We had a ton of snow in March and the boys had a ton of fun sledding in it. They weren’t into sledding the previous year but for whatever reason this time it all clicked and so we were out at the hill every day there was snow on the ground.
The main reason I went to The Met was to see Irving Penn. But once I was inside and after I finished with the Penn show I wandered around and checked out a few other exhibitions before I got too tired. This isn’t a comprehensive round-up but rather listing a few of the other highlights of my trip
The Burdick Collection—specifically the baseball cards—is the first place I head in the museum. It’s still off in a remote corner of the American Wing where it gets very little traffic. This is both disappointing and wonderful. I want more people to see these but I also enjoy having the whole gallery to myself.
I stand by my comments in last year’s Met post in that it’s especially interesting to look at print ephemera as art. While many of the baseball cards on display didn’t fit into last month’s photography history through being more paintings than photographs, they’re still part of our visual culture and language.
Baseball cards in particular are fascinating in how they represent a direct connection from the early days of cardomania to the modern trading card. The cards in the current hang cover the first half of the 20th century—from ~1910 lithographed tobacco cards to offset-printed Topps cards from 1959—which represents a period where many of the other subjects of cardomania disappeared* and the modern standard trading card format developed.
*Yes there are obviously non-sports trading cards for this entire time period, but the rise of movie and movie-star memorabilia resulted in a very different kind of mass-culture ephemera collecting. Instead of trading cards we had posters and lobby cards and promotional stills related to specific films and releases. Also, while I get hives from the current Allen & Ginter retro-revival brand, I have been finding myself intrigued by its non-sport choices and what those say about our national myths and nostalgia for other kinds of collecting.
As fun as it is to see cards from Topps series which I own, it’s the weirdness between the World Wars where cards became more and more kid-focused and tied in with gum and candy instead of tobacco which fascinates me. No standards—the sizes and artwork are wildly variable—yet there’s a certain “baseball cardness” to all of them. Only the rise of good color photography really puts and end to all of this and, while I enjoy the photography, I do kind of miss the wild-west nature of things which came before.
The big fashion show this year was Rei Kawakubo. I liked it, but for all of its cleverness in blurring categories and dualities in fashion, it all felt a little too similar to me. Still, it’s always good to be reminded at how the entire point of fashion is to mess with the human silhouette. And recognizing the dualities in how we approach any art form is a great exercise in questioning and being aware of what our assumptions are.
The standout items for me were the clothes which were intended to be worn by multiple people at once and her approach to the male/female duality. I don’t have much to say or add to the multiple-person clothing except that I wish there were a video of it on the runway.
The male/female clothes though were very interesting—especially in how they were displayed. Kawakubo’s male clothing for women includes extremely wide-legged trousers. Looking at the catalog it’s apparent that these were intended to be worn as shorts* but in the exhibition, the dress forms suggest that they could also be worn as a miniskirt with the other leg kind of behaving like the front panel of a kilt.
*the last photo on The Met’s image page.
The Early Photography in Italy exhibition, while small, was also a lot of fun. I’ve not see so many salt prints in one place before and this show was fascinating in the mix of different photography techniques. Paper negatives, glass negatives, salt prints, albumen prints in all possible combinations. And that’s not even getting into the daguerrotypes and colorized cartes de visite. I wish there was more about the processes in this show because I really wanted to note and compare the differences.
As much fun as albumen printing is, there’s something even more evocative in salt printing which feels less like a photograph and more like an illustration in terms of how certain details and contrasts get fuzzed out. This also holds with the negatives as the glass collodion negatives hold a lot more sharpness and detail (at the cost of being a lot more work to travel with).
But the photos themselves also represent a very important moment in history. It’s tempting to view these as being tourist prints and imagery from the early days of casual tourism. And they are. But the fact that tourist imagery is inherently tied up with national identity is important to remember. Where tourists travel and how a country markets itself are intimately connected and feed off of each other. That Italy at this point is uniting as a single country means that many of these images—especially the Gustave Le Gray photos of Garibaldi and the “new ruins” resulting from his campaigns—in addition to selling “Italy” to the world are also selling it to Italians themselves.
After viewing the Met’s Irving Penn Centennial, I can’t remember ever having had to reevaluate my understanding of an artist to this degree. This is different than recognizing that someone who I hadn’t paid attention to is actually a legit talent;* I knew and respected Irving Penn’s work as a portraitist and the Met’s show made me completely reconsider whether that was what he was.
*e.g. Ai Weiwei
Don’t get me wrong, Penn’s portraits are great and there’s a reason I conceived of him as a portraitist first. I especially love the corner portraits in how the constraint of the set gives the sitters things to do—suggesting certain poses and postures, offering places to put their arms—which don’t involve props but allow people who may not be used to posing ways of finding their angles. It’s a fantastically simple idea which more people should steal.
