This Land is Whose Land

It’s kind of funny. I had to move away from the Bay Area in order to find the time to visit Pier 24. Before I moved I could never get into the city for a visit. Something about the weekday-only hours and having to reserve an appointment made it something that was just way too much work to fit into my schedule. Now that I live in New Jersey, it’s been relatively straightforward to include it on my itinerary when I return to California on a vacation. I’ve been three times in five years.

The current exhibition focuses on recent work documenting the United States. It’s not all photos of people but everything on display depicts elements of society and how it’s changed in the past decade. For me, as someone who’s spent the last decade paying a lot of attention to photography—especially new photography—many of these photos are not new to me. I’ve seen them online, in galleries, and at other museums. I haven’t seen them put together like this though as a depiction of, and conversation about, the current US social climate.

I got through two rooms before I had to stop and write down in my note book, “How white is this show going to be?”

This is not a dig at those two rooms* but rather a recognition that I had walked into the photoland equivalent of the endless media profiles of Trump Country which focus on “economic anxiety” and center the plight of poor white people.

*One was the entry room featuring photos by Katy Grannan and Richard Misrach. The other was a room of Alec Soth’s Songbook. Yes I’ve seen all of those before. Yes I even like many of them.

Bryan Schutmaat
Bryan Schutmaat

Heck, this is not a dig at any of the rooms. Rather it’s how Photoland missed—and misrepresented—the same things that the general media does. Any one of these photo projects is fine. Seeing them all together though just reinforces the tropes about who we consider to be American and who we’re expected to sympathize with.

It’s bad enough that I’m tempted to view a lot of this as Ruin Porn. It’s not the same as the luscious-surface-texture ruin porn that we saw in the beginning of the decade. In this case the themes and emotions represent the same easily-identifiable tropes of an alienated white middle and working class. We get that golden light of sunset and see the decline of towns and the isolation of the people who live there.

We don’t get a sense of why things are the way they are. We don’t get to see other communities and demographics. We don’t really get to learn anything from these. As well-crafted as these images are they also feel like the same story and same people over and over again. And as a result my brain just registers objections.

The Pier 24 no-context thing definitely hurts here too. Many of the images are ones where I want to know more about where they were taken and who used the structures. If the first round of ruin porn just involved us appreciating the way ruins look, this second round is about indulging in how the ruins represent people’s dreams. Not knowing whose dreams we’re looking at is a problem.

Highlights

Corine Vermeulen
Corine Vermeulen
Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey

It’s not all bad though. A few artists in particular stood out as saying something beyond just photographing the decay of white America.

Corine Vermeulen’s photos of Detroit are exceptional in how they celebrates perseverance and survival rather than limiting themselves to only portraying decline. Yes there are images in there of empty lots and abandoned buildings. But they’re outnumbered by images of life. Diverse images. All different ages. All different races. Individuals, couples, groups.

Have things sucked? Yes. Are things still hard? Also yes. Are things hopeless? No. Vermeulen’s work is optimistic and points at where we can go.

Dawoud Bey’s photographs of gentrifying Harlem meanwhile are wonderfully subtle—almost too subtle given the obviousness of the tropes at play in most of the other galleries. The images are often familiar but the focus is intentionally off from what I’d expect to be in focus.

The result is a set of images which is quietly about development and change. It turns the lens on the gentrifiers but in a way which never neglects to include an aspect of the old neighborhood also in the frame. Because of the focusing choices I was forced to really look at the photos and notice how details that are often used as background texture are in fact the lifeblood of the neighborhood being displaced.

An-My Lê’s photographs of New Orleans are another fabulously subtle collection* which gets into how history and myth interact—specifically in The South where the subtext of the Civil War and Slavery is everywhere. Her work feels especially relevant now as the whole country has had to grapple with these myths and where remembering history crosses over into glorifying atrocities.

*Yes I like subtle photographic themes in general but in this particular show where so many of the galleries are filled with unsubtle tropes I was particularly taken with the ones that encouraged me to stop and think.

The power of her photographs is such that when I can’t readily make the historical connection I find my brain suggesting plausible possibilities. Which means that her photo of that one solitary tree remains deeply disturbing to me weeks after I’ve seen it.

Lowlights

Paolo Pellegrin
Paolo Pellegrin

As much as I found a lot of the rooms to be over-troped, very few of them were what I’d call outright bad either. Paolo Pellegrin’s Rochester photos though really bugged me. Aside from my remembering his captioning controversy, the whole set just rubbed me the wrong way with a grittiness that felt like I was looking at clickbait.

My biggest problem is that it feels like the entire set is pro-police propaganda which shows all the “low lifes” they have to deal with now. The way Pier 24 hung the images caused me to see all of them as through this perspective. Even the photos which weren’t actually police-related. The tropes are so strong and this gallery leans so strongly into them that just a photo of kids running through a field ends up feeling like a police chase.

Given how much we all know now about how police interact with black communities, seeing these photos displayed like this really gave me hives.

Notes

Brian Ulrich
Brian Ulrich

A few notes about specific projects that caught my eye. I enjoyed Alessandra Sanguibetti’s work as a window into how a foreigner perceives America. Also the concept of photography as pre-emptive preservation for eventual death is pretty cool.

I also love Brian Ulrich’s deserted malls. A little bit of Todd Hido’s House Hunting. A little bit of Lewis Baltz. A little bit of Camilo José Vergara. There’s the suggestion that all old industry models are now dead in these.

James Nares’s slow-motion movie is a very interesting concept that just didn’t work for me. The big thing is that I feel like it needs more depth of field since I couldn’t help but watch it for photographic moments—many of which occurred in the out of focus areas. It is nice that this was as diverse as it was but it’s also yet another New York street photography project.

Daniel Postaer’s photos of San Francisco are fun because they’re of San Francisco and I recognize the locations. They also point out one of the weaknesses of good photographic practice and searching for nice light. All that wonderful golden light not only makes everything look the same but is literally the least San Francisco looking light possible.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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