A Gorgeous Center for Photography, Far From Picture Perfect

In an image-saturated world, Fotografiska — a Stockholm institution that has recently established an outpost in New York — aims to lure people off their phones to venture out to see photographs displayed on walls. The strategy is brilliant: provide in the real world what people seek in virtual reality. Give them a community that revolves around photographs, and which in turn will supply them with pictures they can funnel back into their Instagram feeds.

Within a landmark building in the Flatiron district that stays open every night until 11 or midnight, Fotografiska offers a cafe, bar and bookstore on the ground floor and an elegant restaurant (named Veronika after the patron saint of photography) for dinner one floor up. All these dining and shopping spaces are thronged. Veronika, with an Eastern and Central European menu, is booked solid for the next month.

And then, oh yes, there are the galleries. Occupying the third, fourth and fifth floors, in rooms that are windowless to preserve the photographs and characterless to allow for flexibility, hang the works that are Fotografiska’s purported reason for being.

At least in the first iteration (and, judging by the group chosen for the next, into the foreseeable future), the photographs exhibited at Fotografiska are not worth going out for, especially as the admission fee is $28. Yoram Roth, a Berlin-based businessman who is the majority shareholder in Fotografiska, told me that he hopes New Yorkers will invest in an annual membership, which costs $150 and includes a guest pass. “We want people to come after work,” he said. “Come eat, come hear a talk, come look at the art.”

Credit…Adrian Gaut
Credit…Adrian Gaut

The headliner of the opening exhibitions, “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women,” is a retrospective of Ellen von Unwerth, a German fashion photographer who inherited her compatriot Helmut Newton’s vulgarity without the leavening of his originality and wit. Underscoring that the provenance of these pictures is, for the most part, flashy magazines, the wall labels identify the “talent” (Claudia Schiffer, Madonna) as well as the setting and the year.

Bare-breasted women cavort exuberantly, usually in the absence of male intruders. In one characteristically subtle shot, a leg in a high-heeled shoe is stomping on a man’s hand. It is all supposedly intended as a celebration of female empowerment. It reads instead like a series of magazine advertisements — or, looked at another way, as evidence for Western decadence that might be posted in a fundamentalist state.

Amanda Hajjar, director of exhibitions for Fotografiska New York, told me that Ms. von Unwerth was selected, in part, to attract attention. “We do want to be noticed and we want New Yorkers to know about Fotografiska,” she said. “Having a well-known name leads people into an exhibition space, so that they figure out what other photographers are doing.”

Indeed, the four other exhibitions are by less celebrated practitioners. Helene Schmitz, a Swede, depicts human-made open wounds in the northern European landscape. Tawny Chatmon, who lives in Maryland, makes portraits of African-American women and girls, decorating many of her photographs with colorful patterns derived from the Vienna Secession painter Gustav Klimt.

Adi Nes, a gay Israeli, plays with biblical themes in homoerotic staged photographs. Soldiers take the places of Jesus’s disciples in a re-creation of “The Last Supper,” and bare-chested men, sometimes wearing a skullcap, show off their musculature.

The most substantial of the exhibitions is a photojournalistic investigation (commissioned by Time magazine and Fotografiska) by Anastasia Taylor-Lind of the nanny culture that exists to provide child care for middle-class and wealthy New York households. Whether it qualifies as journalism or art is open to debate, but these pictures, which explore the awkward, delicate dynamic between relatively affluent people and the financially struggling caregivers who help raise their children, provoke and disturb in a way that nothing else in the debut presentation does.

“We could have gone to the old standby of white male photographers,” Ms. Hajjar said, explaining the selection process. “Institutions in New York don’t celebrate new or different photographers. We want to celebrate the underrepresented.” The shows will change about four times annually. The next round, to open in March and April, will feature Julie Blackmon, Nick Brandt, Naima Green, Cooper & Gorfer, and a group organized in partnership with Vice Mediaonce more inclusively embracing an African-American artist, an L.G.B.T.Q. person, a staged-scene photographer, a recorder of environmental devastation, and so on. In short, more fashionable, politically au courant images.

The most impressive draw of Fotografiska is its home, a six-story Flemish Renaissance Revival building that was erected in 1894 as a mission house for the Episcopal Church next door. It is owned by Aby Rosen, the real estate mogul and art collector. “We viewed that building as an architectural gem,” said Nancy Ruddy, whose architecture and design firm, CetraRuddy, conducted the two-year restoration. “It was very important for us to let the building reveal itself to the public, to do the minimum amount we could, to make it strong and stable enough but give it authenticity.”

Vacant at the time of the lease, the onetime mission house had previously been converted to offices, with most of the details stripped off, except for small pieces of the original mosaic floor. CetraRuddy’s main discovery was a series of Art Nouveau stained glass windows that were hidden beneath Sheetrock. They were moved to Veronika, designed lavishly by Roman and Williams.

Set against such striking architecture, the exhibited photographs feel subsumed into the décor — somewhat as they contribute to the retail experience at Restoration Hardware. “Culture, just like everything else, is becoming an experience,” Mr. Roth told me.

Before coming to New York, Fotografiska opened its first satellite in Tallinn, Estonia, and the company is now negotiating to lease a London building in the trendy district of Whitechapel.

It has come a long way from its founding in 2010 in Stockholm by two brothers, Jan and Per Broman, who shared a love of photography they inherited from their father, the darkroom manager of a Stockholm newspaper. “For me, New York is the city of photography, and we wanted to be part of that vibrant, fantastic city,” Jan Broman explained in a phone interview.

For Mr. Broman, spreading the love of photography is a mission. “Photography, especially documentary photography, can inspire people by having them see what they usually don’t see,” he said. “That can’t be done by other kinds of art.” But whether that goal can be achieved with the superficial and predictable photography that Fotografiska New York is exhibiting remains, at best, a dubious proposition.

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