In the nineties photography suddenly became the contemporary art world’s favorite medium, boosted by Andreas Gursky’s panoramic images of commerce and culture and the cinematic inventions of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. It was the start of the digital age, and artists were pushing photography’s technical and conceptual boundaries with work that was ambitious, expensive, and often billboard-size. Smitten collectors began paying sums once reserved for paintings (hundreds of thousands of dollars for the biggest names), spawning predictable hordes of aspiring Gurskys.
But in the past few years a new generation of photo artists has emerged with a different approach. Rejecting the glamour and glitz of their predecessors, they are working in ways closer to photography’s beginnings, eschewing Photoshop and digital chicanery and, in some cases at least, scaling down. It’s impossible to put a single label on this new breed of work. Many of the images are documentary, some even faux amateur, but they tend to be personal and intimate and celebrate the photographic process rather than mask it, as so much slick digital work does.
“Younger artists specializing in photography are moving toward more personal values,” says New York dealer Yossi Milo. “And collectors are definitely responding to work that seems truly meaningful to the artist.”
The eight international artists presented here, all under 40, are creating smart, complex, textured images that are altering what is considered “cutting edge” in photography. Their work mostly sells in the neighborhood of $10,000 instead of tens of thousands. Some of the artists are already well known, others are just emerging, but all are names to know now.
Turning the ordinary into poetry comes naturally to Kawauchi, who imbues everyday objects and moments—a wedge of partially eaten watermelon glistening on a plate, an infant nursing—with subtle lyricism. The Tokyo-based photographer’s understated images, haiku-like in their simplicity, are meditations on the cycles of life.
Kawauchi, 36, shoots mostly with a medium-format camera without special lighting or a tripod, lending the work a snapshot quality. “There is an amazing lightness of touch in Rinko’s perspective on the world around her,” says Camilla Brown of the Photographers Gallery in London, which showed the artist’s work in 2006. “Her photographs are traces of tender observations of nature and ordinary objects, rendered poignant in her compositions.”
Though she’s had solo exhibitions at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, the Museu de Arte Moderna in São Paulo, Brazil, and the California Museum of Photography in Riverside, Kawauchi is not yet a household name in the international art world. Her prices remain relatively modest, with 40-inch prints (in editions of three) selling for around $8,000. She shows with Cohan and Leslie in New York and Foil Gallery in Tokyo.
To produce his lush, psychedelic images, Mull alternates between digital and unconventional darkroom techniques. The Los Angeles artist often projects images onto large-format negatives, using a process that’s similar to making a photogram, one of photography’s earliest forms. But he adds a 21st-century twist, overlaying digitally scanned images and textures such as paint splatters and streaks. His final prints are abstract and difficult to decipher, defying the notion of the photograph as an objective window.
Mull has also experimented with putting his images on sculptural elements or scattering them across the gallery floor. “This gives a material presence to the photo,” says the 31-year-old artist. “It’s about what a photograph can do at a time when we have this proliferation of digital images.”
At his solo exhibition at the Marc Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles in October, Mull’s recent works were priced between $2,500 and $14,000. He also shows with Rivington Arms in New York.
Eclectic and confounding, Miranda Lichtenstein, 38, is an artist without a signature style. She frequently adopts new approaches and subjects that push the limits of her photography. After a 2002 residency at Monet’s estates in Giverny, France, she created a series of images of his famous garden, shot at night in very low light with foliage glowing against deep, dusky backgrounds. For her 2004–05 series “The Searchers,” she created life-size environmental portraits of psychics, mediums, and others in trancelike states. Some of her newest works use appropriated images of female modern dancers, enlarged and with the blacks and whites reversed, creating a ghostly negative effect.
“Miranda Lichtenstein’s deep knowledge of photography allows her to experiment with a range of possibilities,” says Anne Ellegood, a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. “The results are both gorgeous and thought-provoking.”
The artist lives in New York, where she is represented by the Elizabeth Dee Gallery. For her show last fall, works produced in editions of five were priced from $4,000 to $15,000, depending on size. “Miranda asks questions,” says Dee, “about how photography can transcend the realities of the physical world in ways that are poetic and magical.”
New York photographers are often too hard-nosed to allow sentimentality to creep into their work. Not Dan Torop, who heads a neo-Romantic strain that’s been turning up in galleries lately. His philosophy—“the photographer is a seeker of mystery, and the act of photographing casts a spell that turns the banal into the supernatural”—is reflected in his series “Snowbound,” shown at the Derek Eller Gallery in New York last year. In these modestly scaled images ($1,800–$2,000), landscapes in Colorado, upstate New York, and Iceland are bathed in the glistening light of ice storms and glaciers.
