Category Archives: review

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

Carleton Watkins. Sugar Loaf Islands and Seal Rocks, Farallons, 1868–69.

I’ve been gradually moving toward an appreciation of the older landscape photographers. This doesn’t mean I suddenly dislike the contrasty, technically-perfect Ansel Adams school of landscape photography.* But I’m finding myself liking photography which contains elements of embracing the inherent limitations of the medium—while pushing as hard against them as possible—rather than photography which tends to treat those limitations as flaws.

*Quite the opposite. Heck I still use a red-filter way too often when shooting black and white film.

Also, now that I’m living on the East Coast, I’ve gotten a lot more possessive about the West and find that media, of all sorts,* has a tendency to trigger stronger feelings of home than it used to. Watkins, and much of the early landscape photography in general, is all about the American West and its myths. It’s what I grew up with and absorbed as part of my visual culture.

*As per the introduction to my post about the Huntington’s Edison Archive photos.

Which is why Carleton Watkins at Stanford was the exhibition I was most looking forward to seeing in California this summer. It did not disappoint.

The photos themselves are great. Albumen prints from mammoth plates show a lot of detail but in a hazy low-contrast way that’s quite different than what we’re used to seeing from “good” photography. In particular, there’s a lack of distance detail (blue-sensitive emulsions are sensitive to atmospheric haze) as well as often an uncertain black point (more like the D-max isn’t as dark as a modern D-max would be).

Water also behaves a lot differently between the long exposures and lack of highlight detail. Waves get flattened into haze and waterfalls turn into lightsources. It feels different than modern long-exposure water shots since Watkins’s photos don’t actually feel like long-exposures to me.

Carleton Watkins. The Yosemite Valley from the "Best General View" 1866.

There’s something very evocative about all this. I find myself mentally adjusting the contrast and filling in details as I look over the photos. These details aren’t necessary to the images themselves but they engage my mind as I look them over. As “realistic” as the images are, they’re also much closer to paintings than modern photography in terms of how they make me imagine the scene. I’m not looking for small specific details in the frame (or noting those details the photographer has called out for me), I’m getting a sense of the place and letting my mind do the rest of the interpretation.

The technical limitations also mean that these photos often rely on shapes and forms and large-scale compositional elements which don’t require a lot of fine detail—something that will make all photographs better but is even more critical here. That said, there is a lot of fine detail present as well. For example, you can see the birds and the seals roosting on the Farallon Islands just as clearly as you can make out the forms of the rocks.

I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.

I don’t prefer the older message, I just like seeing the world when it had a different mindset. And I find that seeing that mindset makes a better case for why things should be different today. It’s been a century and a half. We should know better now.

Carleton Watkins. Magenta Flume Nevada Co. Cal., c. 1871.

One of the wonderful things about Watkins when compared to O’Sullivan and Russell is how his photos can work with both messages.

Much of Watkins’s work are industrial commissions showing development in San Francisco or mining operations in the Sierras. It’s very clear that he’s a working photographer tasked with making functional documentary images.

At the same time, his Yosemite photos directly resulted in Congress granting Yosemite to California in 1864, “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” Not a National Park. Yet. But not for development either.*

*There’s a great note in the wall text about how in the 1860s, the only two photographic series being viewed in the US were Watkins’s photos of the Pacific and Brady’s (and Gardner’s) photos of the Civil War. The text suggests how different these series must have seemed to the public. I also can’t wrap my head around there being only two photographic series in public consciousness for those years. Definitely not the world we live in today.

In both his commissioned work and in his Yosemite photos, you can see the conflicts between settlement and industry versus nature. Many of his industry photos feel like the struggle is still ongoing rather than complete—cities are still being built, nature still dwarfs the structures. Even where massive amounts of earth have been moved, the environmental consequences should already have been somewhat common knowledge in California.*

*Malakoff Diggins and the Marysville flooding.

Similarly, many of his unspoiled Yosemite views feature development. A cabin or lodge here. A bridge there. Trees with all of their lower limbs harvested. Nature is glorious but our footprints are all over it still.

Carleton Watkins. Cape Horn near Celilo, 1867.

The Columbia River views are even better at making this point. Watkins documents what’s ostensibly a journey along a railroad along the river. The landscape here however dwarfs the technology and rather than documenting how a railroad is imposed on a landscape, the railroad here is often just taking what the landscape will let it take as it squeezes between the river and the cliffs.

The cliffs are huge. The river contains un-dammed rapids. This is spectacular country where the accomplishment is just getting there and reaching the end of the Oregon Trail.

Carleton Watkins. The Wreck of the Viscata, 1868.

It’s also impossible not to look at these historically. Not only is this San Francisco before the earthquake, it’s San Francisco while it was being built. A very different city with basically nothing recognizable to me, including the coastline. I can count 35 stars on the US flag.* Most-weird is looking at views of the California coast before Eucalyptus took over. This is home before it became home.

*Meaning it must have been taken in the one-year window between West Virginia’s admission in 1863 and Nevada’s in 1864. Assuming that people replaced old flags as soon as new states were admitted.