His later portraits are also wonderful in that they’re very clearly collaborations with the sitters and as such are often beautifully tight and intimate*—often just a face and a hand being constrained by the edges of Penn’s viewfinder in the same way he used the tight corner to constrain his sitters a decade earlier.
*I also love that the Met has his backdrop on display—even if it’s being used as selfie-bait.
But at heart he’s clearly a still life photographer. The Met makes this point by both starting and ending the exhibition with his still lifes—the implication being that they’re both his first love and the thing which has kept him sane through decades of commercial photography.
I’m not usually a still life guy* but these are wonderful in their restraint and attention to detail. Every small thing matters. Every detail is considered. If a still life is an opportunity to essentially brag about how good you are at your craft, Penn is indeed a master.
*It doesn’t matter what genre or medium we’re talking about. I very rarely find myself interested in still lifes.
But there’s more to it than that. Penn, as a photographer, is extremely interested in doing the most with the least and making sure that the few details we can see not only adequately describe everything which we don’t see but also overwhelm us with their textures and tones so we feel like we don’t even need to see anything else.
It’s this sensibility which makes Penn such a fantastic fashion photographer. We don’t need to see the full garment—let alone the entire look. Just a sleeve will suffice. Or a hat. Or the ruffle of a collar.
He understands how fashion works—how clothing works. It’s not about looking pretty, it’s about the structure and construction and the little details and textures which distinguish one garment from another—not only giving them character but also suggesting what events or occasions they could be used for.
Clothing, even at it’s most impractical extreme, is functional. It’s always doing something whether it’s merely protecting the body or making a statement about the wearer.
There’s no reason why this approach should be limited to high fashion and indeed, Penn does not limit himself to that world either. His small trades series is fantastic as an August Sanderesque approach to functional clothing.
I love his Small Trades series so much. We’re invited to look—really look—at the different ways that tradesmen dress in order to do their jobs. How they need to present or protect themselves. Where their clothing gets worn out or reinforced. Every photo is a reminder of how clothing works and is intimately connected to what the person wearing it is doing.
That so many of these trades are blue-collar jobs which we—or at least the people who visit the Met—are no longer familiar with adds an extra layer of interest to these photos. I overheard a number of people trying to figure out what jobs like “blast furnace tender” were before settling on things like “the guy who takes care of the heating in your apartment building.”
Most of the jobs still exist somewhere in the world but to us these photos also serve as a memorial to a more physical world as seen through the clothing of the people who worked in it.
Which brings us to Penn’s ethnographic work. In another setting this would’ve deserved a massive amount of side-eye but here, it’s not only enjoying the context of the fashion and trades photography, it’s a continuation of that photography.
The Met does a great job at flagging how the idea of documenting indigenous cultures before they disappear is a dated concept.* But it’s not really necessary here. Penn isn’t really doing ethnographic work. He’s making the same photos he always does—treating the Peruvian clothing with the same respect and reverence he treats all clothing whether it’s a Balenciaga gown or a dirty apron.
*Sadly not as dated as it should be but at least new projects which continue to reduce cultures to an artificially-imposed appearance of “authenticity” receive the criticism they deserve.
For Penn everything is Balenciaga.
So we get to see the clothing in whatever view best presents the clothing. Maybe it’s a typical model shot which also works as a portrait of the villagers. Or maybe it’s a pose where the villager’s is looking at the ground so we can appreciate the full glory of her hat.
He skirts very close to reducing culture to appearance but, for me, he steers clear of that pitfall and winds up in a much more interesting place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his photographs of the Moroccan women still wearing their veils.
Again, Penn approaches the veils like he approaches all clothing. But because of the austere nature of these garments and the way that the women wearing them are posing, instead of looking at the fabric and construction details, we see how the garments themselves are worn. How they’re tucked and folded. Where they hit on the body and where they drape.
We get a sense of character through the different ways each women carries herself in the photo. There’s a wonderful video showing how Penn took these photos in a mobile tent with wind swirling all over the place. The degree of cooperation and trust between him and the veiled women is also readily apparent.
I also enjoy the sense that Penn grappled with the morality of his work as a fashion photographer. In addition to being a still-life photographer at heart, the way his personal work serves as a way for him to sort of rebel against his commercial work is very interesting. That he chose decidedly non-fashion-figure women for his nude photography is great. And I love his cigarette photography and the way it reflects his pathos over glamorizing it.
The photos are beautiful but ugly with strong recognizable branding that’s burned and trash. 40 years later I’m amazed at how I recognize the brands even though I don’t think Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield even existed while I was alive.
This was a good show as it was just based on the content on display. Lots of good photos and every period covered well. But the way it balanced Penn’s personal work with his commercial work in terms of both who he is as a photographer and what he felt about the photos he was paid to make makes it a great show.
