What Happens When Artists All Use the Same Tool? A Cell Phone Photo Show Evens the Field.

A photograph the artist Rachel Harrison shot on her cellphone. Courtesy Rachel Harrison and Carriage Trade

Hey, no big deal, but I’m in a show this week with Louise Lawler. I enjoyed her 2017 survey at the Museum of Modern Art, and frankly it’s about time that my own modest photographic efforts hang along those of the world-famous Pictures Generation icon. But before we all crack open the requisite Ruinart champagne and toast my induction into art history, I should probably note that I’m sharing the exhibition space with 219 others, ranging from boldfaced names (former Sonic Youth members; artists showing with Metro Pictures) to other creatively inclined semi-nobodies like myself. Thanks to the generous leveling effects of the seventh installment of “Social Photography,” at New York’s Carriage Trade, our stars all get to shine equally bright, at least for a few weeks.

The concept itself is simple. Lower East Side gallery Carriage Trade, helmed by Peter Scott, casts a wide net, asking an array of potential contributors to submit photographs they’ve taken on their cell phones. The submissions are printed on 7 by 5 inch paper (a generous white border adds a touch of elegance, elevating even quick snapshots closer to the level of High Art). All of the photographs are exhibited in massive grids, with no special prominence given to the better-known participants; they’re also priced the same ($75 each, or two for $120, and so on). The curation itself is unconventional, and casual. “I’ve never considered doing an ‘open call,’ because I find this too anonymous and arbitrary,” Scott tells me. “In some way, everyone in the show is connected me, or friends of friends, etceteras. One fun aspect is that I often run into or meet people socially and ask them what they have on their phone. We look it over, and they email a picture right then and there.”

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A photograph by Louise Lawler. Courtesy Louise Lawler and Carriage Trade

This is my second time participating in “Social Photography.” Last year, I showed an image of my wife, asleep, mostly hidden under the fluffy comforter of a hotel bed in Miami. (It was way less creepy than that sounds.) For 2019, I contributed an abstract close-up of my bicycle helmet dappled with weird bloblets of rain. As of today, at least one kind soul—who is definitely not my mother!—has purchased one of the prints.

Lawler’s photograph—an untitled shot of what appears to be light reflecting off of linoleum tile—sold out fast. (That’s not too surprising, given that her work has sold for more than $500,000.) Beyond being a sort of feel-good celebration of an artistic community, the show is also a damn easy way to collect artists you’d never be able to touch otherwise. Other editions that sold-out even before the in-person opening, scheduled for July 9: Liz Deschenes (who shows with Miguel Abreu Gallery); Barbara Ess (Magenta Plains); and B. Wurtz (Metro Pictures).

A photograph by B Wurtz. Courtesy B Wurtz and Carriage Trade

Still, the exhibition raises some tricky questions. Would the artists involved consider these cell phone snaps to be on par with their so-called “real” work? Is a $75 Louise Lawler actually a Louise Lawler? What should one make of a photograph taken by an artist who, while well-known, is not typically known for their photography? All of that is certainly up for debate, but Scott doesn’t see “Social Photography” in simple terms. It’s not, for instance, the white cube version of Apple’s fairly obnoxious “Shot on iPhone” ad campaign. “The idea of the show is not so much to promote cell phone technology per se but to acknowledge how its ubiquity and accessibility affects the images that are produced,” he says. “It’s not exactly the idea the ‘anyone can be an artist’ as much as ‘this medium is available to nearly everyone so let’s see what happens.’ It can be reportage, vanity, circumstantial ‘right place at the right time’ imagery, or images that have the formal ambitions of fine art photography.”

That variety jibes with my own promiscuous photographic inclinations. Before I pulled the plug on my Instagram account, my feed was a happy swamp of content: snapshots of dirty mattresses; install shots from the New Museum; clandestine portraits of amazing subway weirdos; cats, cats, cats. It’s liberating to think that even professional artists—notorious for their perfectionism, their rampant control-freaking—might also have a similarly relaxed approach to image-making, at least when the stakes aren’t so high.

