Back to “reality”

Julian Faulhaber, Tankstelle [Gas Station], Chromogenic print, 2008, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography, curated by Mia Fineman, is currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it seems intended to serve as a counterpoint to the nearby 19th-century galleries and typical Met fare such as Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. The show unites heterogeneous tendencies in contemporary photography under the banner of a play between reality and illusion, one perhaps inspired by post-structuralist discussions of the unreliability of the photographic document in the 1970s. While there are some examples of portraiture, the dominant genre here seems to be landscape, and in particular the alienated “late capitalist” landscape of corporate architecture, malls, gas stations, and the like that has been a point of fascination for a number of German photographers, some of whom studied with Hilla and Bernd Becher at Künstakademie Dusseldorf.

Where the Bechers spent many years making serial black-and-white photographs of defunct industrial architecture that foreground the photograph’s status as a document of what was before the camera, their more recent inheritors, among them Frank Breuer and Thomas Demand, have created a body of images in which either real spaces appear unreal or fictional spaces are made to look believable. While Demand typically photographs models of indoor spaces, a number of these artists engage landscape photography. In Julian Faulhaber’s Tankstelle (Gas Station) (2008) above, a newly completed gas station looks like an enlarged Lego set; the photograph is used against itself to produce a glossy world that could not possibly be populated by human beings. These photographers have frequently praised for their savvy questioning of photographic truth and confrontation of the hyper-real alienation present in our contemporary land- and cityscapes.

In this quasi-canonization at the Met (all the works on view are in the Permanent Collection), one is particularly aware, however, of just how painterly these large-scale photographs are, and how elegant. Their proximity to the austerity of Ingres and Whistler feels appropriate; art, it would seem, still prizes the same values of pristine pictorial organization and sober contemplation. The “alienation” of the contemporary world, it would appear, is merely a requirement to get in the door. The truth is that no matter how depopulated, how overrun by capital, this “postmodern” world of ours can still be made to look beautiful and thereby hang on the wall; a source of comfort, however cold.

It was therefore a relief to me to find the image below, Israeli photographer Shai Kremer‘s Panorama, Urban Warfare Training Center, Tze’elim (2007), included in the show. It is here that a different sort of “reality” intrudes: that of the political present. Kremer has photographed Baladia City, a site used for military training by the Israeli Army (built with U.S. funding) that simulates an entire Muslim urban area, complete with apartment blocks and minarets that play recordings of prayers. Sampling the 19-century tradition of the panoramic image and utilizing the minarets as a central vertical around which the shorter buildings seem to pivot, Kremer organizes our vision through a history of earlier images of cities. The eerie lights in place of windows in the minarets signal the simulacrum at hand, yet at the moment that we intuit the unreality of the site, we cannot help but think of the real lived spaces and their inhabitants upon whom this training will, and has, been used. It is only a slight shift to move from aseptic spaces that banish human presence to focus on the literal violence implicit in certain false landscapes. The power of the documentary photograph is thusly restored within this very back-and-forth between real and unreal. Here Kremer has lit a path by which sophisticated photographic techniques might inform a new hybrid of art and journalism.

Shai Kremer, Panorama, Urban Warfare Training Center, Tze’elim, Chromogenic print,

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