A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio hangs in the Edward Steichen galleries on the third floor of MOMA, and remarkable images invite you to move throughout the space. The purpose of the show is to demonstrate the range of experience within the studio, as opposed to photography of landscapes or the streets. Man Ray is here, as is Irving Penn, Edward Weston, and even William Wegman. All, in their own right, are worth the visit, with Penn’s among the most striking. Even work by artists unknown by the more-than-partially-art-literate photography buff will linger in your mind after you leave. I’m still struck by Josef Sudek’s images, haunting ruminations of the view from his studio window that turn on remarkable control of light, texture, and, undoubtedly, darkroom genius. I went back to them three times before I left for the day just to see if I still loved them. I do.
Still, the exhibit itself rings hollow in many ways. It has the feel of sleight-of-hand, as though we are to be convinced that the theme, “studio,” has far greater meaning than our little minds can bear. As we move from room to room, we are informed, if not outright cajoled, into accepting the narrative that a “studio” is, in fact, not a physical space, but instead a kind of state of mind that transcends petty limitations like space, function, or even equipment. As we drift through arguments against the need for even a camera as part of the photographic process, we are asked to reconceptualize both the medium and the practice of making pictures. We are, effectively, told that photography is not photography at all, but an artistic ephemera whose only tangible certainties are its shifting boundaries. Nevermind the photographs on the wall in front of our faces, the exhibit insists. There’s an idea here! And, it’s an idea you’ve never considered!
Cue the dramatic, cliffhanger scale down to basso profondo.
I want to be clear: you should see the exhibit—the Richard Avedon photograph of Carl Hoefert alone is worth it—but surely I was not the only one disappointed to find only a smattering of images of studios or artists working in studios, and surely I am not the only one who felt repeatedly that I was being reminded how shallow I am for not having recognized my pedestrian expectations. It’s as though I would turn a corner, and GOTCHA!, I was wrong again—it’s an abstraction, probably a famous one, whose connection to the theme is not so much tenuous as insistent.
I think of this as a failure of rhetorical imagination. MOMA enjoys unrivaled opportunity to tell not just a story about why the arts matter and why photography matters, but also an unparalleled obligation to have that story be meaningful and persuasive—for it to make people not only understand an exhibition but WANT to tell the story of it themselves. For those of us who love photography and love MOMA, there is nothing in A World of It’s Own to, on its own, criticize. You SHOULD take a look to consider what the story is trying to tell you. Linger in front of Penelope Umbrico’s “Variants” or Adrian Piper’s striking and unforgettable “Food for the Spirit.” You will remember them. What I find myself criticizing is the gestalt, the wholeness of it as disconnected from reasonable and—and this is the key—hopeful and unspoken expectation for some understanding of what a studio actually is or means. For a show to leave an impact, it must satisfy that hidden hope for surprise, coherence, and maybe even awe, and not be caught up in a kind of insistence on its own intellectual worth. I’m not complaining about the esoteric nature of certain, for lack of a better term, scholastic approaches to staging shows—I’ve slogged through Anselm and actually found it rewarding. The problem is not in the idea; the problem is in the insistence that the idea stands on its own merits instead of being handled with an eye toward how we, as museum goers, learn new ways of thinking about art. We need to see the connections explicitly, the wholeness of them and how they interact, especially when, in a place like MOMA, new minds are for the first time wandering the galleries.
A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio runs through October 5, 2014.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures, an art critic, and a Professor at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY.