Loeb exhibit captures ‘the ongoing moment’ in photography

Courtesy of Al Nowak, On Location Studios.

What is “the ongoing moment?” It’s a phrase, coined by Geoff Dyer, that contrasts with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic “the decisive moment.” Dyer proposes that photographs add on to a collective unconscious that extends time, rather than capture it, because each image contains immediately recognizable material. Cartier-Bresson’s line implies that the image is singular and separate from the moments before and after it was taken. The ongoing moment is one where the same symbols and structures repeat themselves, with each repetition acquiring new meanings, both intentional and accidental. To explore this dynamic, “The Ongoing Moment: Recent Acquisitions of Photography at the Loeb” is anchored in two works, “Three Women at a Parade, Harlem, NY” by Dawoud Bey and “Untitled (Eating Lobster)” by Carrie Mae Weems. They set the formal boundaries of the exhibit: staged photography and documentary photography, respectively. Every other work fluctuates and complicates this binary—like most other binaries, it doesn’t really exist, but it does help frame the context and content of the work presented. 

Bey’s photograph depicts three elderly ladies standing in front of a police barricade. As the title describes, they’re at a parade, but the inclusion of a police barricade, plus the time period, plus the location, plus their race, all bring to mind the recent Black Lives Matter protests. We see the titular ongoing moment materialize as the subject represents itself and an unintentional contemporary reference. The details might change, but one can easily imagine the same composition occurring just last year.

Weems’ work arrives to a similar conclusion using a completely different technique. To an unsuspecting audience, it’s easy to confuse Weems’ staged dinner scene between a man and a woman as a documentary work (I know I did). The woman sits before a full plate of lobster and a cup of wine, caressing the top of the man’s head. His head is bowed, his hand brings food to his lips and he has consumed all that is before him. The pair could be wife and husband, mother and son, brother and sister. Despite this ambiguity, the gesture and the setting exist in every household, raising the question: Can truthful re-enactment be considered documentary? After all, when working with such quintessential elements, the simultaneous specificity and generality make the image function as a veritable document of millions of people’s lives. A maternal figure is eternal.

However, this dichotomy of staged and documentary photography is not the only one at play, especially within two works from Aaron Turner’s “Black Alchemy Vol. 1,” titled “Georgia (1892)” and “Untitled (looking for self-preservation).” Notions of representation versus abstraction and revealing versus obscuring present themselves, as documents from the past are intervened in order to question the levels, and the intent, of mediation which history passes through before it reaches us. “Georgia (1892)” captures a rough sketch of a lynching, half-hidden by the artist’s hand. The sketch lays on a lightbox, with charcoal residue at the foot of the paper. The residue calls attention to previous revisions of the past; the obfuscation calls attention to the accuracy of the revision which is currently in front of us.

“Untitled (looking for self-preservation)” is a portrait of a Black Civil War soldier projected onto a mirror and some wooden blocks. It looks like cubism brought into the third dimension, as the work reconstructs the surfaces of its subject so that they all appear on a flat plane. Turner’s reconstruction is necessary, as the true emotional weight of the term “Black Civil War soldier” is otherwise impossible to conceptualize. Deknatel Curatorial Fellow in Photography Jessica Brier states “Photography – at its core a medium consisting of light and shadow – has so many built-in metaphors for visible and invisible phenomena and human experiences, and as such it has been a powerful tool for artists including Turner to visualize the continuities (and disjunctures) of racialized experience in the United States.” In other words, Turner must intervene in the original event, because sometimes the horrors of history are too great to be processed directly. The ongoing moment exists to challenge the idea that photography is objective, in the sense that a photograph only represents what is directly a part of the photograph. Here, the soldier references many other soldiers, the lynching references many other lynchings.

Turner continues exploring race through the very medium in which he works. Black and white occur literally, as the sole colors employed, and metaphorically, as the high contrast between them relates to racial divide. Turner’s process of seeking out a special fiber paper in order to print extremely rich, deep blacks mirrors the difficulties of representing Black experiences—the bright whiteness of the paper is the default space. The title of the series also recalls the history of color and black and white photography, where rolls of film were designed to depict white skin tones with nuance, and darker skin tones without.

The exhibit also features works by Ray K. Metzker and Mary Ellen Mark. Out of the exhibit, Mark’s photographs are the ones which most clearly fit into the documentary mode. Metzker is a perfect example of the grey area between staged and documentary, as his photographs are technically documentary. They’re taken on the street, but editorialized in the darkroom via dodging (lightening), burning (darkening) and cropping. Brier describes the importance of all of these works for the Loeb: “The recent acquisitions currently on view in the Hoene Hoy Gallery feature examples of three major areas of strength in the Loeb’s collection of approximately 4,800 photographs: work made by women; documentary or ‘street’ photography; and the integration of photography into contemporary art practices.” And as much as they are important to the Loeb, they’re also important works to anyone interested in art, or interested in learning more about how photography makes meaning. The exhibit is an introduction to a pliable photographic approach, pliable because it breaks with the rigidity of the decisive moment. As we scroll through digital feeds—which hold a different kind of sensuous connection between one post and the next— exploring photography physically is a very visceral way to connect with the ongoing moment. 

“The Ongoing Moment: Recent Acquisitions of Photography at the Loeb” is on view upstairs in the Hoene Hoy Gallery for Photography at the Loeb Art Center until June 27.

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