Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago
“Mallarme said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” – Susan Sontag
The Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago began acquiring works in 1979, and over the past forty years has amassed a sizeable and impressive collection totaling fourteen thousand objects from fourteen hundred artists. This year, the museum turns 40: an often introspective time to look back and within, to celebrate one’s accomplishments and excitedly mark notable progress, and this exhibition is delightfully no exception.
Presented salon style, iconic photographers’ works are hung alongside talented lesser-known imagemakers; each waiting to be discovered, either for the first time or for the hundredth. It is an overwhelming display, actually extending from floor to ceiling, that launches my appetite and leaves me wanting to see more, especially because I know its there just behind the curtain. Organized by MoCP staff members with assistance from graduate and undergraduate interns currently studying at Columbia College Chicago, MoCP at 40 showcases contemporary photographic art that not only reflects the true character of the museum, but also underscores some of the particular ways photography has changed the way we see, interact, and ultimately impact the world.
I have to begin with the hands-down, most powerful image of the exhibition: View from the Window at Le Gras by Adam Schreiber (shown at top). And that is significant given the quantity of and quality of it's company. It is mysterious and familiar, and crushingly gorgeous – I find myself lost in the frame of the image of the frames of the image. I circle back to it three times during my visit, unable and un-wanting to separate myself from it. As I glance back over my shoulder as I walk away, I suddenly understand its prominent position by itself at the entrance of the exhibition. It serves as both the start and the finish; singlehandedly brandishing photography’s ability to record and create simultaneously.
As I peruse an entire and gorgeous wall of virtually all black and white images, I can’t help but think of another quote from Susan Sontag: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.” And few did (or do) this as well as artists Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, or Sally Mann – some of my very favorite photographers who have left not only indelible impacts and influence on the field of photography, but also were (and still are) fascinating women. Two Girls in Matching Bathing Suits, Coney Island, New York by Diane Arbus, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California by Dorothea Lange, and Candy Cigarette by Sally Mann each exemplify the exact vulnerability and suspension Sontag refers to – proffering powerful moments of impossible interaction that extend well beyond the image. And they continue to captivate me, each and every time I see them.
There were also notable examples of works in color as well, also some of my favorites, strategically placed on the tallest wall of the museum: Ferns by Sandy Skoglund, Untitled (Cosmo Cover Girl) by Cindy Sherman, and Marina’s Room by Tina Barney serve as welcome and necessary points of punctuation in the massive dialogue playing out before me. These images in particular, harness and convey the power photography has to thoughtfully capture the private experiences and emotions of what it means to be human; beautifully exposing the complex psychological, public, and private territories we all must navigate to exist, to hopefully thrive. Interestingly, they also all happen to be made by female artists – a poignant reminder of the role women have played in the conceptual and technical advances in the field.
While I always appreciate seeing works I love in person, the best part of the exhibition was encountering new artists, surprising discoveries that stopped me in my tracks and compelled me to engage. Again, Sontag surmises this kind of power: “The Painter constructs, the Photographer discloses.” Captivating finds included The Walk by Loretta Lux, Maria by Aziz + Cucher (Anthony Aziz + Sammy Cucher), and The Recession by Carrie Schneider (my second personal favorite) – each emphatically and boldly addressing and divulging complicated, modern concerns in new and unexpected approaches.
MoCP at 40 offers a unique opportunity to view and experience the history, the implications, and the enduring necessity of the photographic image in contemporary society. Amid the many thought-provoking works of art on view, and the myriad of meanings they carry; I found it hard to walk away. MoCP indeed celebrates its history and its holdings with this exhibition, but it also stirs challenging thoughts and notions on the potency of pictures as well as their influence, makers, and ever-changing contexts for the next 40 years.
MoCP at 40 is open now through April 10 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, located at 600 S Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60605.
Images (from top to bottom): Adam Schreiber, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826, from the Anachronic Series, 2009, inkjet print, 40 x 50 inches; Diane Arbus, Two Girls in Matching Bathing Suits, Coney Island, New York, 1967, gelatin silver print, image: 14 x 14.75 inches; mat: 20 x 24 inches; paper: 19.75 x 16 inches; Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, gelatin silver print, 13.5 x 10.75 inches, gift of Sonia Bloch; Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989, gelatin silver print, 7.75 x 9.75 inches; Sandy Skoglund, Ferns, 1980, silver dye bleach print, 12.8 x 33.5 inches, gift of David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg; Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Cosmo Cover Girl), 1990-1991, chromogenic development print, frame: 25.75 x 19.5 in x .75 inches; image: 17 x 11 inches; mat: 22.5 x 18.5 inches; Tina Barney, Marina’s Room, 1987, chromogenic development print, 45 x 58 inches; Loretta Lux, The Walk, 2004, silver dye bleach print, 11.75 x 14.5 inches, purchase made possible with funds from Mary Francis and John Haas; Aziz + Cucher (Anthony Aziz + Sammy Cucher), Maria, 1994, digital chromogenic development print, 9.75x 39.75 inches; Carrie Schneider, The Recession, 2009, chromogenic development print, 30 x 36 inches, gift of Andreas Waldburg-Wolfegg; William Wegman, Caribbean Ant Eater, 1988, internal dye diffusion transfer print, 19.5 x 23.25 inches, gift of Kenneth C. and Harri Dry