Watkins’s Yosemite photos also include the Indian names for everything. While we stile use many of those names, a lot has been renamed since. It’s nice to be reminded about whose land we’re on and how we’ve tended to erase or forget the origins of their names.

The exhibition also plays up the historic angle through a series of interactive multimedia displays featuring maps and rephotography so visitors can see what things look like today, where the photos were taken, or what changes have been made to the sites between then and now.

In addition to the multimedia displays, there’s actually a lot of other technical information beyond the photos. The exhibit talks about collodoin and wet-plate photography; albumen and contact printing; and even a bit at how a view camera works in terms of composing the scene. It’s nice to see the awareness that museumgoers probably have a much different concept about cameras and photography and that the difference in technology is hugely important to understanding a lot of what we’re looking at.

The Cantor even goes so far as to include examples of prints from Watkins’s negatives made by an inferior printer as well as calling out when Watkins switched from a normal to a wide angle lens.*

*According to the wall text, his 1861 Yosemite photos led to Congress’s Yosemite Land Grant in 1864 which led to the 1865 California Geologic survey of Yosemite for which Watkins acquired a wide angle lens.

It’s a great show. That it consists of photos that are housed at Stanford is even better. The Bay Area, still, does a lousy job of marketing its art holdings as being hugely important to the art world in general. So for a local institution to take its locally-relevant art holdings and put together a show like this is the icing on the cake.

California State Railroad Museum

Andrew J. Russell. The "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, U.T., May 10, 1869.

Andrew J. Russell. The “Last Spike”

We’ve been going to the train museum for a couple years now. Now that the kids are finally old enough to leave alone in the train table area,* I’ve finally been able to take a proper look at the exhibits. I also finally caught the movie** they show there so I can comment on that too.

*As in they don’t care if one parent disappears for a while now.

**They can sit through movies now too! Though the youngest still cries out “TRAIN!” whenever he sees one on-screen.

Corky Lee. Restaging The "Last Spike."

Corky Lee. Restaging The “Last Spike”

The movie is different that I remember as a kid. Makes sense since it’s from 1990 even though it looks at least 5 years older than that.* It’s much more multicultural than the museum and film I remembered. When I was a kid my mom always pointed out how the famous “Last Spike” photo had none of the Chinese workers in it. Only this spring has it been officially acknowledged by Congress. And it’s been fun to see Corky Lee’s restaging of the photo in celebration. Now, the Chinese contribution to the construction of the railroad is emphasized almost immediately and the museum displays include artifacts from the labor camps.

*Seriously. This screams early/mid-80s, not 1990 to me—which confused me a lot this time since it LOOKS like something I should have been able to watch as a child.

The movie also mentions that the industry employed a ton of black labor on the service side and latino labor on the trainyard side. Very multicultural. Kind of nice to see this degree of awareness in something so dated. And kind of scary since it’s evidence that we’re into three decades now and so many people still don’t see, or refuse to see, this side of things.

There was also a special photography exhibit this time. In this case, it was about early railroad photography and how it sold the industry to the public. There was lots of stuff about early cameras and stereoscopic prints* which I kind of glossed over. I was more interested in how the museum displayed original photos with the engraved versions printed in newspapers, noting the differences in composition and scale and suggesting that these were intentional changes made on behalf of the people who owned both the railroads and the newspapers.

*Though if that’s your bag, they had a lot of Alfred A. Hart on display. The Getty has a decent sample of the kind of thing which was on display. The University of Nevada Reno has a ton of his work. And Stanford has a decent collection too.

The highlight though was being able to look through a full-size reproduction of Andrew J. Russell’s Great West Illustrated. As someone whose favorite photobook may be Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire, looking through, in many ways, an identical project documenting the landscape around a railroad’s construction, rather than its ruins, was great and pointed out a lot of details that were lost by the time Ruwedel did his project.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael's Cut, Granite Canon.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael’s Cut, Granite Canon

Much of the geography of railroading involves cutting through the landscape in order to keep a track graded correctly. These scars are prominent in Ruwedel as they’re the most-permanent landscape modification from railroading. I was unaware that they had names and seeing each cut given a special name in Russell’s album, gives a a more personal sense of things.

It’s not just a scar on the landscape. The cuts reflect a lot of manpower and effort and each one is unique. We no longer see the uniqueness since we’re looking at the absence of the railroad rather than marveling at its presence.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River

Russell’s photos also include a number of references to coal beds and even a town called Coalville. This is something else that is easy to forget. Railroads are inherently tied to the natural resources they need to consume in order to run. Especially when building them in a place without any existing railroads for transport.

That the photos include a lot of the infrastructure required to support the railroads shows that it’s not just about the achievement of laying the track, this is about development and taming nature.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains

It’s this intersection of development and nature which really puts Russell’s photos into the tradition of people like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins who are credited with defining much of the way we view the American West. When Russell isn’t showing how the railroad infrastructure is conquering the landscape, he’s showing us photos of the incredible views and wide open spaces available for people to move into. This is a land of opportunity, a land of growth, a land of potential.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon

Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes.

Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes

There’s also a completely different scale to the landscape in the West. Almost all of the photos include a human figure in the image. Some of this may be to hammer the “we’re here and can conquer this” point. But a lot of it is also just to provide scale. The landscape is huge.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle

But it’s settleable. Russell ends his journey in Salt Lake City with images that show a legitimate city nestled in the mountains. There’s also some curiosity about the Mormons, but it’s very clear that we can live in the West. And the railroads can take us there.

Besides the history side of things, I like a lot of the photos as photos even though all I had available to look at was a laminated digital print from a copy of the albumen print in the book. It’s not enough for him to just photograph the distinct landscape elements, I like his compositions and the way he’s able to situate so many of them in the landscape. I especially like the Hanging Rock photo and the way he’s used it to frame the settlement below it. Makes me wonder how much it would cost to buy a real print from the Oakland Museum.

Form and Landscape

Camp Edison Art Adams 1965

One of the unexpected things about moving away from the Bay Area has been how, all of a sudden, I feel like Southern California is home too. I hear music or see movies, car ads, TV shows, etc. from Los Angeles and what I used to roll my eyes at is now something I feel possessive of. Even visiting now feels like visiting home.

I wouldn’t have been able to say this this before my move, but Los Angeles is an amazing place. In many ways it’s a non-existent myth which we’re familiar with through movies and television. In other ways it a perfect encapsulation of what 20th century America was—and how American created itself this way.

The Edison Archive at the Huntington Library manages to both document the growth of LA as well as define the myth. I’ve been looking through these photos for months trying to put my finger on what I love about them. Moving away from home helped me figure it out as I’ve become aware of LA’s dual nature as both my home territory and national myth.

The photos themselves are an interesting mix of some very striking images and a lot very mundane, technically well executed but kind of boring, ones. About what you’d expect from an archive produced by a power company documenting its efforts in the building of the Los Angeles metro area. Most of the the interesting photos appeal to our sense of nostalgia and directly reference a lot of the national myth of idyllic 20th-century America. The mundane ones provide context for that myth.

Family barbecuing in backyard Joseph Fadler 1957

What was that dream? As the whimsical buildings, manicured landscapes, and young, white, seemingly affluent people in these photographs suggest, it was a dream centered on privilege and pleasure; a dream of health, individual self-fulfillment, fun, and mobility; a dream in which seemingly every urge could be satisfied. Ultimately L.A.’s modern metropolitan landscape of recreation was a landscape of desire.

Marguerite S. Shaffer

Thrifty Drugs Interior Joseph Fadler 1953

These spaces were products of the Fifties, an age of superabundance that some U.S. historians characterize as the heyday of the Consumer’s Republic, when public policy and political economy converged upon the national ideal of mass consumption. After the crises of Depression and war, the United States government resolved to increase economic growth by promoting consumer spending.

Eric Avila

About that national myth. This is America as a place where workers have jobs which allow them to have leisure time, afford a house, and move out of the city. Many of the Edison photos are pure propaganda showing what Americans should aspire to. This is the land which Edison was building and the land it wanted to sell.

They’re wonderfully nostalgic images. Looking at them now, I see a lot of what many Americans wish they could return to. Neon signs. Big clean homes. Swimming pools. Backyards. Gleaming supermarkets. Wide-open highways. No decay. This was the American dream back when America was creating the future and leading the way.

Or, at least, that’s the myth of it all.

 Kerry James Marshall  "Our Town," 1995

The condition of invisibility that Ralph Ellison describes is not a kind of transparency, but it’s a psychological invisibility. It’s where the presence of black people was often not wanted and denied in the American mindset. And so what I set out to do was to develop a figure or a form that would represent that condition of invisibility, where you had an incredible presence, but there was a way in which you could sometimes be seen and not seen at the same time.

Kerry James Marshall

Looking at the photos, it’s pretty clearly just the myth of the white middle class which we’re seeing. It’s the myth which Cars sells us. It’s the myth which made my viewing of David Goldblatt so uncomfortable.

When I look at the images or aspirational 1950s spaces, I see them with David Goldblatt, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Adams and Looking at the Land—not to mention the housing crisis and the way the subprime mortgage industry targetted minorities—in the back of my mind. It’s worth critiquing the myth while at the same time acknowledging that the myth exists.

Who’s getting left out of this vision of the future? What are the costs associated with it? Is creating a consumer society centered on building new housing really sustainable? Should a private company have this much power over the development of a major metropolitan area?

Residential lighting exhibit at a home show Joseph Fadler 1952

The increased number of appliances owned and operated by the average household was dramatic enough that by 1953, the average household use of electricity had trebled from that used in 1939. A 1954 House & Home article informed readers that new homes required 100 amperes service capacity and that builders should make sure to supply enough appliance circuits to support the more than fifty portable electrical appliances that were, by then, in common usage.

Dianne Harris

Big Creek, Shaver Lake Dam G. Haven Bishop 1927

Great dams trap and tame the water, hoarding its energy until needed.

Emily Thompson

Commercial Lighting Doug White

Greater Los Angeles came to function as a metropolitan region during the period 1940-1990 when systems for electricity, as well as for the provision of water, communication, and transportation were first among equals. We would struggle to make sense of urban growth and the emergence of an indigenous architecture in southern California absent that context.

