On recent Stephen Shore, Raghubir Singh, Torbjørn Rødland, and Farah Al Qasimi exhibitions
“Our life is half natural and half technological,” the artist Nam June Paik said in 1986. “Half and half is good.” These days, with enhanced reality in full effect and AI on the horizon, some wonder whether “half and half” still applies. Whatever the case, today’s digitally minded artists and filmmakers have been taking cues from their analog forerunners, like Paik. That’s why I’ve started “The Browser,” a column that will focus on photo-based, moving-image, and digital work, with an emphasis on how today’s high-tech art might be squared with yesterday’s. First up: a look at several New York shows of color photography.
‘Color is vulgar,” Walker Evans wrote in 1974. For the refined photographer aspiring to high art at the time, color was the province of fashion magazines: something for the masses, vulgar in the original sense of the word. Among modernist photographers, Evans was not alone in the sentiment: Robert Frank called black and white “the colors of photography.” When asked for his feelings about color photography in 1971, Henri Cartier-Bresson replied, “It’s disgusting. I hate it!” It was around that time that a 24-year-old American photographer, Stephen Shore, abandoned black and white for color in “American Surfaces,” the series that would put him on the map. These are photos of everyday things—rumpled bedsheets, a cluttered refrigerator, a dusting of blown-apart newspapers on a street corner. The color in them can be bright, even flashy—a red milk carton on a redder table, for example; they are both vulgar and not: they picture things belonging to the masses, and yet they are anything but unrefined.
A remarkable survey of Shore’s work at the Museum of Modern Art demonstrates the powerful effect of his transition to color. His early black and white work—modernist street scenes, views of Andy Warhol’s Factory, wry pictures in a Conceptualist mode—are passable, but dry, so the show feels staid until you get to “American Surfaces,” when it erupts. It’s difficult to look away from Shore’s American diners, vistas, and streets, and occasional landscapes taken in Israel, Ukraine, and elsewhere because of their lavish tones—toxic greens, for example, or yellow-oranges the color of spilled egg yolks. At first glance, they are affectless; on reflection, they’re moving. If Shore’s photographs are pictures of alienation, as some have suggested, they’re certainly peculiar ones.
MoMA’s Shore show, which is curated by Quentin Bajac with Kristen Gaylord, argues against the idea that his work is removed or chilly. And their show is engaging in a way that photography shows rarely are: Shore’s print-on-demand photo books dangle from the ceiling, inviting viewers to page through them, and there are audio recordings of people reading Shore’s tender writing on photographs by Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and others. (Though I take issue with the curators’ repeated assertion that Shore is some kind of outsider. What kind of outsider has solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, shoots pictures for Andy Warhol’s Factory, and falls in with a circle of New York photo curators, all before he turns 30?)
After “American Surfaces,” Shore dug in with color and even began printing at larger sizes, partly because of a shift in cameras, from a Rollei 35 to a 4 x 5, then to an 8 x 10, and partly, I suspect, to slight his critics. His series “Uncommon Places,” a group of serene, static views of Americana that was published as a book in 1982, remains his career’s high point. They show small-town America in dazzling shades of aquamarine, lime, and avocado. Despite the series’ title, there is nothing uncommon about the San Francisco streets, Texaco gas stations, and Midwestern hotel rooms that come before Shore’s camera. If anything, it’s their palettes that are unusual—they look positively unlike everyday life.
A sense of quietude continues throughout Shore’s work, whether he’s tenderly photographing struggling Rust Belt towns while on commission for Fortune or recording the lives of Holocaust survivors, this time using a digital camera, in Ukraine. That latter series offers some of Shore’s most beautiful work to date. The colors are still vibrant—dramatic reds and cool blues appear throughout—but they have become melancholy. One survivor’s bedroom, decorated entirely in pink, looks out onto a den furnished only with a blue couch and a framed picture. It says everything it needs to about the sadness and the strange sense of peace these survivors’ experience. Color, Shore shows us, structures their lives.
For Raghubir Singh, who died of a heart attack almost 20 years ago at age 58, there was no choice but to rely on color. Black-and-white imagery, he thought, belonged to the West—it was a symbol of the region’s angst and alienation. For India, where he was born and spent the majority of his career, however, color was an “essential element.” It created a sense of darśan, or a sacred connection to images that he felt was typically Indian. Singh traveled around his home country for much of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, photographing the its people, places, and pop culture with dramatic bursts of color.
Although Singh’s work was well-loved during his lifetime, both by critics and artists in the West and outside it, it is not as well-known as the work of his American peers, such as Shore and William Eggleston. Curator Mia Fineman’s 85-work Singh retrospective at the Met Breuer, titled “Modernism on the Ganges,” will hopefully going a long way toward changing this.
