Alissa Wilkinson

A Space in Which to Play

MoMA's exhibition on the photographer's studio.

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An artist's studio, to the outside observer, can seem like another type of office: it's the place you go to do your job and store your stuff.

But artists talk about their studios in different terms than other professionals. Many speak in language that borders on the sacred—studios are sites of discovery, of meaning-making. Artists "lose" themselves in the studio. They feel presences. Some talk about studios as if they are spaces that exist outside of time: "Coming into [Constantin] Brancusi's studio," said the eminent mid-century photographer Man Ray, "was like entering another world."

The Museum of Modern Art is turning its attention to the studio in its exhibition "A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio" (the first organized by the photography department's new chief curator, Quentin Bajac), which pulls from MoMA's considerable collection to explore the ways that photographers have used, viewed, and interacted with their working spaces. In six rooms, the show surveys the studio, then looks at how photographers have treated the studio as stage, set, neutral space, virtual space, and laboratory or playground.

The show feels abbreviated and ahistorical; the emphasis is on how these functions have stretched across time, not evolved as photography has grown and morphed. But it's interesting, and significant, for how it focuses on how photographers work. It underlines the richness and complexity of photography as a medium.

This is important because in an age of iPhones and Instagram, most of us don't give much thought to photography beyond its ability to represent (or mis-represent) reality. We think of photography in the same way people thought of painting before the advent of Impressionism and abstraction and all that: as a form whose purpose is to show us what already exists—even if we run it through a filter and some software.

But there's some glory in taking a form (like painting or photography) and pushing it to its limits. Who says a photograph has to be a picture of something? Why not take its elements, like light and chemistry, and do something else? Where can imagination take the medium?

Photographers have been doing this almost since the invention of photography, and often in their studios, where it's much easier to create alternative realities to the world outside the walls. The show includes a film of Romanian photographer Geta Bratescu (b. 1926) called "The Studio" ("L'Atelier"), a recent acquisition for the Museum. In it, the artist's imagination is running playfully wild. She plays with props, pulls things off her shelves, and shifts her shirt collar over her head, stalking around playfully like a large animal. The film was made in 1978, while Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu still ruled the country, and studios were one of the few places where artists were able to freely play and explore their imaginations.

The studio has served as a stage, in which photographers can put people in front of the camera and photograph them. But often the photographer has subverted the audience's expectations: the MoMA exhibition includes everything from Julia Margaret Cameron's Victorian tableaux to Edward Steichen's and Man Ray's surrealism and Cindy Sherman's postmodernism. Or it can be a set, in which the photographer plays with constructed spaces, props, and architectural models to create something abstract.

Even when the artist wishes to create a portrait—in theory, one of the most representational of all genres—the studio's controlled environment makes space for the subject to exist in a sort of neutral space, without background or context, making the image all the more striking. Hence the exhibition includes Robert Mapplethorpe's Hermes, a photograph from 1988 of a statue of Hermes that emphasizes the figure's flawlessness—all the more striking against the backdrop of Mapplethorpe's own degeneration due to AIDS. Further on is Carl Hoefert, unemployed blackjack dealer, Reno, Nevada, an image from Richard Avedon's "Into the American West" series from the mid-1980s. In it, Hoefert is an old man, staring into the camera, positioned so he fills the left side of the frame slightly more than the right. He's dressed in a striped silk shirt and a herringbone coat; his white hair swirls, and his face, wrinkled and lined, is still ruggedly handsome. Yet the backdrop is not Reno, nor the American West itself, but a plain white. This is an unemployed blackjack dealer—a man without a home.

Finally, the show looks at how photographers have broken away from the camera altogether to explore the studio as a virtual space—for instance, placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper and exposing it to light. "For me," Walead Beshty said in 2009, "the place to regroup was the darkroom, probably because that was the place where I first confronted photography as something distinct from just taking pictures."

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