Category Archives: review

Emily Fisher Landau Collection

In addition to Levinthal and the Initial Public Offering shows, San José also had a traveling show from the Whitney which focused on the Emily Fisher Landau collection. I’ve been increasingly blah on collector-centric shows as they’ve all started to look the same to me: decent art surveys which make sure to hit all the big names in a collect-them-all fashion but never say anything about the collector beyond thanking them for donating the collection to the museum. Oh, and there’s often a nice cushy catalog with the donor’s name in big letters on the cover.

The better examples at least have nice samples from all the big-name artists. The best examples have multiple nice samples from those artists so you can really learn about them.

The Landau collection is one of the better examples in that it’s a bit collect on of each but manages to choose a good sample of each artist.

Still. It’s hard to do a writeup for this kind of show. So as with the Initial Public Offering show, this is just what caught my eye.

Rodney Graham. Oak, Middle Aston, 1990

Rodney Graham

Photographywise, it’s always nice to see real dye-transfer Egglestons. Especially now that that process is dead dead.

It’s also nice to see a few Peter Hujars in the flesh. I need to look at more of his work.

And Rodney Graham’s large upside down photo print emulating the camera obscura experience is an interesting idea. It’s not as magical as a true camera obscura but it does suggest a bit of the same change in our relationship with the image subject that a camera obscura or view camera can produce.

John Baldessari. What This Painting Aims to Do, 1967

John Baldessari

I still like most everything Baldessari does. Neil Jenney makes me laugh. And John McLaughlin’s “simple” collages are a brilliant idea worth stealing.

Glenn Ligon’s piece about profiling is disturbingly, depressingly, still relevant today.

I noticed that Jasper Johns’s flags in 1973 have 50 stars (they didn’t in 1968) and now I’m wondering if the change was intentional.*

*Note: Hawaii became a state in 1959.

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1985

Keith Haring

David Wojnarowicz. Untitled, 1990

David Wojnarowicz

And between the Hujar photos, Haring print, and Wojnarowicz collage, I started to realize how brief but intense the AIDS epidemic was.* I grew up during it so it was just always there for me.* Now, three decades later, it’s become apparent that there’s maybe a decade of art which reflects the fear and loss and despair and confusion of the disease as it rampaged through the art community and the gay community.

*I’m using past tense here because I’m really talking about the period of time when the disease was pretty much a death sentence in the West and we were just figuring out what it was and how it infected people. It’s obviously still an epidemic in parts of the world from an infection point of view. But it’s no longer the death sentence it used to be and I don’t get the sense that we, culturally, are as scared of it like we were then.

There’s something both dated and uniquely raw about the AIDS artwork. For as much stuff as was going on in the world over the decades covered in this collection, a lot of the art just ignores it and focuses only on the art world. This is not a criticism, just an observation. The AIDS-related works are one of the few cases where the art confronts and reacts to world events. It’s also extremely personal and it’s still very powerful to see art where the artist is reacting so viscerally to what’s going on.

At the same time. Yeah. We no longer care about AIDS the way we did then. It’s still something to fear. But it’s a different fear than it used to be and as a result, the art feels dated since we’ve moved on to other causes.* I can see already how I’m going to have to explain to my kids how things were when I was growing up.

*Compared to the Ligon piece I mentioned earlier which is also personally reacting to current events but which reflects a situation we’ve not made any clear progress on improving. So his piece feels not just fresh and relevant, but disturbingly so.

Initial Public Offering

One of the things I like about the San Jose Museum of Art is how it frequently just shows new acquisitions in shows which basically state “we thought this was interesting and think you may too.” I’ve seen some interesting things there over the years—Listening Post being a highlight—and I was interested in their latest installment.

It’s not really an exhibition you can talk about as a whole. These are various works of art—some of which are boring and others of which really grab you—and the only common thread is that they’re new to the museum. But there’s always something which makes the whole visit worthwhile or which I want to remember and talk about.*

*Well, besides David Levinthal which was so good that everything else could have been awful and I’d still have considered my visit a success.

So. Highlights and thoughts that occurred to me while wandering through San José’s Initial Public Offering:

Sandow Birk. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sandow Birk’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights really stood out. I already like his work after seeing his Dante drawings a few years ago. This is even more amazing. It’s not a piece to read the declaration in,* rather, it’s enough to know that the entire declaration in written there and spend your time scrutinizing the rest of the drawing. There’s a lot to see—much of it directly relevant to the current state of Silicon Valley.

*Better to get that from the UN website.

Gleaming glass towers of progress and comfort on one side. Slums and squalor and poverty on the other. Inequality, especially regarding access to basic rights, everywhere. Security cameras and surveillance all over. That the monument is falling over and propped up is just overkill. I stayed in front of this and looked at it for a long time.

