Stanley Kubrick: Before He Wrote Scripts, He Took Photos

Starting in 1945, when he was 17 and living in the Bronx, Stanley Kubrick worked as a New York-based photographer for Look magazine. He joined the staff full time in October 1946, and he quit in August 1950. “By the time I was 21 I had four years of seeing how things worked in the world,” Kubrick told an interviewer in 1972. “I think if I had gone to college I would never have been a director.”

The postwar years were the heyday of the popular American pictorial magazines, with Life and Look leading the charge. Life was the classier of the two, adopting an international scope and employing a heady lineup of photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith. Look, which went out of business in 1971, was more provincial, focusing most of its attention on American pursuits and problems, and hiring photographers who were highly professional but rarely inspired.

The Look archive resides at the Museum of the City of New York, where an exhibition titled “Stanley Kubrick: Through a Different Lens” opens on May 3. The show and an accompanying catalog published by Taschen look at what is essentially Kubrick before he became Kubrick.

Unless they were recording news events, photographers for the picture magazines were hobbled by a crippling constraint. Their photos were illustrating a preconceived story that had been formulated by the editors. The possibilities for discovery were limited.

The topics that Kubrick explored are chestnuts so old that they smell a little moldy. Lovers embracing on a park bench as their neighbors gaze ostentatiously elsewhere. Patients anxiously awaiting their doctors appointment. Boxing hopefuls in the ring. Celebrities at home. Pampered dogs in the city. It probably helped that Stan Kubrick, as he was known at that time, was just a kid, so instead of inducing yawns, these magazine perennials struck him as novelties, and he in turn brought something fresh to them.

Knowing what career path he would follow, we look for foreshadowing of his future greatness. In the rueful grimace of a mother on the subway, her hands enfolding a blond boy who could be a grumpy fallen angel, the strength of the expression and gesture convey an individual temperament. The diagonals of ropes, legs and arms in the portrait of the boxer Walter Cartier between rounds in the ring, along with the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, remind us of the many black-and-white films that depict prizefighters, including Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss.” (As a director, Kubrick’s first film, the short newsreel-format “Day of the Fight,” in 1951, featured Cartier and his twin brother, Vincent.)

A striking shot at the piano of Peter Arno, the New Yorker cartoonist and bon vivant, with eyes shut and mouth open, an ashtray holding down the sheet music, is composed with masterly precision. So is a humorous picture of a man at the track grappling with a windblown newspaper (probably Racing Form). Other photographs that emphasize the mise-en-scène could be movie stills: a shouting circus executive who takes up the right side of the foreground while aerialists rehearse in the middle distance, a boy climbing to a roof with the city tenements surrounding him, a subway car filled with sleeping passengers. Looking at these pictures, you want to know what comes next.

Kubrick, who died in 1999, was an excellent magazine photographer. His pictures fall short, though, in one crucial way. They almost never surprise. When he said that he wouldn’t have become a movie director without his apprenticeship at Look, he might have meant, in part, that after four years of depicting stories that were handed to him, he was ready to start writing his own scripts.

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Polixeni Papapetrou, Photographer With an Eerie Eye, Dies at 57

Polixeni Papapetrou (her full name is pronounced poh-leek-SEE-nee pah-pah-PET-roo) was born on Nov. 21, 1960, in Melbourne. Her father, Andreas, was a real estate agent, and her mother, the former Eftihiya Xilinakis, was a seamstress. Her parents were Greek immigrants, something that she said made her feel different as a child growing up in Australia. The way she looked, the food the family ate and other things set her apart.

“Difference and identity is a theme that has always been present in my work and led me to photograph alternative subcultures,” she told The Age of Melbourne in 2009. Her subjects included drag queens and Elvis impersonators.

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“The Visitor” (2012), from the series “Between Worlds.”

At first her career took an entirely different direction. After graduating from Melbourne University in 1984, she became a lawyer for a time.

“I worked as a corporate lawyer and really enjoyed this environment,” she explained, “but the desire to be an artist was stronger.”

