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Photography on Photography

Exhibition objects

Photography on Photography

Reflections on the Medium since 1960

April 8–October 19, 2008

This exhibition presents four decades of photographs by artists who have turned the camera on photography itself. In the early 1960s, the photograph—mechanical, reproducible, and found in every corner of the culture from the printed page to the passport and photo-booth—became the weapon of choice for artists such as Andy Warhol and Vito Acconci in breaking down the boundaries not only between mediums but between art and life itself. In the following decade, belief in the objectivity and neutrality of photography began to crumble along with all the received wisdoms of the period, and the aggressive and voyeuristic urges latent in the taking of and looking at pictures became the subject in self-portraits by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Janice Guy.

In the late 1970s, Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine began making photographs of the photographs of others and claiming them as their own. Reflecting a moment in which technologies of reproduction such as the audio cassette and VCR were all but erasing distinctions between originals and copies, their strategy of appropriation wreaked havoc not just with photography but with our most cherished notions of authorship and originality. Images by others could also be the starting point for labyrinthine narratives where the viewer is led into a perceptual and epistemological hall of mirrors, as in Allen Ruppersberg's Miscellaneous Men (1977) and Lutz Bacher's Jackie & Me (1989).

Recent years have seen much hand-wringing about the future of the medium, as 150 years of analog photography rapidly give way to its digital successor. Traditional photography's "slow" techniques and the carefully produced prints and books made for the exhibition and dissemination of images now seem as quaint as etchings to a culture increasingly dominated by screens over which pass an ever shifting array of text, still and moving images, and live transmissions. In the face of this epochal transformation, attention has turned to artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto and James Welling who long ago fused an interest in Conceptualism with a loving attention to the material bases of analog photography.

The work of the younger artists that conclude this exhibition, from Josephine Pryde's blushed fourteen-part meditation on photography, time, and luxury anti-aging products to Mark Wyse's sepulchral study of marks left by shelves torn from a wall, assume as a matter of course that photography cannot help but reflect on its own status and condition. It is not accidental that their works and those of their colleagues seen here also eschew digital manipulation—the ideas that go into their pictures come out of a direct engagement with process that equates extending a tradition with its continual questioning.