But it would be simplistic to characterize Torop, 37, as a New Age Ansel Adams. “I’m trying to figure out how to deal with Romantic imagery in a contemporary form,” he says. Torop realizes that evoking the 19th-century idea of the sublime is a challenge, especially without the wow factor of jumbo prints and digital tricks. His sincerity has won him accolades from critics. “Torop plumbs the depths of clichéd imagery to find the beauty in them,” says independent curator Joseph Wolin. “His photographs have gorgeous effects of illumination—they transcend the modesty of their subjects and format.”
Usually Muzi Quawson sounds like a documentarian when talking about her work, which focuses on people on society’s fringes. “I’m concerned with investigating identity and the individual’s place within the social group,” says the 30-year-old photographer, who lives in London. But her images—presented as slide shows or mounted on light boxes—resemble stills from a Martin Scorsese movie.
Quawson’s series “Pull Back the Shade,” shown by her New York dealer, Yossi Milo, last winter, fo-cused on Amanda Jo Williams, a sin- gle mother of twins living in Woodstock, New York. Deeply influenced by seventies New American cinema, the series captured a neohippie culture and provided a snapshot of a woman struggling to be responsible in a milieu of suburban bohemia.
“I am intrigued by seventies films’ use of the antihero and the way the protagonist is portrayed,” she says. Walking this fine line between documentary truth and cinematic fiction has gained her recognition just two years after she graduated from London’s Royal College of Art. Quawson, whose work was featured in the 2006 Tate Triennial, nearly sold out her show at Yossi Milo. Prices for the light box–mounted photos ranged from $10,000 to $18,000.
A lot of attention has been focused on Thomas Demand, Oliver Boberg, and James Casebere, artists who make photos of architectural models so precise that the results look like images of real spaces. Julian Faulhaber, a 33-year-old German photographer, turns this approach on its head. His pictures of new buildings are so pristine that they appear disconcertingly unreal.
Shooting with a four-by-five camera and using only available light, Faulhaber makes prints up to five feet across without digital manipulation. His 2004 image Lounge captures the claustrophobic green interior of a podlike clubroom straight out of a sci-fi movie. In Sports Hall, from 2005, a gym’s pink floor becomes a canvas, crisscrossed with patterns of lines, boxes, and circles. These settings, freshly built and devoid of people, are too good to be true. With Faulhaber’s eye for color and composition, they become vivid modernist abstractions.
Based in Dortmund, Germany, Faulhaber shows with Hasted Hunt in New York, where his recent work is on view from October 30 through December 13. Even before the show opened, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired one of the images, which are produced in two sizes, in editions of seven, and priced from $5,000 to $8,000. “These works,” says gallery co-owner William Hunt, “glow like alien objects.”
Nothing could be further from Faulhaber’s spotless spaces than Anne Hardy’s decaying, detritus-filled rooms. Her recent image Cipher is of a basement gym (or is it a torture chamber?) with crumbling burn-streaked walls, piles of weights, and dangling ropes. In Booth, broken-down phone booths line the seedy orange lobby of some old theater or club. Or so it seems. Neither of these places really exists. Hardy built the interiors from scratch in her studio, then photographed them in all their postapocalyptic glory.
Based in London, Hardy, 33, drags in untold piles of materials from the street, flea markets, and garbage dumps and spends months making an interior before picking up the camera. Her work has a lot in common with that of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, but Hardy brings a rawness and energy that their more polished setups often lack.
“Anne makes only three or four images a year,” says Becky Smith of Bellwether gallery in New York, who offered Hardy’s recent works for approximately $10,000 to $12,000 in a show last spring. (The artist is represented by Maureen Paley in London.) A favorite of curators and collectors, Hardy is in the Saatchi Collection and was included in the 2007 Venice Biennale.
“My work exists at the intersection of photography and sculpture, but in essence I consider myself a photographer,” says Alejandra Laviada. Working in dilapidated buildings in the historic center of her native Mexico City, Laviada, 28, gathers objects found on-site—old wheels, brooms, broken chairs, decaying signage—and assembles them into witty minimalist sculptures. She then documents them with her camera.
The results are like poetic markers of a vanishing place and time. “I am interested in objects that reveal the histories of a site,” she says. “I see them as a living archive of these spaces before they’re gone completely.”
Laviada, whose images have already appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and other publications, graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts last year. She is having her first New York show, at Danzinger Projects, through November 8. Prices for her photos—33 by 40 inches, in editions of five—start at $3,500.