The exhibition delves into the mysteries and emotions buried beneath the surface of a photograph

After midnight, when the streets are empty and the houses dark, even the softest of rustles can seem unbearably intense. That is the feeling conveyed by the beautiful exhibition of photography at Luhring Augustine gallery, on view until June 8. It encompasses the work of seven artists, who span generations, genders, and ethnicities, each in their own way reticent and inscrutable, some stirringly so. Unlike many recent shows, in Tiptoeing Through the Kitchen, no intellectual scaffolding demands dismantling, and it leaves the omnipresence of digital technology out of discussion. Instead, it focuses on intimate personal revelations, but only in bits and pieces—the sort of wounded, whispered half-words that simmer with tension.

The young Brooklyn-based photographer Shaun Pierson emerges as the star of the group. His most potent portraits involve men old enough to be his grandfather. In this show, a work features one of them kneeling down and turning the camera back on Pierson, who reclines nude on a draped table. Propped up on his right elbow, he echoes a bushy-browed, mustachioed Olympia. A few test shots line the wall behind him, each pointing to a different part of his body. The work, like Manet’s 1863 masterpiece, straddles a divide between explicit eroticism and a kind of raunchy sexlessness. The result is striking if uneasy.

Left: Shaun Pierson, Untitled (Model), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Right: Sheida Soleimani, Remorse, 2023. Courtesy of the artist, Edel Assanti, London, and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Equally weird, but more kitschy, is the work of the Iranian-American artist Sheida Soleimani. Her abundant use of toy-like sceneries and props gives her tableaux a comically deadpan drama. A tremendous portrait shows two elders whose faces are obscured by paper cutouts, one playing the role of patient, the other her doctor. Then there is a zany shot of three baby birds trampling one another for a single berry fed from a tweezer, followed by a picture of a raven lying stiffly on its back, a walnut in its beak. A possible paradox unfolds about old age as a second childhood, but also the infantilizing nature of elderly care.

Much of the work grapples with photography’s possibilities for ambiguity and obfuscation. To that end, there is no escaping the names Wolfgang Tillmans, Adrienne Salinger, and Collier Schorr, whose influences loom large in this show. They popularized, if not pioneered, a resistance to narrative, evading our attempts to make sense where there is none. Less obviously, but just as radically, they rejected and subverted obvious beauty. To most eyes their work has turned prettier over time, as with the bulk of left-field ideas that are now part of mainstream aesthetics. Their images give the appearance of rawness, but they impart very little personally and emotionally, often teetering on the edge of disclosure and yet, in the end, withholding. Tiptoeing sees a continuation of that style, but not without plenty of the idiosyncrasies necessary to make such desolation sing.

Kevin Landers, a veteran photographer in New York City, captures moments that are so apparently banal they become invisible to most of us. Here are loosened cobwebs, crochet blankets hanging out to dry on a clothesline, shopping carts filled with blow molds of animals and saints. We’re never sure what we’re looking at because the photos are, on the one hand, stirring in their quietness; on the other, they feel strange, distant, and out of context. That sense of displacement, physical and psychological, also drives a group of collages by the Mexican artist Gonzalo Reyes Rodriguez. For the show he cuts out rectangles from the middle of his own seemingly random snapshots and then fills in the gaps with photographs he purchased from a bookshop in Mexico City, creating a portal to the world of another man. Somewhere in between a kind of wistful longing arises.

Left: Sophia Chai, ㅗ(0927-01), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Right: Brittany Nelson, Face on Mars, 2024. Courtesy of the artist, PATRON, Chicago, and Luhring Augustine, New York.

The exhibition also looks at photography that involves some degree of abstraction. Take, for example, the work of Sophia Chai, a Rochester-based artist who was born in South Korea but immigrated to New York City at the age of 14. What appear to us as no more than thin wobbly stripes are actually closeups of letters from the Korean alphabet that she has painted on the walls and floor of her studio. In that process, the characters drift in and out of meaning. Part remembered, part forgotten, they are beautiful.

Memory also inflects the great work of William Eric Brown, who was born in Argentina and lives in New York City. A series of intersecting lines in graphite, like a murmur, run through pictures of calving icebergs and glaciers that the artist’s father took in Antarctica while serving in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s. Similarly, Brittany Nelson turns found or archival images into something more brooding and more of a mystery. Like much else in the show, the appeal of her grainy, black-and-white prints lies in their obscurity. We see a mask, dry, dusty lands, lights that pulse and flutter like the fins of a goldfish. And we hear silences sizzle and lead their refrains down dead ends.