“Refracting Histories” is an exhibition that aims to reexamine historical photography and its implications in modern society. Looking into photographic work that is often discriminatory and misogynistic, the eight artists examine in critical detail the meanings and expressions of earlier photographers. Some of the photographers appropriate and merge historical photographs into their own scenarios while others construct their own versions of the past/present dichotomy.
One of the most powerful series was created by young Arkansas-based photographer Aaron Turner. Turner has taken an existing image of abolitionist statesman Frederick Douglass and recreated it in multiple photographic media, even including a striking daguerreotype. The many processes Turner uses are as much a lesson in the history of photography as the history of racial discrimination. The repeated, fractured image of Douglass speaks volumes about the history of this country.
Kelli Connell and Natalie Krick jointly created a group of photographs presented as an installation, “o_Man!” The images speak to Edward Steichen’s exhibition “The Family of Man” through a feminist perspective. The pair appropriated both Steichen’s images and images from the 1955 exhibition at MoMA, adding their own spin with dark humor in a pointed dialogue about power and its historical relation to males.
Using her own body as a model, Peruvian-born Tarrah Krajnak shows a series called “Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes,” recreating nude images Edward Weston made of models in the 1920s. In each of Krajnak’s photographs, the Weston photograph it references makes an appearance. While Weston made the images of his models/muses/romantic partners as if they were objects, Krajnak shows the process of photography, shutter release in hand. The power is hers—it is she who is in control of the image as well as being its subject.
In what is essentially a two-story installation, Sonja Thomsen uses the museum’s stairwell as well as space on both floors to celebrate Lucia Moholy, the all-but-invisible wife of the famous László Moholy-Nagy. Although Moholy-Nagy garnered all the credit and accolades for his work, Lucia made enormous contributions to her husband’s work in the eight years they were married. Thomsen’s installation merges video, sculpture, light and photography to convey Lucia’s value in the collaborations for which she received literally no acclaim.
On the Museum’s third floor, an extensive installation by Ho-Chunk artist Tom Jones reimagines the work of Edward Curtis in his book “North American Indian,” in which Curtis flattened Indigenous Americans into ethnic generalities. Jones has installed his own photographs of unnaturally bright-green plastic plants that appear similar to the plants in Curtis photographs as a metaphor for their artificiality.
Other artists in the exhibition are Nona Faustine, who uses her own nude body to represent sites in and around New York where history of enslavement occurred and Colleen Keihm, who collages fragments of auction catalogues to examine the art market and its blatant discrimination.
On view through April 2, 2023, Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 South Michigan.