States of America: Photography from the Civil Rights Movement to the Reagan Era / Reviewed by Marco Bohr / 28.11.17
States of America currently on show at Nottingham Contemporary is a comprehensive overview of American photography from the Civil Rights Movement to the Reagan Era. Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of photography will recognize the names of artists featured in this exhibition: Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Mary Ellen Mark, Nicholas Nixon or Garry Winogrand to name just a few. With many photographs being instantly recognizable, walking through the exhibition is like taking a course in History of Photography 101.
The works on display broadly fall into the category of social documentary by mirroring some of the humanist elements from Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. Whilst some aesthetic and conceptual principles can be traced to this cornerstone of American photography, States of America provides a less optimistic and at times quite depressing commentary on American culture.
In this exhibition the viewer is presented with a country that is on the edge, divided, full of contradictions and not at ease with itself. In Bruce Davidson’s photographs of gang culture on New York subway system, for instance, there is a palpable sense of aggression and anger towards the status quo. Nicholas Nixon’s series depicts African-American and white working class communities on the very margins of society. Here, photography is not necessarily used as a tool to give these communities a voice, but rather they are depicted like others where the boundaries between photographer and subject are quite clearly defined.
Piercing the miasmic and poverty-stricken landscapes are occasional moments of peace and tranquility. Stephen Shore’s photograph of a young woman standing up to her knees in a pool stands out in terms of colour and aesthetics but also in terms of the relative calm as signified by the baby blue colour of the water. Garry Winogrand on the other hand photographed hedonistic parties of New York’s upper classes. Mixed amongst the champagne and the smoke of cigars is Winogrand’s unforgiving flash light. He is very much the voyeur trying to strip away the veneer of opulence.
Instead of captioning individual images, the gallery provided short text passages about bodies of work as a whole. As a consequence of this approach, there were several instances where the attribution of photographs to their makers was unclear: one wall depicting the work of Lee Friedlander for instance had no text at all. In the absence of specific dates, locations or other information, it was a challenge to appreciate the work in relation to its historical context.
The other point about this exhibition is that it largely depicts work that the chosen photographers are well known for. More specifically, the photographs are representative of a formulaic approach amongst documentary photographers at the time which tends to centre around extremes: in the case of this exhibition it mainly gravitates to poverty and social deprivation. Whilst this is a reflection of the inequalities of American society, it leaves open the question whether, in the archives of the photographers chosen for this exhibition, another America could have existed.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Marco Bohr