September 19, 2003
PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW | 'STRANGERS'
The Gaze Turns Outward and Sees Estrangement
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Slide Show: Strangers: The First I.C.P. Triennial
NOT that anyone except the curators felt there was a pressing need for yet another art survey, but the first Triennial of the International Center of Photography is at least that rare case: an instructive, topical show.
It is also timely. The theme, "strangers," is, in the nature of survey themes, nebulous enough to be a catchall for diverse brands of photography and video, which no doubt accommodated the different tastes of the four curators who put this together. But, for once, the title is also specific enough that it actually means something. After 9/11 the subject of strangers has gained traction and psychological resonance, although 9/11 happens not to be what any of the photographs or videos in this show are explicitly about.
Instead, most of these works, in some way or another, express a cautionary view that the world is full of people who are strangers to one another. You might say that after years of navel-gazing, the climate of photo-based art has gradually shifted from me to them.
That is now also the political condition to which everyone is slowly awakening. It is the state of being that David Goldblatt records with his pictures of clashing cultures in South Africa; and what Chien-Chi Chang records with his heroic double portraits of residents at a psychiatric asylum in Taiwan where patients are chained two by two, some of them discreetly holding hands; and what Coco Fusco records with her video of immigrants in Barcelona whom she invites to sing the Catalan national anthem. And it is also what Yto Barrada records with her photograph of Moroccan laborers, silently seated at row after row of tables in a factory, policed by managers, peeling shrimp.
You wouldn't call this concerned photojournalism exactly. The artists don't expect to change the world by making pictures of it. They variously register people and places representative of the gaps and clashes that define us. Much of the work focuses on the Middle East and Africa, but that is not a stated theme. A few photographs stress architecture without any people: buildings as metaphors for estrangement. Efrat Shvily, for example, shoots construction sites in Israel and the West Bank, arid new settlements being built on suburban and contested land, unoccupied and shuttered. There is an inherent element of alienation to many of these triennial pictures and videos, which may leave you, by the end of the show, feeling a little melancholic.
On the other hand, Philip-Lorca diCorcia'sluxurious and weirdly lighted photographs of anonymous passers-by on an arcaded street in Havana have the strange gravity and magical buoyancy of a García Márquez novel. Tim Maul's black-and-white pictures of nooks and crannies around New York record spots that a spiritualist told him had psychic traces of grief. The images are Atgetesque views, secondarily ironic, primarily poetic, the idea of strangers being implied only by their absence.
The works here also meditate inevitably on the intrinsic mysteries of the photographic medium. After all, photography from the start has been about making pictures of strangers. Point and shoot: anyone with a camera can violate someone else's privacy just by pressing a button, which is what caused Cartier-Bresson to remark that there is something appalling about photographing people.
One of the most shocking works in this show is by Harun Farocki, who presents grainy black-and-white surveillance tapes from a California maximum-security prison. We see an inmate shot and killed by guards after a fight with another inmate in the prison yard. Surveillance cameras and also mug shots: photographs monitor strangers. Mug shots were conceived in the 19th century to catalog and distinguish outlaws from the rest of society, to create a visual category of pariahs, who by definition are strangers to civil society.
At the same time, photographs, even videos, can never really say very much about who is in them. Various triennial artists linger over details that supposedly tell us what we should know about a subject; acting like ethnographers, we are meant to decipher these details as signifiers. Zwelethu Mthethwa makes big color photographs of poor black South Africans posing in their houses, presenting themselves to the camera. One picture here shows two young men dressed in suits against a wall made of plain cardboard, shiny pots on a stove beside them — a relaxed image of vaguely mixed gender signals expressing individual humanity. These works are antidotes to the cliché of the black victim in South Africa, composed to make their subjects seem particular and less like social abstractions, which is to say less like strangers.
Except that what can we ever know of somebody just from a picture? The most endearing work in the show is Rineke Dijkstra's excruciatingly funny four-minute video of a shy, cringing young girl with braces lip-synching moronic lyrics by the Backstreet Boys, a perfect expression of adolescent pain and desire, provoking empathy. Ms. Dijkstra also photographs Almerisa, a Bosnian girl whose family settled in Amsterdam, tracking her passage from little waif in her Sunday best — wearing funny blue socks and patent leather shoes, her tiny legs angling from the seat of a red plastic chair at a refugee center — into a teenager, assimilated, hard, trying to look at ease, preening disdainfully for the camera. Photographing the girl, Ms. Dijkstra affects the sympathetic dispassion of a family doctor examining a difficult patient.
