Susan Meiselas

Finally getting to this post after a long break of blogging about museums. The same day I went to Pier 24 I also walked over to SFMOMA. I chose not to see the fancy Magritte show* but did walk through the large Susan Meiselas exhibition.

*I’m opposed to paying surcharges to see traveling shows of big-name artists since they frequently emphasize “here are his most-famous works” and “here’s merchandise featuring his most famous works” and rarely offer good insights about the artist himself. Yes I’m using “him” on purpose. Yes this felt like a total FAMSF show.

One of the reason’s I’ve not blogged about this yet is that I’ve been struggling with what angle to take. The Meiselas show is good and interesting but not necessarily in a way that I always like. And I’m not saying I have to like it, just that in figuring out my critiques I have to figure out what exactly rubs me the wrong way and that was kind of hard.

 

First off, her early work is very good and demonstrates a lot of the things that we don’t get with the typical documentary photography. The photos of Little Italy are wonderful in that kids growing up way. Meiselas is at home and photographing people who trust her and it’s just a great unguarded—or as unguarded as possible— view of adolescence.

The especially great thing seeing these is recognizing the difference in comfort around the camera and photographer that the subjects show. I’ve seen way too many photographs by men where it’s clear that things are a little creepy. None of that is going on here.

The Carnival Strippers series take this a step further. It’s great to see a series like this without the male gaze. There’s no leering going on and the images concentrate on the lives of the women. Yes there’s a lot of skin on display but it’s more nakedness and exhausted vulnerability instead of nudity.

Susan Meiselas. Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979.

Susan Meiselas.
Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979.

Where her early work is pretty much straight documentary photography, her subsequent work, starting with El Salvador and Nicaragua, gets more interesting the more you divorce it from photojournalism.  Not that it’s not photojournalism—it very much is—just that what seems to interest Meiselas is the life of the image itself.

There’s a reason her work was featured in Princeton’s Itinerant Language of Photography show. Where most exhibitions show just prints and have a small case showing how they were originally published in magazines, Meiselas is putting her prints on the wall with the magazines and other publications so we can compare how they’ve been used.

It’s conceptual art about how photography exists in the world and the ways we use the images. I enjoy seeing it—both in a how the sausage is made way and in the way that it shows Meiselas thinking about the life of her images while she works. She’s appearing on campus this week and I’m looking forward to seeing the conversations.

Susan Meiselas. Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq, 1992.

Susan Meiselas.
Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq, 1992.

Her work in Iraq documenting the Kurds moves even further away from straight photography and is as much about the history of the entire region rather than just what was happening while she was there. In addition to her photos there are archival images and maps which document western involvement in the area as well as the refugee diaspora.

How much of this is western responsibility? The archive photos show England getting involved in Kurdish politics in 1914. All too often photojourmalism feeds a narrative of awful things happening right now without considering the background of why people are suffering. Why they’re fighting. Why they’re fleeing. Why it’s impossible for the West to disassociate itself from the consequences of what’s going on.

All too often looking back into the history of the region—even just the photographic history—reveals our (“our” meaning “The West’s”) involvement in the area decades ago followed by decades of neglect after we destabilized the area. This lack of awareness makes it easy to claim that we have no responsibility for the current state of things and lay the blame at the people who we left holding the bag after we messed things up.

It’s a shame this kind of photojournalism seems more at home in museums than any current media. But it’s exciting to see photoland grappling with these issues.

The exhibition ends with a couple works where Meiselas is working collaboratively with her subjects. These two pieces are the primary cause for the delay in posting since I couldn’t wrap my head around my feelings about them.

The first one documents abuse in the UK. This is an important piece which is perfectly timed to hit at a moment when society has had a much-needed shift in its perception and framing of abuse and whose stories matter. Taking “portraits” of survivors’ rooms and letting their words hold equal weight to the image is a powerful way of centering their stories and making the point at both how important it is to listen to what victims say and how long-lasting the emotional and mental trauma from abuse can last.

At the same time, I got some weird vibes from this room in that I couldn’t escape the impression that this issue was an immigrant, refugee, non-white problem rather than a universal one. It’s hard. Small sample sizes like this are tough to handle and can produce inadvertent framing issues. I don’t know if by balancing for racial diversity meant we ended up with a mostly-immigrant one. Or maybe this is just the demographics of the refuge that Meiselas was working with. I just know that something felt off to me.

