CAMBRIDGE — From the start, photography has been binary. First, it was a matter of metal (the daguerreotype) and paper (the calotype). Later there would be black-and-white and color. Now it’s analog and digital. In each case, one side decisively won out — a reminder that the medium was, and is, as much technology as art.
Winning out has been true, too, only more so, with the most important photographic binary of all. It’s so basic we hardly even think of it: representational and non-representational. Representation has preponderated in the medium to such an extent that its hold has seemed complete. One of the virtues of “György Kepes Photographs: The MIT Years, 1946-1985” is to remind us that this isn’t so.
The show, which runs through July 15 at the MIT Museum, is the second of two. “György Kepes Photographs: From Berlin to Chicago, 1930-1946” opened there last fall and closed earlier this month. The museum’s Gary Van Zante curated both shows. Many of the images were more traditional. The show included actual cityscapes. But already very much apparent was Kepes’s focus on the experimental, the nature of seeing, and the place of abstraction in the medium.
Kepes (1906-2001) led one of those extraordinary 20th-century lives that began in Mitteleuropa; hopscotched Western Europe, fleeing totalitarianism; and fetched up in the New World, there helping to forge modern culture. A Hungarian native, Kepes moved to Berlin (where he was László Moholy-Nagy’s assistant), London, Chicago (where he taught at the New Bauhaus ), then Cambridge. He was a fixture at MIT for decades, eventually becoming an Institute professor, the university’s highest honor.
In 1967, Kepes founded MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. The two shows are a tribute to the center’s 50th anniversary. Measured and comprehensive, they are impressive acts of institutional devotion. Along with 66 Kepes photographs and photograms (a kind of camera-less image, using light and sensitized paper), the current show includes three dozen related items: books, documentary photographs, pamphlets, and audio and video of a wide-ranging interview.
Kepes himself was a one-man center for advanced visual studies. As well as a photographer, he was teacher, visual theorist, graphic designer, author, academic administrator, and painter. If anything, photography was more means than end. The great English landscapist John Constable once said that “Paintings are a science of which pictures are the experiments.” Kepes could have substituted “photographs” for “paintings” — and he’d have meant “science” and “experiments” literally, not as metaphor.
What attracted Kepes was contrast, the play between light and dark, and the effects that light can produce in a photograph. A photographic image, as most everyone thinks of it, takes the external world and reduces its three dimensions to two. Kepes’s photographs and photograms take a self-contained world — not quite external, but not quite internal either — that is intrinsically two-dimensional and documents it. These images exist in a kind of alternate reality, part sci-fi spookiness, part optical Fortress of Solitude. It’s an antiseptic, speculative realm of squiggles, blobs, filaments, webs, whorls, and shapes of varying of indeterminacy. As such imprecise words suggest, description is not Kepes’s friend. In fairness, that did not concern him.
Inevitably, this self-contained world reflects the one beyond the darkroom. Kepes can control space, but not time — or, rather, time expressed culturally. “High Speed Photograph” looks like, yes, one of the high-speed photographs that made his MIT colleague Harold Edgerton famous. “Gate,” from 1948, recalls Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture. “Untitled” from 1950 has something of Max Ernst and Surrealism to it. At times, one might think of Abstract Expressionism — the lower the light, the more all abstraction looks alike? — or even undernourished Rorschach blots. Presumably, none of these resemblances were intended (other than maybe the Edgerton). But that’s the point: a reminder of the limits of imaginative control.
The occasional recognizable subject comes as a relief. A pair of 1949 photographs called “Tree Shadows” does double duty: honoring both the external world and the visual grammar of Kepes’s alternate one. The title of “Light Bloom,” from 1950, describes the condition Kepes’s images aspire to, and some of them can be striking.
It comes as no surprise that “Untitled” is the most frequent title. When there is a fuller title, it tends to be more interesting than the image that bears it: “Texture Fields,” “Cracked Lines,” “Wheel Spokes and Flame Form.” “Form” and “forms” are important words for Kepes. As for “Moving Carlight Photographed Walking with Camera,” it’s more explanation than title.
The show concludes with three large-format Polaroids. Not only are they in color — granted, a rather subdued color — but they’re still lifes. Or still lifes, of a sort. One includes a ruler, a prism, and a diagram of a frog. It’s telling that’s it’s a diagram rather than a real frog or model of a frog or anything attempting verisimilitude.
Does Kepes’s work represent a higher, even ultimate, visual purity — or a squandering of artistic opportunity, a visual austerity that flirts with impoverishment? One can make a strong theoretical argument that Kepes’s images capture a visual reality that traditional photography cannot. That the latter is a visual cheat that deceives. But within that deception abide a richness, an emotional power, and a capacity to surprise altogether alien to Kepes’s pursuits. There’s a Milan Kundera novel with the poignant — and very Mitteleuropean — title “Life Is Elsewhere.” It could suffice for Kepes’s photography, too, only without the poignancy.
GYÖRGY KEPES PHOTOGRAPHS: The MIT Years, 1946-1985
At MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through July 15. 617-253-5927, mitmuseum.mit.eduMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.