What inspires people to collect labels from 100 kinds of beer, or line their shelves with rows of cat figurines? Why does a scientist study a particular species of monkey? What drives a sociologist to collect data on 1,000 people who own their own homes and drive more than 50 miles to work?
Obviously, there's something that appeals to people about things that are part of the same "family" but are not quite identical. Collectors love to point out minute differences among similar objects and dream of possessing "the full set." Scientists and social scientists compare similarities among living things and human habits in order to discover broad patterns of genetic development or environmental adaptation.
A number of artists are also collectors of similar things. But they do their collecting by making photographs. "Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers" at Newport Harbor Art Museum brings together work by North American and German artists who each document a specific subject--human faces, industrial buildings, trees, gas stations and so forth--in series of deliberately neutral-looking images.
At first, such images may look boringly similar. But as you scrutinize them, they reveal different kinds of information, presented with the unemotional gravity of a specimen on a slide.
Take Hilla and Bernd Becher's large black and white photographs of winding towers, which pull buckets of coal out of mines. Each tower is shown as a silhouette against a nearly blank sky, with little indication of locale and no sense of relative scale. The artists classify the towers by type, arranging similar-looking images in strict grid-like patterns.
The set of photographs pictured here records large-scale, permanent-looking towers from different European sites; in another set of images from American coal mines, the towers are much less imposing and seem to have been cobbled together in haste.
The Bechers are interested in the information conveyed by the "anonymous" quality of older industrial architecture. By photographing these massive structures--some doomed to extinction--the couple are isolating and preserving the unexpectedly individual quality of this architecture. Although these structures embody no conscious sense of design, the photographs reveal them as vestiges of an era that predates the corporate uniformity of our time.
Some viewers may find they are scrutinizing the images in this show with the same manic intensity they gave, years ago, to puzzles that asked, "What's Wrong With This Picture?" But these photographs don't call for value judgments. Instead, they ask the viewer to consider what the basic equipment of our world really means in terms of culture, taste and the limits of human perception.
Unlike traditional photographers who shoot what they believe are extraordinary moments or striking views, these photographers deliberately pick the most ordinary of subjects, and shoot them straight on, with clear, even lighting. Yet the photographs don't look like carefully composed, recognizably "real" views of life. Instead, the subjects seem to have been wrenched from the real world and stuck into airless bell jars for clinical inspection.
The oldest body of work in the show dates from the early 1960s, when Southern California artist Edward Ruscha photographed 26 gas stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City for a book that was supposed to look deliberately impersonal and mass-produced.
The other work on view, from the past two decades, was done by students of the Bechers (Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer), and several American and Canadian artists.
Struth's crisp views of various urban sites throw a spotlight on the relationships between buildings, and how they do or don't create a sense of place. Judy Fiskin's photographs of tacky Southern California architectural facades remind the viewer of the many different worlds of style, each governed by its own set of rules.
Roger Mertins does "portraits" of unremarkable trees growing by the roadside and Christmas trees in middle-class living rooms. Lynne Cohen's shots of specialized environments (offices, training areas) suggest that these are really very peculiar places that send out bizarre, negative vibes. Hofer photographs human holding tanks--public waiting rooms, libraries, museums--but without their usual inhabitants.
In fact, all of the artists in the show omit all human figures from their work--except Ruff, who makes enormous, unsmiling images of people's faces that look like out-of-scale passport photos or criminal mug shots.
The more you look at these and other sets of images in the show, the more you may become mesmerized by small differences between one like thing and another. Wrenched out of time and space, these stripped-down, painstakingly clear images are meant to set up a constant tension in the viewer's mind between the individual and the group.
In the end, the images are really about the ways our minds work, the ways we manage--in the words of catalogue essayist Rod Slemmons--"to squeeze knowledge out of extended information."
"Typologies" was organized for Newport Harbor by guest curator Marc Freidus of New York and is sponsored in part by two Newport Harbor trustees who are husband and wife: James B. Pick and Rosalyn M. Laudati.
What: "Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers."
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, through June 2.
Where: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach.
Whereabouts: Take Jamboree Road to Santa Barbara Drive, just north of the Coast Highway. San Clemente runs off Santa Barbara.
Wherewithal: Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for students, seniors and military with current I.D., $1 for children 6 to 17. Free for everyone on Tuesdays.
Where to call: (714) 759-1122.