Ivy League

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So I finally went to my first baseball games in New Jersey. Felt great to finally get out into the sun after such a long winter. I’m not all used to waiting until mid-April for my baseball fix. At the same time. Wow. Ivy League baseball is weird.

I’m realizing now how completely spoiled I’ve been by Stanford, and the rest of the Pac 12,* both from a quality of play and a depth of quality point of view. Readjusting for more-limited rosters and, somewhat surprisingly, a lower baseball IQ** has been harder than I expected. I’m okay with players who aren’t as good, whether it’s that slower first step or just sloppier defense. But it’s the not knowing who should field a ball, where to throw it, or when to just hold onto it that drives me nuts. Those aren’t skill issues at all.

*Well, I miss the original south Six-Pac of Stanford, Cal, USC, UCLA, ASU, and Arizona with three games against everybody both at home and away. The league has been gradually diluting as it’s been expanding.

**To the point where I find myself mentally heckling these kids with, “When did the Ivy League start offering scholarships?’

The coaching is also kind of scarily simplistic. On offense it’s autopilot smallball. On defense, autopilot intentional walks. Often it appears that the point of the sacrifice bunt is to compel an intentional walk for the next hitter. Sigh.

The handling of pitchers and pinch hitters seems to be either beyond them or irrelevant due to roster depth issues. I’m not craving the Tony LaRussa school of over management but I’m also not used to seeing absolutely no lefty/righty matchup stuff. In the game against Harvard, Harvard’s entire lineup was righthanded. Princeton only used lefthanded pitchers. Similarly, Harvard brought in a righty sidearmer (who wasn’t a dedicated closer) to face Princeton’s lefthanded batters.

I don’t understand.

At the same time, there’s something potentially refreshing about all this. Maybe all this lack of strategy is really just running your best players out there and hoping it all works out. I can live with that.

Hairy Beast

I am not especially interested in anonymous photography, or pictorialist photography, or avant-garde photography, or in straight, crooked or any other subspecific category of photography; I am interested in the entire, indivisible, hairy beast—because in the real world, where photographs are made, these subspecies, or races, interbreed shamelessly and continually.

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I’m thinking of photography within a far broader context — with film and painting, architecture and drawing — making connections that show it to be equal in status with all the arts.

Quentin Bajac

You have artists like Jay Defeo, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Robert Bechtle, and Andy Warhol whose work includes, references, or converses with photography. I enjoy modern art and I particularly like when photography exists in context with what everyone else is doing. In all media. But this rarely happens.

Me

I’m pleased to announce that I’m joining with the 1/125 guys, Nick Shere and Karl Gunnarson, on a new photography blog.* Hairy Beast will cover basically anything photography-related we can think of. For my part, I’ll continue writing about the same sorts of photography things I write about here and crosspost in both blogs—my first post is already there. But I also expect to start posting about things which don’t have any ties to my day-to-day life.

*We’ve soft-launched for now and are in the midst of that first-month of catch-up posts. After we’ve exhausted that, we’ll see whether the beast survives.

Most of my posts here have germinated from something I experienced—a book I’ve read, a museum exhibition I’ve attended, a sporting event which I’ve cared about, etc. My blog may be all over the place, but almost* every thing I post is still personal. Breaking out of that, especially with regard to photography, requires a new blog. I’m looking forward to not just writing about myself and my experiences.

*The Chris Hadfield gallery may be one of the few examples which isn’t a personal reaction.

I’ll also be trying to pull non-photography stuff into the beast. I’ve never liked how photography is in its own distinct wing. I don’t even like considering it distinct from “the other arts” and much prefer seeing it in conversation with painting, sculpture, etc. This isn’t an “equal status” thing but instead recognizes how photography is a tool for communication. Fixating on what is or isn’t photography misses the greater point that these images exist and interbreed with other images, photographic or non.

Miscegeny! Miscegeny! No escaping that for me!

Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.

Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.

I wanted to avoid writing about the PolicyMic What Americans Will Look Like in 2050 article. Part of this is because I don’t really like the photographs. I’ve found that portraits where the photographer’s style overwhelms the photo don’t really do it for me unless I’m looking at a show which is about the photographer. There are, of course, exceptions here—e.g. I really like Avedon’s West—but in general I’ll echo Wayne Bremser and think of these kinds of photos as caricatures rather than portraits.

National Geographic is not a magazine I expect to see caricatures in. Nor is race something I enjoy seeing caricatured. It takes me into uncomfortable territory, especially when the race in question is mine.

In addition to the Martin Schoeller all-look-same effect, another part of why I wanted to stay away is because the photos felt a lot like the continued fascination with how strikingly beautiful mixed-race people are supposed to look. There’s an odd fascination here with physical appearance that all-too-often strays into exoticism if not straight-up racism as mixed-race people are used as a way of being both acceptably foreign and white-assimilated.

It all gives me hives. Especially when PolicyMic framed the photos by claiming the cure for racism is miscegenation.