A photograph by Michelle Grabner. Courtesy Michelle Grabner and Carriage Trade

Whether you’re buying or not, perusing the dozens and dozens of images in “Social Photography IV” is an enlightening experience. You can make a game out of it, teasing connections between these snapshots and the more polished work of the artists who took them. Tony Oursler—best known for unnerving, animated sculptures involving video projection—contributed a photograph of novelty underwear whose crotches sport the visage of some horrifying, fanged woodland creature. Michelle Grabner’s image—of plaid-patterned Smuckers jam-jar covers arrayed on a piece of wood—bears a striking resemblance to her paintings. Liam Gillick’s contribution is a close-up of a bunch of cables plugged into the back of his computer. There are travel photos, photos of dead sea creatures, Charles Ray sculptures, dogs sitting on people, Dutch pigs.

The lack of context is part of the fun, but I couldn’t help but wonder where some of these images had actually come from. B. Wurtz’s photo of cutlery, he says, was taken at a fundraiser for Earth Matter, a non-profit that promotes composting. (The artist was allowed to fudge the rules a bit, using an iPod Touch rather than a traditional camera phone.) There’s an Easter Egg hidden in the shot, too: “Peter Scott noticed that my self-portrait was upside-down in the spoons. I hadn’t noticed it before he told me.”

A photograph by Julia Wachtel. Courtesy Julia Wachtel and Carriage Trade

Painter Julia Wachtel’s photograph in the show is of a little doll wearing a bright yellow beret. “The picture was taken last summer at a country fair in the semi-rural Connecticut town where I live,” she says, adding that she was drawn to “the psychological situation of the doll’s expression.”

“I take pics with my phone all the time for every variety of purpose,” Wachtel adds, “from the most mundane—documenting the spot I parked in at a parking garage—to family pictures to general interest photos, such as the one I submitted to Carriage Trade. I primarily take pictures for artistic purposes on almost a daily basis. Some of these pics I’ve started incorporating directly into my paintings as the source for the silkscreen components. I take a lot of pictures directly off my TV and my computer. I have an Instagram practice of posting what I call ‘research’ pics of some of these.” In the fall of next year, Wachtel notes, she’ll be exhibiting those images on their own, at Freehouse in London.

A photograph by Scott Indrisek. Courtesy Scott Indrisek and Carriage Trade

Barry Schwabsky, the Nation’s art critic, contributed an image of some flowers in a cardboard box (“It’s pretty rare that I take a picture just for the sake of ‘that would make an interesting photograph,’ but this case was an exception,” he says.) Painter Caitlin Keogh’s shot is of a postcard with an archaic image of “pigsticking”: “I use my phone camera almost entirely for research for my studio,” she tells me. “I have a few blurry snapshots of my friends’ babies, and then lots of photos of pages in art history books and things I see in museums.” Lee Ranaldo—former Sonic Youth guitarist, experimental musician, poet, and artist—is showing a landscape that captures Robert Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp in Texas, an Earthwork that Ranaldo has previously composed music in homage to. While he says that, as a longtime photographer, he’s used everything from a 6×6 Rolliflex to a 5×7 camera, “in recent years, phone technology caught up to the point that I don’t carry another camera, ever, anymore.

A photograph by Lee Ranaldo. Courtesy Lee Ranaldo and Carriage Trade

Would-be collectors would also be wise to snap up Picture for Men, a 2019 photograph by Rachel Harrison. New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl has dubbed her work “both the zestiest and the least digestible in contemporary art,” and possibly “the most important.” But if the last of that edition of 10 is sold out by the time you read this, may I recommend Maw, a supremely mature and thought-provoking image taken by an underappreciated, 38-year-old wunderkind on an Android Galaxy S7?

Carriage Trade’s “Social Photography” exhibitions opens on Tuesday, July 9, 6-8 p.m.

What Happens When Artists All Use the Same Tool? A Cell Phone Photo Show Evens the Field.