Untitled

From a less serious point of view, I really liked Stephanie Syjuco’s International Orange Commemorative Store. It’s nice to come across art that just makes me laugh. This is one such piece. While it’s relevant to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area, it’s also just a funny commentary on the way we merchandise everything.

Why not an International Orange store? I found myself kind of wanting a Giants cap with the logo in that color.

Sam Hernandez. Dichos y Bichos II

Sam Henandez’s Dichos y Bichos was another piece I looked at for a while. Many of these I recognize. Many I do not. But I’m always struggling to come up with Spanish idioms (especially when trying to explain English idioms to Spanish speakers) so it’s nice to see these.

Untitled

I also really liked Clare Rojas’s paintings. Lots of detail and gesture but also something very controlled from a folk craft point of view about these. I especially liked how they were displayed together in their own cluster.

I’m gradually turning into a Mission School fan and it’s nice to see local museums focus on that movement.

Untitled

I really liked the new Eric Fischl painting. Not much to say except that I always love these kind of gestural drawings (though this painting is huge) that manage to evoke so much with such ease.

Jay DeFeo; Three Mile Island #2, from the series One O'Clock Jump

Jay DeFeo is awesome. As usual. She sees things the way I wish I could see things as a photographer. And she paints or draws them in ways that are extremely photographic, but also which are possibly beyond the capability of a photograph. Her objects—in this case a tape dispenser—become renderings that transcend being representations of the product and instead suggest character and soul. I could look at her work all day.

John Chiara. Fort Barry at Bonita Point (right)

John Chiara is interesting. Especially when displayed with his comment:

I’ve kind of made photography as…labor intensive as it can be.

I’ve gradually been moving away from process fetishism. Especially in photography. Not because I believe that stuff never matters, just that all too often it’s treated as if it’s all that matters. It’s easy to become enamored with the process and forget that the end product also matters. At the same time, of course the process informs the end product.

I’m not too taken with this photo. But I appreciate how the museum tries to strike a balance between focusing on the process and asking viewers to think about how the process influenced the piece by limiting the locations (and environments) in which Chiara could actually take a photo.

It was also nice to note that many, if not most, of the pieces in display are either by local artists or of specific local interest. I’ve always liked how I can get a fix of local art in San José. It pleases me to see that they keep on pushing the collection that way.

David Levinthal: Make Believe

Toys are intriguing, and I want to see what I can do with them. On a deeper level, they represent one way that society socializes its young.

David Levinthal

David Levinthal; Untitled (Willie Mays, No. 43), from the series, Baseball

I had a chance a few weeks ago to check out David Levinthal at the San José Museum of Art. It’s worth seeing. While at one level, photographs of toys can feel like something which falls into the clever gimmick side of things.* These are not just photos of toys—in fact, there’s nothing juvenile about anything here.

*Especially in our upworthy-saturated age where this exhibition just felt like something that could be titled “Common toys photographed as if they were real, you won’t believe the results!”

A lot of times, Levinthal directly apes existing photographers or photographic work. Just as often though, he starts off aping something specific and proceeds to get sidetracked into deeper investigations into the nature of the toy itself—and what the toy represents in our socialization. In both cases, the results retain hints of the toyness but also take us beyond into realms were we start rethinking how we perceive and react to the subjects of  photos in general.

There’s a lot of cultural baggage present. In the subjects, in ourselves, and in how we approach and react to the medium of photography.

David Levinthal; Untitled #64

Even though we know—or should know—better, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that photography is true and that certain manipulations of the subject are somehow unethical. Maybe it’s photographic cheating. Maybe it’s more along the lines of the current market for unretouched photos—typically of women—which is either about shaming celebrities for “lying,” embarrassing them for being real, or setting a “good example” for our girls.*

*I’ll admit that I don’t understand the gotcha nature of these photos and I’ve never understood exactly what the intended message accompanying their release is.

For me, Levinthal’s photos of Barbie do a lot more at calling out the artifice in photography—especially fashion photography—than any of the supposed ethical violations. By photographing Barbie in the style of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, we can see how artificial everything really is. The images read as fashion—heck we’re looking at the clothes more than we do in most fashion photos where we can be distracted by the charisma of the model. At the same time, we know none of it is real and can start asking questions about lighting and makeup and color and depth of field and focus and what message this kind of toy sends to our kids.

David Levinthal; Untitled  (No. 159 alt), from the series, Modern Romance

Light and focus in particular are two tools which get a lot of extra attention in this show. Many of the photos are intentionally out of focus—emphasizing form over details. This makes it easy to lose track of the fact that these are toys so we start filling in our own details. When things are theatrically lit on top of this, I found myself reacting to these as if they were real even though I knew they weren’t.

