Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Printed Picture at MoMA

The Printed Picture
October 17, 2008–June 1, 2009

The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries at MoMA

If you look at the exhibition dates for the Printed Picture at MoMA you might think that you have all the time in the world to catch this show. I urge you not to procrastinate. First of all, you will not be able to take in all the information from just one viewing. Second, you will want to come back more than once (maybe even more than twice) so you can approach the show from multiple perspectives. MoMA calls this show an "educational installation". Well, I wish my education had been as beautifully, thrillingly, and comprehensively presented to me as this show is presented to the New York public.

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a Daguerreotype and an ambrotype? Are you curious about how etching creates a photographic verisimilitude? Are you in the dark when you hear terms like digital C-print and archival inkjet print? Wonder no more. Your questions will all be answered in the exhibit.

The show is arranged in rigorous chronological order starting from prehistoric cave drawings all the way to the newest printing technologies. Each process has an example, wall text, and, in many cases, a 50x enlargement of the example so you can see microscopic details inherent in that process. My first time through the show, I tried to go in the chronology that the exhibition lays out. But I found myself circling back to reread text about one process or another that suddenly had unexpected significance in a later process. Also, the exhibition cannily uses the same image multiple times so we see how a different (later, more sophisticated, and supposedly better) process renders the same image.

The only criticism I have of this important, hugely satisfying show is that it's almost too objective. Especially once we get into 21st century processes, I expected some kind of perspective on the merits of one version over another. Instead, a kind of democracy seems to be propounded where each process has its merit, but one is not better than another. I'm not so sure.

Surely though, this is quibbling. I have never seen a show like this, and I feel that I'm unlikely to see another like it soon. I urge everyone who cares deeply about photography and the printed image to make time to see this show.

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