Greg Hise

What I find more interesting is how the Edison archive shows us how much infrastructure had to be built in order to enable the myth. Suburbanization, the monoculturization of America, and the creation of our consumer society is thanks to a massive investment in infrastructure. Dams. Powerlines.* New home building. This is government and business working together to create a consumer class.** In order to enjoy the leisure time which came with being in the middle class, we needed to completely rethink how we built out homes and neighborhoods. More power was needed for all the gadgets. And more space to fit them all in. Voila. Suburbia.

*New Deal anyone? All those public works projects resulted in a ton of new infrastructure upon which we built our consumer culture.

**There are many things to dislike about Ford but his realization that his workers should be able to afford and use the products they were making is hugely influential to the way American culture developed.

And with suburbia comes car culture as we now we need cars in order to travel to our jobs, shop, etc. What used to be in cities or small towns is now spread out in sprawling suburbs. And the more we drive, the more things start to become the same wherever we go as towns get bypassed and shopping centers get put along the new highways.

Electrical workers fashion show Joseph Fadler 1970

He had a moral dilemma of all the work he had made in the name of progress and the pride he felt in those early days of a city being born. He longed for the simpler photographs that were purely descriptive. He felt his photographs now became propaganda for Edison: the smiling face of progress masking the evolving dangers in the city, things that even streetlights can’t fix: or a fashion show for women of the men who work for Edison like himself.

Catherine Opie

Transmission towers Joseph Fadler 1953

But Angelenos’ embrace of technology, like hugging a cactus, made them keenly aware of the downsides. Rockets that launched satellites, spacecraft, and astronauts into outer space left perchlorates in the groundwater. Nuclear reactors provided electric power but also nuclear waste and the threat of meltdowns. Proliferating freeways and cars meant Los Angeles became synonymous with smog by mid-century. A dystopian counterpoint to technological enthusiasm, limned most notably by Mike Davis and film-noir from “Chinatown” to “Blade Runner,” characterized technology as just more leverage for the powerful over the powerless.

Peter Westwick

By being propaganda, the Edison photos also suggest the darker side of all this reliance on technology and corporations. Our BS-detectors are good enough to realize when we’re being sold a line. So many of these photos are annual-report photos meant to show the companies achievements in the best light possible. We know better now.

As a result, I kept these photos in mind when I went to see Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley photos. Misrach is the flip side of the gleaming Edison promise. Instead of glorifying light and power and consumption, Misrach documents how the resulting lifestyle has perverted nature and left huge wastelands of petrochemical byproducts.

Street scene at night with illuminated sign advertising the Mission Play at the San Gabriel Mission G. Haven Bishop 1915

Los Angeles’ vast metonymic system, comprising everything from the iconic Hollywood sign to the most inconspicuous graffiti on a freeway underpass, is a linguistic treasure trove that offers glimpses into the city’s collective imagination. No matter where in the city we find ourselves, oversized billboards, neon signs, posters, banners, and various other signage demand our attention, fueling every conceivable fantasy and desire.

Claudia Bohn-Spector

Mission Bell Streetlights Art Adams 1966

This process of racial formation took many forms. In southern California, it was particularly visible in the exoticization and appropriation of immigrant and minority cultures to enhance regional distinctiveness as a means to promoting tourism

Hillary Jenks

Ulrich Drive-In Joseph Fadler 1962

SCE photographers unintentionally (or intentionally?) documented not only the landscape of food across southern California but also the intersections of production and consumption, of labor and leisure, of the pedestrian and the lavish, of the taco and the hamburger, of the domestic and the commercial, and even of war and peace.

Jessica Kim

Aside from the national myth, there are also the things that are specifically part of the Los Angeles myth. In particular, the layering and papering over and re-creation of history and culture. It’s this element which made me react to Mark Bradford as a Los Angeles artist first. And it’s what I find myself enjoying and appreciating the most whenever I visit.

The layers and layers of transportation infrastructure. How you can see where the trollies used to run in the San Vicente median. All those gated-off freeway entrances and exits which are no longer safe. I love just keeping my eyes open while driving though to see pieces of the older grid and infrastructure—much of which was also built for cars, just for fewer of them. In a lot of places the old infrastructure is at a different scale from the new infrastructure. In LA, it all looks like things you should still be able to drive on if only they were open.

This shows up in the buildings too as you can see glimpses of older LA amidst all the new development or even catch complete neighborhoods which feel like they’ve been left to their own devices—although even there you can see the layers and layers of re-purposing buildings.* And it particularly shows up in the food infrastructure where you can see ancient dives mixed with any kind of ethnic food mixed with brand-new trendy expensive places.

*I really wish Camilo Jose Vergara had more LA-based work.

So much of LA also involves papering over the past with a new layer of pretending to be old or whitewashing things pretending to be ethnic—simultaneously catering to the myths and trying to reinvent it. Again. All these layers mixing old and new and pseudo-old and ethnic and white and pseudo-ethnic. It’s a lot of fun to see how the Edison archive has been capturing each layer as it’s been formed.

Our instructions were deliberately mild, even vague. Take a theme, and few preconceived notions, for a journey through the archive; search by key word, search by date, search by photographer, search any way you choose. Assemble a small collection of images, twenty to thirty, and bring to them an essay (a single narrative, a set of captions, even fiction).

