Category Archives: photography

Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Another visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s been a year. This time we managed to explore the whole aquarium more although we spent a lot of tim in the special tentacles exhibit. I was on kid duty and didn’t get to photograph much. They’re at the stage where they run from tank to tank and “see” things really quickly. But large tanks hold their attention for a while. As does looking out over the bay and seeing all the cormorants leaving their nests and returning with fish.

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San Francisco Zoo

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It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the San Francisco Zoo. My observations from my previous visit still stand, but this time in addition to thinking about the animals on display, I found myself thinking about the zoo itself and how it’s kind of a throwback to a lost era.

I have mixed feelings about the San Francisco Zoo in particular. A lot of zoos I’ve been to are completely redone with all fancy new enclosures. The San Francisco Zoo on the otherhand, while there are plenty of new enclosures, has still kept a lot of its WPA-era infrastructure. This is simultaneously depressing since they’re really not the best places for animals as well as exciting since if you squint, you can see glimpses of the past and imagine what things used to be like when all these animals were exotic reminders of how big the world was.

I found myself looking a lot at the old infrastructure this time. Both because as my kids get older, I find myself trying to remember how the zoo was when I used to visit it at their age, and because I enjoy the idea of the zoo containing reminders of how our past society was. And how much we’ve learned about animals since then.

A lot of these photos are close to being ruin porn. At the same time, they’re also me chasing my own memories and ghosts—including the fact that we bought a Zoo Key this time.

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Of course, I was also trying to take photos of the animals. One of my childhood memories of the zoo was how the animals were always hiding.* That’s thankfully no longer the case today. The animals were all out, and quite often lively and healthy looking. So that was nice to see. And nice to photograph.

*In hindsight, it was probably because their enclosures were so depressing.

And the kids had a good time chasing down the Zoo Key boxes and seeing all the animals. Except when things got a bit smelly.

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May Backlog

Continuing from April.

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Evening walk

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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.

April Backlog

Continuing from March.

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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.