Photographs have gotten very difficult to see — not merely difficult to look at but to really see, deeply and with comprehension. There are just too many of them to manage it, and they are coming too fast.
Last year a Silicon Valley researcher estimated that more than 1.5 billion new photographs are posted every day on just the larger social media platforms, such as Facebook, Reddit and Snapchat. Add in the smaller networks, and the annual total climbs to more than a trillion.
That's a lot of photographs. But even a number with all those zeroes is not a shock — not when hundreds of millions of people carry around an instant camera in their pocket or purse, practically 24/7. All of them are taking photographs, whether or not the pictures ever get out of those cellphone galleries.
A new exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum proposes that, in response to this visually numbing fact, a distinctive strain of photography has slowly emerged among artists over the last many years — a strain that has gained considerable traction. "Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition" is an unusually absorbing show.
Composition is the umbrella beneath which the diverse work of an array of artists is gathered. Of course, the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole — composition — is what anyone does to make a picture, professional and amateur alike. But these are works in which the act is pushed into the foreground. There, it is shown to be not quite as simple as one might otherwise think it to be.
Not for nothing is Annette Kelm's 2007 color photograph "First Picture for a Show" installed in the first gallery, as well as being reproduced on the cover of the accompanying catalog. "First Picture for a Show" is a witty and sensible place to start.
The elegant photograph is simplicity itself. An ordinary acorn is shown against a field of buttery yellow and silvery gray. But the simplicity is deceptive.
That it's not a snapshot of the passing scene but has, instead, been carefully composed is self-evident. But an acorn portrait is also strange (dare I say nutty?). Slowly but surely, the compositional complexity reveals itself.
The acorn isn't centered but occupies the lower-right quadrant. The rest of the photograph is pure color — two soft, almost atmospheric hues, distinct from but complementary with the colors of the sharply drawn nut.
The acorn casts a dark shadow, which clarifies that the light source comes from the upper left — opposite the acorn's placement. Yet neither acorn nor shadow seems to rest on an actual surface.
The line between the yellow and gray is fuzzed, not sharp, so there's no sense of a depiction of a wall behind a tabletop or floor. Instead, the illuminated object and its ephemeral shadow sit on a plane of color — sit, that is, on the surface of the photograph.
Kelm's peculiar nature picture functions like a drawing, albeit made with a camera. She sketches "the art of fixing a shadow," as photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot described the process nearly 180 years ago. Her little acorn is the essence of a mighty photographic oak tree, which has grown to spread its digital canopy over everything.
Speed and volume are terms that characterize today's glut of digital images. Embracing slowness and singularity, Kelm trades them both for their opposites. Against the contemporary image glut her picture asserts itself as art, quietly but with determination.
This is rather different from the aims of the so-called Pictures Generation of artists, who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons and many others did, indeed, respond to image glut — but mostly it was industrial and commercial image glut. The established media culture of movies, television, popular advertising and magazines was the spur for their work.
Today, when a YouTube video or a tweet can go viral, mass media merges with personal media. In "Perfect Likeness," a wide variety of artists have found ways to jam a metaphorical stick into the furiously spinning spokes of the hybrid photo wheel. Viewers get snared by pictorially subversive means, all designed to stop them in their tracks.
Hammer adjunct curator Russell Ferguson has assembled 53 images by 26 artists, mostly European and North American, to tell his story. The first gallery, smartly installed, is as carefully choreographed as the artists' own compositions, with photographs talking to their neighbors. The selection lays out several strategies that will be elaborated as the exhibition unfolds.
Kelm's picture is the smallest in the show, not quite 8 inches by 7 inches. Directly opposite, Andreas Gursky's picture of fishermen wading in a remote wilderness river approaches the monumentality of Romantic landscape painting, which blossomed as photography began to proliferate in the 19th century. At more than 8 feet by 7 feet, it is the show's largest photograph.
Nearby, three exquisite black-and-white pictures of majestic icebergs by Lynn Davis unhinge our stable perceptions of size and scale. Just how large or small these floating masses might be is tough to determine, given few relative visual cues.
Instead, the visual relationships among ice, water, atmosphere and light are internalized within the photographic frame. These pristine icebergs start to recall abstract sculptures, as if something by Hans Arp or Henry Moore.
Across the way, a pair of black-and-white, magazine-size photographs by Christopher Williams show two different nighttime views of L.A.'s Department of Water and Power, the great International Style building designed by Albert C. Martin and Associates. The building is headquarters to a powerful civic agency essential to the emergence of the metropolis, while these radiant nocturnal views recall its definitive 1965 representation in celebrated architectural photographs by Julius Shulman.
But Williams throws a monkey wrench into all that.
In one photograph, the 15-story building is shown to be predominantly vertical — a skyscraper being the definitive urban building type in the modern world. Social and structural authority is exerted.
In the other, however, Williams emphasizes the stacked building's horizontality, simply by raising the camera's vantage point and shifting the angle. Now the building spreads wide — not unlike the distinctive modern city the DWP made possible, and not unlike the corporate International Style itself.
Photographic fiction permeates the eighth and final work in the entry gallery, Thomas Demand's recollection of a diving board, three-tiered diving platform and swim-stadium bleachers he knew from childhood. It looks convincing — until closer scrutiny slowly unveils the compositional charade. The structures, rendered in neutral tones, are actually a model made from cardboard and paper.
"Diving Board" made me think of "Leap Into the Void," the famous 1960 photograph of a swan dive taken by artist Yves Klein, ostensibly from a Parisian rooftop and into an empty street below. The death-defying act was meant to assert that risk-taking is a primary motive for art.
In reality, Klein dove from the roof into the safety of a tarpaulin below. He had secretly engaged photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender to join two different negatives to fabricate a supposedly documentary image. Demand shows us a similarly fanciful diving board — namely, photography itself — for another leap into the void.
"Perfect Likeness" is the latest in a long line of museum exhibitions, stretching back at least until 1979 and "Fabricated to Be Photographed" at the San Francisco Museum of Art, that look at the ways in which camera images are cobbled together. These artists are making photographs rather than merely taking them.
It's chockablock with provocative visual conundrums. And because it engages with our digital universe, a couple of them even feature cats.
'Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition'
Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
When: Through Sept. 13. Closed Monday.