The responses to the article though have pulled me in. In particular, I’m finding that I want to add on to Sharon Chang’s response asking why we’re still hung up on pictures of race.

Chang’s post points out the history of racial-type photographs; the kind of ethnographic, white-centered values they promote; and puts the Schoeller photographs in this context along with much of the rest of National Geographic’s (undeniably excellent) photography. To read National Geographic, or at least to look at the photos and maps, is to see otherness and “explore” the world from the safety of your home.

It’s the colonial viewpoint which I’ve become tired of. It’s equating culture with appearances. Chang’s absolutely correct to call it out.

I just don’t think she goes far enough.

First, this kind of racial-type imagery existed well before photography. Second, we’ve had multiracial societies in the past and there was never anything post-racial about them.

Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148x104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

Anonymous. Las Castas. 18th century.

The way National Geographic displays the Schoeller photos in a grid creates an obvious Casta painting connection. And it’s not just the grid layout but the way we’re invited to compare and guess who looks part Asian or Black or Indian or White and in what quantities. Focusing on looks. And focusing on parentage. And comparing proximity to whiteness.

It’s important to remember that we’ve gone down this road in the past and only succeeded in creating dozens of racial divisions all ranked by how close to whiteness and reason they are. Yes, you could breed your way up the ladder. But that the ladder exists is the problem.

Merely showing a multiracial society is not enough. Casta paintings show. Schoeller’s photos show. What are we being provoked to do or think about instead? Especially regarding how we address race, and how we’ll address it in the future.

Angélica Dass. Humanæ.

Angélica Dass. Humanæ.

I wish the critiques had gone into photographic work which is actively critiquing the concept of racial boxes. One example of this is Angélica Dass’s Humanæ* which matches the people’s skin color to a specific Pantone number.** Dass has managed to create a project which, despite being only about one feature (skin color), manages to both show a multicultural society and actually critique racial values.

*Note: Dass is from Brazil but what she’s doing is completely relevant to the multiracial discussion in the US.

**The purist in me is bothered by the fact that she’s not sticking to a single Pantone swatch book but that’s me being a print nerd. This in no way detracts from the actual point she’s making.

Where Schoeller’s work results in a number of images which all feels the same. Dass emphasizes the point that we’re all different. Everyone. Looking at her work doesn’t result in comparing mixes or trying to figure out who looks like what. Instead we’re realizing how unique everyone’s skin tone is—and how stupid colourism really is.

Dass isn’t making a claim about how things will be. She’s provoking us to think about how things are and asking us to think about alternatives. What she shows us is designed to break the existing racial checkboxes and even if all it accomplishes is laying bare how ridiculous the way we call clothing or makeup “flesh-colored,” we’ll have made some improvements.

Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.

Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.

Which brings me to the other work I wish Sharon Chang had mentioned in her post. While she talked about Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project, she didn’t mention Mixed Kids.

Fulbeck’s Hapa Project is about himself and finding his own community. It’s a necessary project of self-representation but indeed doesn’t go beyond and ask anything provocative. I like it. But then I’m hapa. And I have it on my shelf as evidence of my community and a reminder of how many different stories people who share backgrounds similar to mine have.

And it’s a completely necessary project to get out of the way as a stepping stone to Mixed Kids. The Hapa Project is about coming to grips with our identities and how we grew up and who we are now. Most of the book features adults and their stories—whereas Mixed Kids is only kids. Our kids.

Mixed Kids is about their potential. And about ourselves as parents. And how we want to raise them.

America in 2050 is a theoretical entity. Our kids are not. My kids are not. Fulbeck’s provocation is simple but huge. What am I going to teach them? About race. About themselves. About their world. About each other. It’s not about what percentages of what races they are. Or how they look. It’s about raising a generation which is smarter about race and privilege than their parents.

My parents had to fight the “but what about your kids” battle. I didn’t need to. Instead I get to look though Mixed Kids and rather than thinking, “what are you?” I think, “what will you become.”

First walk of Spring

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Spring is finally here. Finally able to take a nice long walk through campus in the sun again. Is a nice change of pace. And I’m enjoying the dryish heat before the humidity kicks in…

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Black in White America

NOTE: I wrote this post for Tom Griggs at Fototazo as part of his Photographers on Photographers series. I’ve crossposted it here with his permission since it fits in with my series of posts revisiting the books I grew up with. Compared to my post on Fototazo, my post here has a few more notes and a lot more links to related material.

"Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach." Coney Island, New York

Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach. Coney Island, New York.

When I was a kid—junior high and high school—I used to look through my father’s high school yearbooks. He grew up in Oakland in the late 60s. His yearbooks hinted at a very different world than what I saw in his family photos. The war stuff and the race stuff were both heavier than anything I had to deal with as a kid and suggested a different side of my dad than I’d ever known.

I’ve come to realize that I’m also unlikely to ever know this side of him. And while there are parts of our parents that we can’t ever expect to know, not many of them are so well documented as their high school years.

