July 20, 2019–January 20, 2020

Make Believe

Fantasy, fairy tales, and magic from five contemporary photographers

“Make Believe” presents an enchanted realm where sleeping figures float, women weave spiderwebs, magicians cause children to disappear, and homemade dirigibles fly over icebergs. The exhibition brings together five artists who stage fantastical scenes for the camera to address a wide range of social and cultural issues, including the role of women in the Middle East, climate change, the passage from childhood to adolescence, and existential fears of loneliness and loss.

Shadi Ghadirian (Iranian, b. 1974) and Hellen van Meene (Dutch, b. 1972) draw on folk and fairy tales to interrogate real-world concerns of being and becoming. Ghadirian questions preconceived ideas about female identity and agency in the Muslim world through works like Miss Butterfly, a series of black-and-white photographs based on an early Persian folk tale. Van Meene focuses on adolescent girls on the cusp of adulthood, seeking to capture the rich interior lives of her sitters while also suggesting the anxiety and confusion commonly experienced during teenage years. Inspired by works such as Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm, The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, she often poses her subjects in Vermeer-like natural light, as in Untitled #465 (2014), pictured above.

Other artists invent elaborate stories and sometimes entire worlds. In the series Short Stories, Paolo Ventura (Italian, b. 1968) employs the narrative framework of children’s picture books and stands in as the protagonist, with his young son in a supporting role. Nicholas Kahn (American, b. 1964) and Richard Selesnick (British, b. 1964) have been collaborators for more than three decades, creating extravagant costume dramas, concocting detailed quasi-historical sagas, and fabricating elaborate props for their cinematic visions. Their series Eisbergfreistadt (Iceberg Free State), inspired by concerns surrounding climate change, strikes a delicate balance between a fictional narrative and a seemingly “straight” style of documentary photography.

“Make Believe” is a companion exhibition to “Kay Nielsen’s Enchanted Vision: The Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection,” which features celebrated interpretations of classic fairy tales by 20th-century Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen.

  • Herb Ritts Gallery (Gallery 169)