Category Archives: books

Also at MCNY

There was a lot of other stuff at MCNY besides Aids at Home. I spent the most time in the NY at its Core rooms familiarizing myself with the city’s history and the way it’s chosen to present itself.

It’s clear to me that in addition to the city’s myths the museum is actively addressing the blind spots in those myths. This is especially true in the first half of the exhibition which focuses on the growth of New York as a port city. So while I get to see all the big names I remember from my history books—Henry Hudson to Alexander Hamilton to Boss Tweed—I also get to read about the original Lenape inhabitants and how, by being a port city, New York was also integral to slave trading.

It’s also very interesting to see how small New York was—both geographically and by population—and how recent its growth and development into New York™ actually is. The exhibition chronicles the advancement of the grid across Manhattan, the transformation from farming to housing and skyscrapers, and the way that New York (before consolidation) wanted to emulate Brooklyn by building large public parks.

It’s good that the museum notes how New York only became THE American city after the Civil War and THE world city after World War 2. It’s important to be aware of how external events have benefitted New York, especially once we get close to the end of the 20th century and the museum gets to cover both New York’s decline and September 11.

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

There was a small exhibition of photographs around the subject of being Muslim in New York. These were good in how they reference a lot of the tropes of New York photography while updating them to reflect Muslims as everyday New Yorkers. Cricket instead of stickball. Halal street vendors instead of Hebrew National or Sabrett stands. These photos don’t challenge stereotypes as much as they treat Muslims as the everyday people they are, showing them working, praying, playing, and growing up.

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There was also a gallery of World War I posters. I don’t have much to say about these except that, while I’ve seen many of them in books and online, it’s always nice to see them in person and get a sense of what their actual sizes and colors are.

I particularly enjoy looking at how these are printed. This information which was sadly lacking in the wall text but I really like being able to distinguish between lithographs and silkscreens and trying to figure out how many inks were used and how certain effects were achieved.

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One wall was full of multi-lingual posters. It was weird for me to not see Spanish among them but the wall served as a reminder that, while one of the myths about America is that it’s an English-only country, we’ve had to deal with multiple languages for a long time.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin's Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin’s Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

The last room I checked out was a gallery of Todd Webb’s photographs. I’d seen these before as part of one of The Online Photographer’s book sales* but the photos, while nice enough, didn’t really grab me. I liked them much better the second time around because the museum did a wonderful job of locating them within the city.

*One I jumped on because of Dorothea Lange and George N. Barnard.

I’m not a New Yorker. I’ll never be a New Yorker. And for me, the appeal of most of Webb’s photos required a level of knowledge of the city which I just didn’t have. So it was great fun to get, in essence, a tour of the city through this photos.

Enduring Truths

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1863; albumen print mounted on cardboard; 4 x 2 1/2 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. I sell the shadow to support the substance

I read Picturing Frederick Douglass a year and a half ago. It’s great but I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Yes the photos are good. Yes Douglass’s thoughts on photography are wonderfully modern. But I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to comment on.

It was only upon reading Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths that I realized why I couldn’t figure out anything to say. Douglass—both in his lectures and his photographs—focuses a lot on the image itself. What it means to make them. What it means to sit for them. What it means to look at them. He does not talk much about the photographs as objects, he thinks of them as texts. While I find those discussions interesting, they’re not what really get me excited.

I enjoy photographs as objects and illustrations. I love thinking about how we use them and how they function in society. Enduring Truths is about how people used photographs in the mid-19th century. How they were made. How they were purchased. How they were sold and collected and saved. It’s fascinating stuff—even more so given my return to baseball cards—which captures the beginning of photographs as currency, not just personal images or texts.

That Sojourner Truth sustained herself financially through selling photos of herself* means that the issues of copyright, production (and reproduction), branding, etc. are just as important as the actual content of the image. Grigsby does a masterful job at explaining how copyright law had to change to adjust for photography—especially in terms of choosing whether to prioritize the photographer or the sitter in terms of ownership—and how Truth’s decision to brand her cards with a copyrighted slogan represents an additional level of rights assertion over the fluidity of the situation.

*at 50¢ a pop which adjusts to ~$10.00 per photo today. Which seems both like a lot but is also the amount for a single Topps Now card.

