, the Triennial signals a new direction at the Woodmere. Spearheaded by Curator of Collections, Douglass Paschall, it is a sign that the museum wants to change it’s spots in the new century.

The 7 photographers chosen for this invitational were selected from an original pool of 150 and the quality is high. Adding to an already loose thematic, the museum presented by way of historical preface “The Legacy of Philadelphia Photography” as a mini-show in the foyer. This included rare and remarkable photographs from the Woodmere’s collection with some by Eakins and Muybridge. A gorgeous history lesson, the show was something of a distraction to a triennial already pushing the boundaries in its eclecticism.

Several generations of photographers were presented in a way that pitted an old guard against newcomers with a major gap in-between. In fact, the show runs the gamut from modernist work through American journalistic tradition to the contemporary. Larry Fink presents confident journalistic style and his paparazzi-like shot of George Plimpton sitting glum-faced at a table of party people is carefully placed to form the centerpiece in his section of the show. Ray K. Metzker follows in the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans; his carefully captured plays of light are mostly street scenes from 1962 and they are delicate, meticulous and a perfect combination of craft and moodiness. Fink and Metzker form the backbone of the show and are worth seeing in their own right but they bring nothing “contemporary” to the table. Indeed, can pictures from 1962 really classify as contemporary?

Leif Skoogfor’s photojournalism from the early seventies is strong work in the Magnum tradition but it is not contemporary either. The great leap across generations to Amanda Tinker, Jessica Todd Harper and Trevor Dixon is abrupt and Charmaine Caire stands out as the only representative born in the fifties. Claire’s work has ironic content and use of the “set-ups” full of objects and toys from popular culture produced as digital prints. In the context of the show, her pictures indicate the departure from the classic “realism” to art photography. The remit here is not “documentation” but playing with the nature of truth in photographic images complicated further by digital manipulation.

Harper’s large family “snapshots” seem to comment on class, money and taste and channel portraiture of the landed gentry of the eighteenth century. It almost seems a red herring that she inserts extra figures digitally in the manner of Jeff Wall. This is part of the painterly aesthetic that photography sometimes mimics these days. Tinker’s and Dixon’s work seems to be the link connecting the “masters” and the early experimental work in the hallway to the present day. Playing with such formalities as focus and scale, Dixon’s pictures are intellectually engaging and strange: images of half-blurred churches and woods evoke the passing of time generally and photography’s past specifically. They also mark a formal difference between optical and photographic vision which is a truly contemporary concern.