Camera Obscura

During the pre-production of Lolita, enigmatic director Stanley Kubrick made an extremely rare print appearance in the Winter 1960-'61 edition of Sight and Sound, the British Film Institute's cinema journal. Kubrick had come under fire in the country he left behind, America, as well as his adopted homeland of England for adapting Lolita even before anybody had read the script or seen a daily. How was this methodical formalist going to interpret Vladimir Nabokov's baroque, linguistic masterpiece, a novel that seemed impervious to visual translation? And better yet, how could he possibly expect to shoot Nabokov's comment on America entirely in the English countryside?

Kubrick, a man who's proven to be slippery even in death, responded not so much by defending his movie--he never was a man who felt the need to justify his motives--but by doing something entirely more delicate and daft. In a short piece titled "Words and Movies," Kubrick provided what remains one of the only written explications of his idea of film art, a precis on film theory written in accessible, colloquial language.

"I think that for a movie or a play to say anything really truthful about life, it has to do so very obliquely, so as to avoid all pat conclusions and neatly tied-up ideas," he wrote. "The point of view it is conveying has to be completely entwined with a sense of life as it is, and has to be got across through a subtle injection into the audience's consciousness. Ideas which are valid and truthful are so multi-faceted that they don't yield themselves to frontal assault. The ideas have to be discovered by the audience, and their thrill in making the discovery makes those ideas all the more powerful."

Though he was writing about narrative cinema, that aesthetic approach--fusing technical sophistication with subtle implication--is also one of the best primers for understanding where photography has ventured in contemporary art. When the camera first emerged as a technological innovation, people heralded its arrival as the achievement that would free visual art from having to represent reality. It was believed that photography documented life as it really was, how it was seen by the naked eye. It would free artists to explore abstraction and interpret the world in bold, new ways.

With more than a century of photography behind us now, we've realized that the camera is not without its own biases. Photographers make as many aesthetic decisions as any other artists, and the photographic image is not the visual equivalent of truth. It's just another tool for artists' restless, inventive minds.

That idea is implicit in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's current exhibition, Ordinary Grandeur: Photography Since 1960. Consisting of photographs from the Modern's extensive permanent collection, Grandeur is less a celebration of the camera than an informative dissertation on photography in contemporary art.

The 71 images from 30 artists gathered is an impressive undertaking that threatens to overwhelm, but the Modern's exhibition strategy presents the works in a manner that's cohesive. There's an internal logic running through the show, one that traces and explores photography's many forms. And it's signaled by the first image you see when entering the museum: Brazilian artist Vik Muniz's Cibachrome "The Doubting of St. Thomas." Muniz, primarily schooled as a sculptor, uses unorthodox materials--such as granulated sugar, chocolate syrup, tomato sauce, thread, wire, cotton and soil--to create a sculptural image, then photographs it. What results is a documentation of a three-dimensional artifact flattened into a two-dimensional plane. His photos have the rough sheen of lines scratched on a negative, synthetic yet photographic at the same time. And it lets you know that Grandeur is not going to be as ordinary as its title suggests.

From there, Grandeur flirts with photography's various historical characteristics: portraiture, natural phenomena, photojournalism, color and black-and-white stock, and staged environments. All are present in the first exhibition space, which includes Hiroshi Sugimoto's "Manatee," Thomas Struth's "Uffizi I, Florence," four images from Nic Nicosia's Untitled staged portraits from 1991-'93, and Sophie Calle's "The Blind #19." Here, there's a palpable tension created by combining seven photographic images, in which each artist takes a different approach to documenting a moment. Nicosia's staged, high-contrast black-and-white portraits introduce a psychological element to the individuals depicted. Sugimoto's underwater shot captures the sea mammal with a reverential mien, sun beams emanating through the water's surface like the rays of light that accompany religious paintings. Struth's casual image of two women regarding a sacred artwork draws its unsettling undertow from the detached, snapshot-like composition. And Calle's three-piece installation investigates the way in which her subject knows and understands her world. This piece comes from a series in which the French artist photographed people who were blind from birth and asked them what their image of beauty was. Calle's portraits are accompanied by texts in which her subjects describe beauty in their own words and an image that visualizes the subjects explicated in the texts.

As these photographs demonstrate, Grandeur is less concerned with reality as it looks to the naked eye than it is with using the camera to explore ways of seeing, be it literal or figurative. In another exhibition space, four of Andres Serrano's hot-color keyed images of customarily touchy subjects--"Klansman," "Nomads," "The Morgue" and "The Church"--are mounted opposite Craigie Horsfield's large, black-and-white "E. Horsfield, Well Street. East London. March, 1998." Where Serrano's startling compositions make you think about their subjects in a different manner--a profile of a dead man with a red cloth covering his empty eyes makes you forget that his fleshy lips and nose are equally inanimate; a nun photographed over the shoulder accentuates not the woman in the habit but the institution of the church itself--Horsfield's more intimate image feels ominous. Here, the relationship between the photographer and his subject is more personal--it's his wife lying in bed--than in Serrano's work, but this intimacy is subverted by the image. The photograph is quite large, and the scale makes the grains in the film stock more pronounced. In the lower left-hand corner, the photographer's left hand is visible, wrapped around her upper right arm. The overall effect turns this intimate moment into something that feels almost invasive.

Such inspired combinations of similar themes recur in the exhibition. Iconography of the American West is explored by combining images from David Levinthal, Richard Misrach, Richard Prince and Garry Winograd. Prince's untitled cowboy series takes Marlboro cigarette ads and removes the advertising copy, presenting a mythic version of that icon of American folklore that's a stark contrast to the real people captured in selections from Winograd's "The Great American Rodeo Portfolio." Here, the casual attitude of the contemporary rodeo competitors, young raisers of livestock, and the people who attend these events in Winograd's photos undercuts the heroic, rugged individuals alluded to in the myths of the West in Prince's images. And this tension causes you to re-examine how visual information influences your own assumptions and understanding of American history.

And that may the greatest gift that you take away from Grandeur. Thanks to the generations of photographic artists gathered here, the cultural currency of the photograph has been drastically re-examined. No longer the indisputable version of life as it's experienced, the limitations of photography have been identified, exploited and deconstructed, and as a result the medium's expressive possibilities have expanded. Now, whenever even the most amateur of shutterbugs looks through a viewfinder or sees a photo, a series of questions run through his or her mind as to its validity. And we're all once again looking at reality with eyes wide open.