What’s New in Photography: Anything but Photos
By PHILIP GEFTER
IN New York City, a vast number of commercial galleries show photographs. Many of them represent photography exclusively; some show photo-based art that incorporates other mediums; others are galleries that represent painters and sculptors primarily but also include a handful of photographers. But in the last few years, some of the most famous and long-standing photography galleries have begun mixing nonphotographic work in with their primary offerings.
It may not be a revolution, but it is a significant change in the gallery landscape. These are the places that helped to establish photography’s viability as an art form as well as to create a business model. Having proven their point, they are now at liberty to experiment.
There is an unofficial hierarchy among photo galleries, and the oldest tend to be at the top of the heap. Many of those have featured photographers who over the years have earned a place in the medium’s canon — sometimes because of their dealers’ efforts.
Peter MacGill, who opened the Pace/MacGill Gallery on East 57th Street in 1983, said he has always tried to show work that advances photography as a whole. “The work must closely interface with the history of art and advance it along with the other mediums,” he explained. “I believe there is one history.” His artists could constitute a foundation course in photography since the 1950s: Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Duane Michals, Irving Penn, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, among others.
But his last show didn’t contribute to that history at all. It was a collection of drawings and sculpture by David Byrne. While Mr. MacGill has shared exhibits of work in other mediums with PaceWildenstein, his partner gallery, at Pace/MacGill he has mounted only three in the last 20 years. “Until recently, everyone seemed to think of photography as an entity separate from the rest of the art world,” Mr. McGill said. “Currently there is more freedom to show other works of art on paper along with photographs to what is now a very receptive audience.”
Janet Borden Inc. opened in SoHo in 1988, and among the photographers she has represented are famous names like Lee Friedlander, Jan Groover, Tina Barney, Larry Sultan and Martin Parr. When Lee Friedlander came to Ms. Borden, he had already won the approval of the Museum of Modern Art, but many of her other artists owe at least some of their prominence to her imprimatur.
Asked if her gallery has an aesthetic mission, Ms. Borden waved the question away. “That’s a little too religious for me,” she said. “We try to identify the best artists working in photography and work with them to promote and sell their photographs. I tend to be more interested in artists’ ideas, so that their work is consistently interesting over the years.”
What about showing work that is not photographic? “We never call ourselves a photography gallery, in case we want to show something else,” she said. “When one of the artists whom we represent is making other art, that’s what we show. Robert Cummings is a good example. He often works in intricate cut-paper silhouettes as well as drawings. We think his vision is totally photographic, so we’re thrilled to show whatever he makes.”
One of the most prominent dealers, Jeffrey Fraenkel, plays a central role in the photography world even though his gallery isn’t in New York. He opened in San Francisco in 1979 and over the years has assembled a stable that approximates the Modernist canon: Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Lee Friedlander (shared with Janet Borden in New York) and Richard Misrach (with Pace/MacGill), among others.
Mr. Fraenkel neatly defines his gallery’s aesthetic profile: “Modern art, specializing in photographs. A place where one can depend on seeing serious photographs regularly considered in relation to other arts.”
His current show, “Nothing and Everything,” includes drawing, painting, photography and sculpture, in work not only by his gallery photographers but also by Carl Andre, Jean Dubuffet, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Ryman.
Explaining why he is showing work in other mediums, Mr. Fraenkel said that when he first opened his gallery people consistently asked him if photography was art. “That battle has been won, and photography is no longer an island,” he said. “Now it’s more fruitful to investigate the areas where photography intersects the other arts.”
Photography does so to a greater and greater degree, in part because of galleries like Marian Goodman on West 57th Street, a top contemporary art gallery with a branch in Paris. Among Ms. Goodman’s stars are Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall. In Chelsea, Matthew Marks represents Nan Goldin and Andreas Gursky. Sonnabend Gallery has Hiroshi Sugimoto; Cheim & Read shows William Eggleston; 303 Gallery shows Stephen Shore; and Luhring Augustine represents Gregory Crewdson and Joel Sternfeld.
