“Artists can make images speak in different ways”
Jennifer Blessing on her exhibition “Photo-Poetics”

Jennifer Blessing knows how to tell the story of contemporary photography. As the Guggenheim Museum’s Senior Curator of Photography, she has organized important exhibitions of artists such as Catherine Opie, Rineke Dijkstra, and Jeff Wall. Now Blessing presents a new international generation in a show entitled “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle – as cool as Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, as allegorical as the Baroque masters.
In the late 1970s the artists of the Pictures generation, like Richard Prince or Sherrie Levine, already worked with appropriated images. What distinguishes this new generation of artists represented in your exhibition from their forerunners?

Jennifer Blessing: There are both contiguities and differences in the ways that the younger generation of artists approach images. The work of Pictures generation artists doesn’t always acknowledge the specific source of the image, whereas the artists included in Photo-Poetics often present image-bearing objects like record covers, postcards, or books in their entirety, with typography that identifies the source and context of the images, like the pages from Ebony magazine in Leslie Hewitt’s photographs.
All these artists share a conceptual approach to photography, an underlying logic that transcends the medium in which the work is realized and, in fact, many of them weren’t trained as photographers, per se.
Photo-Poetics is dedicated to Sarah Charlesworth (1947–2013), an influential artist of the Pictures generation whose work is both rigorously conceptual and deeply invested in the craft of photography.

We are living in a time that is characterized by increasing digitalization. Why are the artists you selected for Photo-Poetics so interested in analogue photography and traditional media like record covers, old paperbacks, or printed magazines?

The artists in Photo-Poetics are interested in the nature of photographic reproduction itself, in images that are specifically photographic, and in work that is readable as a photograph at a moment when photography in our daily lives is increasingly ephemeral, appearing fleetingly on our phones, for example.
These artists are interested in the photographic object, and in its material contexts, but this doesn’t mean they are twenty-first-century Luddites, hostile to the digital. As film formats disappear, it’s virtually impossible for an artist working with photography today to entirely eschew digital processes. In a way, it is only by comparison with certain obvious digital effects that the handmade quality of some of this work is brought to the foreground.

Anne Collier rephotographs images of female stars like Faye Dunaway, Marilyn Monroe, or Madonna; Erica Baum directs her camera into the pages of pulp paperbacks that feature portraits of actors and public figures, while Elad Lassry frequently works with images of Anthony Perkins. Why is popular culture, mostly of the pre-digital era, so interesting for the artists in the show?
These examples all refer to celebrity actors, and as such reference the legacy of Andy Warhol, specifically the way that celebrities have become our most important cultural icons, how our notions of gender and sexuality are expressed through their performances, and the contemporary publicity of private life.
The artists in Photo-Poetics are collectors and archivists of images, whether from “high” or pop culture (there really isn’t a distinction anymore). Like the Pictures generation artists, they repurpose materials in which they are personally invested. The initial reception of Pop artists focused on the banality of their sources; Pictures generation artists were seen as critics of our image-world. Artists in Photo-Poetics cull from the material culture of their youth, showing us the multivalent power of even the most banal images. I don’t think their motivation is at all nostalgic, but rather spurs reflection on the role of images in our contemporary landscape, and how artists can make them speak in different ways.

How would you define the “poetic” sensibility of these artists?  

The term “photo-poetics” is intended to bring to mind the self-reflexive nature of a lot of the work in the exhibition. It extends the field of poetics––of understanding the nature and craft of literature––to photography. In varying degrees, the artists in the show are interested in the medium of photography, its histories, and the unique ways in which it is an instrument of memory.
That said, some of the work in the exhibition is literally poetic. For example, Erica Baum directly engages poetry and Sara VanDerBeek juxtaposes individual images suggesting linguistic syntaxes. Many of the artists incorporate or reference books, magazines, and film––texts that add another dimension with which to read their images.
Both the Photo-Poetics exhibition and its catalogue are conceived as anthologies––in other words, as separate introductions to the practices of artists whose work shares some contemporary interests and themes and yet each remains distinct. In my essays dedicated to each artist, I’ve attempted to model a way to contemplate each artist’s work, to read it in a sustained way, based on the belief that while we enjoy speaking with images through social media, as well as some of the new digital ways of experiencing them, this in no way diminishes our appetite for sustained engagement with works of art.

Photo-Poetics: An Anthology
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin

Photo-Poetics: An Anthology
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York