Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection is flush with recognizable images, and for those who have only seen reproductions of them in books or online, the show is a necessary pilgrimage. In fact the exhibit can at times feel like a greatest-hits survey of the past eighty-odd years of photography, filled with works by such giants as Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Paul Graham, Nan Goldin, Larry Sultan, Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth, and many others.
Images of tract housing and vast, sunbaked landscapes by Garry Winogrand, Robert Adams, and Joel Meyerowitz capture a peculiarly American sense of loneliness that we associate with space and sprawl. Several huge Andreas Gurskys must indeed be viewed in person and preferably with a stepladder and magnifying glass. Two of them, Dortmund (2008) and Union Rave (1995), display multitudes of people reproduced at a large enough size and with enough detail that one can actually examine their faces. Particularly compelling is Union Rave. At first, one sees a forest of flailing arms, but out of this mob emerge individuals whose faces telegraph all sorts of states that invite a viewer’s curiosity and even empathy: perplexed, sad, ecstatic, contemplative, giddy, nervous, stoned. It’s a reminder that “mass of humanity” is a lazy, meaningless phrase.
Such a varied collection filled with so much star power raises two interrelated questions: Does the way the photographs are grouped illuminate or obscure their riches, and how well is Trevor Traina’s private taste translated to a public venue? The curators Julian Cox and Kevin Moore (who is also Traina’s art adviser) have attempted to create a sense of cohesion by grouping works in separate rooms and cataloguing sections according to categories that combine conceptual themes and areas of technical experimentation: “Everyday,” “Excesses,” “Spectacular,” and “Losses.” But these categories—and why certain photographs were placed into each one—could be confusing to anyone not schooled in both the history of the medium and the received critical interpretations of the artists’ works, and possibly to those who are schooled, as well.
For example, a visitor entering a room with Excesses emblazoned above the door, seeing a Cindy Sherman circa 2002 staring from the opposite wall and placed next to Gursky’s Dubai World 1 (2010)—knowing that, until recently ousted by Gursky, Sherman held the world record as the photographer whose work had sold for the most money—and seeing Bette Davis (Pictures of Diamonds) (2004), Vik Muniz’s image of Bette Davis made from diamonds, close by, might assume that the selection is a topical grouping that addresses themes concerning money and extravagance. But here, excesses refers to the abundance of experimentation within the medium. Rather than empirical representation, these images are of self-consciously staged, altered, and/or manipulated pictures. (continue reading)