Twenty Dirhams or One Photo is another one that just doesn’t sit right with me. I do like some of the concept—especially the idea of trying to acknowledge the power issues which are at the core of most photography but especially haunt photojournalism and the way it’s frequently intertwined with colonialism. I like the idea of compensating sitters. I like the idea of considering whether or not people want you to take their photo. I like the idea of giving the sitters agency over whether or not to publish the photos. But something about the nature of this transaction still felt off to me.

One big thing is that the price feels like it’s something which is substantial enough to be tempting to the sitters but isn’t a big deal at all for Meiselas. Rather than a fair transaction, it’s more of a game where power is always with the photographer. This game aspect also gets triggered by the whole “decide before I take your photo” thing in the setup and how, while there’s agency in whether or not the photo gets published, I’m still wondering what brought the women into the studio to begin with. I’ve been a parent long enough to recognize how someone with power can offer the appearance of choice by controlling the options available to choose from.

Aside from the weirdness I felt about the experimental aspect of the piece,it is worth commenting on how the portraits themselves are quite nice. They show a wonderful variety of attire and age and really give a sense of the vitality of the market population.

So yeah. It’s been a couple months since I saw this show and the fact that I’m still grappling with conflicted feelings is ultimately a good thing. Even if I end up deciding I don’t like some parts, the fact that I had to think about it is great and even a failed experiment has value in what we can learn from it.

Other comments

One of the most frustrating things about this show is how aggressively SFMOMA enforced the “no photography” rule. I’m not complaining about not being allowed to take photos but if you’re going to have your guards shout at people whenever they take out their iPhone and point it at the wall, you’d better not have wall text that tells you to open the SFMOMA app and scan the code. I even pointed out the mixed messages to a guard and he just shrugged.

Anyway if my phone was new enough to run the app I’d’ve considered squeaky wheeling it and seeing how often I could get yelled at for following the directions that the curator had written. As it is I just took it as another example of the new SFMOMA no longer knowing what it wants to be.

Along with this sense of SFMOMA incompetence, nothing was translated even though Meiselas is very good about including what the locals call places in her captions. My notes show that I was particularly indignant about how a location Meiselas called “cuesta de plomo” (hill of lead) is merely listed as an assacicination location.

Palo Alto Obon

I danced in San José. I photographed in Mountain View. I wasn’t sure what I’d do in Palo Alto. Well besides eat. Of the three local festivals, Palo Alto is the one that just feels right. The food situation is well organized. There’s ample seating to eat. The dancing starts late and goes well into the night as people just have fun.

I ended up dancing again and taking photos while doing so. The low light gave my camera some problems but I like a decent number of these and they definitely give a good impression of what it was like to be there.

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Coyote Point

Our annual summer trip to Coyote Point and CuriOdyssey. The boys are kind of outgrowing the zoo although the fact that the animals were easily visible and very active this trip helped assuage that. But they’re liking the exhibits more and are starting to make connections to stuff they’re learning in school. This is encouraging. I remember going to the Exploratorium at least once every year when I was a kid* and I don’t remember ever paying attention to the science behind the exhibits.

*Usually on both a school fieldtrip and a summer camp field trip.

We also did our usual thing of hitting the Magic Mountain playground for a bit of fun on the gigantic slide. Then I took the boys up the road a bit to Burlingame for It’s-Its. It was, after all, National Ice Cream Sandwich Day.

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A White Whale and a Major Asshole

When I started working on the checklist for my Stanford project, the player that confused me the most was John Ramos. His 10 games didn’t merit a flagship 1992 Topps card but when I saw him included on the Topps Gold checklist I thought I was going a little crazy. How could he have a Gold parallel card but no base card?

It turns out that instead of releasing Gold versions of the checklists, Topps released cards for six rookies who had just missed the cut.* In my view, these six extra cards should of count as part of the 1992 set in a Master Set sort of way. I’d thought I had all of Topps’s 1992 cards. Turns out I was still missing a few and I added them to my list of things to search for every once in a while.

*#131 Terry Matthews, #264 Rod Beck, #366 Tony Perezchica, #527 Terry McDaniel, #658 John Ramos, and #787 Brian Williams. Also unbeknownst to me is the fact that there was a Gold parallel version of the Traded set and that card number #132T Kerry Woodson was substituted for the Traded checklist.

