Curatorial statement excerpted from the FotoFest 2010 Biennial Catalogue
Photography has a long history of reflecting in a documentary way, or questioning in an artistic way, the
zeitgeist. Among some of the most remarkable examples in twentieth-century U.S. photography would
be such photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and forty-one other now highly
regarded photographers who set out between 1936 and 1946 to make the economic crisis public under the
U.S. Farm Security Administration. In the mid-fifties Swiss photographer Robert Frank famously exposed
a racially divided America in his 1958 book The Americans. In the 1960s photographers such as Garry
Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander emerged observing daily life and analyzing a populace
hidden beneath the idealized surface of the era. This period also brought innovators in color photography
like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, who challenged the tradition that saw black and white work as the only serious photography for social observation. The 1970s brought photographers like Robert Adams,
Lewis Baltz, and Frank Gohlke, who, like Friedlander, produced unromantic descriptions of the American
landscape, both social and physical, but with a more a direct concern for environmentalism, a questioning
of capitalism, and an interest in national identity. The Reagan era was illustrated strikingly by Tina Barney’s
portraits of the American wealthy. And the 1990s explosion of unbridled American consumerism was
quintessentially documented by German artist Andreas Gursky in his large, complex images of endless rows
of Nike shoes and garishly illuminated tiers of candy.
The geopolitical and economic tumult in the fi rst decade of the new millennium, regarded by some as the
close of the “American Century,” has similarly left its signature on contemporary U.S. photography. Each
of the eighteen photographers in the exhibition The Road to Nowhere? makes work that, while revisiting
enduring American themes, calls into question the actual trajectory of our long-term national projects. In
the short span of fewer than ten years, the profound self-confidence of the late 1990s has been displaced
by extreme anxiety about the fundamental economic instabilities and environmental degradations wrought
by unfettered capitalism. America’s celebrated “unipolar moment” increasingly appears to have been just
that, a moment, whose tranquil triumphalism was soon pierced by the September 11 attacks, the ensuing
complicated military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the spectacular implosion of the country’s
financial system. A belief in the seeming unassailability of the U.S. model among even the mainstream
population has now given way to a sense of vulnerability as unemployment rises and as broad-based
participation in the country’s rising prosperity increasingly appears to have been illusory, resting on a
credit-induced property bubble.
Like the photographers working in earlier decades, the majority of the artists in The Road to Nowhere?
might usefully be thought of as “cultural documentarians,” defined here as those taking an artistic
approach—whether objective or subjective—to understanding a particular society and culture, in this case
the United States of America. Some manage this emphasis on U.S. life with directness and others with irony
or humor. Through photography and video, they address a diversity of related themes including economic
insecurity, race, war, and the contemporary American landscape. While the work is oftentimes critical, a
quintessentially American optimism is evident throughout.
Associate Director and Curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago
This exhibition made possible by FotoFest 2010 Biennial Sponsors, Winter Street Studios and John Deal. Special recognition goes to ROMA Moulding for providing framing for the FotoFest 2010 Biennial.