The inaugural installation in The Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, Depth of Field: Modern Photography at the Metropolitan draws on the Museum's rapidly expanding collection of photography since 1960, a time when the camera first played an instrumental role in breaking down the previously well-maintained boundaries between media. The photographic image—mechanically produced, endlessly reproducible, and found in every corner of the culture—was of central importance in the dismantling of age-old hierarchies, challenging notions of authorship and originality, and radically redefining what constituted an artist and a work of art in postwar society. A painting by Gerhard Richter or Andy Warhol could be a coolly distanced grisaille of a snapshot or a silkscreen grid of grisly tabloid outtakes, while the traditional work of sculpture was displaced in two diametrically opposed directions: toward the artist's body as subject, object, and implicit point of reference, and outward to anti-monumental, site-specific interventions into the landscape, both of which were dependent on the photograph to extend the life of the artist's fleeting gestures.
Photography by artists who were not trained photographers in turn freed the medium from some of its own timeworn clichés of expressivity. The photograph in series—deliberately pokerfaced studies of snow melting off a tree branch by Douglas Huebler or of differently shaped water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher seen in this exhibition—undercut the autonomy and singularity of the single image in favor of typological accumulations, serial progressions, or narrative sequences that required the active participation of the viewer in the making of meaning. The late 1970s saw a renewed interest in the psychological, social, and rhetorical functions of imagery, and artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince used the camera to show how representations shape our sense of self and the world around us, and not vice versa. In the new decade, the scale and ambition of photography expanded dramatically, absorbing elements of painting, performance, and cinema to make highly seductive pictures with enough power and impact to break through the passivity and habit of a culture addicted to the consumption of images.
The accelerated pace of technological change during the 1990s greatly transformed the way in which visual information was perceived and processed, with the line between reality and the imagination becoming increasingly blurred. The hallucinatory clarity of Rodney Graham's upside-down tree, Sharon Lockhart’s reflection-filled hotel room, and Uta Barth's luminous river view are all, nevertheless, rooted in an exploration of analog photography’s unique technical and material underpinnings, pushed to the point of a bedazzled transcendence. This fervent experimentalism, combined with a profound understanding of the medium’s complex history and relationship to other media, provides a template for the works of photographic art to be featured in this new hall.