If one hears the names Rubenstein, Myers, and Block, one might assume he’s getting sued, but not this last summer, not in Santa Fe. Amidst an array of summer photography exhibits and events, the three most striking one-person shows displayed the works of three seasoned Yiddishe Santa Fe female photographers with three different approaches to their art.
Joan Myers’s suite of dependably powerful landscapes—Fire and Ice—at the Andrew Smith Gallery startles in terms of subject and the straightforwardness with which they are seen. Her images are carefully captioned as to where they were shot (all over the world), but the specifics are not the point. These are not documentary photographs. Her images feel not just as if they are of fire and ice, but that they are located in a state of mind where fire meets ice.
A selection of portraits by Gay Block at the New Mexico Museum of Art provided an overview of her four-decade-long quest to embrace her personal identity by focusing on members of the tribe of Jewish Americans of which she is a part. She examines young girls at camp, holocaust survivors, the alter kakers of South Miami, and not least of all, her mom. Block’s portraits are warm but unflinching, each less a confrontation between Block and her sitter than a collaboration that also involves the viewer. Her portraits express a respect for her subjects and a joy for the photographic process and image itself.
David Richard Gallery, rarely the home of lens-based art, has been exhibiting an ongoing, three installment project by Meridel Rubenstein titled Eden Turned On Its Side, which purports to explore the earth, climate change, human co-evolution, and how the destructive forces of nature are regenerative. Rubenstein is one ballsy broad, going to Iraq to shoot the Garden of Eden in this day and age. And Rubenstein is equally daring in the execution and presentation of her photographs, mingling single images, color, black-and-white, negatives, diptychs, triptychs, collages, and mandala-like constructions—all to heroic effect.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, but just across the street at photo-eye Gallery, were some of Jock Sturges’s tiresome images of young, wet, and naked damsels pouting to the camera. According to Sturges’s website, the case for mounting a soft-core nude-fest in an art gallery is that the significance of his work lies in the purity of its celebration of beauty, and his expertise in portraying it. The defense goes on to claim that anyone who finds these lusciously printed photos of undressed, underage nymphs wallowing in the surf to be titillating and pornographic is obviously suffering a provincial and prudish American sensibility, whereas Monsieur Sturges has a more sophisticated, European perspective on the naturalness of nudity. Despite my critical distance, I personally couldn’t help but feel a wee bit American looking at this work.
The controversy over whether his photographs are art or porn unfortunately overshadows the question: why, if it is art, has Sturges’s work not grown an iota in the last thirty years? His work from the eighties looks the same as his work now. The only difference is that his models are increasingly younger than he, but always equally nubile. Women don’t age in front of Sturges’s lens, and neither, apparently, does Sturges behind it.
Similarly, the Internet furor surrounding the appropriated images of Richard Prince (and the prices they command!) overshadows the fact that Prince hasn’t had a fresh idea in decades. The act of shooting a photograph of a pre-existing image was a hot idea back in the seventies and eighties, and a lot of photographers pursued it. Prince’s early photos of Marlboro advertisements distinguished themselves in a delightfully ironic manner insofar as he let advertising deconstruct the very myths it was promoting about manhood and The West, but it was Sherrie Levine who nailed the appropriation shtick with her deadpan “rephotographs” of the sacred and beloved images that Walker Evans shot during the Great Depression. It was Levine who turned the photography world on its head with a punch right to its nose. She has since moved on from rephotographing existing works of art; she is now sculpting, whereas Prince, after all these years, is still milking the old appropriation cow without adding anything new to the discussion. Prince is now reproducing other photographers’ Instagram pages to show how with it he is with new social media—but he is only a boomer desperately trying to stay relevant. On the other hand, that lucky son-of-a-bitch Richard Prince gets ninety thousand bucks a pop for his prints, so what does he care what I think?
I think the artworld has screwed over the world of photography, and as it happens, Lucy Lippard agrees with me. In a keynote speech to the annual Center Photo Review here in beautiful Downtown Santa Fe, Lippard declared that the artworld’s co-optation of photography wasn’t such a good thing for photographers. The odd thing about Lippard saying that is that she herself is an embodiment of that co-optation. Back in the seventies, I used to read Lippard’s column in The Village Voice, and she never wrote about photography or reviewed shows at the listed photography galleries. She was into the dematerialization of art, ignoring things even as materially negligible as a shadow cast on a thin piece of paper. She wrote about hipper stuff—performances and installations—and she exposed the male hierarchy of the artworld. She didn’t cover photography unless it was work by a feminist shown in a private loft up a steep flight of stairs down in SoHo that only a handful of people would ever see. During the eighties, when photography’s place in the artworld became inevitable, Lippard, along with the rest of the critical establishment, jumped aboard and helped redefine photography to fit her own agenda and convenience. According to Lippard, in order to achieve real significance, photographs must work in the service of social or environmental causes, preferably those to which she herself subscribes. Since photography lacks context and specificity, she says, it cannot constitute meaningful content on its own, so its best use is to illustrate a literal idea that’s better expressed through text. When photography attempts to assert itself as a means of communication or art form of its own, it anesthetizes us to the injustices of the world and normalizes them. If it’s skillfully crafted or aesthetically pleasing, then it’s part of the problem—it’s complicit in the oppression of women and minorities, the exploitation of workers, and the raping of the planet. After about thirty minutes of dismissing photography as either handmaiden to the written word or an enemy of the people, Lippard concluded her talk by saying that photography should eschew the claustrophobic status of art and re-embrace its more populist roots. Since photography’s “roots” are primarily upper-middleclass, if not downright aristocratic, and its ongoing history has been dominated by images not in need of text, one has to wonder why Lippard, with such a narrow and antagonistic view of photography, was the invited and honored orator to a roomful of aspiring photographers and other photo professionals. Had Lippard looked around, had she gone to the portfolio review the following night, she would have seen a convention hall filled with the work of a hundred photographers displaying the products of their concerns. They ranged in quality from damn good to not so much, but all were competent and all—like Rubenstein, Myers, and Block—are certifiable photofanatics, pursuing their own particular visions, driven by their own particular passions. None of them needed a critic of social activism to know which way their wind blows. Photography is about photographs; theory is for theorists.
As Eli Wallach’s character Tuco advised in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, “If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
Richard Baron is a photographer living and working in Santa Fe.