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Sometimes the philosophical tug of war in photography need not be between realism and abstraction but between certainty and enigma. For an example of certainty, take Paul Outerbridge’s Toy Display (Circus)a still life that doesn’t try to fool the viewer into thinking its objects are grander than they are. Similarly, Addison Scurlock’s Picnic Group, Highland Beach, Maryland does not pretend that it’s anything more than an unusually well-executed group portrait. For that matter, Gordon Parks’ Alberto Giacometti, Paris is incontrovertibly a portraitone that manages to rise above its well-worn clichés, including artist-framed-by-art and intensely-
What, however, should we make of Jerome Liebling’s Malaga, Spain? Is it a posed portrait or a split-second rendering of a fleeting street sighting? If the picture had been shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson or Garry Winogrand, we would assume the latter, but Liebling’s portrait is too visually puzzling, and too temporally disorienting, for us to make that kind of snap judgment. If David Levinthal’s Untitled (Explosion) were a Robert Capa image, we would hardly doubt its bloody authenticity. But the date of Levinthal’s image1975and the too-perfect, terrible beauty of its blown-back bodies leave open the possibility that it’s a staged denunciation of the battlefield horrors in Vietnam. We just don’t know, and no one’s telling us.
Inscrutability need not make a photograph artistically superior, as Rosalind Solomon’s architectural portrait The White House Gate attests. Solomon’s image inhabits as clear-cut a genre as any picture in the show, yet it has grand vision: It’s the inanimate equivalent of a Richard Avedon portrait, a venerable subject shot at precisely its worst moment. Solomon’s unflattering rendering of the gateit’s lit by a harsh artificial light and swarmed by soggy, wet snowflakescould only have been taken in the aftermath of Watergate. How symmetrical to see the photo reappear 20 years later, just a block from a newly sullied Oval Office. CP