William Deverell and Greg Hise

Aside from what the Edison archive is and my enjoyment of the photos, the Huntington’s project itself is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see more of.* At a basic level, it’s fantastic to see a project which involves over a dozen curators unleashed on the same body of photos. It’s really interesting to see where each curator goes and how the same image is used multiple times for multiple reasons. At the same time, despite the differences between each curator’s selection, it is absolutely true that as a group, all the different edits come together to jointly describe Los Angeles.

*See my Government Documents  and Posthumous Editing posts for more on this kind of thing. And a great post by Wayne Bremser basically proposing this exact approach to the Winogrand archive.


Two sets in particular work very well for me just by themselves as well. Mark Klett’s sequence is excellent. The visual sequencing of the photos is great but it also works for the development timeline and makes me think of this being the behind-the-scenes photos of what Robert Adams’s Colorado suburbs work.

And D.J. Waldie’s set, by using the photos to create his own Noir story, goes all-in on the idea of how LA is all about remaking and creating your own personal narrative. While there are plenty of Noirs set in other locations, there’s something extra-appropriate about setting them in LA. Taking the Edison photos and using them to explicitly evoke some of the most-prominent stories set in LA is brilliant.

Around the table

Rosemary Williams. Supermarket. 2008

After viewing Hidden Heroes, I went upstairs to check out Around the Table. I was pleasantly surprised even though I should know better by now. The San José Museum of Art takes risks which pay off more often than not. This show was no exception. Was it a mixed bag? Of course. But there is more good than bad and the good that’s there is all stuff I enjoyed very much.

Food is a tough concept to base an exhibition on. It’s so loaded and personal and wide-ranging that you can go anywhere and everywhere and fail to satisfy everyone. Lots of pieces which use food as a medium. Some work better than others but they don’t really explore the concept of food for me.

Where this show works best is when it touches on how food impacts people and places. Angela Buenning Filo’s Orchard photos  and David Burns and Austin Young’s Fallen Fruit in particular stand out for the way they reference Silicon Valley’s past of fruit farms and canneries and pull that history into the present day.

I also really liked Karla Diaz’s Prison Gourmet and the War Gastronomy Food Cart.*Both of these pieces address how food and recipes are more than just sustenance. They’re creativity and survival and tradition which we adapt and create for whatever our current situations are. Sharing recipes, making due, the way food impacts our memories of time and place. It’s important to explore all of these aspects of food and realize how rich and complicated it is.

*Something that I’d seen previously at YBCA but hadn’t fully digested at the time.

Other pieces I liked?

I could have spent a lot more time with Rosemary Williams’s Supermarket than I did. It’s great. It’s a combination of Gursky and Adbusters. It demonstrates how abstract and corporate the food we purchase is—especially when displayed just across the room from works which show actual food sources. It makes us think about how our food choices are dictated by brands and placement on shelves. It forces us to confront how little choice most people have regarding their food sources.* I’d love to know what supermarket and where in the country this is because I think it would be absolutely fascinating to compare regions and chains.

*Worth noting that the ethnic aisle is full of choice brandwise.

And Jitish Kallat’s Epilogue is a moving memorial to a life. Illustrating each day of someone’s life is already a provocative memorial. Doing it with moon phases touches something deep and primal in us; I’m never fully aware of the moon, but I also know that I look for it and notice it each day. Illustrating the moon phases with roti seems more clever than interesting, but it’s abstract enough that it becomes more of a meditation on life, time, and what sustains everyone. I wasn’t expecting to like this but I did.


There’s also a gallery which is intended to provoke more interaction and make visitors rethink food and our usage of it. A lot of good things in there. One of the factoids in particular struck me though.

Specifically, it claims that food waste makes up 21% of landfills now. This is presented as a bad thing. At the same time, I remember being a kid and learning that paper waster was ~80% of all landfills. So my initial reaction was more of a, “holy crap, this is GREAT, look how much recycling has helped!” than any rue about how much food we waste.

Hidden Heros

Hidden Heroes

The Hidden Heroes show at San José is a difficult one for me to review. At one level it’s an extremely exciting concept to select a number of mundane everyday objects and highlight them as design classics in a museum. The choices of what to include and what to exclude make for fascinating discussion and thought. At another level, the actual displays here are just not that interesting. There’s a ton of potential hinted at in each display but the follow-through leaves me frustrated.

First, the good part. Since the complete list is the most interesting part of the show, it’s a good thing that there’s a comprehensive online verison of the show. I don’t disagree with the items which are selected. They’re all things we’re familiar with but have never really considered. It’s great to be forced to confront them as designed objects.

Too many museums ignore design completely. The ones which do cover design tend to focus on design brands* while making the assumption that we’ll connect the dots in comparing the designer things to the generics. I don’t think most people make that leap as I still remember viewing Mood River at the Wexner,** mentioning that I’d love to see the exact same show only using generic components instead, and receiving some odd looks.

*Named designers or firms making conscious decisions to distinguish their objects from the generic pieces.

