In the Picture

Max Regenberg : 1978-1985

Already in high school Max Regenberg was studying with professionals, learning about lenses, apertures, f-stops, developers, and light — the DNA of photochemical reaction: how to recognize and capture it; how to light and shoot for magazines and advertisements, including what’s called a “pack shot,” the advertising world’s still-lifes of cereal boxes, perfume bottles, shavers, soaps, burgers, etc. All that required techniques for shooting and developing, for caressing details, and for controlling the all-over effects of a print that might require different exposures across the surface. He studied photography during a time of worldwide technological, commercial, and domestic evolution. And yet with what may have been anxious amazement, Max Regenberg saw ads everywhere and realized they were saturating the environment and people’s minds, and infiltrating his chosen medium as if to usurp it.

Commercial images thrived as succubus and incubus, seducer and corrupter, in magazines, at the movies, on television, and in the streets; they were both snake and snake charmer, and they always purported something. So, Max Regenberg — a baby boomer, a child of television, a circumstantial postmodernist, and a member of the generation that would transform photography into a museum art — reacted. Starting in the late 1970s, among the things he photographed were billboards, which he came across traveling in Germany, France, Canada, and the United States. The billboards were the same everywhere, their languages might have been different but the symbols and signs were the same photographic algebra.  He catalogued them in his carefully studied manner, as might an anthropologist or a person in exile, but in stark, black-and-white photographs.  

Billboards are like publicly sanctioned graffiti — large, privately paid for, mass-produced signage, which, to many eyes, defile the rental space they occupy. A billboard’s message is conveyed in an “eye-catcher,” a central image or statement, made in a highly calculated but specifically exaggerated style, which calls attention to a product, but without the slightest hint of real promise from such a product, whose only semblance to truth lay in the controlled definition of its selected traits, such as the minty menthol of a Kool filter-tip, the toughness of a Volvo in a crash test, the gentleness of a soap, or the cut of the new designer jeans. In his book, The Image, Daniel Boorstin called advertising’s finely tuned half-truths and manufactured experiences, “pseudo-events.” Max Regenberg saw billboards as the emblems of retail commerce’s pseudo-truths but also as the commercial world’s conceptual art — compositions designed to get into peoples’ minds and, unlike art, into pockets. 

Max Regenberg wasn’t trying to be critical, he wanted to capture on film the Zeitgeist’s public sponsorship of cars, cigarettes, Xerox machines, designer jeans (Brooke Shields for Calvin Klein), lingerie (Austria’s famous Palmer’s lingerie). He photographed ads for Polish solidarity, a Honda motorcycle, an AGFA camera, Fuji film; ads with likenesses of paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney; and a billboard asking Who Puts You in the Picture? This was the question he suggestively asked in the photographs he produced. 

Quite a number of his billboards were for Marlboro cigarettes, a brand then in ascendance, whose cowboys, unknown to him at the time, were currently being reshot and collected in slides by New York artist Richard Prince. Prince altered the ads by cropping out the text portion in his viewfinder in order to focus on the icon, a supposedly real cowboy smoking a filter-tipped cigarette, which, until then, was smoked by women, not a macho cowboy. Prince altered the context of the ad in order, as he said, to “make the familiar look strange,” as if to put the eye-catcher in quotes — as if to call attention to the dubious reality that ads projected. Which wasn’t necessarily the case, as only the irony counted.

Max Regenberg’s memory images depicted a world changed by commerce, a world whose distant past was shown on television programs like “Robin Hood” and “Zorro,” which were interrupted by ads that tried to get people to think about today’s commercial products. His pictures emanated a topical strangeness, different from Prince’s “girls looking in the same direction,” or “hands with watches,” or “cowboys.” Max Regenberg photographed billboards that were rising up like weeds in market capitalism’s public landscape — an environment that, in less than a century, had been completely transformed by cars — the second most common items in his pictures.

Cars created roads, which gave reason and direction to maps, sidewalks, plumbing, electricity, all of which led people out of cities to suburbs, which included the “edge cities” of cheap vernacular architecture, industrial parks, car dealerships, strip malls, fast food restaurants, appliance dealers, and billboards — the comings and goings in commerce’s triumph over nature. Photography was its representative art form. Max Regenberg photographed its signage.

