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Photography after Facebook at the PRC, 'Boston Does Boston III' at Proof, and Taro Shinoda at Gardner
By GREG COOK  |  January 12, 2010

THREE MUSICIANS Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick spin amazing steampunk fantasies at the PRC, but their over-seriousness keeps them earthbound.

Back in October, Minnesota photographer Alec Soth spoke at MassArt. "Facebook: 15 billion uploaded photos," he said. "At its busiest, 550,000 images each second being uploaded. So I've been struggling with that. How do I function as a photographer in that environment?"

“Godowsky Color Photography Awards” | Photographic Resource Center, 832 Comm Ave, Boston | Through January 24

“Boston Does Boston III” | Proof, 516 East Second St, South Boston | through January 16

“Taro Shinoda: Lunar Reflections” | Gardner Museum, 280 the Fenway, Boston | Through January 31

Soth was channeling a deep anxiety in art photography today. It's a golden age, particularly for the democratization of the medium. But much as the rise of photography in the early 20th century made realist painting seem superfluous, the abundance of digital photography today can make realist photography feel redundant. So art photographers are left frustrated and looking for less traveled territory.

That search has hastened a reconsideration of the medium that art photographers have pursued since the height of "Decisive Moment" documentary photography at mid century. Since then, they've favored formal posed portraits (often shot with old-style cameras), offhand snapshots, and ever more complex digital manipulation. Recent exhibits at Boston University's Photographic Resource Center have highlighted formal experiments in which photographs become like graphs charting the movement of stars or the major colors in compositions.

The PRC's current show honoring four winners of the Leopold Godowsky Jr. Color Photography Awards, which the Center organizes, finds artists pushing photography ever more into fiction. Nicholas Kahn (Brooklyn) and Richard Selesnick (Rhinebeck, New York) spin amazing steampunk fantasies in which men sail iceboats in front of a great iceberg, a fellow shoots paper airplanes made from currency into the air, a trio of masked musicians play on an ice floe, and an odd explorer bumbles across a mountain peak toward a pair of zeppelins. It's all related to their elaborate global-warming fable about a fictional culture that sprang up around a giant iceberg loosed by "heat from factory smoke" that ran aground in a German port in 1923. The special effects are astonishing. But there's something over-serious about the pictures, as if the artists were fearful of being considered mere entertainers, and that prevents the fantasies from taking full flight.

Curtis Mann (Chicago), who'll be featured in this year's Whitney Biennial, buys photos of the Middle East and North Africa from Flickr and then bleaches out sections of the prints, so that they resemble hallucinatory paintings. A boy shimmers in and out of existence. People scurry from threatening gray clouds. A boy stares at a soldier (hand on his gun) evaporating into a haze of dots. It could be a vision of the facts and fictions of the Middle East that bounce around in most Americans' heads, though the effect is more formally interesting than emotionally affecting.

Alejandro Chaskielberg (Argentina) uses shallow focus, hyper-rich emerald greens and ultramarine blues, and lighting techniques learned from his work as a film director to create dreamlike scenes along the Paraná River delta. Claudia Angelmaier (Germany) photographs the backs of art postcards so you can see the ghosts of paintings bleeding through the list of artist, title, museum. It's supposed to speak about art reproductions and, as Angelmaier says, "the transfiguration of the commonplace." But it feels like an artist bereft of anything to say.

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