**Yeah, that’s an awful exhibition page. The Amazon listing of the catalog is a little better.

Mood River’s actually a good comparison to this show since it was about the collective effect that all these designed products could produce but never established what the baseline mood should be. Hidden Heroes meanwhile calls out the generics and suggests that we should appreciate them more for what they are.

Where Hidden Heroes fails is that it doesn’t enough beyond the identification of the objects. There’s a little history presented but generally not enough to satisfy. It’s important to know where these items came from and what problems they were attempting to solve. Especially when we take them for granted now than we can’t image them not existing.

If you’re lucky you get old advertising or a manufacturing video. But this isn’t consistent and a lot of what makes these design classics isn’t the actual common product but instead the manufacturing process which allowed this version to become standard.


It’s not a coincidence that some of the most-fondly remembered Mr. Rogers episodes are the factory visits.* Seeing how things are mass-produced, and the specialized tools used to do this is fascinating stuff. And the simpler and more ubiquitous the object the better. Pencils, crayons, paperclips, tetrapaks, etc. are so simple yet the machines which make them are design marvels in their own right.

Seeing how these common, everyday objects are made efficiently and cheaply is as much a part of the genius of their everydayness as their actual design

*The crayon factory in particular.

The other part which I’d like to see more of is an acknowledgment that a large part of what makes these things so common and genius is that they’re cheap and disposable. If we’re going to anoint things as hidden heroes, we also need to recognize their hidden costs too. It’s a glaring weakness that that the exhibition doesn’t address the ubiquity of these designs and how we may have selected them based on a certain set of values which we may no longer fully agree with.

Are they justifiable design classics? Absolutely. At the same time, a large part of modern design are attempts to improve on these classics in order to address the disposability side of things. Design is no longer just about creation. Cradle to Cradle is over a decade old now and it’s important to call out the blindspots of past classics.

Project Los Altos

While Alec Soth was the main draw for Project Los Altos, I did enjoy exploring the rest of the galleries. A show like this is expected to be a bit hit and miss. Soth counts as a hit. The highlight though is Christian Jankowski’s Silicon Valley Talks.

This piece was hilarious. And painful. I could only watch one (Vacation) before overdosing on jargon. I want to watch the rest but I can only deal with it in small doses. This kind of jargon is exactly the kind of thing we do for fun.* It’s also the kind of thing that management does without realizing it.

*Yes we’re all geeks.

Part of me is aghast at the idea that this is what the future of English will be. The other part of me accepts that English always absorbs the technical jargon of the day and uses it metaphorically to describe other things. We already mix metaphors in talking about ourselves as needing fuel or not being able to compute things. Future jargon such as buffer optimization or packet management is only a matter of time.

I also liked Kateřina Šedá’s Everything is Perfect, and the idea of giving awards for whatever achievement you can think of. I enjoy that this piece suggests that it’s good that we celebrate the ordinary instead of focusing just on the extraordinary. Especially since the much of the Silicon Valley culture is focused on being the best. I also see the flip side where this piece suggests that we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that everything is actually perfect and that we’re perfect and that this area is better than anywhere else.

And I want to go to and nominate my friend’s parents because they’re the best.

The other piece I really liked was the recognition of Charles Garoian’s work at Los Altos High School. He was the High School art teacher for over a decade. It’s fantastic to see his student projects get recognized by the museum. I can’t help but think that maybe there should be an art teacher recognized like this every year.

Alec Soth’s Silicon Valley

Alec Soth. Silicon Valley. 2013

On the heels of my enjoying Flesh and Metal, I figured I should check out SFMOMA On the Go’s Project Los Altos show too. I’ve been intrigued watching this show develop. SFMOMA, despite being in the Bay Area, doesn’t typically address Silicon Valley. As much as I love the museum, this is one thing which I’ve always felt like it misses. The San José Museum of Art often does great things here. So does the Stanford Museum. So does Oakland. I’m glad to see SFMOMA look South for once.

Project Los Altos is also interesting since it brings SFMOMA into a non-art space. This is also something I’d like to see more of. The small galleries still smells like fresh paint. The docents are all super eager and friendly. It’s a nice change of pace to collaborate in the city and encourages people to walk and explore a bit. The whole “let’s go find this other piece/gallery’ experience is something I haven’t felt since I was at Biennale.* I wish that SFMOMA had done something similar to this with its Six Lines of Flight show. Sometimes exploring just enhances the experience.

*No, Los Altos is not Venice.

The main reason I wanted to see this show though was to see the Alec Soth photos. Besides him being a photography rock star, I was interested to see outsider views of Silicon Valley. There’s a bit of an echo chamber in the Bay Area which forgets how different the outside world is. Heck, it forgets that there’s a lot of non-tech stuff in the Bay Area too. In this case Soth is clearly looking at tech, specifically the current big-name companies. Lots of Google—and a resulting focus on Mountain View. Also Apple, Facebook, and Udacity. The garages* are a nice nod to origin stories. But it’s interesting that there’s no reference to Stanford or PARC or any of the intellectual sources of much of the Silicon Valley mindset.

*HP, Steve Jobs, Google.

I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.

The photos themselves are very nice. Lots of low contrast black and white photos of home—foggy Bay Area mornings, sorta Baltzy industrial parks, and the suburbs I grew up in. Soth manages to pull a sense of calm out of the over-programmed Bay Area lifestyle while also emphasizing how lonely it can be here.

