Dating back at least to the 1970s, when the work of color-photo pioneers like William Eggleston began to be shown in major art museums, a debate has raged as to whether the fine-art world should make room for “vernacular photography” — images of ordinary scenes, creations of what Eggleston called the “Democratic camera.” Coming down on the “Yes” side of this debate is a new show at no less august an institution as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. On view through September 3 is Hidden in Plain Sight: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, at the Met’s Howard Gilman Gallery.
It should be pointed out that, unlike conventional vernacular images created by unknown photographers, this work was created by some of photography’s established names, including Eggleston, Mitch Epstein, Stephen Shore, and forebears such as Walker Evans. Other featured artists include Jean-Marc Bustamante, Shomei Tomatsu, and Gabriel Orozco (whose “Dog Circle, 1995” is pictured above left).
Though the slice-of-life theme runs through this exhibition, it also draws on elements of the spiritual or supernatural. Rachel Harrison depicts a window pane in New Jersey where it is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared; Carrie Mae Weems shows a mattress spring hanging from a tree in Georgia that residents placed in the hope of ensnaring evil spirits. By focusing on extraordinary aspects of commonplace objects, the collected works “are filled with everyday epiphanies…inviting us to look more closely at the world around us,” according to the museum’s Website. Let the debate on ordinariness continue. — Jack Crager