Kathy Ryan's Best of 2016

1.  Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits
These portraits are fierce and defiant. The fact that Muholi styles herself with common objects makes it all the more impressive that the images are so complex and loaded with historical references. It is thrilling to see each new one as this work-in-progress continues to unfold. These startling pictures by a self-described activist will surely enter the line-up of great self-portraits in art history.
2.  Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at The Met Breuer, New York, 12 July-27 November
The Met’s installation of 100 pictures from the first seven years of Arbus’s career, conceived by Jeff L. Rosenheim, the Met’s curator in charge of photography, was breathtaking. When you walked into the gallery, you entered a forest of freestanding columns, each hung with one photograph on the front and back. By choosing to give each small print its own wall, Rosenheim amplified the intimacy and psychological power of the pictures. The non-linear installation liberated the viewer from the usual custom of walking in a straight line along the four walls of a gallery, and instead allowed one to wander and get completely lost within Arbus’s universe.

Self portrait, Thembekile, Parktown, 2015 © Zanele Muholi
Self portrait, Thembekile, Parktown, 2015 © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.
3.  Taryn Simon’s Paperwork and the Will of Capital, Gagosian New York, 18 February-26 March
Simon’s unsentimental, rigorous approach to art was on display again in this standout exhibition. These monumentally beautiful photographs of floral arrangements were based on news photos of the signings of treaties, accords, contracts, and agreements between nations. For the photographs, Simon recreated the banal floral arrangements that can be spotted in the pictures of these formal governmental occasions. Extremely detailed captions describe the historic events that were shown in the original source photos. Simon is singular in the way in which her art explores the workings of power.
4.  Jack Davison’s portraits
Davison, a 25-year old, is reinvigorating the art of magazine portraiture with his stunning images. Full disclosure, he has done two big portfolios for The New York Times Magazine this year. One was a gritty, hard-edged set of pictures of the labourers who are constructing the tallest skyscrapers rising up in New York City. The other was a portfolio of Oscar-worthy actors, inspired by the film noir era. He gave this beloved genre a modern twist. Prior to this commission, he had only photographed one actor. He is clearly a photographer to watch.
5.  Daniel Berehulak’s documentary photographs of the killing in the Philippines.
These unforgettable images shocked readers when they appeared in The New York Times. These horrific and heartbreaking pictures are absolute proof that photojournalism still plays a crucial role in calling attention to injustice and evil in the world.