Focusing on an altered reality

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Focusing on an altered reality

If photography makes you think of huge, dull wedding albums or your cousin's Incheon reunion pictures, this exhibit is just the antidote.

"Contemporary American Photography 1970-2000" brings to Korea some of the best recent examples of the silver nitrate art. The collection is on loan from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and is an outstanding opportunity to survey the work of dozens of leading U.S. photographers, including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons, Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The exhibition, which opens today, is organized chronologically, surveying trends and styles through three decades. It offers visitors a chance to analyze the most recent periods of photographic art, including the New Color of the 1970s, Constructed Photography of the 1980s and Post-Realism of the 1990s.

This exhibition -- drawn from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's collection of more than 12,000 photographs -- is the second to be presented here in conjunction with the Samsung Museum of Modern Art.

The 113 pieces in the show are grouped into three themes: "The Real," "Identity" and "The Domestic."

"The Real" explores different ways that the camera has captured the world. While photographers originally concentrated on life as they found it, the artists of the 1970s began to manipulate their surroundings, constructing artificial realities or images that can't exist. Their goal: to destabilize viewers' faith in reality.

The photographer Sherrie Levine made exact duplicates of celebrated photographs by Walker Evans, and in doing so asked whether photography deserves to be considered an art form.

Other experimental artists from this period, including Barbara Kreuger, Richard Prince and Laurie Simmons, staged or manipulated works to suggest that all photography is a product of subjectivity and the artist's desire to manipulate reality for rhetorical or ideological purposes.

"Identity," one of the key themes in contemporary art, looks at how people define themselves. The photos are often political, spurred by social movements such as feminism or civil rights, or by recent crises, such as the spread of AIDS and its impact on the gay community in the United States.

Self-portraits by Cindy Sherman, for example, feature various roles of women in society. Her photographs question how the sexes are defined and how roles are prepackaged by advertising and the media. (Sherman's self-portraits, however, never give a clue as to what she is like as a person.)

Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe use the human body as a sexual medium; their art questions social norms in relation to the self and society. Mapplethorpe's powerful black-and-white photos of naked men posed almost as if they were pieces of abstract art were among the most controversial images of the 1980s.

"The Domestic" depicts the transformation of American family values. Since the 1960s, domestic life has changed radically as divorce rates soared, two-income families became the norm and alternative lifestyles have became increasingly common.

A group of photographers has been portraying this new landscape of American family lives. Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz have been exploring suburban American families. Larry Sultan and Sally Mann have used their own families to challenge conventions about domestic life.

The Contemporary American Photography exhibition also features a seminar at 2 p.m. today hosted by Douglas R. Nickel, the curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the organizer of this show. Korean photographer Ku Bon-chang will lecture at 3 p.m. Dec. 18. A photography competition for secondary school students will also be held as part of this exhibition.

The Contemporary American Photography exhibition runs until Feb. 2, 2003 at the Ho-Am Gallery in the Joong-Ang Ilbo building in central Seoul. The gallery is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, except Mondays. Free English-language tours are available at 3 p.m. every Saturday. Tickets cost 4,000 won ($3) for adults, 2,000 won for students under the age 17. For more information, call (02) 771-2381 or visit the gallery's official Web site at

by Inēs Cho

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