Taking her inspiration from Diane Arbus’s photographs, she began taking pictures in the mid-1980s, at first focusing on those subcultures. In addition to Elvis impersonators and drag queens, she shot professional wrestlers and body builders. But by the turn of the century, the fairy-tale-like images featuring costumed or masked children began to dominate.

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“Amaryllis” (2016), from the series “Eden.”

“Normally, the conceit goes that we make children,” her husband wrote in a eulogy, “but Poli used to say that the children made her: They made her as a person and made her as an artist.”

Many of these images were not simple exercises in dress-up; they invoked other artworks or literature and addressed environmental, social, psychological and other themes. One series reworked Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell. Other images were taken at Hanging Rock, the formation made famous by the novel and film “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

The 2008 magazine cover became entangled in a debate that had been stirred up by an exhibition by another Australian photographer, Bill Henson, which included images of bare-chested young teenage girls.

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“The Wanderer” (2012), from the series “The Dreamkeepers.”

Ms. Papapetrou’s photograph had actually been taken years earlier and had been previously exhibited; by the time it landed on the magazine cover, Olympia was 11 and defended the image, saying that of the many she had made with her mother it was among her favorites.

The photograph drew condemnation, including from Australia’s prime minister at the time, Kevin Rudd. The controversy came at a particularly bad time for Ms. Papapetrou: A few months before, she had received her initial cancer diagnosis.

She eventually seemed to beat the disease, but it recurred in 2012, and her doctors told her she might have only weeks to live. More than five years later, she was still working. Her husband said she had organized her current exhibition, at the Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney, from her bed.

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Ms. Papapetrou in an undated family photograph. As the daughter of Greek immigrants, she felt alienated growing up in Australia. “Difference and identity is a theme that has always been present in my work and led me to photograph alternative subcultures,” she said.

Ms. Papapetrou studied art after taking it up as a career, receiving a master of arts degree at RMIT University in Melbourne in 1997 and a Ph.D. at Monash University in 2007.

In addition to her husband and her children, Olympia and Solomon Nelson, she is survived by her mother and father.

As for the kerfuffle over the magazine cover, Ms. Papapetrou put it behind her and had no regrets about using her children in her work.

“I know that when I am not here I have left behind a record of our journey together,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2012. “They will remember that we had a lot of fun doing this.”

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What the Mona Lisa Tells Us About Art in the Instagram Era

“A lot of people take photos and post them on Twitter or Facebook,” Ms. Li said. “It’s evidence that ‘I’ve been there.’ ”

In October 2014, the American megastars Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and their daughter Blue Ivy, had the privilege of visiting the Louvre on their own. The resulting smartphone photo session drew huge attention on Instagram, prompting Buzzfeed to declare: “No Picture Matters More Than Beyoncé And Jay-Z Posing In Front Of The Mona Lisa,” and adding, “It might very well be the best picture of our generation. Or any generation.”

It would be easy enough for a critic or curator to dismiss the “Mona Lisa experience” as nothing more than selfie tourism. Yet Jay-Z and Beyoncé, like pretty much everyone who visits the Louvre, did actually look at the painting.

The way the “Mona Lisa” is viewed is, in fact, soberingly representative of the way most art is viewed in today’s saturated, digitally mediated, visual culture. How many more (or fewer) seconds do cellphone-wielding visitors spend looking at individual works at a commercial art fair or exhibition than at the Louvre? How is an artistic reputation made these days, other than through Instagram?

“She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave,” the British critic Walter Pater wrote in 1873, evoking the timelessness of the “Mona Lisa” long before the advent of mass tourism, mobile phones, apps and fragmented attention spans.

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“She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave,” the British critic Walter Pater wrote of the “Mona Lisa” in 1873. Credit Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Mr. Pater’s much-quoted description of “La Giaconda” (as the painting is also known) is redolent of a culture in which a privileged few would spend hours with masterpieces to try to divine their profoundest meanings.

