We have since learned that these processes need not poison the medium. Some young photographers have made a point of going digital in transparent ways. Others have disappeared into the darkroom, emerging with works that bear legitimizing traces of chemicals. Abstract photographs are everywhere, sidestepping the whole truth-in-representation issue.
Three current shows, at two major museums and a university art gallery, outline the manifold choices available to contemporary photographers. They might even provoke the kind of debates about gesture, process and intent that used to coalesce around painting.
“New Photography 2009,” at the Museum of Modern Art, is an excellent place to begin. The curator, Eva Respini, steers this installment of MoMA’s annual series away from street and documentary photography, a refreshing departure from tradition. Ms. Respini has also expanded it to include six artists rather than the usual two or three.
Experimental abstraction merges with a back-to-basics ethos in Walead Beshty’s large photograms. Mr. Beshty generates his “Three Color Curls” by exposing rolled photographic paper to cyan, magenta and yellow light. The result is an irregular stack of polychromatic bands, basically a Color Field painting with darkroom bona fides.
For other artists photography is the final stage of a process that might be called sculpture or collage in a different context. Before he pulls out the camera, Daniel Gordon makes crude figurative sculptures from cut paper and Internet printouts. The body (often a female nude) slips back and forth between two and three dimensions. Mr. Gordon has a gift for cruel-comic exaggeration that’s reminiscent of Cindy Sherman and the Dada photomontage artists John Heartfield and Hannah Höch.
Leslie Hewitt and Sara VanDerBeek also make photo-sculptures, but of a more solemn variety. Ms. Hewitt constructs still lifes of civil-rights era artifacts, like a tattered copy of “Ebony”; Ms. VanDerBeek’s four-part “Composition for Detroit” appropriates riot scenes and a Walker Evans photograph of a decaying house. Both artists seem to believe in the camera’s power to preserve, or perhaps embalm, bits of history.
That is not the case with Carter Mull and Sterling Ruby, who chip away at photographs with digital (and some analog) techniques. Mr. Ruby starts with photographs of graffiti, à la Aaron Siskind, and then adds his own touches of vandalism in Photoshop. Mr. Mull reworks the front page of The Los Angeles Times, his local newspaper, in ways that acknowledge the more general threat to print media.
If “New Photography” strikes you as too far afield, head uptown to “Processed: Considering Recent Photographic Practice,” at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College. Here you’ll find photography without camera: just light, chemicals and paper, for the most part.
In Markus Amm’s small black-and-white photograms, gradients follow the lines of creases in the paper. The technique, involving a cigarette lighter and elementary origami, is simple but inspired.
It’s harder to figure out the process behind Curtis Mitchell’s “Meltdowns.” The imagery and the title suggest a blaze, but no fire was involved. Mr. Mitchell rigged a pulley system to move photographic paper through a vat of chemicals. More mysterious are the vaguely gestational prints titled “Mental Pictures” by Wolfgang Tillmans, who has not revealed his methods.
Organized by Amie Scally, the deputy director and curator of the downtown alternative space White Columns, the show generously includes “direct films” by Jennifer West. Ms. West makes abstract shorts by dousing film stock with substances like strawberry jam and body glitter. She also roughs it up with skateboards and sledgehammers. The films are as goofy-looking as they sound, but they remind us that cameraless photography is a messy affair.
Farther north, “Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs From the Collection,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, puts some of the “new” photography in perspective. Alongside works by Ann Hamilton and Lucas Samaras are 19th-century photography books by Anna Atkins and Roger Fenton.
There is some overlap between this exhibition and the one at Hunter, in works by Mr. Tillmans and Marco Breuer, but the Met’s show, organized by Mia Fineman, a senior research associate, isn’t limited to abstract photography. Any photographic object that doesn’t pretend to be a “window on the world” is fair game.
That includes Christian Marclay’s cyanotype of unspooled cassette tapes (his own Soul II Soul collection), which mourns various analog technologies at once. Also here is Tim Davis’s close-up of the Thomas Eakins painting “The Oarsman”; the solitary rower disappears in a flash of light caused by Mr. Davis’s deliberate bad-angle shot.
By the time you get to Vik Muniz’s photograph of dust mites arranged to look like a famous minimal sculpture, or the photogram Adam Fuss made by letting snakes loose on a powder-covered sheet of paper, you may be tempted to dash across the hall for a repeat viewing of Robert Frank’s “Americans.” (I recommend one anyway.)
What is certain is that you will emerge from these three shows feeling energized about the state of photography. Artists in the post-Gursky era aren’t feeling the need to scale up; instead they’re branching out.