Whitehot Magazine

Social Photography IX at Carriage Trade Gallery

Bibs Carlsen, BLM, I can't breathe, 2021, inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Carriage Trade.

By ERIK LA PRADE, September 2021

Our contemporary understanding of the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties (1929-1940) is due largely to the introduction and swift rise of documentary photography, films, and news reels.   Documentaries served as means of exposing and portraying the enormous systemic failures and social destructiveness of American capitalism. "These systemic failures were evidenced by a steep declines in industrial production and in prices (deflation), mass unemployment, banking panics, and sharp increases in rates of poverty and homelessness."1

Documentary photography was (and still is) a powerful medium that delineated the deep divisions the Depression revealed between the sensibilities of the country’s urban and rural populations.  This division in America’s cultural identity was not new; the gap between rural and urban lifestyles had been growing throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century.  While the rural lifestyle was characterized by traditional values defined by the continuity of small town life with an agricultural base, urban values expressed a new” or “modern” lifestyle actualized by the continual tearing down and rebuilding of both physical and social city structures.

The visual documentary was perhaps the strongest medium of the period to portray what was going on in both the city and country.  More forceful than the written or broadcast word, photography and newsreels were immediate and popularly accessible.  The photographic or pictorial documentary brought the viewer into vicarious contact with its subject, giving its audience a “you are there” perspective.  That perspective was effectively presented to viewers in the literally hundreds of thousands of photographs taken and published in newspapers and in magazines such as LIFE and FORTUNE.  

The enormous effort to document the living condition(s) of various groups of people throughout the country elicited photographs from both anonymous amateurs taking family photos to highly professional government-sponsored photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White and Max Yavno, among others, whose pictures have come to define, if not dominate, our perceptions of the Depression era, decades after it ended. 

The Depression radicalized documentary photography and the manner in which news was presented to us. A number of great photographers of the nineteen-thirties not only captured defining human images of the decade, but also understood and explored the artistic possibilities inherent in their medium.  Over the years, the excellence of this era of photojournalism has led to much of it being included in the category of fine art.  

Today, media such as the Internet, broadcast news shows, computers, movies, cable television, cell phones, etc., are among our primary sources of information.  This vast network of visual information and network communications has come to define our sensibilities and understanding of how and where we live and who we are;  supplemented by the instantaneous images afforded us of political and environmental upheavals in a local or global context that we can view by clicking a few words or numbers on a keyboard.

The ability to make digital images has eclipsed the old style of film photography, which existed for over a hundred years. During the last thirty years, photographers have used increasingly sophisticated equipment, particularly digital cameras which can transmit images in a matter of seconds, and which have ushered us into the era of the ubiquitous iPhone.

The current exhibition Social Photography IX, has been a yearly event at Carriage Trade Gallery, for the past nine years.  When you first step into the gallery and into a spacious corridor, you encounter a white wall, ten feet across with a nine-foot-high ceiling.  This wall acts as an introductory display presenting us with sixteen 7 x 5 digital photos from the previous eight Social Photography exhibitions; two photos for each year.  The photos are hung in a straight line at eye level.  The first photo from left to right was taken by the German sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand, while the sixteenth photo was taken by Diane Nerwen, (a video artist).  Both Demand and  Nerwen are well-known artists.  The fourteen images between these two photos were taken by various artists, friends of the gallery, or anonymous persons invited by the director to participate in these former exhibitions.

Diane Nerwen, 5/24/20, 2020, inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Carriage Trade.

This initial display of photos, taken by both famous people and unknown individuals, maintains the diversity of works as gallery director Peter Scott mentioned to me.  It also serves as an informal archive with samples of former images setting the visual style for how the current show is hung.  According to Scott, the emphasis and idea of Social Photography isn’t focused on emerging or famous artists, but is meant to generate an awareness of the generations and various backgrounds of the contributors.