But mechanical — and digital — reproduction has changed things. Another British critic, John Berger, wrote in his influential 1972 book, “Ways of Seeing,” that in an age of digital reproduction, “the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them; their meaning becomes transmittable.”

Mr. Berger, who died last year, might have noted with interest that Beyoncé’s 2014 Instagram post of her making a peace sign in front of the “Mona Lisa” attracted almost 840,000 likes.

Similarly, a wealthy art collector does not need to spend hours in front of a Christopher Wool, Rudolf Stingel or Gerhard Richter abstract freshly purchased for a few million dollars. The collector knows exactly what it looks like, having already seen the image many times in digital reproduction.

While the instantly recognizable quality of brand-name contemporary art reassures collectors — and by extension bolsters the pieces’ value — other works can be diminished by their reproducibility. The “Mona Lisa” is a prime example.

“It’s very underwhelming. It’s small and dark,” Katie Qian, 33, an engineer from Salt Lake City, said after seeing the “Mona Lisa” for the second time in her life.

Christie’s, by contrast, offered viewers a quasi-religious experience at the pre-auction viewing of the much-restored panel painting “Salvator Mundi,” which had recently, not incontrovertibly, been re-attributed to Leonardo. The auction house, with the help of the advertising agency Droga5, promoted what it called “The Last da Vinci” with a video of people moved to tears by the painting. It went on to sell for an all-time high of $450.3 million.

“The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art,” Mr. Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing,” “is ultimately dependent on their market value” and “has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.”

Back at the Louvre, the millions of visitors who trudge through the Grand Gallery every year on their way to the “Mona Lisa” tend to walk straight past “The Virgin of the Rocks,” a fully documented Leonardo masterpiece from the early 1480s. Then again, perhaps not many tourists are aware that it is a painting that, in the unlikely event of it ever appearing on the market, would also sell for hundreds of millions of dollars.

“At least millions of people want to see it,” said Dulce Leite, 63, an Italian who seemed amazed by the throng in front of the “Mona Lisa.” She had spent the previous 15 minutes contemplating a crowd-free “Virgin of the Rocks” (without taking any photos).

“Now they look at the picture and there’s the possibility of taking a photo and posting it,” she added. “We had to see it and memorize.”

Imprisoned by its reputation as the most famous painting in the world, and by its security capsule, the “Mona Lisa” has, to all meaningful intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an original work of art. It has become an idea — and a photo opportunity.

What could be a more contemporary way of seeing?

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Spring Gallery Guide: 10 Galleries to Visit Now on the Upper East Side

CRAIG F. STARR GALLERY through May 25; 5 East 73rd Street, craigstarr.com. Although Eva Hesse (1936-70) is best known for her sculptures and installations using latex, fiberglass and other unorthodox material, she was also an inventive painter and draftswoman. “Eva Hesse: Arrows and Boxes, Repeated” at Craig F. Starr includes early grids and abstract gouaches and a 1968 version of her “Accession” series of boxes. In each of these open steel-mesh containers, she would weave rubber tubes through the grid, creating a minimalist form that looked as if it were growing hair or coming alive.

MICHAEL WERNER through May 5; 4 East 77th Street, michaelwerner.com. If the Upper East Side is filling up with all kinds of newcomers, the German art dealer Michael Werner represents the new old guard: He opened his first gallery here in 1990. His current show, “Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Bronzes From the 1980s,” reflects Mr. Werner’s stable of (mostly male, mostly European) artists. The dark, murky canvases and expressive abstract bronzes are drawn partly from Mr. Kirkeby’s studies in the 1960s, when he traveled in Greenland and the Arctic while working on a master’s degree in geology.

HALF GALLERY through May 9; 43 East 78th Street, halfgallery.com. A pocket-size gallery that lives up to its name, Half Gallery shows a solid lineup of young painters who approach the canvas with conviction and a twisted vision. In Ginny Casey’s “Skeleton Key,” the murky-hued paintings are populated with curvy, vaguely surrealistic objects, like a chair with arms, a metronome the size of an armoire or a key too large for any human’s door.