At the same time, they also feel also incredibly shallow. They try and scratch the surface of the gleaming fantasy of Silicon Valley success to show other aspects of the area only they don’t go deep enough. Nor do they suggest the boom-bust cycle which is common here. I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing. The only constant I think are the schools since they’re the anchors upon which property values depend on. And the tech companies have to stay with commute range of those good neighborhoods.

Also, while I’m not Soth—both in terms of skill and vision, this is one of the first times I’ve been to a show where the subject matter overlaps with one of my own projects. I’m used to seeing photos which I’ve aped (either unconsciously or consciously). It’s a different experience to see photos which trigger the, “wait, do I have a photo like that” reaction. The two Soth photos in Redwood Shores are close enough to my work neighborhood in Foster City to have caused me pause.

It was also interesting to contrast Soth’s photos with Friedlander’s Cray photos. The two projects are very similar both in their subject matter and in their approach. Friedlander shows more people at work and isn’t as critical about what it all means. Soth is a bit more provocative in trying make a point about isolation. Still, both works come at a lot of our preconceptions about tech and where tech is developed. It seems like cutting edge devices should come from space age locations. The reality is much more mundane.

More Cantor

Because of my experience at Princeton, and because of what I’d seen in the Carrie Mae Weems exhibition, I decided to stick my head in the Africa section of the Cantor Center.* I’m glad I did since there’s a fantastic Keïta print** up on display right now. I had only seen his work online until then. As impressive his work is online, the actual print is worlds better. Definitely worth seeking it out if you’re in the area.

*I didn’t feel like looking through everything else that day.

**Which I’m unfortunately unable to find an image of online.

The Cantor African artifacts are across multiple rooms with one room specifically dedicated to post-1950 pieces which addresses the post-colonial sense of Africa as part of the global stage. As much as the “Africa is a country” thing is an annoying Western ignorant viewpoint, I found that it worked in this case. The commonality of having to deal with resolving cultures after Europe messed with things in the continent makes sense to me. The presentation wasn’t about how all Africa was the same but rather how different African artists dealt with the cultural whiplash of being unleashed from colonialism and set loose in the global economy.

That the items on display were actually intended as art rather than artifact also helped. As does the fact they were clearly marked as modern.

Flesh and Metal

Margaret Bourke-White, Untitled (RCA Speakers), ca. 1935.Pablo Picasso, Nature morte "la cafetière" (Still Life "The Coffee Pot"), 1944.Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964

I went to the Cantor Center to see Carrie Mae Weems. I figured I’d stick my head into SFMOMA’s On the Go show there* because, what the hey, I was already at the museum. Oh man. Am I glad I did so. I was expecting sort of a retread featuring highlights of their early-20th-century rooms. What I got was something which caused me to rethink my opinions on a lot of my favorite artists and artworks.

*Since SFMOMA is closed for remodeling, it’s partnering with various other museums and organizations so as to maintain a physical presence in the community. This show at the Cantor is the first I’ve seen of the closed SFMOMA.

This is one of the rare shows which not only combines painting, sculpture, and photography into a single gallery, but puts them all in conversation with each other too. It’s beyond wonderful.

Look at the list of artists on display. Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, etc. etc. They’re all looking at objects and architecture from a surface/form/texture point of view. The artworks aren’t depicting physical objects, they’re exploring, in different media, the new textures and surfaces which have resulted from the mechanical age.

It’s so obvious when you see them all together that I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t put this together on my own.

I’m also upset that museums don’t blend photography in with everything else all the time. So much of photography is about taking the everyday object and transforming it into something more by emphasizing its form. Readymades and photographs should go hand-in-hand in museums. Instead photography is off in its own wing or floor as if it were in its own distinct world from the rest of art.

Which is an extremely limiting view of photography. And does a disservice to painting and sculpture too.

I hadn’t realized how much, say, Weston and Duchamp had in common before. Weston’s Excusado isn’t even on display and I’ve never even seen them linked by subject matter let alone by concept. This show makes it explicit and obvious and has me rethinking the context of all the early photographers now.

Nicely done SFMOMA. I hope all your On the Go shows are this revelatory.

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems. Colored People, 1989-1990.

Stanford really scored when Carrie Mae Weems won a MacArthur Fellowship right before her retrospective opened at the Cantor Center. Not that I wouldn’t have gone without that bump, just that it was nice reminder to make that show the first thing for me to see when I got home for the holidays. It was worth it and it was brilliant.

Weems’s work is black-specific but manages to be inclusive and relevant to non-whites in general. This isn’t a case of an artist making work which the art establishment treats as black because of who she is. Weems is consciously and specifically addressing issues of representation and identity based on her experiences as a black woman. However, I found myself responding to much of her work as feeling consistent with my upbringing as a non-white. I’m still not exactly sure how she pulls it off but it’s a hell of a balancing act.

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because so much of her work is explicitly about representation. She gets a camera and is introduced to photography. So, like so many other people, she begins shooting street in the style of people like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. However she’s also aware of Roy DeCarava and James Van Der Zee and understands how important it is to represent herself and address the myths which society has used to define her. The rest of her work which follows consistently comes back at and attacks the stereotypes and myths which she grew up seeing. While those myths aren’t the same as what I felt growing up asian, the larger picture of calling out stereotypes and embracing your own representation rings true.

