Anticipating the “Shadow and Substance” Contemporary Photography show, I expected a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge traditional boundaries and defy easy definition. I was expecting to understand what I was seeing, to enter in, and to connect deeply with what was before me. I’m happy to say, however, that my expectations were wrong.
Every set of photos was extremely different. Carl’s flat cyanotypes were paired with physical vine branches he collected. Hannah’s photos repeated themselves and expanded over the wall’s entire surface. Caleb’s photos were a conglomeration of uncomfortable colors and subject matter that were redeemed into an enticing image. Reed projected his photos onto the wall, pairing the slideshow with a photo book of nostalgic disposable film.
After spending time with each piece, I wondered how all of them would fit and make sense together. I appreciated them all, of course. I expected to see a mix of materials and dimensions, and was satisfied. However, much to my surprise, I found that I did not connect on a penetrating level with these pieces. Suddenly I was nervous. I wondered if I should feel connected to contemporary photos, and honestly, have I ever been able to “connect” with contemporary art? Possibly. But then I thought: it cheapens the artwork for a humble viewer like me to actually believe that I could possibly “connect” with so many different artists, with so many different experiences, and histories. There’s no way! Did the artists even want that from me? I was relieved to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have to “connect” with these photographs. I didn’t even have to understand them. I felt that my responsibility was simply in taking the time to observe the photography (individually as well as a curated group) and appreciate them for what they were.
I think contemporary art, in fact, should be removed from a passive audience. It exists in its purest form as independent, an outworking of an artist grappling with his work, a private experience. What I was seeing was man versus material, man using his personal prejudices, predictions, and history to tell a new story. I find peace knowing that it’s not my story to tell.