Grigsby also gets into how the cards are made—especially the way that photography had to adjust for taking photos of dark skin—, the time frames involved, the quantities purchased, and the way they’re taxed by the government as a way of describing the culture of carte de visite (CdV) creation and collecting. They’re not exactly cheap because you have to order multiple copies—tintypes are still more affordable for lower-income people—but they’re cheap enough that at a certain middle-class level you could afford to not just make your own but acquire other peoples’ too. You had to purchase your own cards and it’s notable that Sojourner Truth purchased up to a hundred at a time when most people were purchasing maybe a dozen.

Where Grigsby outdoes herself though is in bringing in paper currency and autograph collecting as parallel developments which deserve to be seen as part of burgeoning CdV photography culture.

At the same time photography is coming into its own as a mass culture phenomenon, autograph collecting is also developing. Put these together—sometimes literally with either signed CdVs or CdVs of signatures—and we see the beginning of celebrity culture where we can traffic in both collectible images and something indicating a personal touch.

Photography, from its very beginning, has been tied up with celebrity culture and assignations of “value.” For Grigsby to compare it with paper money, both in terms of how they develop at the same point in history and how fraught the discussion about who should be depicted on the money has always been* is fantastic. I love, LOVE her description of both photography and paper currency as “reverse alchemy” where precious metals are transformed into paper.

*There’s a reason the US passed a law to prohibit anyone who was alive from appearing on money.

But it’s more than just the idea that paper is worth something. It’s the idea that images are intended to circulate and through their circulation they take on lives which are outside the control of the sitters or the photographers. As a photographer, I love how Douglass’s lectures make me think about why I’m taking photos. But as someone who loves to look at photos, it’s in the life of the images and how we consume them—or try and direct that consumption like Truth did with her assertions of copyright—that fascinates me.

This is the American Earth

This, as citizens, we all inherit. This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future.

—Nancy Newhall

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.

Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.

Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.

Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.

Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.

Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.

Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.

Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

And to what shabby hells of our own making do we rush? A poisoned, gutted planet, rolling through noxious air?

—Nancy Newhall

I’ll probably write this in every post of this series but one of the best parts of revisiting the photobooks I grew up with is finally reading the text. When I was a kid, photobooks were for looking at the photos and, maybe, reading the captions. Longer text that goes with the photos? No way. Which is a shame since all of the photobooks I grew up with were inherently political and had things to say beyond just the photos.

This is the American Earth is distinct among my parents’ photobooks because it’s the only one which I remember looking at for PHOTOGRAPHY™ reasons. Ansel Adams was definitely the first brand name photographer I learned of* and I seem to recall not only ignoring the text but also all the non-Adams photos in the book.

*One of the reasons I suspect that so many photographers profess to no longer like Ansel’s work is due to how he’s typically the first famous photographer people learn of and so is a distinctly obvious choice.

This meant that I missed out on a much of the best parts of the book. Adams, for being the “featured” photographer cedes a lot of space to other artists in order to flesh out the argument for conservation and demonstrate the different ways we use and experience the land.* And Newhall’s text is a wonderful short history of human civilization as explained by ruins and despoiling.

*While I skipped the text I apparently couldn’t fully-ignore the photos. I may not have studied them like I did the Adams images yet many of them (e.g. Eliot Porter’s  Terns or Margaret Bourke White’s Contour Plowing) are deeply familiar to me in and “oh THAT’S where I saw that” kind of way.

Reading that text one month into the Trump administration is still a shock even though I know and agree with what it’s saying. This book is almost sixty years old. 60. Yet its warning and advocacy are as important and relevant as ever. Our history of ruins. Our history of despoiling. The idea that we only know what we’re losing now that it’s almost gone. The call to action.

Part of it feels as inspiring as it must’ve felt in 1960. The idea that we can do something. The idea that we were smart enough to create National Parks. That we can obviously do more. And I know that we did make a lot of progress in these areas. When I was a kid, acid rain was a thing, air quality was awful, we were dumping trash in the ocean, and everyone was worried we’d run out of landfill space. None of those are issues my kids have to learn about because we’ve made changes in how we live.

Despite everything though, we never made a dent in the climate change disaster we’re about to endure. Plus we’re in the midst of trying to roll back the past six decades of advances. While I know that it’s short-term “pro-business” thinking doing the pushing, but there’s more to it that that. Like much of the backlash against the social progress we’ve made since the 1960s, I think that we’ve been almost too successful in making the changes and so we’ve forgotten what the alternatives are.

