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Collectors' Edition

Baltimore gets a close, hard look at where photography is headed

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 1/15/2003

Dennis Scholl is clearly invested in his photographs. As he squires you around their new temporary home, chatting friendly as a barber, you can tell he wants you to take the same pleasure in them that he does. He swivels you around to face a particular piece, wheedles opinions out of you, and then discusses with a casual kind of authority how the picture makes him feel. With his photos, he is affectionate, possessive and more than a little prideful.

He gestures, for example, at two big color prints hanging on a partition; they are twin views of an empty movie set in a cavernous studio lot. The subtext of the shots, he says, can be harrying when you think about it--an image of a mock-up of an imaginary room--but these photos succeed in making sense of it all. "Here I've managed to make it static," he says, "to make it stop."

On the opposite wall, he directs attention to an even larger shot. In a crush at the center of a paper-strewn trading floor, people mill around in primary-colored smocks, flailing arms, waving note slips, and leaning over metal railings that surround them. The irony is hard to lose: The traders themselves look like commodities, coded and corralled in some post-industrial veal pen. That's the kind of charge Scholl is looking for. "What I want is a reaction," he says. "If I don't get that, then I failed."

If Scholl talks about his photographs with a proprietary air, he comes by it honestly. He doesn't know much about photography--it's all he can do to get a disposable camera to work--but that doesn't trouble him. These images are his not because he took them but because he owns them.

Dennis Scholl and his wife Debra are among the country's most prominent collectors of contemporary photography, and in the new exhibition at the Contemporary Museum, Imperfect Innocence, a sampling of their massive, multimillion-dollar holdings will be displayed for the first time outside the stylish confines of their Florida home. The 47 prints on view here make a spectacularly rich introduction to the ranks of photography's advance guard, and their achievements are great enough that Scholl might be forgiven for appearing to live through them. If his take on the collectorship is a curious one--an aggregate of sincere appreciation, vicarious thrill, and canny market speculation--in this debut show he's letting his acquisitions speak for themselves. With some hands-on help, that is, from the curators at the Contemporary.

"We don't decide what to hang--ever," Scholl says of himself and his wife. "Even in our house."

Once a year, he explains, they hire a curator to come to their Miami Beach manse with the sole purpose of reassessing and rehanging their 200-print collection. This past fall a curator spent three days with the Scholls' holdings, and the preparations were made with more than a few dinner guests in mind. When Miami hosted the Art Basel festival in December, no fewer than 22 groups toured the Scholls' home. Plus, Dennis adds, rotating the displays keeps things interesting. "Otherwise, you just become a trophy hanger," he says. "This way, we get to live with the work on a daily basis."

The wall-groaning size of the Scholl Collection reflects not only the couple's taste for the work but also their wisely timed decision to begin stocking up just when photography was getting bullish in the art market. They started collecting photos in 1992--"around the time when photography stopped being guys snapping black-and-white shots on the street," as Scholl puts it. "No [Diane] Arbus, no [Garry] Winogrand." With the passing of the 1970s' and '80s' most notable photographers, whose work was anchored in the documentary tradition, photography was becoming a very different idiom. In place of honest, here-is-now views of people on the street, a new generation was playing fast and loose with the facts. Photographers began insinuating themselves into their shots, using their loved ones to stage scenes, and--heaven forfend--manipulating their images, first in the darkroom, and later on laptops. At last, photography had made a niche for itself in the art world.

"They do not make photography," Scholl says of the artists in his collection. "They make conceptual art."

Sloppy shorthand, maybe, but the photographers in Scholl's stable do act out the sensibility of photography's next generation--new, more manipulative, and somewhat self-obsessed. Their work is as much about what goes on behind the lens as what sits in front of it.

Take those movie-set pictures that Scholl first pointed out. They're actually Stan Douglas' Journey Into Fear: Pilot's Quarters 1 and 2, and they are production stills from one of Douglas' art films. As his movie unspools, a computer randomly selects snippets of dialogue between the two actors. Seen through the dizzying vantage of the project as a whole, these two photographs amount to just a couple of lenses in the kaleidoscope.

Likewise, that giant trading-floor photo--Chicago Board of Trade by the consummate documenter of consumer culture, Andreas Gursky--carries its own nuances. Turns out Gursky used postproduction wizardry to alter the shot, punching up colors, enhancing shadows, and removing people from the perimeter of his image to make the pack of traders in the middle seem tighter. Does that trump whatever wit and satisfaction you might get from it? Or does Gursky's technique shore up his visual argument--that everything's negotiable anyway? That ambiguity is what gives this show its name, Scholl says. "Usually, there's a certain innocence to a photograph, because it's the truth," as he puts it. "But these guys don't do that. It's imperfect. There's always a backstory."

Still, that's not to say that all the artists here hew to the same program. If the likes of Douglas and Gursky prefer to work in brainy layers, the younger members of the collection show great skill in plumbing more emotional undercurrents. The Scholls were quick to acquire the first major work by Maryland Institute College of Art alumna Naomi Fisher, for instance. Untitled (Orange Dress) is a scenario as mysterious as it is menacing: a young woman seemingly trapped in a woodland thicket, falling on a tree with her back toward the lens, and a long, wayward branch working its way up her skirt.

Similarly, the prepubescent girls of Hellen van Meene seem on the verge of some dangerous unknown: In one untitled shot, a semi-naked waif looks blankly into the distance, her crossed arms covering her bare chest; in another, a tween dressed only in tights reclines by a window, pinching her arm until a huge bruise blooms. But it's Anna Gaskell who truly leads the charge in lining out this sense of unnameable peril. Over a series of shots she gives us a girl sinking in a swimming pool; a chubby-cheeked kid getting grabbed by the face; a wasp-waisted teenager viewed from the hips down, standing trapped in a corner as hands move in to grab at her pantyhose.

These are the bellwethers of an articulate new vision--gritty, visceral, human, and more ambiguous than most photographers 20 years ago could possibly have tolerated. Fuzzy is the new clear.

And so maybe Dennis Scholl is not quite as presumptuous as he sounds when he takes credit for his photographs' accomplishments. After a decade of gathering some of the strongest views in contemporary photography, he has created a kind of snapshot, even if he can't use a camera. Better than almost anyone, the Scholls have created a piecemeal portrait of photography's near future. And that's what they're banking on. "I've created a time capsule of 1992 to 2003, because photography is of the moment," he says. "And when I add to the collection, I add works that matter."

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