- The Museum of Modern Art
New Photography 3 includes the work of three photographers who assert radically distinct artistic positions. Paul Graham is committed to the notion of photography as a political tool; Barbara Norfleet exercises her imagination to create fantastic fables; and Thomas Roma embraces traditional values—religion, family, work—reaffirming virtues that have become corrupted. Nevertheless, they share a common interest in the exploitation of materials: in recent years technological advances have varied the ways in which a photograph can be made. Consequently, what photographs can describe with conviction is constantly being redefined and original artistic impulses realized.
Paul Graham works within Britain’s strong tradition of documentary photography, one that seeks to redress society’s problems. Selected from the series Beyond Caring (1984–85), his pictures describe the despair of people seeking help in social-service offices across Great Britain. The novelty of Graham’s approach is in the large scale of his photographs and his use of color film. We are confronted with the facts on the wall and enveloped by them. The arrangement of things within the picture plane, seen from a low, often titled angle with a visual entry point near the center of the picture, draws us into these grim scenarios where we are more participant than observer. Their bright colors seduce us while they contradict the facts described, creating the tension of lived experience.
Barbara Norfleet lures wild and domesticated animals to locations in which she has arranged objects. While it is common in art to idealize animals as noble, courageous, or affectionate, in Norfleet’s pictures God’s creatures appear to have thrown off their self-contained animality and adopted human foibles. The juxtaposition of things and animals is surreal because we are unable to make sense of their relationships. (The rabbit and little girl’s black shoes remind us of Alice in Wonderland, but what are we to make of the nail clippers in the same picture?) The exuberant strangeness of these tableaux is achieved through the use of the flash which catches the animals flagrante delicto, and the Cibachrome (silver-dye bleach) paper which acidifies the colors.
Thomas Roma’s photographs, made in Sicily since 1982, are romantic descriptions of a culture that has changed little over the centuries. In his photographs of the island’s landscape, architecture, and people we perceive an ancient, closed society within a mythic world. Shepherds and families are elevated to archetypes, and the connection of the people to the land and to each other appears immutable. Through the use of a medium format camera of his own design and manufacture—one which provides the mobility of a hand-held camera with the detail of a larger negative—Roma captures the blinding Mediterranean light, which infuses the landscape with a power greater than itself.
Susan Kismaric, Curator, Department of Photography.