‘An Orchestrated Vision: The Theater of Contemporary Photography,” at the St. Louis Art Museum, might be more accurately called “Some Outstanding Photographs, Recently Acquired, That We Were Eager to Show Off and So Invented a Reason to Build an Exhibition Around.”
An Orchestrated Vision:
Of Contemporary Photography
Saint Louis Art Museum
Through May 13
That is not meant to disparage the high quality of the 43 works by 38 artists from a dozen countries in these five galleries. Eric Lutz, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, deserves thanks (and sympathies) for trying to summarize recent trends in art photography, a fractious enterprise less bound by old prohibitions than ever before.
Censorious attitudes about proper uses of the medium, which once split adherents into opposing camps, no longer seem relevant. Walls between digital and nondigital photography have crumbled, with artists shooting analog negatives that are scanned into computerized printers. Ink-jet prints, sneered at by collectors a decade ago, have become coin of the realm.
Documentary photography was never as sharply demarcated as some purists believed, and is even less so now that Tina Barney and Hellen van Meene blur the line between posed and spontaneously realized pictures. Only in journalism, law and science is Photoshop still viewed with suspicion. Image-enhancing apps are indispensable for sewing together the altered landscapes of Andreas Gursky and Beate Gütschow.
“Theatrical” may be as good a term as any to describe the effect of wall-size photographs made with large-format cameras. Only one print in “An Orchestrated Vision” is as small as 12 inches by 12 inches, while the vast majority are several times that size. To make a splash in today’s market, art photographers must command a gallery space. Before the 1980s their best (and often only) hope of capturing attention was in spreads of magazines or books. Audiences are now more readily beguiled by supersize pictures with an implied storyline, preferably with a noirish or uncanny tinge.
Or, as Mr. Lutz writes in his catalog essay, whereas photographers once hoped to participate directly in actual events, many are now “more interested in the twilight world of the playhouse where magical slippages of reality occur.”
The imprecision in his taxonomy may be a reflection of the same shiftiness. The four genres into which he has divided his selections—”Public Stage,” “Elusive Narrative,” “Portraiture and Performance” and “Constructed Space”—prove to be less exclusive than interchangeable.
For instance, the Korean artist Yeondoo Jung’s “Location #4″ (2006), which greets visitors as they walk in, could rightfully hang in any of the four main rooms. The 4-by-6-foot color photograph of a wintry outdoor scene portrays a woman in a fur coat staring up at an apartment building where a water leak has cascaded down the cement facade and hardened into a frozen waterfall.
The image bears a remarkable likeness to Gregory Crewdsen’s “Untitled (Snowy Valley),” also from 2006, wherein another young woman in a winter coat stands entranced before a snowbound house. Both photographs are staged and move between harsh realities and cinematic dream time. But only Mr. Crewden’s, for some reason, is categorized as an “Elusive Narrative.”
There are more similarities than differences between Andrew Moore’s view of an abandoned movie palace in Gary, Ind., and Edward Burtynsky’s of shipbreaking at low tide in Bangladesh. Both monumental photographs portray ruins in a rose-tinted light. And yet Mr. Moore’s is located in “Public Stage,” whereas Mr. Burtynsky’s is consigned to “Portraiture and Performance.”
Carrie Mae Weems does nothing to hide the operatic stage machinery behind “When and Where I Enter-Ancient Rome,” her 2008 black-and-white photograph of a woman in a long gown silhouetted at a picture window. Gazing toward a hazy bank of clouds, her back turned to us in the manner of a Casper David Friedrich daydreamer, this anonymous diva stands surrounded by truncated plaster columns and lights on stands, as well as a view camera on a tripod. That Ms. Weems succeeds in evoking an era while revealing her props and directorial cues testifies to her skills as a magician who can tip her hand and nonetheless fool us into sharing a mood of tremulous expectancy.
The German artist Barbara Probst is after another kind of drama. “Exposure #9: N.Y.C., Grand Central Station, 12.18.01, 1:21 p.m.” (2001)—a wall-size grid of six inkjet prints borrowed from the Nelson-Atkins Museum—consists of six distinct but simultaneous scenes taken by six cameras stationed around the darkened main hall of the train station.
Artists since the 1960s have systematically questioned (or undermined) the principles that were once defining traits of photography, especially its veracity. Despite the easy allure of digital finagling and the belittling prevalence of surveillance cameras, some younger photographers, including Ms. Probst, seem intent on restoring the original humanist strength of still photography as evidence of something real. Ms. Probst’s anonymous commuters, separate and unaware of one another, are united briefly in her piece. She uses no blandishment other than large scale to emphasize the potent fact that all of us, knowingly or not, are continuously moving through time.
I would not have guessed that An-My Lê’s portraits taken aboard U.S. Navy vessels would illustrate Mr. Lutz’s thesis. But the five sailors in “Target Practice, USS Peleliu,” honing their marksmanship on the deck of an assault ship, could be actors on stage in a macabre play. For more than a decade Ms. Lê has been documenting American war exercises. In this 2005 photograph she frames the men against an ominous blank sky and their paper targets, the posture of their bodies suggesting they could be the next things to be shot at.
The principles governing “An Orchestrated Vision” may be neither airtight nor novel. Anne H. Hoy identified most of these trends 25 years ago in her book “Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs.” Artists around the world have clearly not exhausted these approaches. Mr. Lutz has made a smart and representative survey from the past 15 or so years, before and after the digital revolution, and as the supersizing of photography has become the norm. When the Saint Louis Art Museum completes its expansion in mid-2013, some of these well-chosen pieces will have earned prominent spots alongside the best their contemporary galleries have to offer.
Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.
A version of this article appeared April 17, 2012, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Walls Come Tumbling Down.