GAGOSIAN through May 25; 976 Madison Avenue, gagosian.com. In the portfolio of galleries that make up the Gagosian empire, the bookstore might be the most fun. This is at least the case with the display of Jonas Wood’s prints that is thereright now. The works spill into the book-selling space, which Mr. Wood has covered with wallpaper in a tennis-ball motif. Other prints play around with images of vases, remaking historical Greek versions or those painted by Matisse into goofy creations, like a vessel that has the words “Diet 7Up” on it. Sports, often ignored in “fine” art, is also a favored theme; Mr. Wood conjures the image of the slacker artist sitting on his couch, watching basketball, tennis or gymnastics, if he must.

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“Dilophosaurus wetherilli,” 2015, a lithograph by Jonas Wood. This artist has fun with vases, remaking Matisse’s images or historical Greek vases into goofy pieces like this one. Credit Gagosian

ACQUAVELLA GALLERIES through May 25; 18 East 79th Street, acquavellagalleries.com. The most traditional European gallery experience can be had at Acquavella Galleries, housed in a French neo-Classical-style townhouse. “The Worlds of Joaquín Torres-García” offers a survey of the work of this Uruguayan-born artist (1874-1949), who lived in Paris and New York during vital creative periods. A collage with a label for bullion “en cubitos” playfully shows off his Cubist knowledge, while a pair of painted overalls titled “New York Suit” (1920s) feels very New York Dada. The rest of the gallery has paintings made of grids filled with images of architectural fragments and symbols from history, various religions or perhaps dreams.

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Art Review: Seeing Europe’s Houses of Worship in Wild Detail

Markus Brunetti’s enormous photographs pack a healthy jolt of wonder, something more likely felt in the 19th century, when the medium was invented. I felt some of it in 2015 at “Facades,” Mr. Brunetti’s American debut at the Yossi Milo Gallery. It’s still palpable in this second show there, “Facades — Grand Tour,” through April 14.

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Orléans Cathedral, 2008-2016. Credit Markus Brunetti/Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Mr. Brunetti, who was born in Germany in 1965, had worked for about two decades in advertising when, in 2005, he switched to a more singular vocation. He became an itinerant photographer of one of photography’s oldest subjects, the religious architecture of medieval Europe, and used the latest technology to capture the facades of these landmarks with an astounding clarity of detail.

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Amiens Cathedral, 2009-2016. Credit Markus Brunetti/Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Mr. Brunetti began traveling around Europe with his partner, Betty Schoener, and what the gallery calls “a self-contained computer lab on wheels,” making color images of cathedrals, churches and cloisters mostly from between the 11th and 14th centuries. The structures are very large, and so are the images — up to 10 feet tall.

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Trani Cathedral, 2014-2018. Credit Markus Brunetti/Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

The wonder lies in giving the eye more than it can see. The facades are recorded one square meter at a time, from a fixed position; then these tiny images — from 1,000 to 2,000 — are painstakingly stitched together. The final photograph has a bracing sharpness. Every feature is visible, from the narrative reliefs above the main doors to the gargoyles and spires high above, to the color and textures of the stone.

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Joy of All Who Sorrow Church in Lithuania, 2016-17. Credit Markus Brunetti/Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

But that is only part of an uncanny, total focus, which cannot be experienced in real life (except perhaps by insects with compound eyes). Mr. Brunetti’s images are more aggressive than most because his subjects ignore perspective. His church towers do not lean back into the sky as they would if you were looking up at them or seeing a photograph made in a single shot. The lack of normal optical recession gives them an implacable, almost physical presence, especially the really tall cathedrals of Wells, Somerset, England; Orléans, France; or Nuremberg, Germany.

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Lichfield Cathedral, 2014-2017. Credit Markus Brunetti/Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

These photographs are like an architect’s elevation drawings, only much more solid. They also convey how the cathedrals once sat, and in some cases still do, above their towns and cities like large, protective beasts. Some of the buildings come to feel like the architectural equivalents of Barney. You may want to hug them.

