A new contemporary photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Art’s recently reopened East Building revels in the variety of the medium, constantly pushing viewers to see that whatever they think photography is — it’s more than meets the eye.
“Photography Reinvented: The Collection of Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker” stemmed from the collectors’ pledged gift of 34 photographs to the gallery, curator Sarah Greenough told The Washington Diplomat. What has emerged is a striking exhibition of contemporary photography with dozens of notable works that play with, challenge, dismantle and rebuild the art form.
“We knew … that it was such an important acquisition for us, that it expanded our photography collection in such exciting ways that we wanted to celebrate their donation with an exhibition,” she said. “It’s a great group of both American and European photographers, and it’s particularly strong with the Düsseldorf School of photographers.”
The recent acquisition of monumental images from Meyerhoff and Becker is particularly notable for the gallery “because it does so greatly expand our holdings of contemporary photography,” according to Greenough, senior curator and head of the National Gallery’s department of photographs.
“And more than that, it gave a really nice survey of contemporary and recent trends in photography,” she added.
With the reopening of the newly renovated East Building, the gallery decided “that the most logical and wonderful time to have the exhibition was when the building reopened to have it as part of the grand celebration,” Greenough said.
The collection focuses on innovative work that challenges accepted conventions of the nature of photography, in scale, subject matter and method of creation, according to the gallery. Key works from photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer hang in monumental scale on the walls. The immense size of the photographs makes the exhibition a must-see to visit in person.
“That scale, I think, forces viewers to think about these photographs in different ways. For so many years, photographs were something we could hold in our hands that we easily saw reproduced in books,” Greenough pointed out. “These pictures were clearly designed to be seen on a museum wall and it’s a very different relationship they establish with their viewers. These are not intimate pictures you hold in your hand — you need to stand back and encounter them in these wonderful galleries.”
Take Demand’s “Clearing,” for instance. There is only one other print of this incredible piece in the United States, Greenough said, and on first glance it seems merely like a photograph of light coming through a forest canopy.
But then you get up close and see something is slightly off — that the entire image is fabricated and made out of 270,000 pieces of paper cut to replicate another photograph of that same forest image and then printed six feet by 16 feet to reproduce the actual size of the forest scene.
“It’s this wonderful inverse of what you expect to be seeing and really points out the artificiality of the entire scene,” she said.
Anselm Kiefer’s “Vanitas” starts the show off with a bang, highlighting that very theme of experimentation that runs through all the works on display. The mixed media piece, built off a photograph but featuring leaves, branches and paint, challenges notions of traditional photography, history and beauty. A jarring but stunning piece, it immediately suggests the variety that can be found in just one medium.
Portraits of Queen Elizabeth II hang alongside images of Düsseldorf art students. Geometry and architectural studies also dominate the collection, as do glimpses inside museums around the world.
Images by Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramović highlight the possibilities that come from using a medium that people often implicitly, and wrongly, trust to showcase reality. Sugimoto’s works zero in on simple lines and the play of light. Prints from Struth and Höfer, meanwhile, directly engage with how art functions and how museumgoers experience that art — a very fitting issue for the newly reopened wing at the National Gallery.
Each piece on display aims to challenge viewers’ perceptions of reality and of photography itself. The monumental works play on the notions of artifice and documentary, constantly reminding viewers that photography is an ever-evolving medium.
Photography Reinvented: The Collection of Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker
through March 5
National Gallery of Art
the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW
(202) 737-4215 | www.nga.gov
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.