In 1975, a slow-to-break-ground group exhibition called “The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” opened at the George Eastman House (Kodak’s founder) in Rochester, New York. Among the photographers were Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Nicholas Nixon, and Steven Shore. Except for Steven Shore’s, all the photographs were black-and-white. The choice of photographers was meant to demonstrate the effects of the human exodus from cities across the West. The exhibition was generally disliked for the banal pictures of a domesticated landscape to which most people were comfortably inured and failed to see their value in such a hallowed hall of photography.

Just two years later, in September 1977, around the time Max Regenberg was starting to make these photographs, a now-famous exhibition called “Pictures” was held at a nonprofit gallery in New York City called Artists Space, whose director, Helene Winer, would become the co-proprietor, circa 1980, of the urbanely named gallery Metro Pictures. Five artists were presented: Troy Brauntauch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. In the accompanying catalog essay, Douglas Crimp discussed an art that reflected a world in which “experience is governed by pictures,” which are paradoxically “present and remote,” and, because they were everywhere but commercial, how “firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial.” The “Pictures” show didn’t draw as much attention then as it would in the coming years. But it came to be the signal of a rise in photography-oriented art as well as a rupture in traditional photography, especially when those artists and others began showing photography-based art in the galleries, as if it were a new medium alongside painting and sculpture.

The pictures generation artists, unlike the New Topographics photographers, “used” photographs and photographic representations, sometimes simply copies of magazine pictures. Professional labs developed their works. Sherrie Levine signed exact copies of Walker Evans photographs; Cindy Sherman made film stills of pretend movies in which she was the star; Richard Prince photographed magazine ads. They changed art by incorporating photography into a contemporary art world that thrived commercially and financially on painting and sculpture, even though conceptual art was significant element in its intellectual life. Nevertheless, these artists brought photography from a secondary status. That was new. No one knew that in 1978. (Leo Castelli showed Lewis Baltz in his separate gallery, Castelli Graphics, which opened in 1969 and where he showed exactly reproducible works — prints and multiples — of which photography had the same status and no better.) And yet the pictures generation artists, including artist/photographers like Max Regenberg, recognized an active change from handmade representation to technology-based art. (A fleshed out “Pictures Generation: 1974–1984” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 2009, included Prince, Cindy Sherman, Matt Mullican, among many others.)

Max Regenberg beheld this change and made it visible in the marble sheen of his black-and-white photographs. No one back then perceived such pictures as having the status of painting. And yet such works accurately projected the confusion that occurred between artifice and realism in life and advertising and art. Which is what “pictures” artists directly or indirectly revealed.

In Max Regenberg’s pictures one class of representation — commercial billboards — is presented as a subset of serious photography. The status of the billboard isn’t raised, but merely presented as an emblem of urban experience, an accepted, if irritating, function of market commerce’s privately financed public communication. If billboards could talk they’d cry out like street hawkers, demanding attention. Marlboro! Honda! Calvin! Pictures! (“Money doesn’t talk, it screams,” says Bob Dylan.) Max Regenberg gave them presence, but not voice. He made the familiar strange, but differently from Prince.

In the Age of Pop painters contended with commerce. Artist/photographers eventually made works that opposed or at least differed from commerce’s highly paid photographers, art directors, make-up people, stylists, and assistants, all of whom participated in the “making of” pseudo-events. For any artist/photographer, however, the recognition of a subject and the shooting of a single photograph had to be integrated into a statement about a state of consciousness, which held commerce in mind. The artifice and the realism conveyed by Max Regenberg’s photographs subsume the artifice of billboards and their pseudo-reality as markers of the urban-suburban landscape. His photographs stilled their visual noise.

Thirty years later the wires, cables, and rolls of film of the recent past have given way to microwave towers, light-emitting screens, and digital processing. Viewing photographs on touch screens reduces them to a technological sameness. Max Regenberg made photographs to be viewed on paper, framed for walls, reprocessed for books, and maybe potentially magazines, one preceding the other. Their quality resides in the time and place that they examined and in the objecthood of the photographs themselves — the pictorial materiality in the picture, to be seen and talked about, remembered and preserved