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Art Review: Sally Mann’s Haunted South

Ms. Mann burst into the national consciousness with her second book, “Immediate Family,” in 1992 — for all the wrong reasons. (It was reissued in 2015.) At a time when the country was virtually hysterical about child abuse and about nudity of any sort (remember the Mapplethorpe trial?), her pictures of her three young children who were sometimes nude on their isolated farmland created a child-porn/bad-mother uproar, though the photos were about the children’s interplay with one another and their parents during a hot summer by the river. Many photographers understood, and were influenced.

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Sally Mann’s “Jessie #25,” from 2004. An extreme close-up of the photographer’s daughter, now grown up — an intimation of mortality. Credit Sally Mann/Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York Image

The show has few nude images but emphasizes such complicated matters as the fleeting duration of innocence, the childhood vacillation between dependence and independence, and the recurrent fears of danger that haunt parenthood. “Jessie Bites” foregrounds the child’s anger as well as her need of the maternal support provided by an unenthusiastic adult arm with bite marks. “Emmett Floating at Camp,” an unpublished image from 1991 of her child floating in a great gray nowhere, turns out to be uncannily prescient and devastatingly sad, for Emmett ultimately became schizophrenic and committed suicide in 2016.

As the children grew, Ms. Mann next went in search of the South itself, propelled by the idea that the landscape’s “profligate beauty” set the scene for the odd mix of defeat, defiance and graciousness that marks the region’s character. In a section called “The Land,” she uses antique lenses, encouraging the kind of mistakes that would have horrified earlier photographers.

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“Hephaestus,” from 2008. Sally Mann’s poignant image of her husband, Larry, symbolizes both his illness and his skill as a blacksmith. Credit Sally Mann/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The land lies dazzled under the Southern light or slumbers in humidity, the sky is a damaged dome cut off by vignetting (black shading across corners), or it may be a cosmos of its own. She sees light as the great lover lavishing caresses on the land, or the great obliterator that overwhelms the earth’s solidity, or the great designer reconfiguring common notions about what should hold our attention.

And she considers the land’s sumptuous beauty deceptive, for she is certain that death lingers underfoot, the deaths of slaves who tilled and built the land. “I have had a fascination with death that I think might be considered genetic,” she has said, adding, “My father had the same affliction, I guess.” Her family’s house was full of images of the way various cultures portrayed death, and perhaps by osmosis, she became obsessed by the subject from childhood on. As she wrote: “Death is the sculptor of the ravishing landscape, the terrible mother, the damp creator of life, by whom we are one day devoured.”

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“Deep South, Untitled (Fontainebleau),” from 1998. The Louisiana landscape, ancient, luxuriant, defined by light. Credit Sally Mann/National Gallery of Art, Washington

This preoccupation coincides with her belated realization that racism infected the entire South, even those who considered themselves virtuously opposed to it, something that suddenly struck her when she went north to college. As a child she was already troubled by the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was kidnapped, mutilated and killed in Mississippi in 1955; she later named her firstborn after him.

But she had not questioned why Virginia Carter, her beloved black nanny known as Gee-Gee, had to eat and sleep in the car when traveling with the family. Once fully aware, she went looking for markers of Till’s death. Neither her photograph of the bridge where he was allegedly thrown into the water nor the unprepossessing bit of shore where his body was retrieved looks like a witness to murder, despite a thin white streak like a teardrop near the bridge. Photographs are mute objects, and many only speak when spoken to. Once titled, these two photographs call up a hideous history, remind us of the land’s indifference, and roil the mind.

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“Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie).” Ms. Mann went in search of the markers of a murder that had disturbed her from childhood. This 1998 photograph shows the bridge in Mississippi from which Emmett Till’s weighted body is believed to have been thrown. Credit Sally Mann/Markel Corporate Art Collection

She ventured farther, into Civil War battlefields. A gallery is filled with very large, immensely dark pictures: an angry, oppressive, demanding display. Using collodion negatives, a 19th-century medium, and antique lenses, she coaxed chance and accidents into her prints, reinforcing the sense of history and mimicking the random effects of war. Several powerful images of Antietam, site of the bloodiest day in American history, are virtually as dark as death itself. In one, half of a pitch-black sun looms on the horizon while a second sun, fuller but less distinct, ominously gathers force in the sky. In another, a curtain of heaving black cloud, laced with what might be lightning, descends. In these images the blind force of slaughter mingles with mourning.

