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The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) injected an extra shot of excitement into their 37th iteration of “The Photography Show” in New York City this year as they switched venues from the Park Avenue Armory (which some called cozy, others oppressively crowded) to the wide open spaces at Pier 94. Anticipation was piqued by the expanded offerings, including three special loan exhibitions from noted private collectors. Structures of Identity: Photography from the Walther Collection was the beefy headliner and I thought offered a notable contrast to the likewise exciting display of the winner and finalists for the Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture. I would even say that these two new “faces” of AIPAD captured something of the overall sensibility of The Photography Show.
Structures of Identity is a diverse collection of collections, exploring the way portraits affirm or subvert stereotypes of race, gender, class and nationality. But first, eighty-eight stunning photogravures of organic specimens, “Art Forms in Nature” (1928) by Karl Blossfeldt set the stage for this show, ringing three exterior walls of the exhibit. They are a striking example and predecessor for the objective, scientific approach to the structures of identity. They segue to the fourth wall, which is devoted to the famous groupings of industrial “typologies” by the late German photographic team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The couple’s desire to systematically document the disappearing manufacturing structures of Germany was inspired by the “New Objectivity” portraits of August Sander, whose exhaustive catalogue, “People of the Twentieth Century”, aspired to portray every German “type”, which he categorized into seven groups. It is Sander’s intriguing portraits that greet viewers as they go inside the exhibit.
The exhibit’s modern and contemporary portrait sequences are international, with an emphasis on Walther’s lengthy engagement with African photography: Malian commercial photographer Seydou Keita’s upscale, cosmopolitan portraits of the modern African citizen; contemporary South African “visual activist” Zanele Muholi’s “Faces and Phases”, her serialized individual portraits honoring black queer and trans people vilified by society; South African photojournalist Guy Tillim’s partially camouflaged Congolese child rebel soldiers; and a grid from Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s 40-year anthropological study of postcolonial Nigerian women’s hairstyles, to cite a few examples. Despite the diversity of these and other displayed collections, all possess the same serialized framework of structuring identity, one that has been embraced throughout photographic history as the optimal way to combine science and art.
There are two American series that highlight the powerful effect of era and political culture on each photographer: Richard Avedon’s 1976 “The Family”, his studio portraits of the Capitol’s powerbrokers which ran in Rolling Stone magazine and Accra Shepp’s 2011-2012 series “Occupying Wall Street”, individual environmental portraits of the movement’s diverse demonstrators in New York’s Zuccotti Park. The contrasts are stark and engrossing, emphasizing how dysfunctional our government’s “family” has become today.
However, the biggest contrasts are not within Structures of Identity but between its formalized sequences and the flowing narrative work exhibited at the Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture, which featured the work of prizewinner Daniella Zalcman and finalists Sophie Barsbasch, Daniel Coburn and Jessica Eve Rattner. Where Structures of Identity is international, Arnold Newman Prize is local, where one features structured, objective typologies the other embraces lyrical storytelling.
Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture prizewinner Daniella Zalcman’s “Signs of Your Identity” layers a visually and emotionally stirring account of adult Canadian Native Americans who were removed from their homes as children and forced to live at residential schools run by the church, where they were stripped of their cultural heritage and often abused. Arnold Newman Prize finalist Sophie Barsbasch’s “Fault Line” describes the loneliness and bittersweet intimacies of men and boys in her divided family while finalist Daniel Coburn’s “The Hereditary Estate” uses stark B&W imagery to express how the people and landscapes of his tragedy plagued family become metaphors for those who “exist at the intersection of domestic duress and spirituality”. Finalist Jessica Eve Rattner’s “House of Charm” exudes empathy as she befriends and tracks the life of an elderly neighbor struggling to maintain her dignity while living on the fringes of a society that considers her demented. Where the Walther Collection helps expand the history of photography in a global context, the Newman Prize is identifying the future direction of photographic portraiture. I think that encompasses AIPAD’s evolving “The Photography Show” in a nutshell: it’s all here, the proud past and thrilling future of our most expressive visual medium.
Feature Image: From the series “Signs of Your Identity” (Detail) by Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture prizewinner Daniella Zalcman, displayed during The Photography Show, which moved to Pier 94 in NYC in 2017. Courtesy of the artist.