Of course, outside of the checklist replacements there’s another Gold-only 1992 Topps card. Card number 793 is a special autographed Gold-only card of bonus-baby phenom Brien Taylor. Taylor was supposed to be the next big thing. Instead he tore his rotator cuff in a bar fight and became the embodiment of everything the rookie-obsessed baseball card hobby fears. For me and my peer group, it was clear lesson about the perils of prospecting with cards.

Still, card number 793 fit my searchlist for completing a larger set of 1992 Topps cards. It’s just not a common like the others. Yes, even though Taylor never made it to the majors, he’s a touchstone for every collector my age and so his card is still in demand. Is it expensive? Not especially. But it’s also one of those things where as much as I’d like to have it I’m not going to be spending $20 on it either.

Is this a “white whale”? Not exactly. But it’s one of those cards where the price is higher than I’d ever want to spend (and definitely higher than the enjoyment I’d get from owning the card) so it’s in that ballpark.

It turns out I didn’t have to spend anything on it. Somehow Matt Prigge ended up with a bunch of these and offered to send me one since I seem to be the only person trying to collect those Gold cards that aren’t in Flagship.

Is awesome.

That the signature is all wonky makes me wonder if these were rejects or something but I don’t care. This is a wonderful Dated Rookie card for my nostalgia and takes me one card closer to finishing the 1992 “Master Set.” I only need Tony Perezchica and Kerry Woodson now.

Of course, as happens all the time, the mailing did not just include the Brien Taylor card. Matt sent a bunch of other Giant cards along including this 1973 Checklist which wasn’t even on my searchlist for completing my Giants team sets.

This is also the best kind of unexpected card mailing. Not only is it a card I “need” it’s also a card—specifically a checklist—that I hate buying. I must’ve pulled too many checklists when I was a kid since I have a visceral reaction whenever I think about purchasing a checklist by itself.

The rest of the mailing was 1990s stuff—much of it shiny. The first batch includes 1991 Ultra Update (a set I never purchased as a kid), a wonderful Barry Bonds Gallery of the Stars insert from Triple Play, 1994 Upper Deck Fun (another set I never even saw as a kid) and some Sportflics. Or I guess Sportflics had rebranded itself as Sportflix around this time.

Anyway, very cool. The Salomon Torres Bowman card is another nostalgia-inducing Dated Rookie card since he was supposed to be the next big thing for the Giants but the fanbase just turned on him after the 1993 season. I still feel sorry for the kid.

More shininess. I think the JR Phillips Bowman is base but good lord is it shiny. Score Gold Rush is always fun. I love that Rod Beck Upper Deck card where he’s already swung at the ball and missed it by at least a foot. The Silver Signature parallels are also a lot of fun. I think that line is my favorite foil parallel approach in all the early 1990s cards.

Also holy moly I did not realize that Topps Chrome was a thing as early as 1997.

And a couple more shiny cards. And a couple more Rod Becks.* Beck will always be one of my favorite Giants players and it’s been heartening to see how many other collectors have chosen to collect his cards. It’s clear he was a fan favorite everywhere he played and it’s a shame he didn’t live long enough for all of us to grow up and tell him as much.

*There were six in the stack.

Going from one of my favorites to one of my least favorites. Two A.J. Pierzynski cards is some top-level trolling. Yes they go in my Giants binder. No I do not like being reminded that he was on the team. Good lord what an asshole. Though I’m heartened by the number of people on Card Twitter who also hate him. I’m clearly following the right people on there.

Thanks Matt! I love the Taylor and I’m totally rooting for your Brewers to make it to the World Series this year.

Summer Parties

Where the previous post involved multiple parties for one birthday this one includes one party for multiple birthdays as well as a graduation party and another birthday party. Summer is time for family and family visits. We’re pretty isolated on the East Coast so it’s wonderful—especially for the kids—to be able to spend so much time with everyone.

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Stragglers

Late last week I discovered a small envelope in my mailbox with a few stragglers that didn’t make it into Marc’s original package. I gather that this is one of those instances when you mail something out and immediately discover that you forgot to put a few items in.*

*I do this a lot too but usually I just forget to include a note.

First off, this 1999 Topps Traded Ed Sprague finishes off my run of his “cards of record.”* Even more exciting about it is that takes my searchlist for all Stanford guys to being down to ten from the Topps/Bowman Flagship (and related) sets. Or well ten until Update releases later this year and adds a few more to the searchlist.

