The New Photography exhibition series at the Museum of Modern Art is a highly anticipated event in the field of contemporary photography. Initiated in 1985 and occurring every two years, the series explores current ideas in photography and photo-based art. The theme of this year’s iteration, Being, features 17 artists who explore what it means to be human. While some artists traffic primarily in ideas, others are able to synthesize a sensory as well as intellectual experience. The most exciting work offers both a pleasurable and socially engaged use of the photographic medium.
In a series of 20 x 15” color photographs by Matthew Connors taken in North Korea a stunning execution of a poetic documentary style is on view. Taken between 2013 and 2016 the work is installed in a loose horizontal and asymmetrical grid. Although the environments and subjects in each image seem to be culled from contemporary life, Connors unique use of formal qualities – color, line, composition, light, and shadow – elevates his photographs into a space that could be characterized as the theater of life; a performative quality seems to exist within the images. What is a document and what is artifice is unclear. An apt metaphor for what westerners know about North Korea.
One image centers on two shirtless men leaning on each other as they sit by a pool. Artificial blue water curves into the left, center edge of the image frame. The white painted rim of the pool cuts in and out of the photograph as well. It creates a barrier between the pool water and an aqua blue astroturf style surface that fills the remainder of the frame. With a small palm plant at the top of the image and no lounge furniture visible, four male bathers sit, dip and lay within what appears to be a vast faux tropical blue landscape.
Another stunning photograph from Connor’s series is of a girl in a school uniform. Leaning on a stone bench or barrier with a lotus flower carved in it, the girl stands at the center of the frame on a sunny day. A river runs across the photograph in the middle distance. It runs parallel to both the stone structure with the girl in front of it and a flurry of purple flowers behind it. In the farthest plane of the photograph, at the top of the vertical image, a tall and intricately carved stone wall echoes, once again, the horizontal linearity within the photograph. However, this final compositional element blocks viewers from seeing any farther. There is no access to an expansive view that might instill a sense of infinite possibilities and a wide open world. Meanwhile, the little girl at the center of the image wears a blue pleated skirt that is somehow puffed up by wind or air in a perfectly symmetrical circle. The unexplainable billowing of her skirt, while her hands rest placidly behind her back, adds an odd tension to what on a surface level appears to be an atmosphere of tranquility.
Similar to the work of Connors, the remaining work in Being: New Photography 2018 offers multiple readings and a variety of topics to explore, from group portraiture and tourism photography to personal photo albums and childbirth among others.