There’s not a lot of information on Penn’s process but what there is is fascinating. One of the long-running jokes we have online is the color vs black and white debate and how a number of people on the web trot out the axiom that photographing in color is photographing clothes. That much of Penn’s work involves shooting on color slide film then printing in black and white repeatedly made me chuckle since Penn essentially specialized in taking pictures of clothes.
I found myself wondering a lot about how Penn converted his slide film to black and white prints. There’s a lot of information about Penn’s Platinum printing but precious little about everything leading up to the printmaking itself. Is the internegative an enlargement made in the darkroom? Did he do any color filtering while making the enlargement?
The Platinum Printing information on the other hand is very interesting in how Penn created registration pins and repeatedly coated and exposed the paper so as to have more control over the final print. It’s a pretty interesting refinement on standard contact printing which definitely appeals to my background working in a printshop.
At the same time, I didn’t like a lot of his Platinum prints and—I readily admit how blasphemous this is—often preferred the halftoned prints in Vogue. I felt like Penn may have been a bit too seduced by what he could do with his fancy pin-registration contact-printing rig and, while I like the photos, found a lot of the details to be unnecessarily muddy.
And I say unnecessarily because the magazines were on display and the details were clearer there—as if someone in Vogue’s prepress recognized that shadows would block up on press and opened everything up so that would print nicely.
The magazines on display also included many more color prints of photos which were only black and white on the walls. It’s great to see both and see how Penn reimagined the scene in black and white.
A field trip with the preschool so I didn’t get a chance to really check out the museum. But from what I could tell it’s a cute little local museum which is extremely kid-friendly.
In looking at early photographic baseball cards I found myself wondering whether stereographs should also count as trading cards. I never see them mentioned in baseball card discussions but they fit the bill in terms of being photographs which were intended for mass consumption and trading.
The only difference is that stereograms tend to be about locations or events rather than people. Doing a quick search of large online repositories doesn’t turn up a lot of baseball, just some team photos—such as the one above from 1909—or special events such as the 1929 World Series. And while these are both subjects which come up time and again on baseball cards, they’re always supplements to the set of individual player photos.
Still, this got me thinking both about 3D photography and 3D baseball cards. If stereograms don’t feel like cards, what about Viewmaster? I didn’t remember any Viewmaster baseball sets but I figured they had to exist. They do. As with the stereograms, this doesn’t feel like a baseball card to me. But it’s closer in how it’s about individual players and, if these were sold cheaply in packs and were a collectible set, could very well have become part of the baseball card collecting world.
Viewmaster rubs a lot of the same nostalgia feels that baseball cards do. It’s a simple concept we all loved as kids—my kids still love it. The only problem is that you need the gadget to see the photos. At least with stereograms you could view the photos in 2D without needing a device. But requiring the 3D viewer and having that viewer limit the experience to a single person viewing a single image at a time means that it’s hard to share and display your collection.
I did some searching for anaglyph baseball cards but found nothing. This surprised me since, even if the cards would look awful, anaglyph 3D and its red/blue glasses is the iconic 3D look even today.
Instead what we have is lenticular 3D cards. It seems like the first versions were the super-limited-release Topps 3D set in 1968. I’ve not seen these but I have seen the more-common Kellogg’s 3-D Super Stars from the 1970s and 80s. These were always cool even with the cracking and bending issues.
The lenticular effect is less 3D and more more of just a layer of depth in the card. But it’s still a fun technology* which was much more accessible than stereograms or Viewmasters. A whole batch of these cards could be viewed at once by many people and, if in a binder sheet, the entire sheet would have depth rather than each one needing to be looked at individually.**
*As a 1980s kid I grew up with Sportsflics which used lenticular printing as a way to show motion. These were also super cool but belong in their own discussion.
**I also need to flag 1985’s Topps 3-D which are actual textured card surfaces rather than an optical effect and so in my view belong with the various die-cut cards as something distinct from 3D photography.
By the 1990s hologram technology was no longer the parlor trick it was when that first National Geographic came out with the eagle on the cover.* Where it was initially part of how Upper Deck branded its logo, their Denny’s sets in the early 1990s were entirely holographic cards.
*March 1984. I still remember it blowing my mind and expecting to find something, anything, hidden in the magazine because it couldn’t just be on the cover.
I haven’t looked at mine in two and a half decades but I remember them as being similar to the lenticular cards—not true 3D but rather multiple flat layers which still gave the card depth. I suspect that this is because they couldn’t take a proper holographic image of the player and instead had to use an existing photograph and layer it with other images.
They weren’t as easy to look at as the lenticular cards. There was no real color and your viewing angles were kind of limited. But I still remember them fondly and kind of want to acquire more of these. They’re cheaper on eBay than buying a Grand Slam was 25 years ago.
