January 30, 2010

A Visit to the International Center of Photography

The International Center of Photography was founded in 1974 as an institution to keep the legacy of "Concerned Photography" alive. As the popularity of photography grew among both practitioners and collectors, the Center's mission broadened and their charming historic mansion on Fifth Avenue and 94th Street was no longer sufficient to handle either the growing collection or the increase in students. In the fall of 2000 a brand new state-of-the-art exhibition space was opened in Midtown Manhattan and an expansion of the School was opened across Sixth Avenue the following year.

This week, the International Center of Photography presented four new exhibitions at once in its two story museum space. At first I thought this was going to be a little too much of a good thing, but after attending the opening on Thursday evening I changed my mind to too much was not enough!

On view in the street level gallery is the work of Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. Not exactly a household name (even in the world of photography) Tichy began taking pictures in the 1950s under Communist rule, often working surreptitiously with a home made cardboard camera. Now 80 years old and a recluse, his photos of women and landscapes - often mysterious and haunting - have only recently become noticed. This is the first American museum show of his work and I don't think it will be the last.

Moving downstairs into the larger, lower galleries we come to the major exhibition "Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris" a superb assembly of 150 photographs, books, films, periodicals and ephemera curated by Dr. Therese Lichtenstein. Regular readers of my blog know that Paris is one of my passions and anything Paris related is like a magnet for me! This show did not disappoint.

Brassaï "Paris From Notre Dame", circa 1933

Although photography had been invented in 1839 it was not until the 1900s that its value as an art form, rather than simple documentation, was explored. It was the perfect medium of expression for the Surrealists who experimented with lenses, lighting, montage, distortions and other methods to create fanciful images that were otherworldly and very avant garde. Artists such as Eugène Atget, Ilse Bing, Brassaï, Josef Breitenbach, Claude Cahun, Raoul Ubac, André Kertész, Germaine Krull and Man Ray portrayed the City of Paris and its inhabitants in a state of metamorphosis, a "twilight" state, that evinced the very real social and cultural changes that were going on post-World War I. "Twilight Visions" was organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN, and will travel to the Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA, in June.

Though compact, the presentation "Atget, Archivist of Paris" in an adjacent gallery was a perfect complement to the larger show. Comprising 31 vintage prints from the ICP's own collection, the depictions of historic Paris landmarks and artifacts in Atget's dreamlike style, fit right in with the Surrealist theme.

Finally, "Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place" had really nothing to do with Paris or Surrealism, but was an excellent counterpart anyway. This assembly of black and white photographs by Montreal native Alan Stone was organized on the premise that one "knows one's past through pictures" and explores his past through his depictions of male pin-ups/beefcake shots, views of Montreal and newspaper articles to pinpoint specific moments in time, history, memory and imagination.

So if you're looking for an escape from this bitter winter weather, visit the International Center of Photography and warm up with visions of Paris that will take you back to an era of magic and possibility!

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