“Old Enough to Know Better, Young Enough to Pretend”
Joseph Maida, August 12, 2010
As of August 23, 2010, George Underwood has 498 Facebook friends, which may seem like many
or a few depending on who you ask. Regardless, the mere mention of this social networking site
should boost his Facebook friend count, while triggering little, if any, activity on Myspace and
Friendster. I don’t think this really matters to Underwood personally, though the way that we connect
today versus three years ago (Myspace) or three years before that (Friendster) is something that’s
on his mind. Human relationships and the current technologies that foster them play a pivotal role
in Underwood’s photographic practice. And if you are reading this in 2013 or in 2020 — or in 2110
even — I wonder if the names of these virtual social networks will mean anything or could possibly
feel as memorable as old-fashioned notions of cans on strings draped between windows or neighborhood
party lines do.
To properly contextualize Underwood’s work, it’s important to note that he has come of age at a time
when Ryan McGinley’s photographs (and knock-offs) of contemporary youth culture have entered the
mainstream and the work of the forefathers of large-format color photography, like Stephen Shore and
Joel Sternfeld, have been revisited and introduced, perhaps for the first time, to the Facebook generation.
The world doesn’t look drastically different than when Shore and Sternfeld began photographing it in
the 1970’s. How we comprehend it, however, has completely shifted. The overall landscape in and
around New York City, where Underwood lives and works, is reminiscent of a pre-computer age, but
the perception of its familiar spaces feels quite different because of the iPhones, iPads, and Blackberries
we now use to navigate them. Computer-facilitated socialization informs not only the ways that
individuals connect to each other but also how they experience shared physical surroundings. These
types of mediated relationships define the collective consciousness of most American 20-somethings
and drive Underwood’s current body of work.
Which brings me to Underwood’s actual pictures, which, if you want to really experience, you’ll have
to see in person. This might seem outmoded and even mildly annoying for those who have had their
adult lives channeled through Google’s ubiquitous interface, but the truth is that Underwood’s photographs
are about the way that time unfolds in a tangible way. This very notion of time has shifted dramatically
as technology pushes a virtual reset button with each new posting or tweet. Underwood and his friends
recognize this shift and relish in taking their time. Underwood’s choice of a large format camera, which
is slow compared to smaller, handheld equipment, points to this fact as does the literal subject matter of
many of his images. One of his photographs shows the artist himself standing over a game that still takes
quarters and promises a tangible prize to the select few who possess the right combination of skill and
luck to win it. Whether or not the game still functions — or the artist even carries coins around anymore –
is not the point. What’s important here is that Underwood stops in the night to reflect on this soon to be
distant past — not only of his own youth but of our collective American experience as well.
Rather than chasing the next best thing, Underwood uses photography to locate desires that tap into a
universal human experience while addressing the technologies that currently mediate our primal urges.
Look as long as you like at Underwood’s rich images — and then come back to his work and look some more.
There’s a real magic to the way that these photographs relate to time and place and, unlike Friendster,
Myspace, or Facebook, the more attention you devote to Underwood’s pictures, the more relevant they’ll become.