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Miami Art Week 2013: Photography

From Pieter Hugo's "Kin" series to Mapplethorpe's stunning Polaroids, our photography picks from this year's extravaganza

by Jonah Samson
on 09 December 2013

Every December, Miami is packed with contemporary art from around the world, and the range of media from across the fairs that set up their temporary annual digs is astounding. Jumping out from the myriad sculptures, paintings, videos, performance art and more are some compelling photographs—photos that manage to capture so much through a carefully crafted click of the shutter. Have a look at the images that caught our eye in 2011 and 2012, and a look at this year's highlights below.

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The photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe have likely never been described as subtle, but a beautiful and discrete series of small Polaroids from the 1970s on display at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac allude to the artist's notorious lifestyle in the most gentle way. Our favorite was an image of hands arranging a pair of biker boots; a symbol of the leather culture that was the graphic subject of much of his photography.

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Alison Rossiter's minimal images at Yossi Milo Gallery deconstruct the photographic process and push the limits of what is considered to be photography. By sourcing long-expired photographic papers (expiry dates back to the 1920s), she creates simple and sophisticated compositions using only developing chemicals and the altered nature of the paper itself.

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Now that the trend in photography is finally moving away from the "bigger is better" notion of recent years, it's great to see artists making photographs in a size best suited to the work. Having said that, sometimes an enormous photo is still the best way to experience an image. Such is the case with Wolfgang Tillmans' "Headlight" at Regen Projects. This 57" x 84" image of the most banal subject shines in the hands of a master.

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South African photographer Pieter Hugo's images of African sub-cultures such as "hyena men" in Nigeria, honey-collectors, and "Nollywood" actors have had dramatic appeal, but often been laden with the impartial mood of documentation. This year Hugo released an intensely intimate body of work called "Kin," which showed at Yossi Milo Gallery in new York and Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg. The series reveals Hugo's conflicted feelings about his homeland and confronts the complex issues of colonization, racial diversity and economic disparity. Hugo's portraits are raw, emotional and unforgettable, and represent his strongest work to date.

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In a new and evolving series of photographs called "Shot Reverse Shot" shown by Yancey Richardson Gallery, Bryan Graf produces two unique images simultaneously, which are then combined to form a singular piece. Graf uses a Polaroid camera to photograph himself holding a sheet of light-sensitive paper. When the flash from the Polaroid camera is released, the light exposes the paper held by Graf, and creates the imprint of any object held in front of the paper. It is clever trickery which takes advantage of the most basic nature of instant and chemical picture-making.

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Our interest in Letha Wilson—on show thanks to San Francisco's Romer Young Gallery—has grown over the past several years from watching her skillfully cut, fold and paint otherwise banal photographs of nature, to her current use of concrete which heavily transforms her photos into three-dimensional objects. Wilson is one of the young artists working today who is helping us to understand the capacity of photography to move beyond its flat and static history.

Chris Engman's photographs revel in complex manipulations of time, perspective and light. A recently produced and much less complex image called "Reflection" showed by Seattle's Greg Kucera Gallery managed to play with the typical elements of his work in a simpler, yet no less compelling manner. This image is a wonderful example of how a skilled artist can make the most quiet photograph speak volumes.

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Italian artist Andrea Galvani at Mexico's Marso Gallery showed a compelling image with deeply conceptual and performance roots. Replacing a motorcycle's fuel tank with a customized triangular tank, Galvani then rode around a muddy track until he was out of fuel and covered in mud. The resulting monochromatic photograph melts the artist into the landscape, and creates an image pulsing with energy.

Photos by Jonah Samson

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