A group of photographs of Blackwater, a dangerous swamp where escaped slaves sought refuge on the way north and many died, are also strong and harrowing. They were printed as tintypes, a period technique, and relatively small. The foliage, atmosphere and reflections are as clotted and impenetrable as emblems of evil. I’d have liked to see them larger, for they are fierce vistas without redemption, the landscape of hell masquerading as art.

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“Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun),” 2001. Using collodion negatives and antique lenses, Ms. Mann created an image permeated by the horrendous tally of destruction at Antietam, in Maryland, where some 23,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. Credit Sally Mann/Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Ms. Mann also made serious, melancholy portraits of black men, taken, as she recounts in “Hold Still,” in an attempt to remedy the unsettled feelings she has about her early blithe ignorance of racism and to find out who the black men were that she never really saw back then.

She has asked more than once if the land has a memory. Well, no. We endow it with one when we memorialize it in cemeteries, monuments, roadside markers, national battlefield parks. But history moves on; grass grows over it.

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“Deep South, Untitled (#9),” 1998. The ruins of the Civil War-era Windsor mansion, graced by a heart-shaped leaf in the center. Credit Sally Mann/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Personal intimations of mortality fill the exhibition’s last room: greatly enlarged faces of her three grown children, so close up none has hair, all hard to identify one from the other. One has closed eyes, one seems to be in the process of disappearing. We have come full circle and ended in the same place: her children, the inexorability of time, and the parental fear that harm should come to them — as indeed it did later with Emmett’s death.

And there are respectful, caring pictures, part of a series on the ravages of disease on her husband’s body — a thin arm, a no longer muscular torso. Under the title “Hephaestus,” for the deformed god of metalworking, an intricate cascade of what might be liquid metal slashes across the torso of this man who is both a lawyer and a blacksmith. These pictures are testimony to a marriage that has obviously been one of trust and love, as well as a vivid indication of how Ms. Mann has turned her fears into art.

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“Deep South, Untitled (Scarred Tree),” 1998. Ms. Mann has said that the land has a memory. This tree’s scar recalls a botched attempt to cut it down. Credit Sally Mann/National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund

At the end there is a short color video of Ms. Mann with a brief survey of the rolling green land where she has lived much of her life. My eyes and mind were so drenched in black landscapes that the full visual spectrum momentarily stunned me and I thought there was something wrong. Photography has many ways to change the way we see.

There is a kind of heroism in staring straight at the vexed meanings of landscape, the complexities of family, memory and life itself, as well as the face of death and the carnage of history. There may be nothing heroic about an obsession with death, but when it produces high-caliber art the issue is effectively closed. After all, death is obsessed with us, and it will have the last word.

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Books of The Times: Geoff Dyer Takes to the Streets With Garry Winogrand

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A photograph by Garry Winogrand, taken in Los Angeles in 1980. Credit Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

Geoff Dyer writes books that are easy to enjoy but hard to pin down. Early on in his new volume about the photography of Garry Winogrand, he offers a characteristic bit of self-reflection. “In my notes, for reasons I can no longer fathom, I kept reminding myself that this should not be a book about photography,” he writes. “Well it is about photography, obviously, but I hope it’s about more than photography.”

This refusal to be hemmed in (not to mention the cheerful indifference to his own best-laid plans) is what makes Dyer the ideal partner for Winogrand, who hated the term “street photography” even as his name became synonymous with it. “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” Winogrand once said. But even that (minimal) explanation puts too much emphasis on the end result, when what he seemed to love most was the process that got him there: being on the street, looking through his viewfinder and releasing the shutter. “Anyone who can print can print my pictures” was another thing he liked to say, and upon his death in 1984, as if to prove his point, he left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film.

