February 6, 2013
By Sarah L. Webb
LASM EXHIBIT EXPLORES THE RANGE OF ABSTRACT PHOTOGRAPHY
In contemporary culture, people look at photographs to provide answers. Where were you yesterday? What color was my dress the night we met? Is Sam’s dimple in his left or right cheek? But there’s a sort of photography that raises more questions than answers. There’s a kind of photography that makes us want to remember the actual photograph rather than the moment in time it reflects.
“The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography” is a new exhibit at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum that frees photography from that burden of proof by abstracting what our culture expects from photographs. This exhibit allows viewers to appreciate color, form, texture, and mood because it frees them from the cognitive burden of an easily identifiable figure.
“One of the motivations was to explore that idea [of abstraction],” said Lyle Rexer, who curated the exhibit. “What the heck is it when we talk about abstraction? What most people would recognize as abstraction is the same thing they would see in painting, a photograph without a picture – something that doesn’t give you an image that’s immediately recognizable.”
Rexer, who has had a long career as a writer, began thinking about the project as a book in 2002. The parallel exhibition was a result of Rexer’s collaboration with the Aperture Foundation in New York. Since 2009, the exhibition has travelled across the country. The exhibit and the book survey the entire range of abstract photography, and they present that medium to the public like no other collection past or present. Because there aren’t other books like The Edge of Vision, Rexer said that giving an overview was the right thing for him to do. The range not only includes the look of the images, but also the processes and concepts that allowed the images to happen.
“The point is that there are lots and lots of ways to make pictures using photography. There always has been,” Rexer said. “The most common kind that most people are familiar with is where you take a picture of something in such a way, from a certain angle or depth, that people won’t recognize what it is. You might say the subject is somewhat withheld. When the camera makes a frame around something, it can make it pretty strange looking, so strange that you don’t recognize what you’re seeing.”
Rexer continued by explaining that another approach is to turn the photograph into a process experiment by playing around with anything that can scramble the image.
“In the course of writing the book and looking at work … I began to think about abstraction in a third way that, in a sense, is more compelling to me,” Rexer said. “And that’s one in which there are concepts at work that are being dramatized or explored in photographs that are in some ways more important than the pictures themselves. It’s about the concept. We are dealing with ideas rather than images. Most of them look pretty ordinary, photographically speaking, but some of them don’t. There aren’t many of those in my show. If I were going to do a different one today, you would see a lot more stuff in there that you could recognize, but you would have to puzzle over it a little harder.”
Elizabeth Weinstein, LASM’s museum curator, is responsible for bringing “The Edge of Vision” to Baton Rouge. She oversees all the details of the LASM permanent collection as well as exhibitions, including selecting, scheduling, installing, interpreting, and funding the various works and exhibits. While LASM is a place to celebrate regional and local art and culture, Weinstein is always on the lookout for exhibitions that bring something fresh and unique to the Baton Rouge community.
“We look to bring in work that’s not readily available to the community here,” said Weinstein. “Most of the exhibitions we feature I organize from scratch, but when a great opportunity comes along like this one we bring it in. Photography is an art form that most of us are familiar with. We’re a very image-driven culture at this point in time. [The Edge of Vision] features work that is not shown anywhere in this area. You can look at photography as an art form or a scientific process, but we look for ways that different age groups and different interest levels can find something that appeals to them when they come. It really opens up a lot of possibilities of what photography can mean today, yet it’s accessible to people who don’t know very much about fine art, as well as to people who do. It’s very colorful, it’s fun, and we felt it would have a lot of appeal for our local audiences.”
LASM continues to play a big role in the development of the capital city, from its permanent collections and dazzling planetarium shows to its educational programming designed for all ages. In the past 50 years, it’s become a downtown anchor. With “The Edge of Vision” exhibit, the museum is currently focused on photography, including exhibits like “Gloriously Colorful Kodaks” from the Greg Milneck collection, featuring vintage Kodak cameras designed specifically for female consumers. There’s also a children’s display, created in partnership with the Baton Rouge Zoo, featuring photographs of animals along with information about the wildlife.
As a traveling exhibition, “The Edge of Vision” has transformed over the years. Some works could not travel because they were too delicate or too large. Other works, like videos, were added over time. If Rexer could do it again, he said it would be twice as large and perhaps have more of a history component to contextualize the works.
“It would be nice if people had a chance to rethink what photography is and how it works,” Rexer said. “I would hope that this would send people back to the history of photography to look again at what kinds of things have been done throughout the history of that medium. I think they’ll find a lot of the images might seem counterintuitive, but they are very much about how photographs actually work and how they’re made and, maybe most important of all, what we expect them to show us. If people learn to engage that all over again, and take away some fresh eyes, then the show has done its job.”