Snap Judgments: Photography Exhibitions Not to Miss

‘Richard Avedon: Murals & Portraits’ at Gagosian Gallery; ‘George Dureau: Black 1973-1986’ at Higher Pictures; Ralph Eugene Meatyard at Peter Freeman; Sam Falls at American Contemporary

IN TERMS OF SHEER SIZE AND SEX APPEAL, Gagosian Gallery’s mammoth Richard Avedon show is easily the photography event of the summer. Installed in a flashy layout by architect and in-demand exhibition designer David Adjaye, it’s headlined by four huge group portraits. The one of Andy Warhol and his entourage is more than 30 feet long and 10 feet tall, and is pretty much guaranteed to stop you dead in your tracks.

If Gagosian’s is the most spectacular of the many strong photography exhibitions on view in New York at the moment, not least for the celebrity wattage of some of its subjects (Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman), it is also the most straightforwardly appealing: the master Avedon in top form, snapping nonpareil portraits. Other shows around town offer stranger, subtler, more complex pleasures, highlighting the range of what can be accomplished with a camera and, in the case of one exhibition, the ways in which today’s emerging artists are stretching the medium beyond it.

Higher Pictures is presenting the first New York solo show of 81-year-old artist George Dureau’s photographs in 30 years; it features 15 small, stark black-and-white portraits of black men—most young, shirtless and staring directly at the camera—made in the 1970s and ’80s.

At first glance these photos look like the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, who, it turns out, visited Mr. Dureau at his New Orleans home in the late ’70s, purchased his works and learned a few photographic tricks. But Mr. Dureau’s work is less polished and more intimate than Mapplethorpe’s; his subjects, who include amputees and dwarfs, are presented in a way that is human rather than aestheticized. Like Mapplethorpe’s, Mr. Dureau’s work could be expressive of gay desire. In a photograph from the ’70s, a young man identified as Laurence Patterson looks relaxed and content. He is shot from his bare, chiseled chest up, wears a leather cap and gives the camera a fetching look. But his subjects aren’t limited to gay men, or those with imperfect bodies. They include pro football player Alphonse Dotson, who, in three-quarter profile, is lost in thought as he pinches the metal chain he wears around his neck.

Mr. Dureau is at his best when he’s interacting with less glamorous subjects, like a rotund man named Ernest Beasley who leans awkwardly on a rail in his 1981 portrait, his eyes wandering in two different directions, and Short Sonny, a turban-wearing dwarf who stands naked on a table, arms akimbo.

The star of the show is Wilbert Hines, who poses with the contraposto of a classical Greco-Roman nude. The word “the” is tattooed across the upper part of his left arm, which ends in a stump. His gaze sends a clear message: you are lucky to be looking at me. One hopes some perspicacious museum curators will ensure we don’t again have to wait 20 years for that privilege.

IT’S CURATOR CYNTHIA YOUNG and artist Guy Davenport who deserve the credit for bringing Ralph Eugene Meatyard, another photographer who operated outside the aesthetic and geographic mainstream, into the spotlight in New York eight years ago, when they organized a large-scale retrospective of his work at the International Center of Photography. Now comes a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a handsome show of 40 works at Peter Freeman’s gallery in Soho.

A lifelong resident of Louisville, Ky., Meatyard worked as an optician and took up photography in the 1950s, when he was in his 20s. He died of cancer in 1972, at the age of 46, leaving behind a body of work that provides a singularly peculiar path from the vernacular American photography typified by Aaron Siskind and Minor White (he studied with both at photography workshops) and European Surrealism to the identity-warping practices of today’s artists.

Meatyard’s signature photographs—the ones that appear in the history books—are his portraits of his wife, friends and acquaintances wearing Halloween masks, a motif he cribbed from 19th-century Belgian Symbolist painter James Ensor. But Meatyard’s mask images, a few of which are on view in the Freeman show, are jarring and more than a bit sinister because his subjects pose in such unexceptional settings—in front of a station wagon, before a garden arch or in an abandoned warehouse.

But there was more to Meatyard than masks. Throughout his career, he experimented with the techniques of photography, shooting out of focus to produce abstract shapes—blobby blacks and whites in an untitled piece from ca. 1958—and moving the camera to create blurs or overlapping images, as in two ca. 1968–72 works, in which multiple depictions of a building and a tree merge in a single frame. However interesting they may have been at the time he made them, though, today his experiments pale next to his straight work, like a ca. 1959 piece with a baby doll’s head and a flattened rubber fright mask sitting on a pile of leaves that, to a contemporary viewer, suggests both Hans Bellmer and Cindy Sherman.

Meatyard’s work is particularly unsettling in the pictures that feature children, often his own: a young girl covering her eyes as she stands next to a wall of peeling paint that resembles tentacles or roots (a recurring theme) or wading through tall grass as two masked figures crouch nearby, staring at the camera. In another, a young boy stands next to a building as a larger, blurred figure falls to the ground. As in much great art, there is a touch of evil, a looming threat that innocence will soon be lost.

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