Social Photography VIby Graham W. Bell
CARRIAGE TRADE | JULY 10 – AUGUST 26, 2018
Where does the virtual world of Instagram enter the physical art space? What does this convergence look like? Social Photography VI at Carriage Trade in Manhattan’s Chinatown looks to answer these questions with its sixth iteration of an annual exhibition. Although it includes submissions from well-known artists like Dan Graham, Michelle Grabner, and Tracey Emin, the exhibition centers more on the democratic nature of social photography and the ubiquity of cameraphones. The technology has proliferated throughout all layers of economic and social divisions, and, as a consequence, the exhibition’s offerings are decidedly broad. But the gallery does well in organizing such disparate visions into a relatable, digestible format.
Presented in two blocks of one hundred photographs on opposing walls, the exhibition’s entries are outwardly quite orderly. The gallery has printed each image on 7-by-5-inch paper with a white border, which lends additional uniformity. Helpful didactic panels refer to the layout in a numbered diagram for pairing artist names with their images. However, it is more satisfying to take in the works as a whole, pick out a favorite, and then go hunting for the artist, than it is to do the reverse. The inundation of often haphazardly composed snapshots is a testament to the flippant use of camera technology in society today. Subjects range from mirror selfies (Tracey Emin takes this route) to street shots to the requisite pictures of food. A few of the more self-aware contributions dispense with the camera function all together and comment on the marriage of internet imagery and the physical world through the smartphone (the gallery’s screenshot of a Google search for images of men kissing cellphones or Ceal Floyer’s snapshot of Siri are perfect examples of this confluence).
The distinction between viewing photos on an Instagram feed and on a gallery wall is a potent one, and one that Carriage Trade makes sure to note. They want visitors to “encounter these images in a format free of peer-generated tallies.”1This is a clever tactic that helps to democratize the included works. Each image, no matter whether it’s by a world-famous artist or a student or the gallery itself, fits neatly into the grid and can be approached in much the same way. Online, accompanied by a deluge of comments and hashtags, one views the photographer as part of a constantly evolving narrative influenced by their amount of followers or real-world fame. In the gallery, however, each image makes its case among the crowd and is only attributable to some sort of external fame, status, or larger conceptual narrative when the viewer consults the wall text.
Social Photography VI and its predecessors serve as a telling counterpoint to the New Photography series at MoMA. This is also “new” photography (in that they are recent creations), but Social Photography embraces the idea of what is new in photography a little more readily. The jump into instantly shareable photographs of seemingly unimportant events continues the legacy of snapshot photographers, while adding an enormous community element. Now photographers are in conversation with their peers, their idols, and their critics practically as soon as the image is made. However, while the gallery touts its Social Photography series as “less a sanctioning of an evolving medium than a hybrid of a traditional exhibition format and the wider net of social media,” this seems a bit disingenuous and safe, if not a complete detractor from the show’s impetus.2 Safe isn’t necessarily bad, but why not sanction the medium of social photography? Is it really that dangerous to accept ideas that are already in full bloom outside of the institutional context? MoMA did something similar by only including Yazan Khalili’s Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind (2016) and no other obvious references to camera phones, social imagery, and their effect on the greater conversation of photography. Perhaps, then, it is a systemic issue that stems from a hesitance to embrace newer media and the popular modes. Like it or not, there is an ever-present divide between the high art world and the world of Instagram. Certainly Maurizio Cattelan has his one image account, and Cindy Sherman’s Photoshopped face pops up on the feed occasionally, but there is a split between the artwork seen in commercial galleries and photographs on Instagram. Not every image is meant as art, but can also be documentary of happenings in the world far removed from the confines of artistic discussion. Arguably the best recent example of institutional acceptance of social photography happened earlier this year during Stephen Shore’s retrospective at MoMA (the same institution that was so reticent to show bleeding-edge, new photography in the subsequent Being: New Photography 2018 exhibition). The inclusion of multiple screens to view his wonderfully pedestrian Instagram feed and his cracked iPhone under a Perspex vitrine spoke to an increased acceptance of camera phone photography and instantaneous sharing of events.
So Social Photography really begs the question: If you take an image off of Instagram and put it on a wall (or in a museum), does it become art? The entire debacle behind Richard Prince’s appropriation of various images from other peoples’ accounts brings this to the fore (while also proving that many people aren’t really clear on what appropriation art is or how long Prince has been doing it). Not every photograph (online or off) is recognized as a work of art. Certainly there was a day in the past when access to photographic equipment was prohibiting the vast proliferation of images in today’s society, but with ease of access came an exponential outpouring of photographic images in varying states of clarity, composure, and subject. Carriage Trade’s commitment to these exhibitions proves that there is a market and need for an investigation of social media and its role in the evolution and understanding of photography today.
ContributorGraham W. Bell
GRAHAM W. BELL is an arts writer based in Brooklyn, NY by way of Portland, OR. He is a professor of art history and contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.