In the winter of 1988, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, an exhibition opened, triggering outrage. The Perfect Moment, a display of 125 photographs by New Yorker Robert Mapplethorpe, was the most comprehensive show of his work to date – and the most provocative – featuring images he had taken over the previous 25 years, including those of his divisive X Portfolio.
The retrospective came at a difficult time in Mapplethorpe’s life: he was 42, and losing his fight with Aids – the disease that would take his life the following March. Perhaps, for him, this was his final chance to show this expansive oeuvre to the public – most of it shot in his Manhattan loft. But his pristine black-and-white photographs of BDSM scenes, and the sexy, sinewy strangers he met at the Mineshaft sex club, shocked conservative audiences. On a political level, the culture wars in the US were raging.
When New York’s Museum of Modern Art first introduced its New Photography series, it did so to locate contemporary work in a dedicated space, often providing the selected image-makers with the opportunity to get their foot in that most revered of doors. The inaugural exhibition opened in August 1985, curated by the late, great John Szarkowski, and over the following 32 years, these shows have remained true to their moniker, tracking some of the most exciting developments in new photography in its myriad forms – be that in books, on screens, in posters or through zines. As the years brought evolved types of media, it fed artists’ appetites both for new ideas and for fresh means by which to execute them. MoMA’s latest instalment, Being: New Photography 2018 (18 March–19 August), is a deft demonstration of how effectively such collections can reflect a moment in contemporary consciousness. Being presents 17 artists working in photo-based media around the world, and “all the works in the exhibition take on charged and layered notions of personhood and subjectivity,” explains Lucy Gallun, its curator and the assistant curator of MoMA’s department of photography.