Currently and coincidently, both the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine are opening major photography exhibitions this weekend. The Currier is filling two large galleries with a show of 125 modernist photographs from its own collection. The Portland Museum of Art is showing a selection of the 600 photographs in post-modernist photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander’s social media portrait project, Are You Really My Friend?
The Currier owns a sizable and significant collection of fine art photographs thanks in large part to good offices of the late Robert M. “Mac” Doty, director from 1977 to 1987. Doty attracted three major gifts of photographs to the museum, photographer Lotte Jacobi’s collection of her own work and that of her contemporaries, a group of photographs from the Paul Strand Foundation, and some 300 photographs from the collection of photographer, collector, and art dealer Vincent Vallarino. The Currier subsequently acquired 50 photographs from the collection of Portsmouth resident Jonathan Stein and almost as many photographs Brett Weston. The Weston gift, given by Brett Weston Archive founder Christian Keesee, is highlighted in A New Vision: Modernist Photography (February 4 thru May 13).
By “Modernist Photography” the Currier means 20th century photography that reacted against 19th century pictorialism and its narrative attempt to imitate “real art,” i.e. painting. The fundamental modernist tenet is that a work of art is a thing-in-itself, not a picture of something else. It is the object, the image itself, not the illusion that is primary.
As the Currier brochure notes, “the modernist photographer found dynamic, abstract compositions in the emerging industrial landscape – skyscrapers, power plants, factories, and other engineering feats – as well as in details of the prosaic, the insignificant, and the mundane – seeds, roots, leaves, and peeling paint.”
A New Vision features photographs by a who’s who of 20th century photography, among the greats being Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Lotte Jacobi, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, and Edward and Brett Weston. The show also features late-modernist works by contemporary photographers such as Paul Caponigro, Lee Friedlander, and Frank Gohle.
Modernism covers a lot of complicated ground from abstraction to surrealism to minimalism. Post-modernism essentially rejects the inherent formalism of modernism in favor of a more conceptual approach to art, one in which the art object is less important than the idea it embodies.
Are You Really My Friend? by Tanja Hollander fits the post-modern bill perfectly because, superficially, it consists of environmental color portraits of the artist’s family, friends, and online “friends.” Conceptually and collectively, however, the portrait photographs ask the question, “Is friendship something photographable?”
Hollander, one of the co-founders of the Bakery Photographic Collective, began her social media project a year ago while simultaneously writing a letter to a friend deployed in Afghanistan and sending a Facebook message to another friend making a film in Jakarta.
“On one hand,” Hollander writes, “the letter has a tangibility that makes it seem more genuine and real, while on the other hand social networks provide an immediate way to be part of people’s lives all over the world, often through photographs.”
In order to explore the mode of social media communication and the meaning of friendship, Hollander resolved to travel all over the country photographing her 626 Facebook friends. The visual dimension of the project is given depth by the fact that the artist is physically visiting and meeting face-to-face with her cyber-friends. Hollander has been gathering support for the Facebook project by, among other things, selling what amount to subscriptions the prints to underwrite her travels and her work.
As Hollander is an artist, many of the portraits are of fellow artists and their families. My favorite is Hollander’s portrait of Samantha Appleton, a Maine woman who until recently served as the White House photographer. I also got a kick out of Hollander’s portrait of her parents, because the photograph was taken in the Hollanders’ dining room, which for 40-plus years was my grandparents’ dining room.
There are both a social and personal aspect to Are You Really My Friend? that highly recommend it to public viewing, just as there are social and historical aspects to A New Vision that make it a must-see.
[Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester NH, 603-669-6144. Portland Museum of Art, Congress Square, Portland, ME, 207-775-6148.]