The entrance to the current show is located about three feet to the right of this corridor wall, and as you turn the corner, you enter another spacious area with two walls opposite each other, separated by fourteen feet of floor space.  Here, two-hundred and twenty digital photographs are pinned on separate boards, hanging on opposite walls in a uniform manner.  

Each wall contains one-hundred and ten images, and looked at from several feet away, these photos create a grid of images.  The arrangement of these images on the wall is chronological, based on when they were emailed to the gallery. There is a certain charm in the way the works on these two walls are displayed all together, which as Scott told me, “reduces the pedestal of art.”  This style of presentation emphasizes the random nature of this type of photography as opposed to the concentrated and focused approach of twentieth century documentarians. As the twenty-first century has seen the rise of social media documentary photography, the iPhone revolution has had the effect of placing these photo documents on one visual plane.

In the twentieth century, the documentary photograph had a particular social function, revealing the social conditions of society, whereas the social photograph of the twenty-first century has become an even more powerful political and societal force; given its widespread, active participation of virtually every segment of society.  The phrase “image storm” aptly describes the avalanche of images that now confront us almost every minute of every hour of the day, particularly in the way news media continually claim our attention.  This exhibition partakes of this “image storm” approach, but does so in a modified and selective way.  These images are curated and edited by Scott and his staff, and physically displayed on a wall, slowing down the notion of iPhone pictures as a fast medium, letting us make our own comprehensive selection(s) as we move from one image to another, finding scenes which capture our imaginations.

The fact this series of exhibitions consistently includes photos by famous artists alongside unknowns has come to typify each show.  To this extent, photos by a Louise Lawler or Tracey Emin tend to sell out quickly.  The inclusion of works by famous artists’ draws attention to the show, which is a legitimate reason for having their work included, especially since the single set price of all the photos makes people feel they are getting a good deal.  And for visitors who take some time to really look at these works, there will undoubtedly be images which appeal to many varied tastes.

Louise Lawler, Housekeeping, 2018, inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Carriage Trade.

Contrary to the low-quality “image storm” that seems to prevail, I was impressed by the superior quality of most of the photos in this show.  There is a consistent sophistication in the way each photo was taken; namely, the photographers took their time to frame and capture an image, suggesting they have a visual intelligence which is beyond a “point and shoot” approach.  Scott mentions that trends are inevitable and given that 2020/21, witnessed a pandemic resulting in a long quarantine, he writes of a slight increase in pet photos this year.  I was not aware of this increase, but I was impressed by a pet photo, taken by Jeff Preiss, showing a small terrier sitting on some rocks, looking at something outside the frame, while in the background, a number of office buildings rise up and loom under a sky threatening rain.  Bibs Carlsen’s image, BLM, I can’t breathe, 2021, of a black man wearing a poncho with different phrases written on it “Black Lives Matter, etc.” as he kneels with upraised arms at a demonstration, has the quality of a nineteen-thirties image, and created a mental line for me from past to present. 

Of the two hundred-twenty photographs in the show, only 30 include people, and in most of these 30 photos, the person is alone. Thirties documentary photography was heavily focused on recording the Depression’s effects on people.  In the eighty years since the Depression ended, we may have moved toward a more endemic social problem—namely a general lack of interest in others.  Perhaps in the past two decades this self-absorption has been fueled by an overuse of digital technology, further increased by feelings of isolation engendered by the current pandemic. 

Gallery owner Scott mentioned this show has become a “kind of tradition,” and this kind of continuity reflects his belief in socially-oriented exhibitions. As Scott points out in the exhibition brochure; “iPhone photography does not fit into a particular category of art; the elusive nature of where to put cell phone photography with respect to hierarchies of photographic image production (fine art photography, photojournalism, social media fodder) remains intact.  Nevertheless, this exhibition does seem to push iPhone/ “social photography” into the category of fine art and with some degree of success. WM


[1]  CAUSES OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION.  Brian Duignan. Britannica. 2021

Erik La Prade

Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College.  Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle.  His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010.  MidMarch Arts Press.  His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS.  Olympia, Washington. 2020

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