Friday, August 31, 2007

Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg

The photographer JoAnn Verburg is enjoying a mid-career survey currently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Accompanying the exhibition is a handsome catalog called Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg that spans her career since the early nineteen-eighties.

Verburg is an artist that came of age when most post-modernists were “using” photography as simply the final vehicle for their art to reach an audience. Interested in time and the translation of time in photography, much of her earlier work, explores portraiture through a series of images rather than by a single definitive one. By using the camera to describe a lateral panorama of images, she captures elements from each frame that bleed over into the next, giving the sense of a continuum of action and gesture. Many of these early images feature active members of the early eighties art world. This is an interesting fact as their presence when seen today, as well known artists, tends to introduce a different dynamic to the pieces as perhaps originally sought.

In her next project, she pursued a series of images made of people suspended in pools of water. Shot from a vantage point akin to hovering over her subjects, they defy gravity in an upended world that disorients viewers with their vertiginousness. They often refer to classic images common throughout art history of floating cherubs and images of grace but they do not simply mimic but offer a modern image, classic in form, to current emotional states.

The work that excites me the most is the work Verburg has done describing the domestic life with her husband, the poet, Jim Moore. Photographed in the 1990’s, she utilizes single image as well as diptych and triptychs to describe aspects of her home life. Made often while Mr. Moore is reading the newspaper or sleeping if we were to gauge his life based solely on her pictures we should all be gifted to live a poet’s life. His is one waiting for the muse to appear. Moore however is Verburg’s muse and Verburg’s love of his image is apparent to us in the care in which she looks upon him.

Though do not mistake these for pictures devoid of the issues of the “real” world. The domestic tranquility is confronted by the newspaper headlines and article headers that are sharply focused upon by Verburg’s large format camera. In essence, these are perfect descriptions of how most of us confront world problems and global tremors, through a newspaper or other isolating device. To carry that thought a bit further, to me the comfort at which the headlines in these pictures is experienced somewhat lances liberal political approach with an image of inaction. The headlines are read after we have enjoyed a café latte while sitting in perfect sunlight on our picture perfect garden terrace. It has the same feel as is common with characters from Woody Allen’s image of what Manhattan liberalism represents.

The draw of the show at the MoMA for me was a wall of these images displayed in an ordered but chaotic way whose sum created the most interesting dynamic. After seeing that arrangement of images to go back to looking at one image at a time was a difficult task.

Her latest work is a series of multi panel images of olive trees in Italy. By using the focus control of the large format camera, she isolates fields of clarity that playfully focuses on different planes within the frame. Though interesting and definitely seductive in technique, I was left a bit disappointed by my ability to see anything more than their beauty. (That seems like a sentence that would come from someone working something out with their shrink). Though there is nothing wrong with beauty per se, these images seemed more decorative than the rest of the show (and work in the catalog). Verburg has conditioned me to “read” more into her images, so for these, I haven’t figured my approach. The very latest work of handmade pyramids escapes me as well, but given that time is such a subject for Verburg, I figure I have mine as well.

The catalog, Present Tense is very nicely put together and fairly well printed. I find there is a very subtle cyan or green cast to many of Verburg’s actual images that is a bit more apparent here in this catalog. Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg also includes a fine essay by Susan Kismaric, the show’s curator.

Book Available Here (Present Tense)

Buy online at MoMA


Anonymous said...

Well, here I'll have to agree to disagree with you. I saw the show at MOMA and found the work boring.

The early portraits of artists would have looked great in a magazine of the time--in the Face or Interview--but on the wall, I really found little to warrant the size or the attention (unless of course you want to argue that our culture's deranged worship of celebrity has infected MOMA as well.) The pool photos are derivative, familiar and, with one exception, are devoid of any tension or beauty.

And this may be a terrible thing to say, but I am being asked to interact with her husband's image, over and over, and he just isn't that visually interesting. It made me think that MOMA was trying to usurp the current trend of exhibiting one's life publicly...on blogs, on MySpace, Facebook, etc. Well, here is the Upper East Side version as seen in a New Yorker cartoon (yes, I know Verberg is from MN, I'm talking audience now.) Here is what a personal visual blog of a thoughtful, sensitive artist looks like: middle-aged plus, balding guy sitting around reading a newspaper. The photos actually made me laugh, which isn't a bad thing, just not, I think, the intended reaction they were meant to solicit.

And I might add, political inaction seems to cut across all partisan positions, not just liberals. But I may be partisan on that one.

Anonymous said...

Much better than Demand. I still find the farmer whose greatest achievement is the world's largest ball of string to be ultimately more interesting.

Jeff, Her name is spelled Verburg. Did you notice that the exhibition is "supported in part by Monini Extra Virgin Olive Oil"?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for all the comments. I find the work of her husband and domestic still lifes very interesting. Beyond what I think are a set of really well made photos, I like that she stays in her own backyard (beyond Italy) to make photos of what obviously is very close to her emotionally. I first saw a photo of her's in the Pleasure and Terrors of Domestic Comfort show at MoMA in 1991 and she caught my attention there. Not so crazy about the portraits or current work but that work on her husband I think would make a nice little book.

