Udvar-Hazy Center

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In October we took a trip to the Udvar-Hazy wing of the National Air and Space Museum. Since I was with the kids I didn’t get a chance to properly explore it. But it’s a great museum for kids since it’s full of big things which they understand. And concepts like “fastest plane ever” or “space travel” are things that impress them. The hanger is huge and it’s indeed a lot of fun to see so many of these iconic aircraft in the flesh.

While some of the important smaller artifacts are in the DC museum—Mercury 7, Apollo 11,* Spirit of St. Louis, and the Wright Flyer—there’s not enough room to house the larger aircraft. And it’s fantastic to be able to see things like a Blackbird, the Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Discovery, or a Concorde. In the same way the you can only really grok the insanity/bravery of the early astronauts by looking at how small the capsules they were in, you have to also see how huge things like the Space Shuttle are.

*Actually, when I wandered through there in December after seeing Ragnar Kjartansson, Nation to Nation, and Horace Poolaw shows, Apollo 11 was not on display and is supposedly being shipped to Udvar Hazy. I’m curious what’s going to become of the DC museum as more and more iconic planes end up in Virginia. I didn’t write about the December visit because it was mainly just seeing the highlights of the collection. But I can say that the New Moon Rises exhibition was kind of neat.

I particularly like being able to see the textures and details of the aircrafts from how the Space Shuttle is so many different colors of white to all the different panels and things on all the airplanes’ surfaces. When I imagine airplanes I imagine them with sleek seamless surfaces even though I know better.

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Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944. 45UFL14 © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944.

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947.

Horace Poolaw, “Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

“Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

Left to right: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

The American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941.

After seeing Nation to Nation, I checked out the Horace Poolaw show. Poolaw photographed his Oklahoma community for about five decades in the mid-20th century. While he operated a bit as a professional photographer doing weddings and funerals and other big events his photographs are all effectively insider images. They’re both of his community and for consumption by that community alone.

The community is one which most of us typically see only through the white gaze. The photos aren’t actively dealing with self-representation issues. They document and are an archive of people who society tends to ignore.

We rarely get to see Indians as regular people. This allows and encourages society to think of them as no longer existing in today’s world. A lot of this caused by the way that the concept of “authenticity” is linked with Indian regalia and appearances. Being Indian is either a very specific physical stereotype of dark skin and sharp features or it’s a costume which can be appropriated by anyone.

It’s weird and unexpected to see Indian clothing mixed with western clothing or settings. So seeing Indians dressed in regalia while driving or posing by modern cars just like any other mid-century American would pose is striking. The same goes with seeing soldiers wearing war bonnets with their military uniforms. Poolaw’s photos though are full of this kind of thing and we get used to seeing the mixing and matching. Even in what seems to be a straight photograph of two women in their regalia standing in front of a teepee we notice how the younger one has a modern haircut and makeup.

All too often museums present Indian culture* as a stagnant craft which exists outside of the influence of other cultures. In Poolaw’s photos we see how his culture is changing over the decades, especially with how opening up the Kiowa reservation to non-Kiowa settlers resulted in a culture where everyone is blending their heritages together. There are different Indian Nations intermarrying. There’s the whole Indians serving in the US Armed Forces and celebrating homecomings and departures with traditional ceremonies. It’s a lot of fun to see and is a necessary reminder of how all of cultures are living and growing things.

*Or any non-white culture really.

Historically, the photos are also very interesting because they cover the time from the Indian Citizenship Act to the Indian Civil Rights Act. This is a time period in which Indian Nations gain both more autonomy for themselves to eventually practice their religions and traditions as well as more rights within the United States as US citizens with protected rights.

Poolaw specifically covers the development of Indian autonomy with his photos of the events which eventually developed into the what we now know of as American Indian Pow Wows. These photos work as a celebration of being Indian, archive of how the growth of acceptance of celebrating that by general American culture, and an uneasy critique of how the growing acceptance of powwow events has also lead them to be commodities.

