It's back. Every October since 1985, the Museum of Modern Art has opened a "New Photography" exhibition. This annual event has always functioned more successfully as a back-to-school ritual - where the city's photography community could regroup, air kiss, and reassess its own balance of power - than as a barometer of what was new or interesting in an ever-changing field. Initiated in the final years of John Szarkowski's reign as director of the museum's department of photography, the series' early installments - with press releases trumpeting "the Museum's tradition of commitment to the work of less familiar photographers of exceptional talent" - were lost opportunities. The last time Szarkowski and his staff correctly pointed toward a "new" direction for the medium was in 1976 - the year the museum mounted an exhibition of William Eggleston's color photographs.
By the late 1970s and well into the '80s, the new energy in photography was generated by artists who, recognizing photography's importance in visual and popular culture, embraced the medium as a conceptual tool rather than as a continuum of the tidy history of art photography that had been so elegantly crafted and nurtured at MoMA. By failing to find anything of value in the appropriation of images, in experimentation with the scale and presentation of photographs, in multimedia installations that relied upon photographic images, in speculating on the difference between pictures and photographs, MoMA's photography department, and timid photography departments across the country that followed MoMA's lead, missed the boat.
It was only when Peter Galassi succeeded Szarkowski in 1991 that the department's myopic view of the medium began to broaden. Under Galassi's direction, well-meaning but conceptually scattered "New Photography" exhibitions, curated by various department members, tried to catch up with the alternative spaces, commercial galleries, and more responsive museums that had become the real guardians and promoters of new photographic practices.
That's why walking through "New Photography 12," curated by Thomas W. Collins, Jr., the museum's Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, is a relief. MoMA has finally caught up with the status quo. Six artists - none American, and most with a solid history of recent exhibitions and publications - contribute to a sometimes lively and intelligent exhibition. Richard Billingham's moving, serio-comic images describe life at home in England, with an alcoholic father who can barely stand up, a tattooed mom who does jigsaw puzzles and a dog who sniffs out the crumbs they leave behind. Thomas Demand's large, smart, and too-tasteful Cibachromes of cardboard models owe more than a small debt to James Casebere, and look right at home at MoMA, where their pristine De Stijl optimism belies their creepy sources. …