At first, it’s easy to overlook the Museum of Contemporary Photography. The gallery, run by Columbia College Chicago, is nestled on the corner of Michigan Ave and Harrison St., next to the flamboyant Spertus Museum. It’s as reserved inside as outside: warmly lit, with white walls and simple black frames surrounding its photographs. The atmosphere inside is calm, even austere.
The main collection, “Jan Tichy Works with the MOCP Collection”, which opened on Oct. 12 and will run until Dec. 23, marches down the walls and up the stairs at the far end of the room. Smaller images flank the museum’s party piece:
a panoramic view of Shanghai, China, shot by Shi Guorui in October 2005. What makes the photograph so eye-catching is not just its size but its inverted colors. The city is ghostly white, the river and sky are black. The picture has the most ‘wow’ factor, and its placement on the wall directly across from the entrance invites the audience in to see more.
Unfortunately, few of the other photographs in this gallery live up to “Shanghai”. While the collection is a pleasing combination of portraits and abstracts, none of the photos are as arresting. The closest contender was “Bicicletas en Domingo” by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. A 1966 black and white photo of four bicyclists riding through the desert, “Bicicletas” had a quietly nostalgic feeling, evoking images of cowboys on horseback.
The mezzanine and second-floor galleries are a maze of collections and dizzying photo montages on video screens. One photo series that stood out, “Death in the Doorway” shot by Dorothea Lange–four increasingly close-up images of what appears to be a body wrapped in a blanket in the door of an old house or barn–is fascinating, but disappointingly placed on a small strip of wall high above the staircase, where the viewer cannot truly admire it unless they are coming down the stairs and tall enough to see it at eye level.
Placement trouble continues throughout the second floor. An extensive “Changing Chicago” project is crowded in one room, where clusters of photographs almost reach the ceiling, making them difficult to view comfortably. The museum is small, but it seems there is enough room on the first floor gallery for the much-larger “Changing Chicago” exhibit and the other photos could be moved up to the second floor, giving more room to all.
Back downstairs, though, there is a gem hidden behind a black curtain just off the museum’s entrance. Unlike the rest of the gallery, this room is darkened, and instead of photographs, a trio of projectors cast images on the walls. The best of these, “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation” by Aaron Siskind, is a series of men tumbling through the air. The original photographs have had their colors inverted like “Shanghai’s” , the men’s white silhouettes twisting against a black background. This projection, high on a far wall, adds to the exhilarating sense that the people are falling, or flying, through space.
The Museum of Contemporary Photography has a great collection and some of their pieces–” Shanghai” and “Levitation” especially–are worth the visit. But poor placement and limited space hamper the exhibit’s abilities to showcase their photographs. Until the museum either expands or re-organizes its collections, a viewer will likely leave feeling vaguely disappointed and wondering if more great photographs were there, but unable to be seen.