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New Photography

Museum of Modern Art

New York

September 30, 2007 to January 1, 2008

Photographs by Berni Searle

"On Either Side," left, pigmented inkjet print, 39 1/4 by 78 1/4 inches, 2005, Fund for the Twenty-First Century; "On Either Side (Traces)," center, pigmented inkjet print, 39 1/4 by 79 inches, 2005, Fund for the Twenty-First Century; and "Still Passing By I," right, 10 pigmented inkjet prints, each 8 by 18 7/8 inches, 2005, private collection; all by Bernie Searle

Photographs by Michele Leight courtesy of the artists and The Museum of Modern Art

By Michele Leight

The Museum of Modern Art unveiled its annual fall showcase "New Photography 2007" on September 25, featuring outstanding work in recent photography by three artists, Bernie Searle, Tanyth Berkeley and Scott McFarland, that demonstrate the diversity, innovation and international scope of this hugely popular medium today.

"On Either Side" and "On Either Side (Traces)" by Searle

On Either Side," left, pigmented inkjet print, 39 1/4 by 78 1/4 inches, 2005, Fund for the Twenty-First Century; "On Either Side (Traces)," right, pigmented inkjet print, 39 1/4 by 79 inches, 2005, Fund for the Twenty-First Century

Organized by Eva Respini, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, "New Photography 2007" is on view from September 30, 2007-January 1, 2008 in the Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery on the third floor. Ms. Respini remarked that the show would not be possible without the support of JGS, who have also sponsored previous "New Photography" shows (see The City Review article "New Photography 2005).

Eva Respini

Eva Respini, assistant curator, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art

Twenty-two years after the first "New Photography" exhibition in 1985, this wonderful series continues to surprise, delight and inspire, bringing us 18 images of less familiar - but no less important - contemporary artists, from Canada, South Africa and the United States. Over the years, works by 63 artists from 13 countries have featured in the annual "New Photography" exhibition. Photography buffs might take note that The Museum of Modern Art also has holdings of 25,000 photographs in its collection, which began with the foundation of the museum.

The MoMA was humming with activity as I walked past the enormous plate glass windows overlooking the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden, now subdued and minus the crowds in the fading light - but always beautiful. A wall of glittering Manhattan towers rising up in the background was a reminder how precious this oasis is.

The first image that greeted me on the third floor was Bernie Searle's swirling "On Either Side," (2005)," which at first glance looks more like a painting than a photograph. Film also came to mind instantly, which is no coincidence because Searle is known for her films and video installations, which she says has been a major influence on her work.

Ms. Respini began her remarks with the good news that two of the artists were present - always a treat - but sadly Scott McFarland could not make it because he was unwell. She introduced Bernie Searle, from South Africa, who draws on personal experiences and memories in the creation of her videos, installations and photographs. Ms. Respini described how a handful of family snap-shots spanning three generations resulted in the series "About to Forget," from which three of the photographs on display derive: "On Either Side" (2005), a "On Either Side (Traces)" (2005), and "Still Passing By" (2005).

"Still Passing By I" by Searle

"Still Passing By I," 10 pigmented inkjet prints, ny Berni Searle, each 8 by 18 7/8 inches, 2005, private collection

Beginning with crepe paper cut-outs of silhouettes of traditional "group" family photos, Ms. Searle then immersed them in water, which caused them to lose definition as the red pigment bled into the water, evoking the illusiveness of memory and the gradual fading of family ties. The resulting "painterly" effect is extremely convincing and belies the discipline and technical wizardry such a process demands. If we tried it, the result would be a sludgy mess, certainly nothing as ethereal as Searle's.

"Still Passing By 1" overtly referenced the frame-by-frame sequencing required in film-making, an observation enthusiastically picked up by Bernie Searle when we spoke. Like many artists, she was extremely generous about sharing her working methods and techniques, and explained that a single digital image in "Still Passing By" yielded three images, offering more possibilities than traditional print film. It was a revelation to learn that these beautiful photographs were achieved with digital film "stills."

However, after all the talk about digital film stills, "Approach," (2006), Searle's most recent work on view at the show, is comprised of seven large, crisp, chromogenic color prints that form an undulating pattern - a recurring theme in her work. The undulations in "Approach" are mounds of discarded grape skins created during the harvest of a vineyard in South Africa, made by machinery that crushes the grapes and ejects the skins from an overhead funnel.

Berni Searle

Berni Searle in front of her "On Either Side"

Searle photographed herself ascending and descending the peaks and valleys of an apparently endless mountain range. The beauty of the landscape is contrasted by her grape-stained smock and physical exertion, a throwback to the winemaking culture established by the Dutch and French colonial settlers in the 17th century. In "Approach," Ms. Searle who was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1964, references her country's tumultuous past, but her beautiful images are universal.

Searle's work blurs the boundary between painting and photography, with the precision of film and video as the binding force, and the results are outstanding. Searle recently had a solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (2006-2007), and her group exhibitions include "Global Feminisms" at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the 49th and 51st Venice Bienniales (2001 and 2005).

