Disruptive Photos at the MCA in Picture Fiction

Kenneth Josephson, Chicago, 1972. Gelatin silver print; 4 ¾ x 7 in. (12.1 × 17.8 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Gift of the Foster Charitable Trust in memory of Reuben A. Foster, 1983.37. © 1972 Kenneth Josephson. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Seeming eons ago, before the heyday of the selfie, photos captured moments in squares, often outside of and pointed away from the creator. Chicago-trained and -based photographer Kenneth Josephson and his contemporaries began the process of constructing and deconstructing traditional images in the 1960s, and the provocative results are showcased at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Picture Fiction: Kenneth Josephson and Contemporary Photography, named for a Robert Cumming work displayed.

Kenneth Josephson (born in 1932) explored how to “make, not take” photos, by putting measurement tools, like rulers, in frame, like a scientist representing scale, as well as capturing photos within photos to produce self-reflective conceptual pieces, to “disrupt the conventions of photography.”

This meta focus on photography—rom creation to cropping to collage—breaks open the art form into early self-reflection, and documents of personality and perception. Instead of being merely outward looking, Josephson’s images look inside the frame and brain, playing with scale and reality.

Under the tutelage of Aaron Siskind, Josephson started to think of a photo as “a physical object” rather than “an illusionistic space and never as a piece of paper that curls up or that you could hold.” He repurposed and blended older images and emulated previous masters such as Edward Weston to produce new self-referential and aware pastiches.

In 1980, Josephson starts to insert himself and his son into the work. He emulates publications from Ed Ruscha by making a book with pictures of bread slices, “reading” the same backwards as forward.

Kenneth Josephson, Matthew again, c. 1995/80. Gelatin silver print; 12 1/32 × 8 in. © Kenneth Josephson. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

The crisp exhibit features composite construction of previous images over later landscapes in a compelling commentary on perception and the passage of time, as in “Chicago 1972” (above).

There are three-dimensional pieces as well as images within images, photos of photos taken by him or found by him (he studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s School of Design and taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for almost 40 years).

Often the layout echoes the subject matter, as Buzz Spector’s 1991 collection of waterfall postcards (from Colorado’s Cascade Falls and Lower Eagle Falls in Lake Tahoe) that creates a paper fall on the wall.

Also featured is a short, silent, black-and-white video by William Wegman improvising about random topics (1973). Three of Ruscha’s softcover books with plain typeset titles are also displayed: Some Los Angeles Apartments, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and Various Small Fires (1970).

A neon installation declares, “I am only describing language, not explaining anything,” an accurate recap of the compelling exhibition.

Kenneth Josephson, New York State, 1970. Gelatin silver print; framed: 17 × 21 in. (43.2 × 53.3 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Katherine S. Schamberg by exchange, 2014.4. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Picture Fiction runs through December 30 at The Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago, 312-280.2660). $12 single admission; $7 for seniors and students; free for kids 12 and under, for military members, and for Illinois residents on Tuesdays. The exhibition features many pieces from the MCA’s permanent collection, including from these artists:

John Baldessari (American, b. 1931)
Walead Beshty (English, b. 1976)
Gary Beydler (American, 1944–2010)
Anne Collier (American, b. 1970)
John Coplans (American, 1920–2003)
Robert Cumming (American, b. 1943)
Jan Dibbets (Dutch, b. 1941)
Roe Ethridge (American, b. 1969)
Rodney Graham (Canadian, b. 1949)
Robert Heinecken (American, 1931–2006)
Leslie Hewitt (American, b. 1977)
David Hockney (British, b. 1937)
Joseph Jachna (American, 1935–2016)
Kenneth Josephson (American, b. 1932)
Barbara Kasten (American, b. 1936)
Joseph Kosuth (American, b. 1945)
Jessica Labatte (American, b. 1981)
Laura Letinsky (Canadian b. 1962)
Sol LeWitt (American, 1928–2007)
Matt Lipps (American, b. 1975)
N. E. Thing Co.
Joyce Neimanas (American, b. 1944)
B. Ingrid Olson (American, b. 1987)
Lisa Oppenheim (American, b. 1975)
Gabriel Orozco (Mexican, b. 1962)
Marlo Pascual (American, b. 1972)
Jimmy Robert (French, b. 1975)
Edward Ruscha (American, b. 1937)
Melanie Schiff (American, b. 1977)
Xaviera Simmons (American, b. 1974)
Buzz Spector (American, b. 1948)
John Stezaker (British, b. 1949)
Jeff Wall (Canadian, b. 1946)
William Wegman (American, b. 1943)

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.