30x: Three Decades, on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts until October 13. 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-238-7559; mopa.org.
I want to say something about 30x: Three Decades, a self-celebratory exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts that marks the institution’s 30th anniversary, but I’d like to get there by way of New York City, where a few months ago at a dinner party two New York artists I’ve known for over 20 years, Bruce Gagnier and Paul Resika, ganged up on me. They were exercised because I write about photography as a fine art. They don’t believe it is. They’re not cranks or reactionary hard-liners. Most of us assume the issue withered long ago, but their challenge is folded into photography’s origins. In the 1860s, a couple of decades after photography’s invention, Baudelaire, a great poet and prickly art critic (criticism, he said, must be “partisan, passionate, and political”), dismissed photography because it’s a slave to nature, to what’s there, and photographic representation doesn’t truly transform what’s there into something else.
For Gagnier, photography lacks plasticity. The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists defines plasticity as “the quality of appearing three-dimensional, [of giving] the impression that the figures are fully modeled and are capable of moving freely in the pictorial space.” The camera, Gagnier said, may require models as subject matter but it doesn’t model given reality; it doesn’t knead and work and fashion its material as painting and sculpture do. Resika’s objection was more mysterious. Because photography doesn’t possess the classical quality of plasticity, it’s “inauthentic.” He wasn’t questioning the authenticity of the feeling a photographer experiences when making a picture, he was questioning the result. Authenticity, enabled by plasticity, enacts a fountaining of feeling from the artist, not a mirroring or reporting or manipulation (digitally or in a dark room) of what’s merely there.
If you practice any art — music, poetry, performance, no matter — the past doesn’t go away, though you can choose to ignore it. Every art keeps reinventing itself in some way, engaging fresher if not always shiny new issues. Plasticity is still a critical value if we choose to make it so. The impulse certainly hasn’t dissipated. Some photographers use photographic material to craft sculptures or to build or decorate installations. Performance artists use the body and its behavior as malleable entities that can be crafted and plied.
To counter my friends’ arguments, I offered in evidence — evidence of the modeling photography is capable of and the realization of desire in art acts (which comes closer to my notion of authenticity) — a video I’d just seen in the Metropolitan. James Nares, a painter whose canvases look as if a carwash brush warped and frothed pigment across them, in 2011 cleared out the passenger area of an SUV, installed a camera, blacked out the windows except for a lens-hole, and spent 60 hours driving the streets of Manhattan, hoovering whatever scene the camera-dolly/SUV panned.
Nares and crew spent a week shooting with a high-speed Phantom Flex HD camera, the kind used to film hummingbirds and cheetahs: it shoots 500 to 1000 frames a second in six-second bursts. They shot 16 hours of footage with a telefoto lens while cruising (never more than 30 miles an hour) through different neighborhoods. That was edited down to three minutes of real time. Nares slowed down the film so that those few minutes played out in extreme slow motion over an hour. The content is a city-lover’s dream of space-time: you feel as if you’re watching discrete bits while at any given moment seeing everything all at once. The slowed action gives Street a cluttered, action-every-which-way flow — it’s a magisterial, demotic, processional revelation. Pigeons loft through the frame, traffic cops stand sleepy watch, young people flirt, skirts turn corners, nearly everyone is in his or her own world, but not really, because now they are part of this wider, denser, slo-mo complex where a businessman fights the rain with a feeble umbrella, bicycles swim by, a girl with friends spots the camera eye and stares back, raindrops fall like pebbles, pedestrians study their shoelaces or follow soap bubbles through the air, and the lens sometimes sees itself in plate-glass windows.
Nares’s technique models his subjects in space; its plastic values are dynamic. It’s not like cinematic 3D imagery, which is used for decorative or titillating effects and has no inner life. Nares shapes space and physical content so that they enact the desire to see, and they give their subjects a classical curvilinear completeness. Street extends photographic possibility. Watching it, I felt like an observer, of course, someone on this side of the viewing plane but mysteriously also inserted into the rolling combinations of actions. I felt as if I could walk around the figures in their scene. Street became the smash of the spring season and was standing-room-only throughout its run. You can watch a clip at jamesnares.com/index.cfm/film-video/street/.
And so, all that came to mind while I looked at the pictures in 30x. MOPA was founded in 1983, and the exhibition selects one image acquired in each one of its years of existence. In the context of what I was saying above, it amounts to a condensed history of how photographic aspiration has tested the limits of the medium and developed its own vocabulary for modeling reality. Consider the Korean-American Debbie Han’s Walking Three Graces. The Graces is one of the most famous motifs of classical antiquity: three idealized female forms gesture toward and touch each other in meaningful ways. Han photographs naked Korean women, photoshops classical western heads to their bodies, then digitally scours the surfaces, pixel by pixel, to achieve the look of statuary polished as smoothly as a Canova. She sets her faux-statuary (which looks like beautifully wrought clay or marble) in deep space so that you sense, but can’t see, the figures’ sides and backs. She isn’t just shaping her subject for a particular tone and ambiguity, she’s reviewing and critically revising the history of the motif, and also — because of the off-ness of those heads on Asian bodies — stirring up ideological questions about racial types.