*Something I’ve tended to call Topps Flagship though in the late 90s–00s I’ve had to supplement with other brands since the checklists were often small and didn’t include more fringe players. For example, in Sprague’s case, Topps has no cards of him with the A’s.

It’s nice to have this project basically finish building mode and become something that just needs to be sustained. Where before I’ve mentioned turning the corner, and evolving the scope of what I’m searching for, the original scope will always exist as a goal to be completed.

The ten cards I’m missing fall into two categories.

Things I haven’t purchased because of price reasons:

  • Doug Camilli 1962 Topps
  • Doug Camilli 1966 Topps
  • Jim Lonborg 1965 Topps
  • Jim Lonborg 1968 Topps
  • Jim Lonborg 1970 Topps
  • Bill Wakefield 1964 Topps

Things that just haven’t turned up whenever I go searching:

  • Rick Helling 2002 Topps Traded
  • John Mayberry Jr. 2010 Topps Phillies Team Set
  • Mike Mussina 2009 Topps
  • Brian Sackinsky 1995 Topps

The price ones may never ever get completed. Most aren’t too bad but the 1962 Camilli rookie will always be beyond what I want to spend. The ones that haven’t turned up through searching are a more interesting bunch. The Mayberry Jr. Phillies card will likely be hard to track down. The other three though are a pretty random reflection of how certain things can just be not available.

The 1997 Finest Ed Sprague is one of the few cards I have from this set. I don’t really get the Finest ethos. It’s nice thick stock and super shiny; it just doesn’t move me. I’m tempted to peel the protective film layer off except I don’t trust it to not ruin the card after decades of being affixed.

The most interesting thing about this for me is how the back of the card notes that this is a “common.” I know, I know, Topps used to do this all the time with how it numbered sets and gave star players the “hero numbers” ending in 0 or 00. But there’s something about writing “common” on the card itself that really bothers me in that it feels incredibly artificial.

And my first sample of Topps Fire. Like Finest, this is another set I’ve had an immediate “not for me” response to even though I’m happy to get samples here and there so I can inspect them.

Fire actually looks much much better in person that it does in images. There’s more depth in the colors and printing than what comes across on screen and the card itself feels more consistent in its design than the trainwreck feel I get looking at images online.

Am I going to go go out and try to get more of these? No. The idea of looking through a binder of these kind of gives me hives. But Fire and Finest both work in small doses to add a little variety to the binder and I very much appreciate that.

Thanks Marc! These were worth waiting for.

Satchell Paige

About a week and a half ago I got a random notification from my blog* from Jason (@HeavyJ28) saying that he wanted to send me a card that I’d mentioned I should make a note to look for. Late last week the plain white envelope arrived.

*Though to be fair, ALL notifications from my blog are random and unexpected.

Jason’s relatively new to Twitter but was a blogger before then. He’s a Dodgers fan but we won’t hold that against him. Heck, living out here in Yankeesland now means I’ll take any National League or West Coast support I can find.

The card in question was a 1993 Topps Archives Satchell Paige. The real-deal 1953 card is one of my favorites. Artwork is nice. St. Louis Browns satisfies my desire to have cards from non-existent teams. And Paige is one of the singularly most-interesting baseball characters ever—which makes this card one of those that’ll always be out of my price range.

The Archives card though is a perfectly acceptable substitute. Sure it’s not vintage but it also means I don’t have to freak out about it being protected. And I’m sure my kids will love to see it since the eldest is a huge fan of Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventures and so is fully invested in Satchell’s mythology.

Jason also included a handful of Giants cards from the set. The Willie Mays is another beauty which I’ll never own. The Hoyt Wilhelm is great too as he’s a player with a big cult following. Monte Irvin is a personal favorite of mine (along with Hank Thompson for integration reasons). I actually have Irvin’s 1953 card as well and it’s fun to compare the two and see what’s lost or gained in the reproductions.

And there were a couple other randoms in the envelope. The 1973 Kingman is a nice classic 1970s look. The Bobby Bonds Jr, while technically a Padres card, is fun for a couple reasons. First, as a Bay Area native, it’s fun to see the Cañada College uniform on a baseball card. Also, I have fond memories of watching Bonds Jr play at San José later on in the 1990s. There was always lots of buzz whenever he was announced though even then I felt sorry for the guy for having to try and follow in both is father’s and brother’s footsteps.

Thanks for the mailing Jason!