Old and new ways of life in India collide in Singh’s photographs, which capture a modernizing India in deep blues, rich greens, and fluorescent reds. A recently-built bridge stretches over a river behind a traditional wedding in one; a totaled orange truck lies on its side in a verdant countryside in another. It’s the hues of these images that stand out. Singh’s work matured a couple decades after the invention of chromogenic printing and the dye-transfer process, which allows photographers to closely control the color palettes of their prints. Just as new technologies and ways of life were transforming the landscape in front of him, they were also transforming the way in which he could depict it.
Singh’s photographs likewise had a range of inspirations, both old and new, from brightly hued Indian court paintings to Eugène Atget’s tightly composed pictures of Parisian shops. At the Met Breuer, many of these are shown alongside his work, to eye-opening effect. You start to see how Atget’s emphasis on sharp diagonals, for example, influenced Singh’s final series, “Ambassador,” which abstracted Ambassador cars—the quintessential symbols of Indian modernity—into mirrors, doors, and windshields that jut across Indian streets and fields. You can also see why Cartier-Bresson and Lee Friedlander’s clinical formalism wasn’t a fit for Singh—it was too cold. It’s the sense of empathy in Singh’s photographs that makes “Modernism on the Ganges” a winner. It’s a warm show with warm images, both in tone and in color palette. Some of Singh’s best work is his most instantly engaging: one delightful 1978 photograph features five villagers in Rajasthan, Singh’s home state, licking vermilion-colored popsicles.
Like the oeuvres of numerous male artists in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, Singh’s output will likely now be reassessed in light of accusations of sexual misconduct. In late November, the artist Jaishri Abichandani came forward with allegations that Singh had coerced her into having sex with him—and it seems she may not be the only one—leading a group of #MeToo protesters to gather outside the Met Breuer. In these times, the truth ostensibly captured by the camera must contend with the truth behind it.
These days, Shore’s “Uncommon Places” look a lot like the pictures we all take on our phones, usually minus his brilliant sense of composition. It’s no coincidence that the average iPhone user’s food pictures aspire to Shore’s diner pancakes—such is the extent to which his photographs have seeped into the culture. Technology has made it possible to produce really colorful images of really banal things—just think of all the effects and filters that can be used on Instagram, Shore’s preferred social media, no surprise there. His photostream, which features images that are a bit less refined than those in “Uncommon Places,” is displayed on tablets in the MoMA show.
Several photographers have recently begun exploring what color might look like in a digital age, and one is Torbjørn Rødland. The Norwegian artist has been taking oddball pictures of violent interactions and household objects for two decades, but it’s only in the past few years that his work has gotten its due from critics. A show of his recent pictures at Galerie Eva Presenhuber made clear why: his work looks a lot like stock photography. With its carefully edited surfaces, slick lighting, and surrealist tableaux, Rødland’s photographs start to seem a lot like the authorless pictures that get traded around the internet, these days most often as memes.
A hand almost getting sliced open by an ice skate, a screaming girl being dragged across a carpet, and nude thighs nearly being pierced by a short picket fence were among the disturbing scenes conjured. They’d feel exploitative if they weren’t so obviously staged. Their immaculate, glossy surfaces invite extended looking.
More so than in the past, color is key in Rødland’s recent work. Hard Fruit (2015) features a very green apple set atop a carpet, the light bouncing off what appears to be the fruit’s skin. But the longer one stares at this strange image, the more it becomes obvious that this is a fake apple. The fruit’s surface now reveals itself as cracked glass. In the editing process, Rødland has cranked up the contrast, making an artificial apple look preternaturally organic. It’s not a bad metaphor for current digital image culture at large.
Further downtown, at Helena Anrather gallery, digitally amped-up fruit showed up again, this time in Farah Al Qasimi’s impressive New York debut. In her 2016 photograph Butterfly Garden, two butterflies sit on an orange slice left on a metal railing. The fruit is rendered in such a toxic shade, it could nearly give you afterimages. The same could be said of the lush purples, blues, and whites that appear elsewhere in the young Emirati photographer’s images, many of which feature Arab or Southeast Asian men in domestic settings. In the drily funny Living Room Vape (2017), a man vapes on a lavishly plush couch while a woman wearing royal purple reaches out to him. It echoes both court painting and luxury clothing ads—and it’s your pick as to which is the main inspiration here. Al Qasimi’s eye for color never fails her, whether it’s a picture of a falconer’s plastic-gloved hands holding a bird up for the camera or a portrait of a man in white robes slouched across a bed. These are experiments in what color is capable of communicating—the truth, or something like it.