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Globe review: Bodies of work

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  November 23, 2008 01:03 PM

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Boston Common
"Boston Common (Men Sleeping on Grass)" by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts

MFA opens Herb Ritts Gallery with eclectic "Photographic Figures"

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

"Photographic Figures" is a dual celebration: of the human body and of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts. The show, which comprises 78 images from the museum's collection, some recently acquired, helps inaugurate the Herb Ritts Gallery, the MFA's first permanent exhibition space for photography.

Yes, it's named for the late photographer, whose mammoth 1996 retrospective at the MFA attracted record crowds and scornful reviews. The Herb Ritts Foundation contributed $2.5 million to the museum last year and donated 189 of his pictures. The gallery may be a bit gloomy, with track lighting and handsomely dark walls, but the real estate is prime: near the West Wing entrance, where the information desk used to be.

The MFA, which owns nearly 5,000 photographs, was one of the first major museums to include photography in its holdings. Alfred Stieglitz donated 27 of his pictures in 1924. After his death, Georgia O'Keeffe, his widow, gave 35 more. The museum made its first photographic purchases in 1967: five Edward Westons.

Honoring that history, there are two Stieglitzes in the show (both of O'Keeffe) and three Weston nudes. It's an example of the care with which curator Anne E. Havinga has assembled "Photographic Figures." Since all of the images deal with the human figure, Havinga has grouped the pictures by body parts (eyes, faces, hands and feet) or thematically (profiles, nudes, in extremis, veiled or in shadow, groups). Such an arrangement may sound a little reductive, but the artfulness of Havinga's juxtapositions makes it work quite well.

The dejected man in Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Boston Common (Men Sleeping on Grass)," for example, -- shown above -- seems to be looking in the direction of the people in Paul Cadmus's "Margaret French, George Tooker and Jared French, Nantucket," -- and Jared French seems to be staring right back. Or there's the contrast between the forthright meatiness of John Coplans's hand "Self-Portrait (Back of Hand)" with the elderly man's shriveled claw in Nicholas Nixon's "A.B. Boston."

The show pays tribute to the area's history with photography as well as the museum's own. Included in "Photographic Figures" are a strong representation of photographers who have studied, taught, or lived here. Among them are Nixon, John Goodman, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Harold Edgerton, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Lalla Essaydi, and James Nachtwey (of the Leominster Nachtweys).

That's a very eclectic list. Imagine an Edgerton strobe shot of Minkkinen contorting himself into one of his bodyscapes or Essaydi making an Arab-feminist contribution to Nixon's "Brown Sisters" series. Such eclecticism is fitting, since Havinga has seen to it this is a highly eclectic show. There are famous names offering up both famous images (Weston's "Floating Nude," say, or Bill Brandt's "Belgravia, London," of a reclining nude model's elongated legs) and not-so-famous (Berenice Abbott treats a hand as though it were one of the New York skyscrapers she shot in the '30s).

Hand
"Hand (Muriel Rukeyser)" by Berenice Abbott
Copyright Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd., Inc.

Little- or lesser-known artists get a healthy representation. Tofik Shakhverdiev, a Russian photographer, has a 1990 view of three jackbooted soldiers supporting a police rope that's stunning. Cut off by the picture frame at chest level, they loom up with malevolent anonymity. Edmund Kesting's "Nude" is ostensibly a study in contrasting light and dark that nonetheless conveys a rich eroticism.

There are three Ritts pictures. As the political bosses used to say, ya dance with who brung ya. A portrait of Sinead O'Connor (below) makes the singer's head look like a fuzzy Brancusi. A picture of two Maasai women holding hands is trite. And the way Ritts's camera catches Jackie Joyner-Kersee's shadow in a picture of the Olympic athlete's legs and torso is unemphatically elegant.

Sinead
"Sinead O'Connor, Malibu"
Copyright Herb Ritts Foundation / Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts

Obviously, the naming of gallery spaces is not a topic for the faint of heart. Museums name galleries all the time for people with dreadful taste, unsavory pasts, or both, so long as those people have buckets of money. But precisely because those donors are not artists their questionable judgments or dubious personal histories (even on those rare occasions when either might be widely known) are irrelevant to museumgoers' experience in those galleries. A gallery's name is nothing more than just that, a name.

In this context, though, Ritts is more than just a name. He's also, as a well-known practitioner, an implicit standard. That standard, frankly, is unworthy of the MFA. The problem isn't that Ritts was a commercial photographer best known for celebrity and fashion. Not a few major photographers could be described that way (Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, for starters). Rather than the nature of the work, it's the quality of the work that's the problem. A nice fellow, by all accounts, Ritts took glossy, attractive, largely vacuous photographs of glossy, attractive, largely vacuous people. The most impressive thing about Herb Ritts's photography was his fees. Well, those fees have now helped add another impressive association to his work: this gallery that bears his name.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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"Photographic Figures"
Through May 10
Museum of Fine Arts
465 Huntington Ave., Boston
617-267-9300
www.mfa.org

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