Review: Found photographs: Snap Noir / Photo Brut, by Jaime Permuth

© Robert E. Jackson, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Snap Noir: Snapshot Stories from the Collection of Robert E. Jackson
Pace/MacGill Gallery
June 20 – August 21, 2013

Photo Brut as collected by David Winter
ZieherSmith Gallery
July 18 – August 23, 2013

Review by Jaime Permuth

Snapshots may appear to be naïve, but they are seldom innocent.
Marvin Heiferman

With the introduction of roll film and inexpensive, easy-to-operate, lightweight cameras in the late 19th Century, George Eastman ushered in the age of the snapshot. Seemingly overnight, photography became accessible to the masses that embraced it with a bottomless fervor and enthusiasm. Despite the technology's universal appeal, snapshots remained essentially private in nature: glued to family albums, carried in wallets, stored in shoeboxes and stashed away in drawers. Most often, they were personal documents, mementos, or playful stagings made for the benefit of a small circle of friends and family.

When we come across a snapshot outside of its original context - say in a flea market - we fall under a certain kind of spell. We realize that we are not its intended audience and there is a voyeuristic appeal in that. By extension, we might also consider the object we are looking at to be authentic and guileless. Found photographs are like pieces of a puzzle and invite us to complete their truncated narratives with our imagination. They somehow charm us into their sphere and we become willing participants in the lives of perfect strangers.

Image courtesy of David Winter and ZieherSmith

For years vernacular photography - with its straightforward compositions, uninflected tonalities and ordinary themes - was relegated to the backwaters of the cultural establishment. That all changes in the 21st Century with a surge in serious collecting and curatorial interest. In 2000, The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized its groundbreaking exhibition, "Other Pictures: Vernacular Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection."  Seven years later, the National Gallery of Art in Washington organized "The Art of the American Snapshot: 1888-1978."  This exhibition was culled from a private collection as well, that of Robert E. Jackson.

This summer, Jackson curated an exhibition for Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York City entitled "Snap Noir: Snapshot Stories from the Collection of Robert E. Jackson." There are 61 works on display grouped thematically to imply an underlying narrative thread or thematic concern. In her glowing review for The New York Times, "Not For the Family Album," Roberta Smith describes the exhibition as "crystalline" and "refined and elegantly spare."

© Robert E. Jackson, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

The exhibition at Pace is divided into three sections. The first one features four groupings of photographs by unknown photographers. However, each group is clearly the work of a single individual. The first story features a well-dressed young woman, portrayed in a variety of situations. Inexplicably she holds a stuffed white rabbit through it all, including closely studying hieroglyphics in an outdoor setting. The next group is sixteen images arranged in a 4x4 grid. In all of them a man of medium build poses with different sets of underwear and one very small, patterned bikini. He poses for the camera in an empty rooftop. Sometimes he wears socks and sneakers; other times flip flops or goes barefoot. Most of the time he looks at us from behind a pair of dark shades but sometimes we see him wearing spectacles or no glasses. He tries hard to appear seductive and a restrained eroticism underlies all the photos.

Next is a group of four images showing a topless woman through the open door of a changing cabin. In each case, the woman wears a bathing cap and covers her face in shame, seemingly recoiling from the camera but exposing herself nonetheless. Last is a group of four studio photographs of individuals seen from above as they drink and relax on lounge chairs. There is no narrative here, just a thematic consistency.

© Robert E. Jackson, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

The second section is thematic and formalistic as well: ten images by different photographers looking at a scene unfolding behind a chain link fence. The final section of the exhibition is also the work of different photographers but has been sequenced to suggest an increasingly bizarre, surreal and uncanny story. The installation is made up of 21 images of varying sizes and printed on different paper stocks. Scrawled onto the gallery wall in a friendly script is an invitation to "Start here…". To the right is a photograph of a topless young woman sitting in the back seat of a car. She is seen pressing a towel into her face with both hands. Her bra is riding her waistline and draped down over her skirt. What follows is a sequence of tense, darkly sexual and enigmatic images, which take the viewer on journey from childhood to adulthood and culminate with a mysterious transmutation and vanishing.

Leaving the gallery, I happen to notice a small group of ten-year-olds who are visiting from out of town. They form a small cluster of bodies and heads, holding up their smart phones and tablets, angling for position while carefully framing a pair of neon green sneakers behind the plate-glass windows at NIKETOWN. I can't help but think how far the snapshot has come from its 19th century origins. These are not photographs for the family album either. The boys are "content providers" recording what's cool and hip in the big city, posting it to an audience they hope to impress and hoping for approval in the form of "likes" and "reblogs."  This is their trip to New York City and they are broadcasting it live to the world.