At the same time I was looking through yearbooks, I was also looking through my parents’ photobooks. They had what I’d consider to be the usual suspects for a liberal California couple: A few Sierra Club books,* Family of Man, America in Crisis, and Black in White America. Exactly what you’d expect from a liberal household. Yet, also not something that was common among my peer group growing up.

*Notably: This is the American Earth, The Place No One Knew, and Down the Colorado.

I’ve been looking through these photobooks again now with adult eyes. It’s interesting, I never really paid attention to the dates when I was young. I recognized, roughly, what time periods they covered but never really put together that everything was happening at the same time. Re-viewing them has helped me understand the books, and my parents, a lot better. I’m also figuring a lot out about myself in the process.

In this post, I’m looking at Leonard Freed’s Black in White America.

I even read the text this time; when I was a kid, I only looked at the photos.

Absorbing the images was enough to make me realize there was an alternate reality, and an alternate history, in my country. I grew up in the suburbs, not just without all the turmoil my father experienced in his schools, but totally insulated from it. In particular when it came to race stuff. For all the “diversity” of the Bay Area, it’s remarkable how non-diverse it really is. I grew up without having to really interact at all with black people.* As a result, most of my sense of things came from media.

*I had maybe a handful of black classmates total in my 13 years of schooling.

Black America was outside the standard story of “American” society which I learned in school.* The only time it came up was in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in The South. Freed shows how the Jim Crow South and the suburban white flight in the North resulted in parallel, oppressed societies all over the country.

*Why Cars bothers me now, especially with its romantization of a specific white-male-versioned past, and why the Green Books need to be remembered.

What’s shocking is how much of the book still feels relevant today. The struggle between choosing to submit to the politics of white respectability—with its resulting acceptance of second-class citizenship in exchange for supposed safety—and choosing the struggle for more rights even though that struggle carries greater risks. The ease at which it was possible to be, and desire to be, a white moderate.* How technology—really information (via TV in the 1960s and the internet now)—impacts society by eroding the ignorance between them. How the narrative is always blaming Black America for its ills rather than recognizing how White America created Black America to begin with.

*From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

I can’t look at this project and think that we’ve made a lot of progress in the 45 years since it came out. Do things suck less than before? Yes. But that’s not something to be proud of.

This is another of the reasons why I have such a low tolerance for looking at photos where there’s a huge privilege difference between photographer and subject. A lot of those projects, in addition to being exploitative and boring, only serve to show our lack of progress on addressing the structural inequalities in our society. That so many also appear to have their only goal be portraying the photographer as a savior just for being there and taking the photo is even more infuriating.

Freed though is an example of how to do this kind of outsider photography really well. He’s aware of how privilege works in granting access and providing safety.* And while being close to a white-man-explains-the-world sort of thing, it’s not a quick superficial dip into the other world. No poverty or suffering just for cheap grittiness. He shows how pervasive the different world is and how it’s closely related to our own world.

*Albeit not as much safety as one might think. The ways that southern whites attempted to intimidate any out-of-town whites who fraternized with the blacks is indeed intimidating.

As per the title of the book, many of the photos include White America someplace in the frame. Maybe it’s leaking in via the television. Or through the gaps in the boardwalk overhead. Or the unplugged acquired-via-surplus refrigerator being used to store food. Or the absent landlord of the falling-apart house. Etc. Etc. The photographer, and his world, is constantly present in the photos. Despite much of the subject matter being foreign, it’s still anchored to the mainstream cultural narrative of the increased equity and comfort that occurred during 1950-60s US history.

And there is a lot of joy depicted. Weddings. Kids playing. Music. Families. Life is normal even if it is very different from the “silent majority” lifestyle that we supposedly want to return to now.* Nothing is trivialized into a cheap storyline about suffering or poverty or a lack of virtue—narratives we still hear all too often.

*Something I alluded to when looking at David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole’s work.

Looking at Freed has reminded me how of the way National Geographic in the 1980s was looking at US cities as if they were foreign countries. In the same way I’d see images from abroad, I’d also see images from our cities. Only those images didn’t inspire me to want to travel there. When I was a kid cities were scary. Not just the busyness. They just didn’t feel safe. Black America was scary and foreign to me.

I know now that part of that feeling is embedded and absorbed racism from society. I also know now that another part was the recognition that the entire system had failed there.

I look through Freed now and try to distinguish between what’s unchanged and what sucks less. I better understand the barely-contained anger and frustration I see on Black Twitter as each successive Stand Your Ground trial reëmphasizes how little society values black lives. I see how liberal whites’ insistence on being recognized for our progress as a society feels false when things are still horrible. And I wonder what kinds of things my father talks about with his classmates when he attends his High School reunion.

Tripod Holes 6

It’s been a while since I had one of these posts. In this case, I’ve been spending this extra-snowy winter along the Delaware and Raritan Canal as things freeze, thaw, get snowed on, etc. This is where the canal crosses the Millstone River. Before they dammed the river, this used to be an aqueduct over the river rather than a canal crossing a lake.

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Backlog Clearing: October

Moving on from September. This is full-on getting-used-to-the-area stuff. A lot of family. Not much exploration.

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