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5 Photography Exhibitions to See This Summer

From dream states to Russian decadence, here are this summer’s must-see photography exhibitions in New York.

By Genevieve Allison

Sasha Rudensky, Purple Suit, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Sasha Wolf Gallery

Sasha Rudensky, Purple Suit, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Sasha Wolf Gallery

Sasha Rudensky: Tinsel and Blue

Sasha Wolf Gallery, 70 Orchard Street, New York
Through July 16, 2016

Since 2009, the Russian-born photographer Sasha Rudensky, who immigrated to the United States as a child, has traveled to Russia and the Ukraine to explore post-Soviet culture. In a stylized, quasi-documentary mode, Rudensky isolates figures amidst landscapes or settings meant to signify the effects of materialism. The predominance of the color blue unifies the work, which includes images of an exotic dancer (Snow Queen, 2014), a businessman being fitted in a suit (Purple Suit, 2014), and a lone grocery store squatting amongst dim residential towers (Night Market, 2010). Throughout these pictures, a cool, flinty atmosphere pervades scenes of bourgeois lifestyle in the former USSR, suggesting a pact between economic development and social cohesion defined largely by shiny surfaces. Indeed, the high gloss finish of the photographs—evocative of the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia—amplifies the role mass media play in the construction of cultural narratives in postcommunist Russia and the figuration of stereotypes, commonly held in the West, of the country’s materialistic consumer class. In their sparseness, the scenes probe themes of isolation and distance. As with the outdated modernist high rises on a faded development sign (New Development, 2009), Rudensky ponders the anachronistically futuristic visions that still appear to frame the cultural landscape of post-communist Russia.

RongRong & inri, Tsumari Story No. 11-5, 2014. Courtesy the artists and Chambers Fine Art

RongRong & inri, Tsumari Story No. 11-5, 2014. Courtesy the artists and Chambers Fine Art

Tsumari Story: RongRong & inri

Chambers Fine Art, 522 West 19th Street, New York
Through August 20, 2016

Most family photo albums confirm Eugène Atget’s lament that the snapshot works faster than we can think: not a whole lot of time, nor a significant amount of thought, goes into the creation of the images that illustrate a family’s life together. That is, of course, unless Mom and Dad are RongRong & inri. As husband and wife, the duo delicately explores their life as a couple and the growth of their family. In this joint exhibition, Chinese-born RongRong and Japanese-born inri present a series of black-and-white photographs created during the family’s extended stay in the rural area of Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Transported from their home in Beijing to an empty, snow-covered landscape, they embraced a traditional Japanese lifestyle. There, we follow the couple’s response to an environment that seems at once new and timeless. Using elaborate darkroom processes such as hand tinting and layering effects, the photographers manipulate the texture of the images to imbue intimate subjects with an atmosphere of detachment. In a notably poetic image, Tsumari Story No. 7-1 (2012), mother and child look out over a distant valley of stepped fields. In other photographs, the family gazes through windows and doorways toward the elsewhere that they are now a part of. These quiet images are less interested in telling us a story than in articulating the silent language of bodies as they communicate together in a room, or as they exist alone in the landscape.

 

Paul Graham, Senami, Christchurch, New Zealand 2011 © Paul Graham; courtesy Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Paul Graham, Senami, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2011 © the artist and courtesy Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Dream States: Contemporary Photographs and Video

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York
Through October 30, 2016

The entanglement between photography and the dream world, central to Surrealist experiments inaugurated nearly a century ago, is the deceptive subject in this exhibition of contemporary photographs and video drawn from the Met’s permanent collection. Jack Goldstein’s triptych The Pull (1976), suspends minuscule figures in an empty expanse of sky or water or some other unknown medium. Fred Tomaselli made the photogram Portrait of Laura (2015) by charting the eponymous subject’s astrological sign with pills on photosensitive paper. Such pieces, proposing to map states of interiority, stand in contrast to images by Robert Frank, Peter Hujar, Sophie Calle, Paul Graham, and Nan Goldin, among others, which dwell in a typology of sleeping figures. Darren Almond’s single channel digital video, Schwebebahn (1995) is a curious anomaly in the otherwise all-photography exhibition, but like some of the still images—such as Jim Shaw’s Dream Object (I Was Working on an Undersea Landscape) (1997)—the piece explores the world from its underside. Filmed on Super-8 on the Wuppertal Suspension Railway, Almond slowed, flipped, and reversed the footage to affect an inverted reality. Together, these works illustrate sensations of dreaming as defined by subconscious experience, as well as conscious fantasies of alternate states.

S. J. Moodley, [Two women wearing party dresses], ca. 1978 Courtesy The Walther Collection

S. J. Moodley, Two women wearing party dresses, ca. 1978. Courtesy The Walther Collection

Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa

The Walther Collection Project Space, 526 West 26th Street, New York
Through September 3, 2016

In 1957, Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley opened a photography studio in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he produced government passbook photos as well as studio portraits for the nonwhite community. Moodley, a South African Indian and ardent antiapartheid activist, opened his studio to poor and working class sitters, who would have been classified by apartheid legislation as “Black,” “Indian,” or “Coloured.” Dating from the 1970’s and early ’80s, this selection presents a uniquely personal portrait of life in South Africa at a time of momentous social and cultural change. Deadpan and playful, the portraits are evidently self-styled by the sitters, who express themselves in different guises, attitudes, and modes of dress. In contrast to more familiar depictions of South Africa from the same period, in particular the accounts of violence and political turmoil by photojournalists seeking to reach an international audience, the Kitty Studio photographs capture the mood of everyday life. Following Moodley’s death, thousands of portraits from Kitty’s Studio were bought by the Campbell Collections in Durban. But, deemed too contemporary for their archive, which focuses on the history of southern Africa and KwaZulu-Natal, the negatives were discarded before being salvaged from the trash by an intern. After fifteen years of storage in a residential garage in Johannesburg, the collection was ultimately acquired by the sociologist and Columbia University professor Steven Dubin. Like the photographs of his great contemporary, Malick Sidibé, who captured the exuberant youth culture of Mali embracing the rock ’n’ roll age, Moodley’s images present us with a window into the transformations of South African culture in the second half of the twentieth century.

Erin O’Keefe, Things as They Are #11, 2015. Courtesy Denny Gallery

Erin O’Keefe, Things as They Are #11, 2015. Courtesy Denny Gallery

Big Nothing

Sous Les Etoiles Gallery, 560 Broadway, New York
Through August 19, 2016

Since Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy first succeeded in severing photography from its figurative and narrative conventions, abstract and cameraless photography has become a field unto itself. In this elegant group exhibition, organized by the photographer Richard Caldicott, six artists display their concern for technical and material process in generating “concrete” or nonobjective photography, from Karl Martin Holzhäuser’s Lichtmalerei (Painting with light) (2002) to the computer-generated pinhole work of Gottfried Jäger. Ellen Carey’s photograms and paper negatives explore the relationship between the aperture and the frame. A series of small works by Erin O’Keefe (Things as They Are, 2015–16), which appear at first to be finely rendered paintings, are in fact photographs of painted and translucent materials that the artist, who trained in architecture, has carefully arranged. Inverting historical techniques, Luuk de Haan experiments with light sources such as digital screens to create his grainy, amorphous prints. Although some of the cameraless techniques exemplified in this exhibition date to the earliest innovations of the medium, they appear fresh in an era of photographic culture shaped by mobile camera phones and a relentless stream of digital images.

Genevieve Allison is a writer and editor based in New York.

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