It’s been a long time since photography was considered a separate medium made by people who called themselves photographers—the medium has been thoroughly absorbed and blended with painting and sculpture, video and installation for several decades at least. But it can be fun to check in on photography in a show like the Whitney Biennial, which offers a broad look at rising trends and new directions in art. These seven artists from this year’s show, which spans three floors and was curated by three different people, prove that photography is hardly over—it’s just changed shape in one way or another, and lives on as a tool or a reference or a lens.
As a resident at the American Academy in Rome, Berens made multiple exposures of the same views of the city over the course of a summer, making pictures at different times of day for a project called 40 Views of Rome, 2005. For the series here, he combined the images into dark pictures where only slivers of ruins and silhouettes of the city’s ubiquitous stone pines are visible, making pictures as layered as Rome itself.
Bey’s portraits from “The Birmingham Project” and his picture of Barack Obama might be the most straightforward photographs in the Biennial. Clear and sober, Bey uses the camera to record the solid surfaces of his subjects, and to hint at what is solid beneath that surface.
Photography itself is the subject of Charlesworth’s inverted and reversed diptych of a view camera with its bellows extended. The negative and positive images mimic the effects of the lens and the negative, making a self-referential picture that questions the act of looking, a longtime concern for the artist, who passed away unexpectedly last year.
Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
Two rows of color photographs make up Drucker and Ernst’s glamorous Relationship, 2008-13. In the top row, a figure with long bleached-blond hair poses in heels or in a dark apartment; below, a person with short dark hair lounges in bed or wades in the ocean. The series documents the couple’s gender transitions, artist Drucker from male to female and filmmaker Ernst from female to male, in images that, like gender, walk the line between documentary and performance.
Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft
The whimsical shapes in these rich silver gelatin prints by these artist collaborators call to mind Karl Blossfeldt’s early botanical photos, but there is something unconvincing about them, despite being printed on lush fiber paper. Based on sketches and descriptions of unidentified plants from a mysterious 16th-century text, the Voynich Botanical Studies look like plants imagined by children—they have leaves like little hands and tiny pineapples for flowers but were made using 3D software.
Jackson’s photo-sculpture hybrids are ornate, crust-covered shapes that are sliced open to reveal a glossy photo center. Pandemonium, 2013, is a complex shape with a skin of what looks like ash-colored mud. Where the form has been bisected, an image of burning trees is revealed, suggesting a hot core to the cool piece.
Leonard’s room-size camera obscura makes the case that photography is a relevant tool for looking at the Biennial. Through a palm-sized lens set in the building’s front window, Madison Avenue is projected upside down on the gallery walls, turning the museum itself into a camera.