Blue Sky at 40

November 2, 2014
I recently began training as a docent at the Portland Art Museum. The class has been interesting, rewarding, and generally excellent. Importantly, it’s meant I’ve been at the museum a whole lot more than in my first couple of years living here in Portland. The museum recently mounted “Blue Sky: The Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts at 40,” a large exhibition on the second floor that celebrates Blue Sky Gallery’s history by displaying early work by its founders, images of the early gallery space, as well as dozens of pieces that have appeared on the gallery’s walls over the years.

There’s plenty to like in the show: Hillerbrand + Magsamen’s Atlas and Jo Ann Callis’ Salt, Pepper, and Fire are just inscrutable enough to be captivating. A classic mid-eighties Richard Misrach piece draws you in with its violent blaze and then continues to engage with its surprisingly confusing light sources.

Hillerbrand + Magsamen, Atlas, 2011

Hillerbrand + Magsamen, Atlas, 2011

Jo Ann Callis, Salt, Pepper, and Fire, 1980

Jo Ann Callis, Salt, Pepper, and Fire, 1980

Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #1, Burning Palms, 1983

Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #1, Burning Palms, 1983

But pieces like these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. And since this is a major show, presented by Portland’s largest, most significant visual arts institution, highlighting the region’s most important photo gallery, I expect that many visitors will take what they see here to be representative of the history of the last 40 years of photography. Therein lies the problem.

By and large, the work we see in “Blue Sky at 40″ follows from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s classic”decisive moment,” the idea that the photographer has to situate him (or her) self in just the right place at just the right time to capture a compelling image. Think about Robert Capa’s pictures on the beaches from D-Day: if he weren’t there, then, those pictures could not have been made.

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Christopher Rauschenberg, Untitled (Akbar), 1976

The exhibition is mostly organized chronologically, and the strong first room (not coincidentally it holds several of the images I feature here) shows how adventurous the gallery was at its outset. Take a look at the Chris Rauschenberg—what a delightfully nonsensical picture! The online description explains the gallery’s vision:

From the gallery’s start in 1975, Blue Sky’s founders endeavored to bring the most dynamic contemporary photographers working in the United States⎯and eventually throughout the world⎯to the Pacific Northwest.

This ethos particularly reveals itself in the first gallery, which contains often oddly composed, but fascinating pictures. There’s a real sense of the dynamism that imbued the gallery early on. Yet, as the show progresses, the focus shifts largely to social documentary and then remains mostly static. Even in the final gallery, presumably representing the “most dynamic contemporary” photography, we are still presented with largely documentary photographs, many of which are black & white. At one point, the wall text explains that Blue Sky was willing to show digitally manipulated pictures much earlier than most other galleries—a stance for which it should be commended—but aside from a couple uninspiring early digital compositions, the gallery’s willingness to explore work like this doesn’t come across in the work we see. Even those pictures that are the result of digital post-processing don’t do much to ask us to question their veracity.

And that’s often what photographs do these days. I find it telling that, as PAM mounts “Blue Sky at 40,” MoMA is taking down a hugely challenging retrospective of Christopher Williams’s work. In his review of that MoMA show, Peter Schjeldahl writes that Williams (and Jeff Koons), “attacked assumptions of meaning in their respective mediums.” “Decisive moment” pictures ask us to trust that the moment happened the way we see it, and we typically want to know about the story behind the picture, since the time and place it was taken informs the content of the picture so deeply. Challenging this assumption is what much of Williams’s work is about: he asks us to reconsider just how much we trust our eyes and also how much stock we place in the making of the picture. Williams’s pictures depict something, but much of their purpose is to ask the viewer to consider something else. “Decisive moment” images invite us to enjoy a true story, Williams’s images ask their viewers to question the truth of the story. Williams asks his viewers to be on their toes, since pictures often conceal just as much as they reveal.

Christopher Williams at MoMA

I happen to subscribe to something closer to the skeptical view of pictures that Williams takes, but I fell in love with photography in the first place because of the classic pictures that we see in the Blue Sky show. My issue here is that there’s virtually no acknowledgement—either in the wall text or in Blue Sky’s recent offerings—that “the most dynamic contemporary” photography has shifted significantly in appearance and approach. In the last 12 months, Blue Sky has shown eight(!) photographers whose work is primarily black and white reportage. Each show has been well done and depicts worthwhile subjects, but that is certainly not representative of where photography is today. It’s far closer to the same vision of what photography was back in 1975. So I can’t help but wonder: in a world where post-production is so pervasive, how does the decisive moment still hold so much sway?

To bring this back around, I think what Blue Sky has achieved artistically and in terms of longevity is hugely impressive. I mean, 40 years! For a gallery that started as essentially a public walk-in closet! But I find it troubling that the show doesn’t start to address more recent movements in the medium. MoMA’s New Photography series has recently highlighted Elad Lassry, Barbara Probst, and Sara VanDerBeek, all artists whose work plays with our expectations. Where is the Pictures Generation? Or the Vancouver School? Both represent significant trends in photography that began back in the 80s. There are some hints of different work to be found in town: Ampersand Gallery showed Clayton Cotterell’s cryptic Arrangements last year, and even the PAM stepped away from this reportage model with Wendy Red Star’s current APEX exhibition and revelatory 2012 John Frame show.

Wendy Red Star, Peelatchiwaaxpáash/Medicine Crow (Raven), 1880

These other trends aren’t really Blue Sky’s focus, and I don’t mind the occasional black and white show (Caleb Charland’s show, in particular, was fantastic). Nor am I questioning the quality of the work currently on view at the PAM or that that Blue Sky shows—it is consistently high. It’s just that this diversity is largely absent from both the gallery and museum’s celebration of the gallery. Given the important roles that PAM and Blue Sky play in Portland, that absence influences local ideas of what photography is about today. John Motley writes in the Oregonian that “the work showcases its evolution from film to digital as well as from second-class discipline to respected art form,” but doesn’t question that this showcase ignores significant aspects of that evolution.

Louie Palu, Afghan soldier warming his henna stained hands on the front lines,  Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2007

Louie Palu, Afghan soldier warming his henna stained hands on the front lines, Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2007

One of the final (and most widely publicized) pieces in the show, Louie Palu’s Afghan soldier, makes a good example. There’s nothing wrong with Palu’s image, in fact I have nothing but positive things to say about its quality. Like almost every piece in the show, it is well-composed and thoughtfully chosen. It just feels like a missed opportunity that the show wraps up roughly where it began: with a “decisive moment” picture, albeit in color.

I’ll be headed back to the PAM to see the show again, and I’ll keep going to Blue Sky to see what they show. Hey, I have work in their Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers, an opportunity for which I’m both grateful and very proud. I’ll also be watching (and participating) to see how Portland treats photography moving forward. Here’s hoping it’s with a skeptical eye.

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