Pity the professional photographer in the digital point-’n’-shoot age. When a free smartphone app unlocks techniques once guarded by darkroom specialists, when Instagram saturates the web with spectacle, and when a newspaper such as the Chicago Sun-Times fires its entire photo staff and “trains” its reporters to snap iPhone pictures on the go – then an institution like the International Center of Photography has a problem.
In its last triennial the ICP struggled with these democratic incursions into its turf, and the best response it could muster was to enlarge mediocre pictures practically to billboard size. Now the museum has found its footing – or, at any rate, found photographers who have carved out distinct niches, using an activist’s sense of mission. The standouts in the current triennial are all what Robert Capa called “concerned photographers”, those who travel to places others want to leave, or demand that the world gaze on scenes it would prefer to avoid.
Leading the return to core principles is the Swiss photographer Thomas Hirschhorn, who, rather than head for war zones, lets the imagery of horror come to him. He points his video camera at an iPad for what could almost be an Apple ad, except that the vivid pictures gliding across the backlit rectangle are full of mangled bodies. A disembodied hand reaches into the frame to caress a two-dimensional corpse or zoom in on dead eyes and bloodied stumps. Such anonymous pictures of bloodshed don’t make it on to the TV news; instead they circulate online, raw and deracinated, stoking grievances and amplifying calls for help.
For Hirschhorn, they answer a question he asked in a mournful essay, Why is it Important – Today – to Show and Look at Images of Destroyed Human Bodies? He has leveraged the monotony of shock to theatrical effect. In practice, the medium is far removed from reality: between the scene and the viewer is a witness’s camera, an iPhoto library, a YouTube upload, editing software, an iPad, another round of editing and a museum-quality projector. But all those generations telescope into an unsettlingly intimate connection with each gruesome tableau that rests for a moment on the screen – until a finger flicks the whole mess away.
Beirut-based Rabih Mroué, too, wrestles with the ubiquity and limitations of war photography. In the video essay “The Pixelated Revolution”, he sits in front of a neutral background, narrating jittery, confusing scenes of conflict. He repeats a friend’s remark that Syrians are now photographing their own deaths and, sure enough, a handheld camera pans an urban street, then settles on a gunman who aims directly at the lens and fires. The camera jerks wildly, as if the person holding it has been hit. There is no way of knowing story behind that choppy, unfocused sequence – whether we’ve just been watching the last moments of an innocent onlooker or been snookered by a staged scene. At a time when a few visceral seconds of video can represent an entire conflict, technical imperfections become the mark of presumed authenticity. We know we can’t always believe the camera’s eye, but it’s hard to do anything else.
There is more to this sensitive triennial than numbing shots of carnage, though even peaceful scenes are shot through with trauma and loss. Lucas Foglia embedded himself in rural anti-modern communities to examine a deeply American strain of self-reliant pessimism. A shirtless, bearded young man looks like he would be at home in deepest Brooklyn; instead he’s a resident of Wild Roots Homestead in North Carolina, and he has evidently hunted and gathered his evening meal, “Acorn with Possum Stew”.
In another photo, a home-schooled girl with pigtails faces a blackboard covered in apocalyptic sentiments: “He who controls the oil controls the world”, “New world order”, “Droughts have begun”, “The end is near.” The whole densely doodled wall is reminiscent of Glenn Beck’s hysterical TV lectures, where the back-to-the-19th-century movement and modern media merge.
While Foglia ferrets out people who have cast off worldly possessions, Michael Schmelling tracks pathological hoarders. He followed around a crew of “disaster masters”, specialised cleaners who don latex gloves and gas masks to wade into wildernesses of piled papers, tangles of string, cornucopias of bibelots and arsenals of wire hangers. Schmelling drills down through the sediments of indoor existence, with empathy for those who resist parting with physical traces of the past.
The flip side of piling up unnecessary stores is having possessions taken from us, and that kind of loss is Gideon Mendel’s terrain. His series “Drowning World” is a visual threnody for a world beset by rising seas. Mendel is an old-fashioned collector of pathos, though his pictures have a surreal serenity. Two women in bright saris stroll together through a village in India, where palm trees are reflected in the water that’s climbed up to their chests. In another shot, a Nigerian man knee-deep in glass-still water strikes a formal pose. The title specifies that this is “a flooded goat farm and butchery”, but the reflected light, clouds and electric pylon produce a lyrical shimmer at odds with the reeking misery that the photograph depicts.
Many of these artists could adopt the job title that Luis Molina-Pantin has given himself: urban archeologist. Posing as a real estate photographer, he strolled into the homes of drug lords and gangsters all over Colombia to discover what blood money would buy. Reporting back with deadpan earnestness on what he calls “Narco-Architecture and its Contributions to the Community”, Molina-Pantin discovers homes both preposterous and modest. Colonnades and mirrored bays adhere to cheap brick buildings, as if there were dishonour in extending the glitter or comfort beyond kitsch façades. The drug wars, it seems, have spawned an aesthetic that has less to do with imperial grandeur than with a poor man’s version of hasty wealth.
This triennial is most affecting when it is least troubled by technology. The most insightful participants often switch with ease between still and video cameras, and between elaborately composed compositions and pictures scavenged from the world’s image dump. In the end, the show is hopeful because it makes clear that even in a world choked with photographs, there is still room for thoughtfulness, persistence and a perceptive eye.
Continues until September 22, www.icp.org