NEW YORK — The Museum of Modern Art has one of the world’s great photography holdings, comprising more than 30,000 items. So a certain Christmas-comes-early quality obtains whenever MoMA rehangs the galleries devoted to its permanent collection. The presents under the tree are sure to be plentiful and of excellent quality — though as Santa knows, not every gift is guaranteed to satisfy every recipient.
There are more than 250 works, by some 90 artists, in “The Shaping of New Visions: Photography, Film, Photobook.” It runs through April 29. As the subtitle indicates, the show reaches beyond still photography, per se. What matters isn’t format but approach.
In many ways, “The Shaping of New Visions” is about looking at looking — the presence of “visions” in the title is not an afterthought. If the show wanted a motto, it could come from Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Slant can be literal (oblique angles) or figurative (distortion) or somewhere in between (serialism, collage, appropriation). But throughout there’s a powerful, and beguiling, sense of so many of these artists playing with the medium, of extending and redefining it, of experimentation and renewal, in the years after World War I especially. Has artistic precedent ever seemed so irrelevant as then?
Photography had long ago ceased to be new. But various developments — in camera technology, photomechanical reproduction, and the rise of a self-sustaining international avant-garde — helped renew it to an unprecedented degree. There’s a sense of simultaneous liberation and returning to basics. What’s more basic than seeing itself? August Sander, Dziga Vertov, and Raoul Hausmann all offer images of single eyes. They inspect us even as we inspect them. Hausmann’s 1931 photograph shows a woman’s eye reflected in a mirror — its shape rounded, more or less like an eye. Aleksandr Rodchenko, with a magazine cover showing his mother peering through a lens, presents two instead of one. Either way, the eyes definitely have it.
There’s such energy here, nowhere more so than in works from the Soviet artists of the ’20s. “It would seem that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life,” Rodchenko declared. His images are still, but they almost feel in motion. Heights, cantings, tight close-ups: New visions aren’t just being shaped but shaken up. Looking at his pictures, one can see the promise of the Russian Revolution and feel just how revolutionary it was. (In Rodchenko’s “Down With Bureaucracy,” a photograph of a pile of office files, from 1927, one can also feel how oppressive it had become.) His “Columns of the Museum of the Revolution,” with its cropped and slightly oblique view of the building’s pillars, is classicism sliced and diced.
Alfred Stieglitz’s “The City of Ambition,” from 1910, with its view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, is the first image chronologically. That’s not a coincidence. The city is a thematic thread that runs throughout the show, from Stieglitz up to the visual vignettes of New Orleans in 2004 from Paul Graham’s book project “a shimmer of possibility.” “The modern city,” according to Rodchenko, “redirected . . . the normal psychology of visual perception.” It can look as exalted as Stieglitz’s romantic view of New York, as machine tooled as the curve of track in Germaine Krull’s elegant “Metro, Paris,” from 1927, or as mundane as the New York street scenes found in Helen Levitt’s color slides from the early ’70s. The city is at once engine and emblem of modernity, with daily urban life as itself a form of avant-garde activity.
The interwar years have such a sense of focused urgency. Things start getting spotty after that. A wall of Lee Friedlander photographs featuring words, signs, other images, and symbols stands out for its wit and bounce. Some of the juxtapositions are very funny, especially one of the nose of an airliner fuselage seeming to poke through the upper half of the numeral 8.
Jules Spinatsch offers a very different but equally striking set of juxtapositions in his extremely large panoramatic photograph of Davos, Switzerland, during the 2003 World Economic Forum. It’s over 7 feet by 18 feet, with three video monitors, which show footage taken by surveillance cameras at the conference, positioned in front of the panorama. Politics and protest have an increasing presence in the work of the last four decades in the show, but often with a heavyhandedness that Spinatsch deftly avoids.
The inclusion of two discrete photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher is a nicely deadpan joke. To see ungridded images from them — the most influential serial photographers of the 20th century — is striking. To see them in the context of a show in which serial photographs frequently figure is an aesthetic one-liner (emphasis on “one”) of a high order.
Serial images, but of a very special sort, are central to Taryn Smith’s project “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII.” Nine of its 18 “chapters” are on display through Sept. 3. Smith selects a particular individual, group, or location. Examples include Hans Frank, who headed the Nazi occupation of Poland; a family singled out as “typical” by the Chinese government; and a Ukrainian orphanage. She then presents her findings in the chapters. Each consists of three parts: a set of portraits of living ascendants and descendants; a text panel, with a narrative about the bloodline displayed in the photographs; and a set of additional images offering further elaboration.
Each chapter functions as a kind of two-dimensional book. Certainly they have the informational heft, and repay the close attention, of a literary text. The individual photographs within each chapter are straightforward and modest. The whole matters far more than the individual parts; and seen as a whole the chapters are visually striking: at once enticing (“There’s so much going on here”) and off-putting (“There’s too much going on here”).
Conceptually, “A Living Man” is about investigation, documentation, and the idea of classification. An abstraction defines and drives “A Living Man,” the arbitrariness of taxonomy. In that sense, Smith presents a 21st-century counterpart to Sander’s magnificent (and impossible) “People of the Twentieth Century.” Sander wanted to gather a set of universal types, based on occupation and other categories. Far less ambitious, and sensibly alert to the limitations of what we can plausibly learn, Simon focuses on group instead of individual and seeks the specific rather than universal.
What Sander and Simon have in common is how the human element in each project overwhelms abstraction. Looking at her work, one is reminded of what Walker Evans said of his photograph “Picture Studio” (a copy is in “Visions”). “Picture Studio” is a photograph of a photograph (hence its being in the exhibit) showing the dozens of clients of a studio photographer. “I look at it,” Evans said, “and think, and think, and think about all those people.”
There’s another aspect to the human element and photography at MoMA. Last month the museum announced that Quentin Bajac would succeed Peter Galassi as chief curator of photography in January. Bajac, having previously been curator of photography at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, has been curator of photography at that city’s Pompidou Center since 2003.
Photography long ago became far too diverse and extensive to call any one position in it the most important. So instead say that that of chief curator at MoMA is the most distinguished. Certainly, it has the most distinguished lineage.
Beaumont Newhall, who started at MoMA as librarian, in 1935, literally wrote the book on the medium. His “History of Photography” remains a classic text. Edward Steichen, who succeeded Newhall in 1947, was one of the foremost American photographers of his time. John Szarkowski, who took over from Steichen in 1962, is among the five or six most influential figures in 20th-century photography: as a writer of the utmost lucidity and vigor, and through his exhibitions effectively formulating a photographic canon that remains little changed from the time of his retirement, in 1991. As for Galassi, he put together several landmark shows, among them “Walker Evans & Company” (2002), 2005’s mammoth Friedlander exhibition, and, two years ago, the magnificent “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century.” Just four men in just under 80 years — somewhat less than half the history of photography. Now they’ll be five.