So I’ve been on ebay buying baseball cards. It was coming. But I’m trying my hardest not to go too crazy and limit my bids to the $5 range. It’s hard, every week there’s a lot or two that comes up and looks very tempting. But I don’t have the time or space or money to jump on those and besides, I really do need to go and look at my old collection to remember what I have already.
What I’ve been doing instead is running down specific items of personal interest which I wouldn’t have cared about at all as a kid. For example, Masanori Murakami. He used to be a non-story. There’s one entry about him making his debut in September 1964 in the Giants Diary and while it mentions him being the first Japanese to play in Major League Baseball, it’s mainly an aside. Not a big deal at all. Nor, really, should it have been.
This was all before Hideo Nomo became a sensation in 1995 and opened the pipeline of Japanese talent to the US. Murakami wasn’t just the first Japanese Major League player, he was the only Japanese player. An oddity before we figured out how to deal with translators and not part of any legacy. Post-Nomo? Now he has a legacy and the Giants can claim to have been the first, three decades before anyone else. And as a nikkei Giants fan, this makes me happy.
Learning about Murakami also takes me into learning more about how players move from Japan to the US. I also really enjoyed learning about other Japanese players in the Giants’ farm system during the same era. As someone who’s followed international soccer for a couple decades, it’s interesting to me how different everything is with baseball. As baseball gets increasingly international with professional leagues abroad where the quality is at least as good as American minor leagues it’s going to be very interesting to see how these rules develop.
All this made me curious about whether Murakami had ever appeared on a baseball card. When I found out that he had appeared on only one I felt compelled to track it down. I’m a little sad that he doesn’t get his own card, but the photo is good and the 1965 design is fantastic so I can’t complain.
I’ve also learned a lot about baseball’s labor history since I was a kid. When I was little I found the contract holdouts and concerns about money to be absurd and frustrating. I eventually came to realize that my sympathies should be with the players even while the strike in 1994 broke me of both my baseball habit and my card-collecting habit.
I was surprised to discover that Topps had made a Marvin Miller card in 2005. I’m even more surprised to learn that it’s part of their Fan Favorites line. This speaks very well of baseball fans since Miller ushered in a lot of things which, on the surface, fans love to complain about.
Still, aside from the moral issues of treating labor fairly, fans have a lot to thank Miller for too. For all the complaints about contracts and mercenaries, the flip side is being able to fantasize about free agent signings and the idea that any player can move to whatever team he wants to play for.
I found it interesting that Topps chose to use its 1970 design for Miller card. Miller had already taken it to Topps with a player boycott in 1967 and 1968 so any of those years could’ve worked. But going with 1970 means that Topps is referencing the Curt Flood issue.
Which meant that I found myself checking for Curt Flood cards. Specifically for 1969 when he has traded. I couldn’t pass up the 1970 card because of how wrong it is to show him playing for a team that he not only never played for, but which he refused to play for and went to the Supreme Court to avoid playing for. And the 1971 card completes the set since it’s the team he eventually chose to play for.
I wish the 1969 card had a better photo. I know that 1969 was hampered as a set because of aforementioned player boycott of Topps so it’s possible that Topps just didn’t have a good photo of Flood on hand. Though given the nature of what happened to Flood, the eyeroll/no fucks given expression is also appropriate. The 1970 and 1971 photos are typical “hide the hat logo in case he changes teams” shots. I like that in 1971 he looks somewhat relieved even though he has about to retire.
It’s a shame how little this side of baseball history gets covered. Ball Four* touched on it but the timing is off in that it occurs before the main conflict and then all the afterwords are more about Bowie Kuhn and Marvin Miller and the concept of how the owners could’ve avoided free agency by being slightly more generous with salaries and meal money.
*Now there’s another theme for card collecting I might run down some day.
And that’s kind of the thing. Flood was objecting to being bought and sold as if he were a piece of property. This wasn’t exactly about free agency—which Flood eventually got by sitting out all of the 1970 season—but it signaled to the players where that fight would have to be fought.
So on to Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and the Seitz decision in 1975. The courts turned out not be the best place to fight labor issues but the National Labor Relations Board was. It still amazes me that none of this history is really mentioned anywhere. In soccer, free agency is named after the player who fought for it. In baseball, there’s no similar reference that suggests how things changed to become the way they are today.
Something about the spring-training glow in these photos perfectly complements the garish card design. We’ve got foliage and palm trees in the background. Process colors being run at 100% by themselves for maximum brightness. These are cards which are very much of their time.
I’ll eventually get 1976 and 1977 Messersmith cards. Unlike with Flood where the card the year after the fight tells part of the story, the 1976 Messersmith card is kind of redundant to the 195 one. His 1977 card though features him with the Braves, the team he signed for as a free agent in 1976.