Some of the many fictions inhabiting the "documentary" image are explored in a noteworthy exhibition at Paul Kopeikin Gallery, which juxtaposes photographs from August Sander's landmark Modernist project, "Citizens of the Twentieth Century," with Bernd and Hilla Becher's deadpan, emphatically Postmodern shots of water towers, gas tanks and industrial and domestic facades.
Sander hoped to create a vast archive that would document Germans of all social classes according to profession, sex and place of domicile. In 1929, the first (and last) volume of his insistently objective portrait photographs appeared. His probably unintended portrayal of the heterogeneity of the German people displeased the Nazi regime, which destroyed the plates of the book and more than 40,000 negatives.
If Sander's work comes out of Germany's broad-ranging Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, the Bechers come out of a 1960s Systems Aesthetic, marked by fixed parameters, exhaustive series and rigid rules. Yet, perhaps inevitably, some of the most interesting moments, for both Sander and the Bechers, are those in which the image proclaims its specificity and ruptures its context.
Sander's 1919 photograph of a young farm girl, posed outside her garden gate, recalls Lewis Carroll's photographs of a young Alice Liddell, all tumbling curls and nascent eroticism. The image is pure romantic fantasy.
Not so the Bechers' 1985 photograph of the front of a stucco house in Hachenburg. Like all of their images, it compresses three dimensions into pure facade, a surface ornamented with pictorial detail. Here, the details include an asymmetrical arrangement of windows and an ill-proportioned door. The whole resembles a pockmarked face with too many pairs of eyes, all of which appear to be winking.
* Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 937-0765, through Oct. 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Shape Shifting: At Craig Krull Gallery, Susan Silton's photographic self-portraits have been manipulated on a flatbed scanner so that the artist's features appear to be stretched, compressed or wrapped around one another in anguish, befuddlement or any number of other emotional states. Andre Kertesz's "distortions," Raoul Ubac's brulages and Man Ray's solarizations all come into play here, as Silton pays homage to Surrealist photography and its catalogue of mutated limbs, exploding torsos and gashed faces.
Yet within the history of Surrealism, it is almost never the invariably male artist whose body is subject to optical torture. In surrendering her own image to an apparatus she can only partially control, Silton positions her self-portraits in relation to the work of Cindy Sherman--another feminist artist perversely fascinated by Surrealism.
Silton is torn between the desire to lose herself in the photograph's shifting planes of black and gray and the need to proclaim an identity, however contingent. Like Sherman, she is playing hide-and-seek--yet she can't quite master the playfulness or wit that makes the former's work so trenchant a critique of the photographic portrait and its promise of more than a mirror image.
And it would seem that she doesn't wish to. For the greatest strength of Silton's work is neither its conceptual program nor its formal razzle-dazzle, but its sincerity. It has the unsettling but not wholly unwelcome effect of bringing us close to someone who never was.
* Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through Saturday.