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Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

At first glance, “The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand” looks like yet another monograph on the artist’s work (including 18 color photographs previously unpublished): physically imposing and visually sumptuous, with a hefty list price to match. But since this is a Dyer book too, it can’t just be about the subject at hand.

In the introduction, Dyer says he was inspired by the curator John Szarkowski’s 2000 book on Eugène Atget, in which each of 100 photographs was matched with a miniature essay revealing a pertinent bit about the artist and the changing times through which he lived. Atget, whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, documented France’s shift from a rural economy to an urban one. Winogrand, who was born in 1928, a year after Atget died, captured the fallout from the midcentury American moment — those few decades, from the 1950s on, when placid middle-class prosperity started to give way to something less affluent, more fragmented and harder to define.

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Geoff Dyer Credit Matt Stuart

The resulting volume is therefore enormously ambitious — though I suspect “ambitious” is a word that makes Dyer, the author of “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It,” groan. For someone whose books contain frequent allusions to how lazy he is, Dyer is relentlessly productive; he is constantly undertaking something new, whether it’s writing about a film by Andrei Tarkovsky or about life on an aircraft carrier. Even though he didn’t own a camera, Dyer still embarked on “The Ongoing Moment,” a 2005 book organized around common photographic obsessions: benches, barber shops, blind accordionists. For “Street Philosophy,” Dyer has taken a hundred of Winogrand’s photographs, arranged them “roughly chronologically” and provided illuminating context — biographical and historical — for each.

There’s a certain tenuousness to Winogrand’s photos; the compositions hold together, but just barely. He was conveying not the coherent myth of the American century, but its unruly shadow. Dyer’s accompanying texts wear their erudition lightly. He makes ample and appreciative use of Very Serious Ideas from the likes of Erich Fromm, Marshall Berman and Richard Sennett, but it’s the specifics in the pictures themselves that most excite his imagination.

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National Geographic Acknowledges Its Racist Past Coverage

The 120-year-old magazine invited a history professor to critique its past coverage of race, and showed little defensiveness in accepting his findings.

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What’s New in Photography? Humanism, MoMA Says

Her large black-and-white photographs, in which she appears in costume, bring to mind the work of the Samoan-born photographer Shigeyuki Kihara, who also stages self-portraits in the pose of native women in the Pacific islands, reprising how they were depicted in studios decorated with ethnic props by 19th-century photographers.

Unlike Ms. Kihara, who is particularly interested in gender, Ms. Syjuco is more concerned with capitalist commodities, and is a student of how Western manufacturers both appropriated and created “primitive” designs.

She purchased all the ethnic materials that she wears in her photographs at chain stores in a mall in Omaha, where she was living at the time. The clothes conspicuously retain store labels. (She returned them for credit after the shoots.)

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Stephanie Syjuco, “Cargo Cults: Java Bunny,” 2013-16; pigmented inkjet print. Like the fabrics, purchased at a mall, the backdrops in her photographs are patterned, inspired by camouflage on British warships “to make it unclear what you are looking at,” she said. Credit Courtesy the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York.

Like the fabrics, the backdrops in the photographs are intensely patterned, in the manner of the “dazzle camouflage” painted on British warships as protection from airplane bombers during World War I. “It was used not to hide the battleships but to confuse enemy aim by making it unclear what you are looking at,” she explained in a phone interview.

In addition to the portraits, which come from a series she calls “Cargo Cult,” Ms. Syjuco has included in the exhibition a series of passport-style self-portraits (taken with her cellphone) with her face obscured, alluding to the anxiety presently felt in immigrant communities in this country.

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Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s “Mirror Study (4R2A0857),” a pigmented inkjet print from 2016, at the Museum of Modern Art. A postmodern portraitist, he reshuffles real material rather than composes on Photoshop. “I’m interested when someone can piece together another layer of meaning from a fragment of a body or the location of a room.” Credit Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, 35, also critiques photography portraiture, from a vantage point that is more formally inventive and politically oblique than Ms. Syjuco’s. Black and gay, with an interest in investigating his racial and sexual identities, Mr. Sepuya uses collages and mirror shards to fragment the image; and he raises out of their customary invisibility the black cloths and tripods of a photographer’s studio. His photographs were included in the recent “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” at the New Museum and the current “Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.