But other photographs of Almerisa might chart a different arc, make her seem like another young woman, tell another tale about adolescence and immigration. It is Ms. Dijkstra's privilege as an artist to choose the story she wants. Art only has to have its own integrity and completeness, which shouldn't be mistaken for the truth, even when a photograph looks straightforward.
Several artists tackle this particular truism directly. Susan Meiselas has completed an extraordinary project, a result of which is a book published in conjunction with the triennial. She collected photographs and other materials documenting the encounter of foreigners with the Dani, an indigenous people of the West Papuan highlands, from their "discovery" by an American explorer in the late 1930's through their violent pacification by Indonesians to their present commodification as eco-tourist attractions.
Ms. Meiselas's work expresses the essence of the notion of the stranger in modern culture and also the tricky nature of photographic reality, since photographers have portrayed the Dani differently over the years, as violent savages and noble warriors and happy nudists, depending on who was snapping the pictures and for whom.
Luc Delahaye has taken a different tack toward the same issue. He has shot the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank as a wide panorama in which tiny figures crisscross a wasteland of rubble, beyond which a jumble of low-rise houses spill toward the horizon under puffy clouds. Mr. Delahaye has lately been making these sort of amazing panoramic photographs, not only in the Middle East but also in Afghanistan, at ground zero and other places.
They are responses to standard photojournalism. News photographs focus on incidents. They get close in. They encapsulate a moment, which means they also leave out much of what it is actually like to stand in a place, where your field of vision is wide and all sorts of information compete for your attention. In Mr. Delahaye's panorama of Jenin it isn't immediately clear what you should be looking at or what is going on or even whether this is a coherent image, notwithstanding that it is spectacular. Distance, literal distance, in this case from the people he is shooting, represents a quality of estrangement and conveys the otherworldliness of the camp.
The triennial does not distinguish between figures like Mr. Delahaye and artists like Justine Kurland, who photographs people in communes, or Collier Schorr, who photographs young German soldiers she dresses in Nazi uniforms, or John Schabel, who snaps pictures of people snapping pictures of other people, capturing the flash of their cameras, which look like ghostly orbs.
The line between art and photojournalism, such as it is anymore, is here almost beside the point. Yoshua Okon has produced a hilarious video — I don't know whether you would call it art or low-budget reality television — in which he induces various strangers to improvise soap opera and other scenes in a furniture store in East Los Angeles. Rolling cameras inspire bizarre behavior, which is the basic lesson of all reality television, here played out on a discomfortingly intimate scale. At one point a heavy-set woman wearing a headband and glasses impulsively strangles a plaster bunny while rolling on a bed, cursing her mother-in-law, after which she laughs hysterically. Mr. Okon's camera lingers over her laughing for several minutes. She becomes a stranger whose privacy we feel we have suddenly invaded. The camera makes us into voyeurs.
Then again, she chose to act before the camera. People today go to humiliating lengths to become somebody in the world by having their picture taken, only to make themselves seem more like strangers. Shizuka Yokomizo has produced a series of photographs called "Dear Stranger," for which she wrote anonymously to people with ground-floor apartments in Tokyo, London, New York and Berlin, asking them to stand by their windows at a particular moment on a certain evening to be photographed from the street. She refused to meet them. If they tried to meet her, she would not photograph them. If they declined to be photographed, they could close their curtains or draw the blinds. She and they had to remain strangers.
The pictures show various people posing warily, framed by the panes of their windows, one man shirtless, wearing jeans, all of them stiffly staring into the darkness outside their apartments or half-smiling at the camera, skeptical, apprehensive, curious, compliant, vulnerable — their expressions are hard to fix.
Through Ms. Yokomizo we become strangers looking into the bedrooms of exhibitionists. The portraits are hypnotic and alarming, although they are not really any more invasive than ordinary snapshots of strangers — the reverse, in fact. These people posed for their photographs. They present themselves to us.
The pictures are intimate at the same time they remain mysterious. The bottom line is that every photograph finally makes a stranger of its subject.
"Strangers: The First I.C.P. Triennial of Photography and Video,"organized by Edward Earle, Christopher Phillips, Carol Squiers and Brian Wallis, is at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street, (212)857-0090, through Nov. 30.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company