Worcester Photo Revolution Show a Disappointment

Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman
Worcester Art Museum
Through February 16, 2020
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Not what the mods had in  mind!

The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in central Massachusetts is known for launching creative photography exhibits. Alas, Photo Revolution is not among them. Although there is certainly no rule that commands that an exhibit with the word “photo” in it must consist entirely of still images snapped by a shutterbug, a contrived air looms over WAM’s latest show.

Contrivance happens early and often in Photo Revolution. To be sure, the exhibit’s underlying construct is sound in ways that Susan Sontag informed us in her path-breaking On Photography in 1977; that is, mechanically produced and reproduced images have become such a part of our cultural vernacular that they have broken free from the camera. Think of how many photos you know that have appeared on t-shirts, coffee mugs, scarves, and dorm-room posters, billboards. Often, you’ve seen the image repurposed before you ever behold an archival print of the original. The putative purpose of Photo Revolution is to show how photographs influenced pop and contemporary art from the 1960s onward. Too often it feels as if the opposite point is being made.

It is certainly true that photography is no longer bound by the limits of documentary style–though that’s been the case long before the 1960s. The first thing we see as we enter the gallery is a high contrast photo of two mod girls in black and white geometric miniskirts. If you don’t know, the mod movement developed in Britain during the early 60s.  It was a harbinger of a larger youth subculture that rocked the foundations of mainstream society and challenged everything from musical preferences to fashion taste. The image we see, however, is from Life Magazine and it’s decidedly lacking in the rebellious values that gave rise to the mods. This tells us that even the commercial world realized that the times they were a changing. That’s not news either and it’s not unique to photography. For example, in the early 20th century, many of painter Maxfield Parrish’s oils began life as ads for Edison Mazda light bulbs. Indeed, an enduring (though not endearing) condition of advanced capitalist economies is that they appropriate challenges to the status quo, tame them, and sell them back to the masses.

The next thing we see is a row of paper dresses from Andy Warhol. These stretch the concept of photo inspiration to a ripping point. One dress is adorned with Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup cans; another with a close up of an eye that is from the 1929 Luis Buñuel film An Andalusian Dog. Hmmm…. Where is the photo revolution in these? Is it merely that Warhol took a polaroid of cans, painted them larger, and then screened them onto other materials? Can we say that a photo was the inspiration if the image came from celluloid? Or do we say that Warhol’s use of these images is a thrice-removed reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction? Similarly, the WAM exhibit advertises itself with another Warhol image–that of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong (then spelled Mao Tse-tung). At one point, someone took a photo of Mao, but the image most Westerners knew was a poster similar to the one that hangs in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Warhol merely copied that image, altered the colors, and scribbled on it. I doubt Warhol would have cared had that image been a watercolor rather than a photo.

The best way to enjoy this exhibit is to forget that the word “photo” has anything to do with it. This is a good strategy because there really aren’t many actual photographs, though the ones that do appear end up being more political and meaningful than the sculptures, collages, prints, and paintings that allegedly drew from the photographic tradition. There are several notable exceptions to my previous remark. Rosalyn Drexler’s collage titled The Defenders seems more relevant now than it did in 1963, when she assembled it. We see suited men with pistols and machine gun and a corpse. FBI versus crime figures? Does it matter in today’s era of rogue lawmen? Another winner is The ‘Nam, a Marvel Comics cover that does a reversal of the famed Eddie Adams photo of a South Vietnamese official summarily executing a Viet Cong suspect. Is turnabout fair play?

In the end, though, the actual photographs are generally of more interest. There is, for instance, an antiqued Cindy Sherman photo of Lucille Ball that grabs the eye, as does William Eggleston’s lonely photo of a rural field fronted by a Wonderbread ad pocked with gunshot holes. An advertising shot that unintentionally caused some ex post facto merriment is one for Gallo salami. Forget the meat, can you say cheese(y)? I also got a chuckle from a set of “baseball” cards that are actually famed photographers in baseball gear. Ansel Adams as a catcher? Another intriguing image is one of a young California family that looks as if it could have been the cover of a Richard Brautigan novel. 

In my view, though, the curators erred conceptually. Great photos are great photos and there is no need to artificially elevate their impact by linking them to the so-called fine arts side of creativity. In a nutshell, what the WAM needs is less Andy Warhol and more Cindy Sherman.

Rob Weir

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