At the deCordova, socializing with the camera
LINCOLN — “The Social Medium” in question at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is photography, and the 30-plus images on display show people being just that — social. They’re variously eating, drinking, conversing, celebrating, hanging out, posing (in several senses of the word). The exhibition runs through April 19.
The title puns, of course, on “social media,” and, in fact, Facebook figures in two pictures. They consist of superimposed images from the Facebook pages of friends of the photographer Phillip Maisel. Maisel sets his camera on a long exposure time, then places it in front of his computer monitor. The multilayered images results are cyber-pentimenti.
The inspiration for “The Social Medium” isn’t Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn. It’s that most social of artists, Andy Warhol. He’s where the “plus” in 30-plus comes in. The Warhol Foundation recently donated one of Warhol’s Little Red Books to the deCordova. The book is a photo album consisting of 20 Polaroids snapped by Warhol as he went about his daily, and nightly, business. A selection are on rotating display. Some pictures are posed, some are not. Some subjects are famous (the author Truman Capote; Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister). Others are Warhol associates. The images, with their casualness of style and general conviviality, set a tone for the show.
There are other recognizable faces here. The Pittsburgh photojournalist Charles “Teenie” Harris shows Lena Horne in front of a mirror (there is definitely no question who the fairest of them all is) and Cassius Clay, as he then still was, being photographed. Neither Horne nor Clay is in a social setting, per se. Among the virtues of “The Social Medium” is how cheerfully elastic its defintion of “social” is. The novelist Henri Barbusse, photographed by Lotte Jacobi, looks very sociable indeed. And why shouldn’t he? The setting is a banquet in his honor.
Social need not mean many, or even entirety. The frame cuts off a third of Nicholas Nixon’s face in his tightly cropped portrait of himself and his wife, from 1998. Nor need social mean informal. Eugene Richards shows a Dorchester girl in her First Communion gown. She’s either going to or from, since the photograph is taken on the street, with a trio of kids in the background. One of them could have wandered in from a Diane Arbus photograph. Confession, not communion, would seem the relevant sacrament for him.
The Nixon and Richards are in black and white. So are most of the images, not counting the Warhol Polaroids, which are in color. Part of the kick of Greg Schmigel’s five pictures is that you might well expect them to be in color. He took them on his iPhone, between 2011-13, in New York. He prints the images in black and white, striving for the look of classic postwar street photography.
He succeeds. “Late Day on Broadway” looks like a missing page from Garry Winogrand’s book “Women Are Beautiful.” If someone snuck “An Afternoon in the Sun” into the quartet of Jules Aarons photographs at the beginning of the show, it would take a searching to reveal it didn’t belong.
Aarons’s coming first is presumably owing to more than alphabetical order. Few photographers have so easily entered into the back-and-forth of street-corner society as found in the Bronx or North End during the ’40s and ’50s. “Social medium” isn’t so much a description of Aarons’s photography as its raison d’etre.
As the affinity between that Schmigel photograph and Aarons’s suggests, the show is cannily hung. Perhaps the nicest touch by curator Samantha Cataldo involves Elsa Dorfman and Tod Papageorge. Dorfman’s large-format Polaroid is a birthday self-portrait. It’s somewhat startling, because of a set of black balloons sent by her husband, Harvey Silverglate. Their blackness is a joking response to Dorfman’s feeling blue about getting older. There are so many balloons you almost expect to see her float away.
The Dorfman hangs at a right angle to Papageorge’s picture of revelers at Studio 54. They have some balloons of their own. They look pretty dissipated (the revelers, not the balloons), but definitely not blue. Maybe they can help cheer up Elsa? In “The Social Medium,” it isn’t just photography as a medium that’s social. The photographs can be too.