Getty's Experimental Photographs and Paris Photo

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One of the most conspicuous and critically appraised aspects of recent photography has been the rise of the photograph made without a camera or at least, without a camera as it has been traditionally employed. In other words, without the very invention that had once seemed so revolutionary, the ability to quickly capture and reproduce an exact picture of the real world.

But cameras, now reduced to being cellphone accessories, have come to seem less important to these artists than processes by which prints were made. These are photographs made with light, chemicals and photo-sensitive papers just as they were in the pre-digital era.

An engrossing selection of this work is on view at the Getty through September 6. Organized by Virginia Heckert, now acting director of the photography department. The show reveals the strengths and pitfalls of such a methodology and posits its place in the larger history of the medium.

Much of the history of photography was dedicated to idea of perfecting the technical ability to make a flawless print, controlling the silver tones and later the colors, avoiding scratches or other distracting bits on the surface, seducing viewers into leisurely acceptance of these apparently accurate scenes.

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James Welling, "Water," 2009
Chromogenic print; 60.3 x 50.2 cm (23 3/4 x 19 3/4 in.)
Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles
© James Welling Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

The photographers in this show say farewell to all that. The eldest, James Welling, came to photography through an art education and therefore never had to contend with the draconian constraints of a traditional photo-based education of the 1970's. Though his work is rarely non-objective, the ghostly abstractions in this show are in keeping with the ideas of the exhibition and his role as a photographer and educator who has long operated according to his own intriguing parameters. This show includes his photograms and chemigrams, floating sheets of fluidity in soft colors in series called Water (2009) and Chemical (2013) as well as his more constructed White Prints (2009) and suggest he might be godfather to the younger artists in the show.

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Alison Rossiter, "Haloid Platina," exact expiration date unknown, ca. 1915, processed in 2010, 2010
Gelatin silver print; 21.6 x 16.5 cm (8 1/2 x 6 1/2 in.)
© Alison Rossiter
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council

The second eldest, Alison Rossitor, emerges as the undisputable star of this show. Coming from the exacting photographic training of the Rochester Institute of Technology in the 1970's, she instead turned to the history of processing for her prints. For decades, she collected boxes of light-sensitive papers coated with platinum or silver and now almost impossible to find. But her use of these papers is more than a dry observation about lost technologies. Instead, she painstaking develops compelling, largely non-representational images indebted to the geometric or organic abstractions of early modernism and to early photographic experiments. She carefully develops each section of a print to its desired density of tone with time-consuming dedication. A mesmerizing range of grays, blacks and creams are elicited in her images and the lack of representation allows us to focus closely on the richness of those tones.

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Marco Breuer, "Untitled" (C-62), 2002
Chromogenic paper, exposed/abraded; 35.6 x 27.9 cm (14 x 11 in.)
© Marco Breuer
Courtesy of the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

The younger artists in the show tend to play faster and looser with the materials. Marco Breuer abuses the papers, scratching and folding abstract patterns into the papers to bring out patterns of criss-crossing lines.

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Matthew Brandt, "Rainbow Lake, WY A4," negative 2012; print 2013
Chromogenic print; 76.2 x 101.6 cm (30 x 40 in.) Sheet 78.7 x 104.3 cm (31 x 41 1/16 in.)
© Matthew Brandt
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council

The youngest, Matthew Brandt, once a student of Welling, is represented in part by his dizzying Rainbow Lake series, (2013), prints soaked in the water of that lake to reveal layers of psychedelic patterns and colors.

The show also features rewarding work by Lisa Oppenheim, Chris McCaw and John Chiara.

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Edmund Teske, "Leaves on Glass, Topanga Canyon, California," 1952; print 1960's
Gelatin silver print; 35.4 x 27.9 cm (13 15/16 x 11 in.)
Edmund Teske Archives/Laurence Bump and Nils Vidstrand, 2001
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

To provide context for this relatively recent phenomenon, there is a profoundly beautiful selection of early Modern prints by Man Ray, Lazlo Moholy Nagy, Edmund Teske and others establishing the fact that interest in processes and abstraction in photography has a long tradition.

Finally, while visiting the Getty, do not forget the exhibition dedicated to one of art history’s greatest pioneers, J.M.W. Turner, Painting Set Free, which closes May 24. This spectacular show of painting and scholarship reminds us that artists are not always understood or accepted as they fight their way into previously unknown visual terrain.

To see more of the artists in the Getty exhibition, this weekend visit the art fair Paris Photo, returned to their entertaining venue Paramount Studios and including a section California Unedited!, with selections from the 19th-century photography archive of R.J. Arnold, as well as a new award given to young photographers with newly minted MFA's and a series of conversations organized by Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath.