Seeing Ain't Believing Anymore

From its very beginnings — even, for some, right up until the present — photography has been both revered and reviled for its uncanny ability to capture reality. Among artists, many were exhilarated to be liberated once and for all from any obligation to re-create reality, while others dismissed the upstart art for being a mere duplication of reality.

The great film historian and theorist André Bazin summed it up beautifully in his influential essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," writing: "The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model."

Bazin went so far as to declare that of all the arts, only photography, by its mechanical nature, is at an advantage because of the absence rather than the presence of the artist's hand — because of its ability to participate in the actual reality of its subject. Not surprisingly, technology caught up with and even surpassed Bazin, who was writing in the late 1950s and 1960s. Photography became so technically refined that, at least for a while, it was all but impossible to question its veracity.

As we in the digital age now know all too well, it is almost frighteningly easy to manipulate a photograph so extensively that it no longer bears any semblance to its original subject, even as it maintains an illusion of realism. Seeing, in the photographic sense, is no longer believing — all photographs become suspect.

The seven photographers whose work is included in "Before the Camera: Remaking Reality and the Make-believe" have confronted the notion of realism versus illusion with often-startling ingenuity. In this small but stunning exhibition, curated by Charlie Stainback and now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, they steer clear of ordinary digital manipulation of the photographic image in favor of more sophisticated ways of exploring the possibilities of the medium. And their means differ dramatically, which makes the exhibition's concision and coherence all the more impressive.

A couple of the artists work with miniatures that they conspire to pass off as life-sized realities. American David Levinthal, here contributing a dozen gelatin silver photographs, sets out to re-create the look and feel of Hollywood war movies and the war photos featured in magazines like Life and Look. He starts by setting up scenes with plastic toy soldiers and models of tanks and bridges and trains, enhanced by the low-budget special effects of firecrackers as explosions and lighter fluid as fire, all shot in soft focus and printed to emphasize the graininess. His series of untitled 1976 images depicts the German invasion of Russia during World War II. (Levinthal later collaborated with an old Yale classmate, Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame, on a graphic book based on the photographs.)

Levinthal's contemporary and fellow American James Casebere takes a similar but also significantly different tack. He too works with miniature models, although his interest lies in architecture rather than in people. For the three digital chromogenic prints here, he creates tabletop renditions of the interiors of buildings, all empty and uninhabited, then floods them with light and photographs them in such a way that they appear to be the real thing. Abadia from Lower Left (2005), for instance, captures a series of vaulted arches receding with a remarkable sense of depth to imply a church. Dorm Room (2000) and Garage (2003), which together form an exquisite diptych, use simple geometric lines and shafts of light through windows to form hauntingly spare, suggestive spaces.

Hot young German photographer Thomas Demand also works with meticulously assembled three-dimensional models, in his case fashioned entirely from pieces of colored paper and cardboard. While he has shot such seemingly nondescript subjects as a copy center (think Kinko's), office workspaces, and domestic interiors — always devoid of people — he sometimes injects political allusions into his work. Here, however, he is represented by just two chromogenic color prints that re-create the natural world: Rasen (Lawn) (1998), which uses thousands of tiny bits of paper to create the illusion of grass snapped in extreme closeup; and the jaw-dropping Clearing (2003), a 75.5-by-194-inch image of a forest space suffused with hazy sunlight.

The exhibition's two female photographers work at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cindy Sherman, perhaps the best-known artist here, shows up in a trio of shots from her familiar series of self-portraits as other people. Her usual approach, as in two of the examples here, is to present herself as someone in a still from a film that may or may not be identifiable. Despite her well-documented contributions to the advancement of the medium, these photos — from the late 1970s and early '80s — seem a bit dated.

Sherman's work does, however, provide an excellent lead-in to that of British photographer Gillian Wearing, whose half-dozen large images from 2003 — in color and black and white — are ostensibly portraits of herself and members of her family. In reality, however, they're self-portraits, with the artist impersonating herself at age 17, her parents, her sister and brother, and an uncle. She does so by donning elaborate masks, makeup, and other accessories, with only her own eyes peeking through in each shot. Her reinvention of herself as her shirtless brother is nothing short of astonishing.

Young Brazilian artist Vic Muniz comes up with an ingenious hybrid of fine art and photography that comments on both. In the seven examples included from his "Best of LIFE" series (1988-90), his starting points are iconographic photos from our collective cultural memory: a theater full of moviegoers wearing 3-D glasses, an astronaut on the moon, a point-blank execution of a Saigon man during the Vietnam war, John Lennon in sunglasses and a sleeveless T-shirt reading "NEW YORK CITY."

Then Muniz really ups the ante by drawing these images from memory, then photographing them and presenting the results as framed, 14-by-11-inch gelatin silver prints. I can't begin to describe the shifts of perception these extraordinary works generate.

The star of the show, and here I admit a bias, is Gregory Crewdson, an American photographer whose work I have followed closely for years. There are only three of his oversized color prints here, but they exert an eerie magnetism on museum visitors. In between my own close inspections of the images, I sat on a bench and watched and listened as people peered at the pictures and speculated on various aspects of them. It was a fascinating exercise.

The simple explanation for Crewdson's ability to mesmerize is that he manages, in each shot, to suggest a narrative that might go on indefinitely — each photo is like a still from a movie that somehow encompasses the entire movie. And indeed, the artist works more like a filmmaker than a traditional photographer. Every aspect of the image, from the props to the painterly lighting, is meticulously planned, managed, and executed by a large crew of assistants.

The three photographs at the Norton (all from local collections, by the way) include elements representative of Crewdson's signature style: suggestions of a suburbia out of Spielberg by way of David Lynch, characters who appear uncommunicative despite their proximity, and an overall sense of foreboding. As beautifully as they fit into the center of "Before the Camera" — one of the best exhibitions of the year — I couldn't help longing for a one-man show that would provide a fuller sense of Crewdson's achievements. And I wondered what André Bazin might make of these works that straddle film and photography so spectacularly.

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Michael Mills