Does photography still have a place at the MCA?

By Leif Johnson

“Turn your head to the right. Down a little bit. Smile. There.”

The words came from my fiancé as we rode the Metra on our way to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibition, MCA Exposed: Defining Moments in Photography, 1967–2007; the object she held was a camera phone. She smiled and showed me the image on the screen, and I smiled back, thinking that it was one of the best representations of me that I had ever seen. Already before we arrived at the museum, I found myself with the answer to an issue that the exhibit addresses: why the world has been slow to accept photography as a high art on par with sculpture and painting. Photography, as we are reminded by the ironic proliferation of “No Photography” signs in bold capitals found throughout the exhibit, is something of an everyman’s medium, and pieces such as my fiancée’s portrait have become more commonplace than they were in the past. The advent of digital photography has largely eradicated the once prohibitive expense of experimenting with photos, and consequently, some of the photos found on popular photo-hosting sites by amateurs rival those of professional photographers. This is evidenced, for example, by Microsoft’s recent decision to use images posted by Flickr users to serve as wallpapers for its new operating system, Vista.

What, then, can we learn from an exhibit such as MCA Exposed? The photographs in the exhibit, which fill the entirety of the museum’s fourth floor, cover four decades of important innovation in creative photography, a period that also coincides with the dates of the museum’s existence. The exhibit is most helpful in displaying the many ways in which one can use photography, although the exhibition’s division into the three themes of staged photographs, appropriated images, and portraits provides no momentous departure from the themes found in other forms of visual art.

The exhibit succeeds in emphasizing the idea that the photograph itself, and not the object it portrays, is art. This is especially apparent in the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series, which features her silhouette indented in the ground in various locations. The indentation is ephemeral, the photograph eternal. Similarly, an untitled work by the Italian photographer Giuseppe Gabellone emphasizes the photograph, not the object. The 1999 photo features an elaborately constructed sculpture, which was torn down immediately following the photo’s creation. The exhibit also shows how independent photos may acquire new meaning when deliberately arranged, as in Nobuyoshi Araki’s Tokyo Cube series, which features carnal images of Japanese pornography juxtaposed with idyllic images of clouds and a backyard scene to emphasize what he sees as the commonplace nature of such libidinous sexuality in that culture. In addition, documentary photographs are almost entirely absent, and when present, they take the form to new levels, such as in Andres Serrano’s Morgue series, which depicts two hands of murder victims in “poses” strongly reminiscent of the conventions of baroque art.

I was surprised by the mumbles of disappointment from many of the people in the gallery. Inundated as we are in modern society by the photographic image, and considering the recent acceptance of photography as art, perhaps, paradoxically, it has lost the power to attract. Perhaps, despite the depth of a photograph’s meaning or evidence of skill, the medium has become too commonplace, too associated with ubiquitous advertising and mere documentation. For the most part, visitors to the exhibit spent at most one minute at each piece and then moved on.

But one piece on the fourth floor stopped everyone I encountered and held them in what might be described as almost a state of silent and impassioned pathos. I was initially hesitant when, drawn by entrancing sound, I walked in to observe the piece, as I was not sure that it was part of the exhibit. The piece was Shirin Neshat’s stirring short film, Turbulent, shown on two opposing screens. The viewer sits between the two in a darkened room. On one screen, an Iranian male singer sings a poem by the medieval poet Rumi to a full male audience, while on the other screen, a woman dressed in a chador sings a wordless song to an empty and darkened theater. While one sings, the other is silent. The piece poignantly calls attention to the prohibition of female singing under Shiite law and the gulf that separates males and females in Iranian society. The placement of the screens causes viewers to wrestle with themselves so as not ignore one singer in order to pay attention to the other. On a floor devoted to photography, it was not a photograph, but a cousin of photography-—film—that held the attention of the most viewers.

Similarly, Alfredo Jaar’s installation “Geography = War,” found on the fourth floor but apparently not part of the exhibition, incorporated photography in a manner far superior to most of the other pieces. The viewer peers into 36 barrels filled with water to witness images of people afflicted by an African toxic waste disaster. The images come from photographs that are lit from behind and positioned so as to reflect on the water. The people depicted seem at once real and spectral, and the piece is successful in haunting viewers long after they leave. The two exhibits demonstrated exceptional innovation and creativity with photographic images and serve to illustrate a break from the three easy themes into which the exhibition proper is organized.

MCA Exposed is full of innovative and exceptional photographs and well worth a day of contemplation, enjoyment, and study, but the juxtaposition of the photos with the two permanent exhibits forces one to consider the strength of photography as an art form in an age when it is so common. As we left the museum amid gently falling snow, I saw a young woman take out her camera and look through a fence near Water Tower Place to catch what may have been a meaningful and somber image of a woman pulling her child along in the stark weather. Undoubtedly it would have made a good photo, and I was tempted to follow suit, but after my visit I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it art? And, perhaps more importantly, did that matter?