© Robert E. Jackson, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Across town in Chelsea is a second exhibition of found photographs at ZieherSmith Gallery, curated also by a private collector, David Winter. The exhibition is entitled "Photo Brut" which is an allusion to naïve or outsider art but also a pun on "Brute." The atmosphere is decidedly tabloid and the noir feeling is a few shades deeper than at Pace/MacGill.

The press release for Photo Brut refers to works as obscure photographica rather than vernacular photographs. And in truth, Mr. Winter's selection is wide enough to include antique medical specimen photography, hand-tinted candy salesman's sample pages, beauty salon hairdo examples, magazine and catalog mock-ups for furniture and heavy machinery. The exhibition also features a selection of heavily fetishistic Polaroids of actresses taken through the television screen. Each photograph is annotated with the actresses' name in carefully written out red block letters. Many of the photographs in the show come from a press office and contain crop marks and annotations. Their subjects are various. Among others, a trio of just-married couples looking back at the camera with bright, eager smiles through the back-windows of cars; a grouping of car crashes; men about to commit suicide or their broken bodies after having done so; and a grid full of the vacant, glassy stares of convicts behind bars.

Image courtesy of David Winter and ZieherSmith

The exhibition begins with a photograph of a stained, hand-written note, which reads as follows:

"Janitor: Go to the top/ floor, you’ll see so-/mething important in the bathtub. I discove-/red it today but I did/not tell the police be-/cause I do not want to/get in a jam. It's a/murder."

This is a photograph of evidence in a real-life urban tragedy. In later conversation with the staff at ZieherSmith, I was told that on the verso of the photograph is inscribed a short hand-written note, which states:

"The letter that was sent to the janitor of the house in which the 13-yr old - Marie Rosales was found murdered in a bathtub. 2/11/32"

Based on this information, the gallery was able to track down the actual circumstances surrounding the murder of Marie Rosales. It happened in Harlem, New York City in 1932 and her killer left the note to the janitor. He had sexually assaulted her, bludgeoned her to death and hid her body in an abandoned tenement building contiguous to the one where Marie Rosales lived. The autopsy also showed that Marie had been pregnant at the time of her murder. Curiously, the North Tonawanda Evening Post – which printed the article - failed to transcribe the text of the note verbatim, almost as if someone had paraphrased its text to a reporter in a telephone conversation.

Image courtesy of David Winter and ZieherSmith

These sorts of annotations and markings are no longer inscribed in photographs today. Unless they are entered as additional information in the metadata of a digital file, the information we can glean from photographs is merely technical: time of capture, camera settings, GPS coordinates, etc. Also, the great majority of photographs taken today will never get printed on paper. Thus, the record of our lives - although ubiquitous - becomes more tenuous than ever before.

As I wind up my visit to ZieherSmith and exit unto the street, I realize that all the intimations of darkness have left me thirsty for bourbon. I take the train to West 4th and walk towards Warehouse Wines and Spirits. I pass by a homeless man, recumbent in the late afternoon heat. A dreamy smile lingers softly on his lips. I follow his gaze and see a woman worthy of Botero swaying her hips and languorously approaching us. As she draws close, the man lifts up an imaginary movie camera, mimes spooling tape, and calls out in her direction: "Walk it baby, walk it!" In spite of herself, a smile breaks out on her face. And this is the final, camera-less and impossibly ephemeral snapshot of the day.

Image courtesy of David Winter and ZieherSmith

Jaime Permuth is a Guatemalan photographer living and working in New York City.

In 2012, he was nominated for the Santa Fe Prize in Photography and was also one of fifteen artists in the United States nominated for the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Contemporary Artist Award.

In 2013, his first monograph Yonkeros was published by La Fabrica Editorial (Madrid). Also, in 2013 he was nominated for the Prix Pictet and awarded an NFA Fellowship from the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures.

His photographs have been shown at several venues in New York City, including The Museum of Modern Art, The Queens Museum of Art, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Museum of the City of New York, The Jewish Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and The Brooklyn Museum of Art. He has also exhibited internationally at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Guatemala, Casa del Lago in Mexico City, and the Israeli Parliament. Among others, his work is included in the collections of The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Museum of the City of New York, Yeshiva University Museum, State University of New York New Paltz, Art Museum of the Americas (DC), Fullerton Art Museum (CA) and Museum of Art Ft. Lauderdale (FLA). He has received commissions from El Museo del Barrio, The Queens Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, and Queens Theater in the Park.

Permuth is a Faculty Member at the School of Visual Arts where he teaches in the Master of Professional Studies in Digital Photography program.

© Robert E. Jackson, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York