His photos of the participants are wonderful relaxed photos of people who are at ease with the photographer and trust that their image won’t be exploited. His photos of the increased acceptance of these events are similarly fun to see as the people are increasingly able to operate in a mixed culture. His photos of the crowds and photographers who are watching the events though demonstrate his unease with how, as the culture is able to express itself more, it’s also increasingly accessible for consumption.*

*As someone who attends and photographs these events these photos also serve as a warning to me about how I should respect the space and the participants.

While it’s good that these cultural events no longer have to be practiced in a small private setting, the big events risk taking them from being for the participants and centering the audience instead. Poolaw, by being both an Indian and a photographer is able to straddle those worlds.

Nation to Nation

“The Great Smoke” case features a series of pipes and pipe bags as part of The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian’s latest exhibition, Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Smoking played an important role at the Horse Creek Treaty gathering. The exhibition opens to the public at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 21, 2014. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

Since the National Museum of the American Indian has the best food of the Smithsonian institutions, it’s easy to find an excuse to visit it should I be museuming on The Mall. And once I’m inside it’s easy to stay and wander around. So after having lunch after visiting the Hirshhorn, I ended up exploring a number of the exhibits in the Museum of the American Indian.

Nation to Nation looks at the history of treaties between Indian nations and the United States, or colonies which would become the United States. I was curious and apprehensive walking in to this show since that history isn’t one which covers the United States in a lot of glory. My biggest hope was that I wouldn’t get too pissed off—whether in the brutality of the history covered or, even worse, by letting that history off the hook.

Thankfully I didn’t get too upset either way. The show is very good. It covers a whole range of treaties starting with those between the Colonies and various Indian Nations and it gets into what worked, what didn’t, and how even when things worked they only worked for maybe a generation.* It went into communication issues both in terms of how the different parties value written versus oral commitments** and how certain concepts were untranslatable.*** It covered the points of view and goals that the negotiating parties were coming from and how those points of views changed during negotiation.

*Best example here is William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape. 

**Both in the initial agreement and in how it’s remembered for the future.

***From concrete concepts like reservations to more abstract ones like who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of an entire group.

And it didn’t shy away from the repeated displacement of Indian Nations as settlers kept moving west. It details the brutality and death toll of the forced marches. It laments the loss of botanical and medicinal knowledge which accompanied moving away from native lands. It poses the difficult choice many Indians faced about staying with—and as part of—the tribe by selling their land and moving west as well or by taking that money and trying to stay “at home” even if it meant being detribalized.*

*The legacy of that choice is still complicating things today.

Nor did it ignore how the treaties often put the US Government at odds with what the local authorities wanted. In many cases, the US Government was negotiating treaties to protect the Indians from hostile states and settlers. Sometimes this worked out and prevented—or at least delayed—conflicts such as the one between Georgia and the Creek Nation. Other times, such as in California, the state was able to successfully lobby Congress to not ratify the treaty—resulting in an extermination campaign becoming part of the gold rush.

I appreciated how throughout the timeline, while centering Indian priorities, the exhibit also managed to tell the history of the United States in how its priorities changed as it matured as a country. Where the early treaties are chiefly concerned with keeping the peace and avoiding any armed conflicts that the newly-formed country couldn’t afford, later treaties become more and more explicitly about taking land and, effectively, building empire across the continent.

By the middle of the 19th century, as the military might of the US has increased to where it doesn’t have to worry about armed conflict as much, the treaty negotiations become more one-sided and the US demands become more complicated. It’s no longer just about displacing people so you can live on their land, it’s about land as an exploitable resource for mining, commercial agriculture, or transportation right of ways.

