With your smartphone at your fingertips, these days its easy to mistake Instagram and Facebook for the ultimate arbiters of visual taste. But the International Center of Photography begs to differ. On Thursday they open their brand new museum on the Bowery, with an inaugural exhibition making the case for considered curation and historical perspective to broaden the conversation around images and their impact.
Mark Lubell, ICP’s executive director, emphasized the museum’s unique role as a host for IRL interaction in the visual world, even as image-making processes and taste shift around the traditional art of photography.
“The world that we live in today is being dominated by images,” he told a roomful of reporters at a preview of the museum today. “We used to be informed by a few professional photographers […] but now, millions of people are taking millions of images and communicating with each other. This is a seismic shift that is happening in the world of photography and visual culture, and exactly the position that ICP is looking to invest in. ”
The sleek glass-fronted entrance to the museum, across from the New Museum, presents a light-filled cafe with fresh French classic eats from Maman Bakery (think ham and comté cheese sammies, vegetable-topped focaccia, and healthy salads). The gallery itself consists of two small floors–one with back-to-back videos playing simultaneously (making it a bit hard to focus on just one), and a downstairs photo gallery.
The opening exhibit, Public, Private, Secret, curated by Charlotte Cotton, represents a recalibration for the museum after it closed its midtown location in 2015 (the ICP school still exists at 1114 Avenue of the Americas). Setting aside retrospectives or chronologies that could easily have been drawn from its extensive collection, ICP’s first Bowery exhibit probes our selfie-obsessed digital world, speaking to the anxieties and questions provoked by network culture as we navigate the lines between public and private. It’s not just a look at our culture of oversharing and exposure, but also speaks to our loss of control over our own images. “Our bodies are metadata in this era,” Cotton explained.
Set up along mirrored partitions, the exhibit itself reflects the viewers as they view the art in a self contained loop. Themes move from overexposure (a panel of Patrick McMullan’s Fashion Week Face Book 2016) to the politics of privacy (Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask is a pink plastic mask to hide gay faces from being detected by computers, speaking to “the politics of anti-state and anti-recognition”). Though the show isn’t organized along chronological lines, it nicely blends recent work with historical pieces to create free association or communication between the present and past. Sojourner Truth’s 1865 portraits, once commercial objects that helped to fund her political activism (“I used to be sold for other peoples’ benefit, but now I sell myself for my own”) are placed above 1960s covers of Transvestia magazine, and around the corner from a video recording that flips through every page of Kim Kardashian’s 2015 Rizzoli book of unabashed selfies, Selfish.
Another section examines the origins of the mugshot style, paired with a collection of mid-twentienth century mugshots in a flea market in Mexico, and, most arresting, a series of portraits of defiant Algerian women forced to remove their veils for identification purposes during the Algerian War.
The ICP also plans to host workshops, curated by Lucas Wrench from the Machine Project, on how to use online tools to limit surveillance of internet browsing and other sensitive privacy questions. On Thursday evenings, expect regular book launches and reading groups. Their next exhibit will continue the conversation on contemporary topics, with Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change.
Of course, the ICP as a storied institution (originally begun by Cornell Capa in 1974) still has oodles and oodles of archives housed at Mana Contemporary in New Jersey, and it’s a shame more of those important photos from masters in the permanent collection can’t be exhibited simultaneously with these rotating exhibitions. But perhaps there may be hope– Back in January we heard a hint that the ICP might eventually be aiming for a spot at the Essex Crossing development, currently under construction. For now, the ICP looks settled into its Bowery home and there’s no indication that the rumors are true…but it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if they eventually hope to expand.
The International Center of Photography Museum, 250 Bowery, Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. $14 for adults. Public, Private, Secret is on view until January 8, 2017.