"Grace in Window" by Berkeley

"Grace in Window," by Tanyth Berkeley, pigmented inkjet print 23 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches, 2006, E.T. Harmax Foundation Fund and Committee on Photography Funds

Tanyth Berkeley's life-size photographs are personal, like Searle's, although they do not appear that way at first. The elegant, elongated format and mannerist style of her work keep the viewer at a distance, yet the characters portrayed are well known to her, outside the mainstream or "ordinary," except in New York City, where staunch individualism is highly prized.

"Linda Leven" by "Claire" by Berkeley

"Linda Leven," 70 by 28 inches, left, and Claire," right, 70 x 29 29 3/8 inches, both 2007 by Tanyth Berkeley, pigmented inkjet prints, courtesy the artist and Bellwether Gallery, New York

Berkeley's women are not conventional beauties, yet "Grace in Window" (2006) with the light accentuating her pale blond hair, seems to belong more to the world of Vermeer's quiet interiors and porcelain domestic beauties than 21st Century Manhattan. Ms. Respini said "Claire" (2007) was a recent work, on view for the first time. The statuesque beauty with a mane of pale blond hair is attired in a full-length gown that makes no concession to fads or fashion. She wears the dress, not vice versa. She has the nobility, the uniqueness, not her clothes.

Berkeley represents Claire in the same way that Van Dyck might have approached a royal or wealthy patron, with corresponding emphasis on extraordinary lighting and sumptuous colors, but wearing idiosyncratic attire rather than extravagant silks and ostentatious jewels.

Five portraits by Berkeley

Five large portrait photographs by Tanyth Berkeley

Another Berkeley photo, "Rick Wilder," the second from the left in the above photograph, strikes a dandyish pose one might expect to find in a portrait by James McNeil Whistler or John Singer Sargeant, his stylish, shabby-chic suit proclaiming his non-conformist personality.

The protectiveness of the photographer towards her subjects is palpable, highlighting her personal relationship with them. Berkeley's photographs are dignified and refreshingly devoid of the clinical-quality "posed portraits" can often assume, thanks to the individuality of the sitters, who are distinctive in their own way, living their chosen lives as actresses and dancers, rockers and artists muses, going noiselessly against the grain of the world's most ambitious and upwardly mobile metropolis.

Tanyth Berkeley

Tanyth Berkeley in front of two of her large photographs

Tanyth Berkeley was born in Hollywood, California in 1969, and now lives and works in New York. She recently held her second solo exhibition at Bellwether Gallery in New York City (2007). Recent group exhibitions include "Greater New York 2005" at P.S.1/MoMA in Long Island City, New York, and "White Out: Lighting Into Beauty" at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art in Colorado (2005).

Scott McFarland's enormous images are a tour de force of digital photographic virtuosity that appears deceptively simple to the eye at first because the "process" is almost totally concealed.

In reality "process" has been painstakingly, even arduously applied. The more one looks, the more visible McFarland's deliberations become. Both his method and the subjects he chooses to portray are artificially constructed to appear natural as he digitally combines multiple negatives to create exquisitely detailed photographs that record the passage of time.

A wonderful example is "Orchard View with the Effects of the Seasons (Variation 1)" where McFarland focused on an overgrown garden throughout the year as different plants bloomed and faded. Amazingly, he captured all four seasons within a single image. The seamless blue sky underpins the composition, leading the viewer to believe this is one moment in time. Instead, spring flowers and the orange leaves of autumn are visible simultaneously, and viewers realize they have been tricked.

The date on the photograph, 2003-2006, gives some idea of the time it takes to achieve such an amazing image. In classical paintings of the past, the artist would combine seasons or sequenced episodes of a story or event manually, with paint and brush. Here, an artist equipped with a mechanical device seeks a similar effect in a photograph.

"Echinocactus Grusonii" by McFarland

"Echinocactus Grusonii," by Scott McFarland, pigmented inkjet print, 20 x 24, 2006, collection of John Rubeli, Los Angeles. © 2007 Scott McFarland

"Echinocactus grusonii" is as surreal as a film set - yet it is derived from nature, with a "twist" of course, because the light has been manipulated digitally. The professionalism and discipline required of such a photograph is, again, time-consuming and rigorous.

Scott McFarland was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and lives in Vancouver. Recent exhibitions include "The Constructed Image: Photographic Culture" at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto (2007), "Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre," Vancouver Art Gallery (2007) and "Clickdoubleclick: The Documentary Factor," Haust der Kunst in Munich (2006).

A reception following the exhibition was held in the famed central hall of the Museum of Modern Art lit with pink light, and it was filled with gorgeous Joan Mitchell canvases. The soaring cathedral ceiling offered one of the most expansive and liberating internal landscapes possible in congested Manhattan, and the wine was welcome after a long day.

As we left the party packed with guests, we ran into Ms. Searle, all dressed up, with a fine young man beside her:

"I'd like you to meet my brother," she said, with a warm smile. Family ties, it seems, have been maintained, in New York at least.

Soon caught up in the whirl of motion and honking car horns that is midtown Manhattan's 54th street, we passed a flaxen-haired blond hurriedly making her way to the entrance of The Museum of Modern Art. It was "Grace," in proper, 21st century attire, still unique in the pulsating throng.

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