All of these artists use photographic equipment, but like the pioneering work of Cindy Sherman, some of their work crosses genres, styles and mediums to become a conceptual form all its own. Their association with high-profile galleries that show a variety of mediums has afforded them international visibility, record sales and a certain cachet.
Laurence Miller Gallery, which opened in 1984, has given many international photographers their first solo shows, including Daido Moriyama, Toshio Shibata and Erwin Olaf. Mr. Miller considers his West 57th Street gallery a place to educate his audience about “the qualities and possibilities that are unique to photography.” But, he added, “what constitutes ‘photographic’ keeps changing. The history of photography is one big technological evolution. New technologies keep challenging us, and I’m excited about the future.”
When Julie Saul opened her gallery in the 1980s, she and her contemporaries took a considerable professional risk by committing themselves to photography. But today she speaks of “works on paper” more broadly, so as to include drawings by Maira Kalman and Roz Chast. In the same West 22nd Street building, Yancey Richardson also shows a wide range of photographic imagery, from Julius Shulman’s straightforward documentation of midcentury modernist architecture to Mitch Epstein’s large-format color photographs of the contemporary social landscape. She also shows films and videos, as well as site-specific installations, a show of original artist books by Ed Ruscha and two shows of drawings and works on paper by emerging artists.
Bonni Benrubi, who opened her 57th Street gallery in 1986, is one dealer who is holding firm to her photographic roots. “The aesthetic core of our gallery has to do with what the camera can make,” she said. “Abelardo Morell’s camera obscura pictures, Matthew Pillsbury’s time-lapsed pictures, Simon Norfolk’s political views, Massimo Vitali’s beach scenes. All of them use the camera and do not manipulate. They show the magic of what the lens can do and show a view that we do not see or notice with our normal eyes.”
A number of younger photography galleries have commanded a new kind of respect — built not on longevity but on sale prices. Yossi Milo opened a small Chelsea gallery in a second-floor walkup in 2000. Three years later his show of eerie portraits of children by the German photographer Loretta Lux put him on the map. He set prices no one had seen before for a new gallery, offering images under 15 inches square by an unknown artist. And the show sold out, causing a sensation.
Mr. Milo next showed work by another unknown photographer, Alec Soth. Mr. Soth had studied with a pre-eminent photographer, Joel Sternfeld, which helped assure a collective nod of approval from the old-guard photography community. That show also did extremely well, and Mr. Soth has since been swooped up by the much more famous dealer Larry Gagosian. Mr. Milo, meanwhile, has moved his gallery to a sleeker storefront space.
“The characteristics that our artists share are psychological intensity, technical innovation, imagery that does more than record reality — pushing the boundaries of the medium of photography,” Mr. Milo wrote in an e-mail message.
But even he isn’t ruling out some variety. “With the opening of our North Gallery at 531 West 25th Street this month, we may expand our program to include nonphotographic work.”
Some of the newest galleries came on the scene so recently that the old divisions between photography and other art forms don’t seem relevant to them at all. They may have forged their identity through the sale of photographic work, but they do not see themselves as particularly beholden to that medium or to any other. ClampArt, on West 25th Street, has featured a great deal of photography since opening in 2003 . But Brian Clamp, the gallery’s owner, said, “With the notion of medium specificity having less and less relevance, we will begin mounting occasional solo exhibitions by artists producing nonphotographically related paintings and works on paper.”
And Daniel Cooney Fine Art, also on West 25th Street, which opened in 2004, represents 11 photographers, one artist who makes sculpture and drawings and others who use video in their work. “I am looking to increase the number of nonphoto people that I represent,” Mr. Cooney said.
With the variety of photographic work being made and the increased cross-pollination of mediums, specifying a photography gallery from an art gallery may soon seem like a retrograde distinction. Asked how she maintains her gallery’s identity within the shifting landscape, Ms. Borden offered a blithe observation about artmaking in general: “Of course, you know the adage, if you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it red. So we do like big red photographs.”