NEW YORK — The International Center of Photography opened in 1974 in a mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, near the Guggenheim and Jewish museums and a few blocks north of the Met. The setting was rather grand without overdoing things, even if the space seemed more suited for marble busts than gelatin silver prints.
The ICP moved to Midtown, in 2000. The new building's glass-and-metal functionalism was more fitting. The best thing about the location was convenience. An hour or two before the Acela left? Check out what was on at ICP.
That location was a lease. In Manhattan real estate talk, lease means "Prepare Plan B." Last month the ICP moved its exhibition space to a site it owns on the Bowery.
Upper Fifth Avenue may remain Museum Mile, but the center of institutional gravity for New York's art world continues to shift south. The new ICP is cater-corner from the New Museum and a mile and a half from the Whitney Museum of American Art, which relocated last year to the fashionable Meatpacking District. (Fashionable? Meatpacking? Look, it's New York.)
Designed by SOM/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the building is proudly unfancy. The gridded facade consists of large windows framed in dark metal. It's a handsome, understated exterior that doesn't call attention to itself. The interior, with gallery space on the first floor and in the basement, flaunts its functionality. The compact lobby features a (small) cafe and (very small) bookshop. There are no drop ceilings to conceal electrical wiring and ductwork. Some of the walls are exposed concrete, others mirrored.
The mirroring serves a dual purpose: It's as much practical as decorative, making the space appear larger. The new location's 11,000 square feet of exhibition space has 4,000 fewer square fact than the Midtown site did. The shrinkage is partly alleviated by the ICP's now having another site, with 15,000 square feet of gallery space, at Mana Contemporary cultural center, in Jersey City, N.J. The problem with that, of course, is needing to cross the Hudson River to get there.
For its debut, the Bowery location offers a single, highly ambitious show. "Public, Private, Secret" runs through Jan. 8. The title is effectively self-explanatory — or it is for an age dominated by celebrity, one working definition of which might be fame observed and documented, and surveillance, which might be defined as privacy ignored or overridden. Don't forget the Web (such a sinister name, when you stop to think about it), that cyber-everywhere where anything goes — and just about everyone goes to visit. Do the concepts of public, private, and secret even apply in a Web age?
Not that the show limits itself to the present and recent past. A few 19th-century cartes-de-visite remind us that issues of photographic self-presentation — a small-scale version of the intersection of public and private — have been with us almost as long as the medium has.
"Public, Private, Secret" includes 150 works: not just photographs, but videos, collages, magazines, a slide show. Fifty artists are represented, including Cindy Sherman, Garry Winogrand, Andy Warhol, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Larry Sultan. Names matter less than thematic concerns, though, and there's something exhilarating, if also disorienting, about a show in which the quality of individual images is secondary to the pressure of ideas.
Considering its subject matter, it makes sense that "Public, Private, Secret" feels a bit airless and creepy. The absence of windows and those mirrored walls — not to mention multiple video monitors — make viewing a bit overwhelming, and in a way that's more off-putting than exhilarating.
The work of two particular photographers, and they could hardly be more different, may best get at the dark, surveilling heart of "Public, Private, Secret."
Ron Galella's persistence as a paparazzo led to a court order keeping him a specified distance from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. His "What Makes Jackie Run?," taken in New York's Central Park, in 1971, shows her from behind, literally fleeing Galella's camera. Seen in the context of the show, the photograph's grim-joke title becomes that much grimmer.
Don McCullin, who turned 80 last year, took some of the most remarkable images of the Vietnam War. Yet the series of 11 photographs he has in the show aren't of battle — unless it's the battle between real and imagined. They're the photographs "taken" by David Hemmings's photographer hero in Michelangelo Antonioni's classic meditation on visual indeterminacy, "Blowup" (1966).
The images show what may or may not be a murder. Are they the work of a voyeur? A recording angel? Both? Either way, they're a violation of privacy. Like Galella's photograph, they were taken in a public park. However inadvertently, they're also a bearing of moral witness, being evidence of a possible crime. And, of course, they're fabricated, being part of a fictional film.
Yet all photographic and video images are fictional, falsely rendering as two dimensions three-dimensional reality — four-dimensional, if you count time, and the arresting of time is the very essence of photography. Whether the subject is public, private, secret, or some combination thereof, that's what the camera does: makes time stand still.PUBLIC, PRIVATE, SECRET
At International Center of Photography, 250 Bowery, New York, through Jan. 8. 212-857-0000, www.icp.org