Along with large inkjet prints on the wall, in the MoMA show he has a table with found objects, both photographs and books, to provide context (a presentation style associated with Wolfgang Tillmans). Mr. Sepuya is a postmodern portrait photographer, but one who chooses to reshuffle real material rather than compose on Photoshop. “There’s a codedness,” he said, describing his work. “I’m interested when someone can piece together another layer of meaning from a fragment of a body or the location of a room.”

And he relates his formal strategy to his sexual orientation. “There is a history of queer social spaces inhabiting the back room,” he said. “In these darkroom portraits, I’m thinking that being under the black cloth is like being in the back room.” It is a space “of creative friendship and sexual exchange all happening in the same places.”

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From “Being: New Photography 2018,” Andrzej Steinbach’s “Untitled from the series Gesellschaft beginnt mit drei,” 2017, keeps you guessing about what’s not seen. Inkjet print. Credit Andrzej Steinbach

Although photographers have always been acutely conscious of what lies just outside the edges of their pictures, the viewer may overlook this central fact. Mr. Sepuya is not alone in wanting to highlight what usually goes unseen. Andrzej Steinbach, 34, a Polish-born photographer based in Berlin, photographed three young people together, as if in a fashion shoot, and then displayed the portraits as a sequence, where a person who is mostly out of the frame in one picture becomes the central figure in the next. “They switch places and they switch clothing,” Ms. Gallun said. “It’s unsettling.”

Matthew Connors, 42, likens his position as a photographer to the unreliable narrator in contemporary fiction. The body of work he is showing comes from five trips he made to North Korea between 2013 and 2016. Earlier, he took pictures in Egypt during the street demonstrations that culminated in the fall of President Mohamed Morsi. If that job description makes him sound like a photojournalist, he quickly dispels the notion. “I would be a terrible photojournalist, because I’m very slow and I’m not always training myself on the event that’s unfolding,” he said.

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Matthew Connors, “Pyongyang X.” In North Korea, he shot electronic billboards in which the image — like the truth — is incomplete. Credit Matthew Connors

In many of his photographs of North Korea, where he was invariably accompanied by a couple of handlers, he emphasizes how partial his images are. He photographs electronic billboards in which the image is incomplete because some of the lights are out. He depicts a dark cave decorated for tourists with projected patches of colored lights — a stand-in for the cave in Plato’s allegory, where only the shadows of outside life are visible to those chained within. Both the photographer and his subjects see each other indistinctly, a fact that the sharpness of Mr. Connors’s digital images doesn’t deny.

We are a long way from MoMA’s most famous photography exhibition, Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man” of 1955, which presented people from all around the world as being more alike than not. Some of the most striking of Mr. Connors’s photographs are portraits of North Koreans: three schoolgirls as frozen as waxworks, one young man affectionately touching another at a public swimming pool. The pictures are compelling but resist easy understanding. The emblematic photograph in Mr. Connors’s contribution to the show appears in a print twice the size and separate from the North Korea pictures: a mask held in a fist at a New York anti-Trump rally. Because of the positioning of the tape and the eyeholes, what we see looks like a crude rendition of a face, but it is actually the back of the mask.

Some of Mr. Connors’s images — the geometric reflections in a nighttime swimming pool, the rushing cascades in a water park — are reminders of the pleasures that photography can provide when practiced by a technically skilled artist. Even more daringly retrograde in the embrace of tradition is Sam Contis, 35, who sometimes shoots with film and a vintage view camera (as well as a digital one). She has made repeated visits over the last five years to photograph the students at Deep Springs College, a small, all-male institution in a remote valley in eastern California. The breadth of her ambition is discernible in the exhibition, and even more so in her impressive book, “Deep Springs.”

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