But what I appreciated most is how the exhibit follows the history all the way through to the present day. It’s very clear that, despite the history of broken promises, the fact that there were agreements between the US and Indian Nations remains an important precedent to remember. It’s why the Haudenosaunee insist on receiving the cloth from the Treaty of Canandaigua rather than accepting a monetary payment. The symbolism of the agreement and the recognition by the US Government matters more than the payment now. It’s how the preservation of fishing grounds in the Medicine Creek Treaty are still legally valid today. It’s the way that native children have to be treated as the citizens of those Indian Nations which they are.

I only wish that in the current-day sections of this show, in addition to the political/legal movements in gaining and maintaining increased Indian sovereignty, there was also information about things like the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a real sense that most of the conflict and negotiation regarding these treaties has moved to Washington DC or is taking place inside courtrooms. That there are also conflicts on the ground is important to remember. Especially when one of the most-visible conflicts is currently occurring in territory which is covered in one of the treaties which is on display. It shouldn’t be up to the audience to make those connections.

World Press Photo

Mevlut Mert Altintas standing over Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey. Burhan Ozbilici, The Associated Press.

Mevlut Mert Altintas standing over Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey. Burhan Özbilici, 2017.

Every year there’s disagreement about the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year. This is to be expected given the nature of contests but in recent years the discussions have consistently trended toward issues of manipulation and honesty within the ethics of what Photojournalism™ allows. While I’ve touched on this territory in the past* the hyper-prescriptive nature of what kinds of digital manipulation are allowable is not something I’m interested in.

*Nothing in-depth but a quick look through the archives finds a post from 2012 and one from 2014.

This year though the discussion has become one of context and how the image exists in the world—a much more interesting thread to think about. Instead of a discussion about whether the image itself is worthy—it’s as clear a case of unmanipulated professional perfection in imagemaking as I’ve ever seen—the head of the jury has suggested that we need to consider more than just the technical quality of the image in anointing it “the best.”

Unlike the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the crime had limited political consequences. Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.

Stuart Franklin

I both agree and disagree with what he’s saying. I do however deeply respect that he’s pushing the discussion of imagemaking in that direction. And I think that what he’s saying is more of a discussion about how the media uses images and reports on news than it is about photography itself.

The media has fallen into the “if it bleeds it leads” trap of picking the news based on what has the most salacious details. A graphic photo definitely helps here and I totally buy the argument that this assassination wouldn’t have been news in The West if the photos weren’t any good.

At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with so-easily dismissing this event as being of “little political consequence.” Assassinating an ambassador is a big deal. It’s an attack on The State. As much as I think the Benghazi stuff has been over emphasized in the US, I also don’t think that it should’ve been swept under the rug and forgotten instead. And I’d expect Russia to take it similarly as well.

That we haven’t heard anything about the political consequences of this image isn’t a failure of the image but a failure of the press which reported on a fantastic photo rather than any of the context which allows us to understand the events surrounding the image.

It’s exactly this absence of context which makes it easy for us to worry about the photo becoming a “platform for martyrdom and publicity.” We see the viral fame of the image itself and recognize the messages which can be attached to it. That the most-compelling component of the photo is the shooter, his passion, and his eerie professionalism is especially concerning. We don’t know who he is or what he really stands for but we’re open to hearing his message now.

This is in stark contrast to the other World Press Photo of the Year winners which depict assassinations. In Eddie Adams’s photo, the victim is the most compelling figure and we find ourselves wondering who he is instead of the shooter. We know he’s Vietcong and supposedly an enemy. But seeing him at the moment of death forces us to see his humanity.

Meanwhile in Yasushi Nagao’s photo both the killer and the victim are prominent and, while we want to learn more about the event in general, there is something to the look of shock/pain in the victim’s face which sticks with me. Again, his humanity is on display in a way which is very unlike in Özbilici’s photo where you have really look to notice the worn soles on the victim’s shoes.

In neither case is the image so explicitly about the killer. We see and empathize with the victims and, as such, don’t offer the same kind of platform to their killers.