Carrie Mae Weems. Family Pictures and Stories, 1981–1982.

For example, her family photos and stories. These are all extremely personal but they’re also specifically reacting to the way black families are represented in the mainstream media as being broken and weak. Instead we get a lively, strong, large family (complete with men present). I particularly love the in-frame text providing individual vignettes for each photo.*

*Something which is unfortunately missing from her website presentation.

These photos transcend blackness and feel appropriate to working class non-white in general. They remind me of my wife’s family and family gatherings. They also suggest that a large reason of why I like The Jangs is because that series comes at the myth of the Asian family the way Weems comes right at the myth of the black family.

Carrie Mae Weems. American Icons. 1988-1989Carrie Mae Weems. Black Woman with Chicken. Ain't Jokin'. 1987-1988

Similarly, her American Icons and Ain’t Jokin’ series take the stereotypes head on by explicitly illustrating them. A lot of this reminds me of Fred Wilson except that instead of putting the actual objects in the museum, Weems is photographing them. I look at the photos and also see direct relevance to the current arguments about Native American mascots and appropriation. Representing minorities as stereotyped objects is so insidious in how it quietly shapes how they perceive themselves.

Ain’t Jokin’ takes things a step further by actually posing people in black stereotypes (Tough girl. Watermelon man. Fried chicken eater). These photos only work when you know they’re an inside job but they also show exactly how these kinds of stereotypes shape our perceptions of ourselves. I found them incredibly funny but in a cruel black humor way.

They also show how even a “good” stereotype becomes baggage. Fried chicken and watermelon are delicious and I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t like them. At the same time, I can totally see a a black kid trying to avoid those foods just because they’re stereotypical. That minority kids aspire to white bread, kraft singles, and blister-pack bologna because it’s what the white kids eat is a horrible state of affairs.

I found myself picturing other series by other minorities addressing their specific stereotypes. Like say a mexican woman holding a baby or an asian with a calculator. In many ways I think this is the best way to call BS on the whole thing.

Carrie Mae Weems. The Kitchen Table Series. 1990Carrie Mae Weems. The Kitchen Table Series. 1990Carrie Mae Weems. The Kitchen Table Series. 1990Carrie Mae Weems. The Kitchen Table Series. 1990

Which brings us to the Kitchen Table Series. These are selfies, but not. Self-portraits are a very different thing than self-representation. Weems is drawing on Frida Kahlo here and carving out her own space rather than fitting into the standard male artist view of women. This is the flip side of both Cindy Sherman’s work* and the Ain’t Jokin’ series. Weems is using herself to represent what isn’t represented. The result is a series which feels appropriate to almost every woman, but especially non-whites.

*Not self portraits but directly confronting stereotypes of women by presenting them.

This series is also the first big instance of Weems using herself in her work as a representative of concepts larger than herself. That she’s able to do this consistently and make it work so well is a testament to her skill.

The concept of representation continues through the exhibition and is a reminder of how much context and the creator of a photo matters. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, it’s fascinating to compare Colored People, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, and African Jewels. Photography is so much more than just the photos themselves. Who took the photos matters. As does the way things are displayed. As does the relationship between the subject and the photographer. We forget this a lot of the time. Weems continuously reminds us to think about the intent behind the images, the way they’re displayed, and the agency—or lack thereof*—in the representation.

*Especially by Weems choosing to caption images using the passive voice.

Carrie Mae Weems. Africa 1993.

The other nice thing about this exhibition is to see Weems just grow as a photographer. It’s not that her earlier work is not good, but her technique keeps improving to the point where her later work leaps off the wall. In particular, her photos from Gullahthe Slave Coast, and Africa are great photos which evoke a sense of place.

And there’s still so much more going on in them. There’s a focus on typography, word origins, and signage which reminds me of both Walker Evans and how all these locations are trade zones full of cultural mixing. There are specific items and tools pictured which I’ve seen in other museums as if they are ancient artifacts when in fact they’re modern. They work much better in-situ with the context that they are still in use and without the implication that Africa is a primitive backwater stuck using millennia-old technology.

I especially love the gendered buildings photos.

Carrie Mae Weems. Roaming 2006.

Her photos from Rome, Cuba, and Louisiana are also great in a way which makes me rethink my dislike of travel photography. These aren’t exactly travel photos. But they also kind of are. Heck, they’re almost the worst kind of travel photography in being travel selfies which emphasize the difference between the traveler and the location.

A black women traveling and taking photos in colonial or racist places completely changes everything.

That she’s there—proudly—means something. Says something. White guy photography may bore me. Flipping the privilege dynamic on its head does not.

There’s a lot of other work in this show which I haven’t mentioned. A lot of it is also very good. I just didn’t have specific reactions to it the way I did to the pieces here. I also find myself responding most to the representation questions that Weems raises and thinking how to deal with the stereotypes I’ve internalized as I’ve grown up. We’re always so tempted to run from them. Confronting everything head on like Weems does is a better tack.