Art Review: “Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949,” MoMA

I spent yesterday with my father meandering about the MoMA and there are some incredible things showing right now. I used to hate the MoMA as a child. I know, I was superbly petulant. I still have a slight visceral reaction even upon entering the lobby. It’s crowded and loud and I didn’t always appreciate art. My family is very intimidating intellectual, and as a child I sometimes let my self-consciousness trump my curiosity. It wasn’t until I impulsively applied to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London (the impetus being a boy) and actually had to eat my actions and go, that I learned this love.

I went immediately to the Thomas Walther Photography Collection (“Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949”), showing through April 19, 2015. Karen Rosenberg for the New York Times called this show “Black and White and Accessible All Over,” and I want to hate how that’s articulated, but I agree.

Photography is an interesting animal of the art world. “The question of whether photography ought to be considered fine art was hotly contested from its invention in 1839 into the twentieth century” (exhibition notes, MoMa). This debate still stands, and is sadly reflected in the average prices photographs can command at market. There are, I grant you, artists that transcend this standard and have pioneered in terms of prices. Andreas Gursky (b. 1955) holds the title for the most expensive photograph sold on the market with his Rhein II (1999). This was at Christie’s in November of 2011, and at USD $4,338,500, the price is still pretty paltry compared to other art forms.

To say I am passionate about photography is an understatement. Although only a hobbyist, myself, I am a dedicated collector and connoisseur. I trained in Paris alongside some intensely talented peers. However, my heart wasn’t in it. Let’s just say that I render the extent of my experience as having a good lens, but no focus.

But let’s get back to the art of the matter. The show was curated carefully (by Quentin Bajac and Sarah Hermanson Meister), and there is an extensive and impressive online catalog/map/comparison tool that is a wonderful resource. I am fascinated by the way cultural institutions have integrated into digital. It’s funny. Some of the works online are in higher resolution than the originals. I do still suggest that you get your ass to the exhibition, in person. Although this digital integration is necessary and beautiful, I believe in the power and purity of committing your person to the experience as a whole, and the meanings you can make from the moment.

One of the more powerful pieces was Joris Ivens’ short film entitled “Rain” (full video below). I wasn’t acquainted with his work, but I watched the whole way through. I asked my father, “What is it about this work that commands our attention so thoroughly?” I’ve contemplated the power of the moving image, or video, at length recently, but in a different context. These days, the saying “content is king” is something you hear a lot in marketing. I spend a lot of time considering this. Recently, it seems, there has been a distinct emphasis on video content. Facebook gives you visible view counts strictly on videos, Ted rewards social shares with influence analytics.

I believe this all ties back to the accessibility factor. There is something scary in the static. It is bold and beautiful, but it is something outside of our experience. We are never stopped in time. Video, even cut and spliced at an artist’s whim that might, stylistically, lie outside of your aesthetic experience, is fluid where photography is fossilized.

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