Last Tuesday I was reading about landscape photography as a genre in Susan Bright’s book, Art Photography Now. In looking through the photographers she highlights in the contemporary landscape section, I stopped on Uta Barth and Justine Kurland.
Uta Barth is one of those photographers I know, but I don’t really “know”. I know she’s a big deal, and I know her images are of ordinary things. I also know tons of photographers site her as an inspiration, so I decided to gather some more info. Wiki wasn’t much help on this one - born in Germany, lives and works in LA, 2012 MacArthur Fellow and a Guggenheim in 2004-5, 11 monographs (see? a big deal).
Her website is pretty terrific. Not only does she show installation images of her bodies of work along with the photographs, she has a page that hyperlinks to interviews with and articles about her. If you want the whole story, listen to this podcast lecture she gave at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Basically, after grad school she did a lot of soul-searching about what she wanted her work to be about. She studied visual art (emphasis on the visual), and she was not interested in narrative, metaphor or symbolism. She was interested in not what we see but how we see. Her work never directly addresses the literal subject matter of the photograph but is instead about vision itself and perception. Her work is not a product of the history of photography (artists in other mediums whose work dealt with duration, minimalism, the Light and Sound movement were her inspiration), but because the lens functions like a human eye, photography seemed like the best medium to make work about looking.
I knew Justine Kurland came out of Yale in the ‘90s, where she studied with Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia and has been associated with a narrative trend of that time that often featured women in evocative, ambiguous scenarios. Kurland was part of the show Crewdson co-curated in 1999 called “Another Girl, Another Planet”, which some said was incestuous, since six of the 13 (12 female) photographers had graduated from Yale’s MFA program within three years of the show.
Anyway, seeing Justine Kurland in the Art Photography Now book reminded me of a really interesting article I read a couple of years ago called “Dial P for Panties: Narrative Photography in the 1990s by Lucy Souter. You can read an excerpt here. (Oh. Justine Kurland. She photographs females - often nude - in natural, but not traditionally beautiful, post-paradise settings where strange and erotic things seem to be taking place. In some of her work she visited hippie communes which she feels are a continuation/remnant of the pioneer dream and that her photographs operate inside the American tradition of picturing a more perfect world. That last part was mostly in her own words.)
Back to the Panties. The article is pretty long, but this is the part I thought was really interesting. Souter says that “Like all contemporary art, the 1990s wave of narrative photography is given its meaning by the institutions and rhetorical framework in which it appears. This context is in turn shaped by decades of artistic activity and critical debate.” (Side-note: I am really interested in how artistic movements and the works of certain artists fit together - the context is what helps me wrap it all together in my head.) She says that for the most part, they (the ‘90s narrative photographers, like the ladies in the Crewdson exhibition) draw from three different strands of post-war photographic practice.
1. the subjectivized approach to the documentary tradition (embodied by the 1967 “New Documents” show of work by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand and championed by MoMA under John Szarkowski) - I’ve already looked at this a lot, but feel free to venture down that scholarship path on your own
2. the conceptual photographic activities of artist like Eleanor Antin, Robert Barry and Ed Ruscha
3. the postmodern appropriation and staging by artists like Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall
Basically, they are pulling a bit from each of these genres to create images that are a bit documentary in style, definitely subjective, have a conceptual theme but more mundane imagery, and are staged. This is just one small part of a fairly dense but interesting article.