But not in an uncanny valley way. The lighting and focus tricks manage to avoid both the valley and any sense of hyperreality. We see mood and gesture and more adult natures in the toys instead.

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 124), from the series, XXX

Levinthal is troubled by the proliferation of porn and sexuality, especially when it becomes embedded in toys and child socialization. I can see his point while also finding it kind of quaint; art museums tend to skew in the complete opposite direction.

His approach with the dolls manages to point a lot of this out without being either skeevy or crackpot. He’s not being a creep with kids’ toys nor is he looking for things which aren’t there. He’s mining all these toys for their mythic imagery and pulling out all kinds of things that kids just absorb.

They’re never just toys. Kids play with toys to roleplay and figure out their reality. When toys get pushed into situations beyond the orthodox use cases,* a lot of this latent imagery becomes more apparent.

*As someone who fully agrees with Micheal Chabon’s rant about the orthodoxy of Toy Story, I sure hope they do.

David Levinthal; Untitled (Wild West Sheriff 11-94), from the series "The Wild West"

So many of Levinthal’s series are about mining specific myth families. Whether they’re famous baseball moments or the Wild West or iconic historic moments (e.g. Little Bighorn, Iwo Jima, and The Alamo), in all cases the toys become larger than life. They’re gateways into movies and fantasies and learning what it means to be American.

Many of them speak to me and my youth and remind me both of being a kid again and  what I get to see my own sons play with. The nostalgia though is tempered with warnings about how almost all this imagery is, or can be, problematic. These are all myths from a simpler time. We know better about them now.

David Levinthal; Blackface (#1), from the series "Blackface"

Nowhere is this more clear than in the blackface photos. Where most of Levinthal’s work is subtle and allows us to imagine things as being real, these photos are in-your-face grotesque. They emphasize how these can’t be fun no matter how “harmless” people claim them to be. This isn’t a fantasy myth, it’s a dash of cold water on top of what used to be common imagery.

This is quite a different approach to this subject than Carrie Mae Weems’s subtlety. It’s no less powerful and very interesting to compare American Icons with Levinthal. The subtext of common household toy is the same. Weems shows how insidiously common they could be. Levinthal forces us to really observe the nastiness of the stereotype.

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 8), from the series, Mein Kampf

The photos of Nazi toys are similarly troubling. In this case, the toys aren’t grotesque; they’re seductively beautiful. By being toys, we can kind of explore this seduction in a safe space. At the same time, even blurred, these photos remind us how much we’ve been socialized. Holy crap is an out of focus Hitler doll still pretty fucking menacing.

From a design impact point of view, the Nazis knew exactly what they were doing. It’s clear in the photos how much Levinthal was drawn to the designs too. From a kid’s point of view, it’s also an important lesson on making sure that we adequately explain how we can be seduced by things that are bad for us. And that it’s okay to feel that and even acknowledge the compulsion without having to act on it.

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 1), from the series, Hitler Moves East,

It’s especially interesting to compare the Nazi photos with the photos from Hitler Moves East. In this case, Levinthal isn’t mining the myths as much as he’s staging and creating his own. Since there are few photos of Operation Barbarossa, the result is almost a graphic novel illustrated with Capa-like photos of toys.

Just like a graphic novel can pack serious punches when softened with the appearance of kids-stuff, these photos illustrate material which may have been too heavy to handle if actual photos existed.

I haven’t seen a photo exhibition like this which made me truly question how real every image was or to what explicit portion of the image I was reacting to, or whether my reaction was a product of my socialization. I was second guessing myself a lot. In the best way. With a lot of questions I should ask myself about all photographs I encounter.

Also:

Most of the prints on display are large-format Polaroids. I’m not going to go into tech geekery here. It’s just wonderful to see them in person.

Rodin’s Hands

So this was awesome. While I was at the Cantor to see Watkins, I poked around and stuck my nose into the Rodin’s hands exhibition as well. I’m very glad I did. It’s a perfect exhibit for Stanford in how it melds art and science and technology and education.

Lots of times technology in museums seems to be done in a “we’ve got to use TECHNOLOGY” way which doesn’t have anything to do with the art. In this case it’s a perfect fit. The technology enhances our understanding of century-old art. It’s not just “this is neat,” we learn about the art, and medicine, and how our understanding of the body and anatomy has intersected with art over centuries.

And it’s seamless. The technology layer manages to stay out of the way when you want to just look at the art itself.

I’ve never seen an exhibit like this. I hope more museums get inspired by it.

I’ve always liked Rodin’s hand sculptures. I like them even more now.

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.

Note:

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.