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Between Here and There: Contemporary Photography at the Met

Douglas Eklund, Associate Curator, Department of Photographs

Posted: Wednesday, September 22, 2010

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Above: A visitor scratches his head while looking at On Kawara's I GOT UP in the exhibition Between Here and There: Passages in Contemporary Photography.

«Inside the museum—not just the Met but any art museum—photography has been birthed in hallways. It began to spring from the shoulders of museums' print departments in the 1920s and 1930s, when modernism was making a case for photography as an independent art form. Over the decades it has spread institutionally through the in-between spaces that architecturally mirror the medium's proudly mongrel status as both art and not art.»

In the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Photographs, one of the first exhibitions a fledgling curator undertakes is a rotation of two dozen works summarizing the short but thorny history of the medium. Because works on paper are light sensitive, every three months, for more than twenty years, the department's curators and conservators have changed the photographs displayed on the wall of what we affectionately call "the ramp"—a stretch on the second floor between the top of the Great Hall staircase and the Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture galleries (see Gallery 850). Our reference to this space's architectural betweenness implies that, even 170 years after its invention, photography remains slightly on the fringe, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Over the years, the presentations of photographs along "the ramp"—which is actually part of the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Gallery—have developed an underground reputation for interesting finds, particularly among artists. Artists are the secret constituency of museums. When we curators sometimes hear through the grapevine that an artist whose work we really respect makes a habit of stopping by our neck of the woods to see what we just put out, it is a really special thing.

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Above: A 1996 photograph of the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Gallery, also known as "the ramp."

A new hallway gallery for photography appeared in 2000, when we began installing large-scale photographic works in what is called the spine of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, a long corridor separating the galleries of the Department of Modern Art and the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Those same artists who frequented the Johnson Gallery were pleasantly surprised to see works by their elders and even by their contemporaries: the Conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s, their media- and theory-savvy descendents, the so-called Pictures Generation, and Dusseldorf School photographers such as Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Ruff. Between 2000 and 2007, fourteen installations in the Wallace Wing spine featured the work of seventy artists, many of whom had never shown at the Metropolitan before. It gave me a great and continuous thrill to introduce such "foreign bodies" into the bloodstream of art-historical tradition. But the space was never ideal, as one can see in this 2006 installation view of Jeff Wall's signature photograph, The Storyteller, which we had acquired earlier that year; it just barely fit on the wall.

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Above: Jeff Wall's The Storyteller on view in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, 2006.

In 2007, the Department of Photographs returned to the ramp on the second floor in dramatically expanded fashion with the opening of the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography—the Metropolitan's first space dedicated solely to the permanent display of photography created since 1960. Just steps away from the history-of-photography rotation in the Johnson Gallery, this high-vaulted, brightly lit space off the main drag still comes as a shock to many visitors. I especially relish the lingering presence of so many young people, who often swarm the space excitedly as if they have just discovered a room of their own—a place within this epic, encyclopedic history that reflects their own world.

Each installation in Menschel Hall traces a theme from the early 1960s to the present. The current show, Between Here and There, differs from its predecessors in that it is structured around an incongruity between two periods in which artists used photography in radically different, even incommensurate ways. I nicked the title from a line in the Pavement song "Conduit for Sale": "Between here and there is better than either here or there." I have a fond memory of seeing them perform in the early 1990s and being struck by the overall effect of the onstage chaos of cords, strings, and wires they made no attempt to hide. A couple of the band members, former guards at the Whitney Museum, were savvy enough to know that the tousled mess at their feet was a visual analogue for music that seemed to drift from style to style and that valued process over a cleaned-up final product. They knew that the mess also chimed with the new "scatter art" by artists such as Karen Kilimnik and Cady Noland and the movement's Post-Minimal precedents—works by artists such as Barry Le Va and Richard Tuttle—which they guarded at their day jobs. Their lyric perfectly captured the meandering mood of the earliest works in Between Here and There, such as Bruce Nauman's Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) and Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip. It also suggested the larger division between periods and styles of art making that the show would not attempt to reconcile.

Between Here and There is not meant to provide a smooth, linear narrative, but to have two recent, distinct periods look across at each other and not align. In getting the idea together, I realized that many of the relentlessly low-tech, experimental works of the 1960s and 1970s—where the object of art was displaced from wall and pedestal to the radical proposition that the work could be anything—took the form of walks or journeys, perhaps to escape that fixedness and certainty that no longer applied to life in the modern world, and certainly as a way of evading traditional formal and compositional strategies that were no longer applicable.

In the exhibition, the works on the other side of the dividing wall are nothing like what you will see upon first entering; in many ways, they are the polar opposite. Beginning in the late 1980s, photography stepped into the space where painting used to be. It is hard to remember now that painting was almost nowhere to be found in contemporary art galleries at that time, banished by influential art circles as a retrograde, conservative activity. Photography was so outside of painting's art-historical traditions that it wound up slipping easily into that vacant space. It was suffused with a melancholic preoccupation with history, tradition, and subjects that seemed fragile and susceptible to being washed away. Its composure—particularly in the art of the Dusseldorf School and that of Jeff Wall and Rineke Dijkstra—was unabashedly classical. It was as if the geopolitical shifts around the globe made the individual revolutions of the self in the sixties and seventies temporarily moot.

So my pursuit of a theme to its logical conclusion resulted in a discontinuity that, in its off-kilter feel, wound up accurately reflecting a persistent schism in photography. Two very different uses of the medium coexist uneasily today and, by extension, can be extrapolated to summarize a cultural condition or crossroads: the pressing need for radical, slate-erasing change versus the retrofitting of past forms for the present moment. I hope the show provides a kind of pocket history of this conundrum that you might be able to draw on the next time you go from gallery to gallery in Chelsea on a Saturday afternoon.

Douglas Eklund is associate curator in the Department of Photographs.

Related Exhibition
Between Here and There: Passages in Contemporary Photography

Related Link
Department of Photographs

Department(s): Photographs
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About the Author

Douglas Eklund is an associate curator in the Department of Photographs.

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