The power of Adams’s image is that while, as Americans, we were supposedly on the same team as the killer, it forced us to reevaluate who our teammates are and the value of what we were fighting for. That it’s part of the narrative of an unpopular war and came out in the midst of an incredible year full of social upheaval only enhanced its power. That, as an American, I totally understand the context in which this photo is working in is a key reason why it’s iconic now. But I also recognize that this is American history on display.

Nagao’s photo on the other hand, while it’s the first image I thought of when I saw Özbilici’s, is still one about which I have no understanding of the larger political context. The image, and the idea that political violence can occur at any political event, has stuck with me ever since I saw it. I’m sure it resonates more strongly in Japan but for me it remains an example of how the media has always lead with compelling images and left the context out.

Anyway, I’m totally here for this discussion and thinking about how photos work as part of the news. And I’m happy to see that there’s a willingness to discuss what our responsibility when publishing photos should be. All very good signs considering how much our media has failed us in the past year.

Ragnar Kjartansson

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Performance Art is always a weird thing to experience in a museum setting. Most of the time, instead of observing the performance, the museum describes the concept and displays the evidence left behind—leaving it up the the viewer to imagine the experience itself. The Ragnar Kjartansson retrospective at the Hirshhorn is a bit different in this case. While there are still lots of notes and maquettes on display,* many of the pieces on in the exhibition feel like the performances were just part of the process for creating the artwork itself.

*I particularly liked the set models for his opera without any performers.

What I saw when looking at things like The End—Venezia, God, or The Visitors, wasn’t evidence or notes. While it was important to know how the pieces on display were created, they stood on their own as objects in and of themselves.

The End—Venezia is superficially funny but the longer you look at it and walk around all the different paintings, the more it sucks you in and becomes about the paintings rather than the performance as you start treating it as a puzzle to putting everything in order. As you look more and more at how the paintings reference each other you’re also thinking about time and how things change over a summer.

God is very similar in that it’s superficially funny while it draws you into paying attention to something completely different and unexpected. Kjartansson’s singing isn’t the part that you end up paying attention to* as your attention slowly moves to the other musicians in the performance. Whether it’s the small tempo changes from the drummer or waiting until one of the idle musicians finally joins in you’re much more aware of how the entire musical piece is constructed here.

*Though there was something about it which reminded me of Thom Yorke and Radiohead.

The Visitors is a multi-channel installation in which it’s as interesting to watch how other museum goers navigate the space as it is to watch the piece itself. How everyone picks what screen, or screens, to pay attention to as the music shifts. How, as the piece ends, everyone figures out which screens the performers are moving to  and gravitates to those screens. This isn’t evidence which encourages passive viewing, it’s been thought out and the result is a surprisingly-interactive multimedia presentation.

In all these cases, it doesn’t really matter that the original performance was a piece of Performance Art. It’s a nice touch, but for me they could just as well have been created without an audience since that aspect isn’t present in any of the installations. The results are for the museumgoing audience.

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It is nice though that there is one performance piece on display. Woman in E reminds us of how different the performance part of Performance Art is. And there is a difference. More cameras came out for this piece than any other. There’s a weird energy around staring at the performer. There’s a weird energy around not paying attention to the performer. Everyone’s conscious about how there’s a person on display.*

*I can’t help but compare the way everyone is aware of the performer with the way that they ignore the security guards but that’s a completely different blog post.

And while reacting to the piece and the gold and the weirdness of treating a young woman in strapless gown as literally an object on a pedestal is a huge part of the experience. I also wanted to know about how long the performance lasted* and whether the guitar had been modified so that she didn’t have to actually hold the chord for the entire time.

*2 and a half hours per performer, 3 performers a day according to the security guard.

Philadelphia Zoo

Back to the Philadelphia Zoo with our membership and camera in tow. The kids weren’t feeling it this visit. End-of-summer malaise to the point where they really need the structure of school. Also, it was super crowded since we went on Labor Day weekend. Oh well, we got to see a fair number of baby animals.

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September Backlog

Continuing from August.

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