One could say it's completely out of focus
by Nathan Crawford
Staff Museum Critic
For a few more months you can see an exhibit titled Private, Public, Secret at the International Center of Photography Museum. Or don’t, if you don’t I think you’ll be fine. This exhibit sounds interesting, but unfortunately it falls short. It’s full of things that feel interesting, but upon closer inspection are not.
First, this exhibit does not hold together. There is no central theme, there is no point made or question raised. Instead, the exhibit feels more like someone did a database search of their archives and just put out whatever was tagged “private” or “public” or “secret.”
This would be excusable if any of the pieces were particularly striking, moving, or beautiful. There is no piece you will walk away thinking about, no piece you wish you could put up in your room, nothing. It is an album of only b-sides. The pictures of people through their windows feel too on the nose, the slideshows of instagram pictures feel too obvious, and the courtroom drawing from a WikiLeaks trial feels forced. It’s not like everything is terrible, just that everything is okay. There are some portraits Warhol took, but if you have seen his paintings or his movies, it is already well covered territory. One picture has a mostly naked couple doing heroine, that’s kinda fun I guess. A video shows a woman on a VH1 dating show, and there are some chances to laugh at these reality show contestants behind the scenes and aware of the cameras, but there is nothing deeper to it. It might catch your attention, but doesn’t have anything more once your attention has been caught.
Instead, this exhibit thrives on novelty. There is plenty in this exhibit that will make you want to lean in to take a closer look, but the closer look always disappoints. For example, there were covers from Transvestia, a magazine run by Virginia Prince for what she described as “sexually normal” men who have found their “other side.” If you look into Transvestia, it’s fascinating. It was a magazine for men who enjoyed cross-dressing, but received criticism from many LGTBQ+ activists as well as feminist groups for supporting more conservative sexual and familial mores. After years of claiming to be a heterosexual man who had found his “other side,” Virginia Prince transitioned later in life and started using she/her/hers pronouns. I would go to an exhibit just on this magazine, but all you get from Private, Public, Secret is a few random covers. They don’t really do anything with them, they just have them.
Pieces in the exhibit try to take on issues, which is commendable. It just left me wishing that any of the issues they brought up were not already being covered thoroughly by middle school English papers around the country. I don’t know if you know this, but reality shows don’t actually show reality. This may blow your mind, but we have an obsession with female beauty that has made the transition to the internet. Not to be too controversial, but there is a dark side to the internet.
I want to be clear, I’m not trying to bash modern photography or art. I like both, but for almost a century the premium has been on concept rather than execution, which makes it all the more tragic when there is little to no complex thought, subtlety, or creativity in the pieces. They had nothing new to say, and the exhibit didn’t have anything to say by putting them together. It is an exhibit with great promise, which makes the disappointment all the greater.