As for the politics, I'm on our comment was aimed at the world in the pictures. You described it perhaps a bit more diplomatically as "Upper East Side, New Yorker cartoon."

Anonymous said...


Thanks for grabbing my spelling error. In every instance of her name I spelled it wrong. I am consistent.

As for Demand, I wrote to him and he is working on a paper version of the string photo you like so much. Making the old man who standing next to the ball of string out of paper should be something even you'll want to see.

jennifer said...

I've actually been to see this show 3 times now, and each time I see something new and like it better than the last.

To me the things that are most interesting about this work are how technically precise, yet not-at-all slick these images are. They are like poetry in their construction. That, and the emphasis on the process of seeing (things caught in the corner of your eye--reflections, translucency, tricks of light and selective focus--like some early Brakhage films).

I love the serendipity of her images of the trees being presented in the museum at the same time as the Serra ellipses--they have the same disorienting, vertiginous effect, though i find the Serras become less interesting after i've been through them once (i know their "trick"). The Verburgs still feel fast and dizzying.

The images of her husband and their life together are the most interesting to me too, but i love how the portraits are presented--heads pretty true to life-size and hung at (my) eye-level. Simple and obvious, but unusual too.

When i was teaching, my female students would always ask me for contemporary examples of work by women looking at men--i wish i had known Verburg then.

However much i love the work, I can't bring myself to buy the book. The design doesn't make any sense to me--most of her images are horizontal panoramas--why make the book vertical? and the color reproductions are terrible. Though I'm sure i'll capitulate after the show closes...

Anonymous said...

Did anyone mention how Verburg document's the passage of time in her photos? That is one of the hardest thing for most photographers to do. Usually a photo is stuck in the one instance of a fraction of a second of always NOW - how does a photographer get beyond that? - with time esposures or multiple frames. I want my classes to see the exhibition for that reason. Expecially the group portraits in several frames and the olive trees that some find so boring. Check Adam Wineberg's book Vanishing Presence.

Anonymous said...

Present Tense - isn't a photograph always in the Present Tense -of when it is recorded. When does a photo not exist in the Present?? Isn't the moment of recording the light in the camera always NOW?

Anonymous said...


I thought the book handles the work rather well for choice of the vertical format. The printing is on the cyan and green side though as I mentioned.

Anonymous said...


There are so many ways to express the passage of time. Excuse me for horn tooting but here are 6 examples of 3+ minutes in a single frame. Of course they each took more than one click. Nevertheless, I still find at this point we may as well pull out a film camera. I feel still photography is served better by sticking to its basic limitations, thats why I don't do this any more.

Anonymous said...


I actually liked that your comment posted three times - that way we are sure to read it and not miss it -- and you did see the show three times!!

Though I guess if everyone posted their messages three times we would be in trouble!

Robert Stevens said...


I think you are saying that these frames are composites of several shots? Is that right? Even so, when I look at them it still appears to be one moment unless there is a caption that says otherwise. Sometimes it's more apparent if the same person or persons are seem in several places within one frame.

Robert Stevens said...

ps- Philip, which you have done in some of the frames - like the boy and the donkey; the girl and cat and the woman with the red skirt. Good point that I missed.

jennifer said...


I guess the real problem I have with the catalog is that i want to love it as much as the show, but looking through it immediately after leaving the galleries I feel disappointed.

Which is the exact opposite reaction I had to the Backhaus work. I saw those photos at Yancey Richardson last year, and felt ambivalent about them on the wall, but I loved the book.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am a bit swayed by the book simply because there aren't any books of her work (that I know of) besides her collaboration with Mark Klett on the rephotographic project.

jennifer said...

I know. That's why i know i'll eventually buy it...

But i think you are right--a book of the domestic images alone could be really amazing.

One Way Street said...

Your comment about the newspapers in the images of Verburg's husband was very intriguing. It reminds me of a comment I heard attributed to Marshall McLuhan: the news is about bad news & good news - the bad news is all the news being transmitted - the good news is the ads/commercials which are presented along with the news.

Verburg's work is kind of a "slow read" which I find very refreshing. Initially I thought the work was kind of dull - but I think it just reveals itself in a much quieter, unemphatic matter. Initially the work I found the least compelling were the husband/newspaper images - but I am now in agreement w/ you as to the merits of it.

Seeing newspaper headlines w/ such clarity is very compelling - I'm not sure why. It's such a different kind of information from the rest of the image.

In Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency book there's an image of a couple at a beach, w/ a Sunday Times Magazine - whenever I see the image my eyes turn immediately to the magazine cover, first - as my eyes do w/ the Times headlines in Verburg's images.

Anonymous said...

One Way,

To your point of the Nan Goldin photo. I find that whenever type is present in photos (or even the hint of type) that we automatically read its presence as often the point of the photo. This is tricky. If it is the point and the words are in English, will your piece go over in Cairo with the same understanding?