Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition June 20-September 13, 2015

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Date(s) - Sep 23
All Day

The Hammer Museum



When we say of a portrait that it is a perfect likeness, we mean not just that it accurately delineates its subject. There is a further implication that the image penetrates beyond surface appearance to give us some deeper sense of the person depicted. The same logic can be applied more broadly. There was a time when it seemed a plausible goal for the artist to resolve a picture so conclusively that the result of his or her work would potentially transcend simple representation to reveal the essence of the subject. Today such a project might seem naïve.  We are glutted with images. What single picture might separate itself from this flood? Any such attempt to make such a work will lead inevitably to the question of composition. This issue is perhaps most urgent for artists working in in photography, a medium that now pervades every corner of daily life. The exhibition Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition looks at artists’ work with carefully composed photographic images.

For most of its history, art photography has linked itself with the contingent, the found situation, the apparently accidental arrangement. Since the decline of the movement known as Pictorialism in the 1920s there has been consistent suspicion among serious photographers of images that are too beautiful, too “photogenic,” too well composed—too perfect. Photographers from Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand to Daido Moriyama and Bernd and Hilla Becher were all resistant in different ways to the conventional idea of good composition. They introduced a variety of strategies to counteract it. At all costs it was necessary to avoid the picturesque. An overly composed image smacked of the commercial or the kitsch. Since the late 1970s, however, a number of photographers have been engaged with a renewed investigation of composition and thus, inevitably, with the historically devalued concept of the pictorial. These include Thomas Demand, Stan Douglas, Roe Ethridge, Andreas Gursky, Annette Kelm, Elad Lassry, Florian Maier-Aichen, Barbara Probst, Jeff Wall, and Christopher Williams, among others.

Such images can sometimes be in conflict with the traditional mandate of photography to present an unmediated representation of the world as the photographer finds it. New technologies have made photography almost infinitely amenable to whatever alterations and refinements the artist sees fit to make. On view through Wednesday, September 23.