|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|My favorite picture in Fotografiska’s hip hop show is this iconic 1998 shot of Missy Elliott by Christian Witkin. It hits that perfect balance between posed and spontaneous, and she comes across as confident as hell.
At some point I’ll write a story about the superlative museums of New York. I don’t mean the best, but things like the smallest, the quirkiest, (which may well be one and the same), the oldest and so on. Fotografiska, a museum focused on photography, earns an unexpected superlative: It is the darkest museum I have visited in all of New York. I saw two different exhibitions there and both were lit very similarly: spotlights on photographs (and other work) in otherwise deep gloom.
It’s dramatic and unexpected — and a refreshing change to visit a museum where it’s actively challenging to take a selfie — or to take pictures for a museum review. But what else do I think about it?
A Snapshot of Fotografiska
Early in this project, I defined museums as non-profit organizations, thereby deliberately excluding museum-in-name-only experiential entertainment zones like the Museum of Ice Cream. I have been on the fence about Fotografiska since it opened in 2019.
Fotografiska is a mini museum empire, with outposts in Stockholm, Berlin, Shanghai, Miami, and Tallinn in addition to New York. It self-describes as “a destination to discover world-class photography, eclectic programming, elevated dining and surprising new perspectives,” and I’m pretty sure they’re in it to make money. And yet it also does use the m-word, and serious publications write about its shows. So into the darkness I plunged.
Fotografiska’s New York outpost occupies a landmark 1800s Renaissance Revival, former church mission house on Park Avenue South. The building’s interior was thoroughly transformed to house several floors of windowless gallery space and one of the fanciest restaurants at a New York museum, in keeping with the “elevated dining” part of the mandate.
Hip Hop Hooray
The main show at Fotografiska when I visited celebrated the photography of hip hop, which is turning 50 years old this year. (Exact birthdate: August 11, 1973.) The show was organized into five zones: an origins section, three geographic sections (East Coast, West Coast, and Southern, naturally), and a “hip hop today” closer. While breezy, hagiographic wall text introduced each section, there wasn’t a lot beyond that, and I really wanted more exposition.
Each photo did have a label identifying the photographer, the subject and date. Sometimes — too rarely — those labels also said something about the context of a photo, the when and why it was taken, which was a treat. Despite this, beyond identifying them by name the exhibition said nothing about the photographers of hip hop. It felt like a miss that a show in a museum of photography failed to focus on the artists behind the camera as well as those in front of it.
There’s a great Vice article that interviewed three of the photographers featured in this exhibition about how they created specific images, including Christian Witkin on the one of Missy Elliott. It’s a big failing to me that those stories weren’t told as part of the show.
Even the title of the exhibition: “Hip Hop: Conscious/Unconscious” promised something that Fotografiska didn’t deliver. I’d love to have learned more about the process of imagemaking; how much of each of these pictures were “unconscious” capturing of moments versus consciously constructed images. I left feeling I’d seen a bunch of fantastic photos. And that was it.
Second best thing I saw or learned at Fotografiska: Madonna and the Beastie Boys played Radio City Music Hall on June 6, 1985, almost exactly 38 years (and a handful of days) before I wrote this. I have no further comment on that, except: cool photo (by John Cheuse).
Sound and Fury
The second show at Fotografiska also disappointed. Titled “Listen Until You Hear,” I was intrigued by the cognitive dissonance of a photography show attempting to address to an aural phenomenon. However, that’s not what this was. Although all six contemporary artists in the exhibition included photography as part of their practices, much of the show featured videos and sculpture, which feels like cheating. It tried to coin”visual listening” but I’m unconvinced that’s a thing.
I can imagine a great museum show about hearing and listening. The Rubin Museum pulled one off a few years ago. But this wasn’t it.
Should You Visit Fotografiska?
It’s hard to recommend Fotografiska as a museum. It’s very sceney and very cool. It has a distinct downtown vibe. And a museum of photography that’s so dark you can’t take good pictures there has an irony that I admire.
However, both of the exhibitions I saw there felt like they were just for fun. And, particularly given the price of admission, that’s not enough to justify a visit.
If you like photography, there are several better museums in New York City. The International Center of Photography and the Aperture Foundation (currently closed because it’s moving) are both better, as well as much cheaper. The delightful Alice Austen House in Staten Island is also great if you like early street photography.
|281 Park Avenue South, Manhattan
|General Admission: $30
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