Photographs make the unfamiliar too familiar. For the armchair traveler, Beijing and Rome and Berlin are equally close to home. This paper intimacy with strange places robs them of their strangeness, and tames the unruly energy of genuine curiosity.
Each of the photographers presented in this exhibition has used photography to explore the life of a place unfamiliar to most viewers here. Each, however, has declined the role of surrogate for an anonymous tourist, in order to follow the urgings of his own curiosity. Perhaps each is better able to persuade us that he has understood something because he does not pretend to have understood everything. In the work of Patrick Faigenbaum, Reagan Louie, and Michael Schmidt, the triangle formed by photographer, subject, and viewer is never twice the same shape.
In 1984 Patrick Faigenbaum, a Frenchman, began photographing the Italian aristocracy in their own homes. He started in Florence, continued in Rome, and plans to complete the project in Naples and Venice. The photographs describe a world otherwise closed to most of us, and the systematic outline of the project suggests a comprehensive report. But any expectation of a glimpse into private lives is foreclosed by the brooding formality of the pictures. Instead of trying to bridge the gap between his subjects and himself, Faigenbaum has exploited it. He has photographed not individuals but the weight of history upon them, the unequal contest between present and past.
Over the past eight years, American-born Reagan Louie has traveled repeatedly to the People’s Republic of China. On these trips he has enlisted photography in his search for a personal bond with the country his father left half a century ago. The pictures here—mostly portraits improvised in the street, mostly of other men—do not purport to represent China. They are provisional signposts in Louie’s unresolved search: moments of connection between the photographer and his now foreign homeland.
Michael Schmidt knows his subject well. Since teaching himself photography more than twenty years ago, he has worked only in Berlin, where he was born in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II in Europe. This exhibition presents selections from Schmidt’s most recent series, titled Waffenruhe (Ceasefire), in which the protagonist is the Berlin Wall. Whether or not we have seen it, we all know the Berlin Wall, as a fact and a symbol. For Schmidt, and for the young men and women he often takes as subjects, it is an oppressive living presence.
This exhibition is part of the Springs Industries Series Achievement Series on the Art of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art and is generously supported by a grant from Spring Industries, Inc.