We’re now used to beautiful unspoiled landscapes. We live with them as our computer wallpapers. We see friends post them on social media. Meanwhile we’ve now forgotten that the images in This is the American Earth images existed effectively in parallel with Documerica. And yes, we have photos of ruined and wasted landscapes now too, but they don’t have the same sense of next door that Documerica does. We no longer see the pollution and, after a cold winter, even a disturbingly early spring feels like a blessing instead of a portent.

So the other, stronger reaction I have to the book now is reading it as an epitaph for America—if not humanity. A last hurrah of hope and change before everything melted away. I thought of Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures and how its point of view involved both contemplation of humanity’s impact on the Earth with the hope and promise of new experiences and new generations.

Except where Paglen is looking into the future and designed an object to outlast us all, Adams and Newhall have given us a book which will remind us of what could’ve been had we been less selfish and afraid.

There’s still hope in here, but it’s less in the beautiful photos of unspoiled wilderness and more in the photos which show how we’re using the land. As long as we’re invested in use—farming, housing, water, etc.—there’s an incentive to keep the land sustainable. These photos depict infrastructure that we’re still familiar with and understand the necessity of. They explicitly remind us how humans and the Earth are intertwined.

Meanwhile, the wilderness photos—especially the number which depict regrowth or new growth—suggest that no matter what humans do, Earth will survive. Many beautiful things and places will be lost but nature’s capacity to reclaim what we’ve despoiled is much stronger than we give it credit.

Magcloud

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Continuing my magazine experiments, this time I figured I’d give Magcloud a whirl. I was happy with Blurb’s magazines but I wanted to try smaller formats and experiment with saddlestitching. Magcloud’s 5.25″×8.25″ format looked ideal since it’s a decent size for vertical photos and the saddlestitch format is much more forgiving for crossovers so I can use similar-sized horizontal or square photos as well.

I’m pretty happy with the results. Magcloud uses very-good toner-based printing technology and the results are about as good as I’d expect from that. They do still show the typical telltale heavy-gloss in high-coverage areas* though so the overall result doesn’t feel as high quality to me as Blurb’s printing. But the print quality itself—screening, color, etc.—is plenty good.

*This is admittedly something I’m sensitive to and it only shows up in certain lighting situations anyway.

The only other thing which caught my attention is that Magcloud’s bindery operation is pretty loose. They want an eighth of an inch for bleeds and they mean it. I had a few photos where I could only spare a sixteenth of an inch for bleed and that wasn’t nearly enough, Magcloud needs the full eighth of an inch. Similarly, while the crossovers are mostly satisfactory, there’s a decent amount of play—over a sixteenth of an inch again—in terms of where the center fold is.

These aren’t complaints as the price is more than fair and the results are still fine. But they‘re worth keeping in mind so I don‘t expect anything better than that and treat these as the mini-projects/project dummies that they are. I don’t expect any of my magazines to be the final form of the projects, they’re just waypoints which scratch my urge to get things printed and which I can live with and look through until I’m ready to take the next step.

The magazines I made are all working through a bunch of small projects which I’m not sure what to do with yet. There are two which are photos from Powwow—one of the Aztec dancers, the other of the powwow itself.

There are two which are photos from Obon—one of San José Taiko, the other of the obon odori.

And there’s one which consists of photos from all the bounce house birthday parties I’ve been to.

Some of those projects I don’t expect to be adding to. Others might get a photo here or there each summer but I’m reaching the point where I’ll want to replace existing photos rather than add to the project overall. In all cases though I expect I’ll be heading back to Magcloud to do some more small projects and see how they work together.

Universe of Maps

After spending time at the Cantor Center, I wandered over to Green Library to check out the Universe of Maps exhibition. The Rumsey Map Center is a wonderful resource and I’ve long enjoyed exploring davidrumsey.com. Being able to see highlights from the collection in person was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

The exhibition is really a greatest-hits kind of show. No overarching theme, just case after case of cool shit. So I’ll just go down my notes and write about what jumped out at me.

Coloney & Fairchild's Patent Ribbon Maps ... Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

Coloney & Fairchild’s Patent Ribbon Maps … Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

The Colony & Fairchild ribbon map of the Mississippi is impressive as both a map and an artifact. It’s an eleven-foot-long tape measure of a map which seems utterly unusable since you have to unspool it completely in order to see the headwaters. At the same time it’s a wonderful way of looking at the river and perfectly demonstrates how it functions foremost as a transportation route. What’s most important on this map is what you encounter as you go up or downstream as towns and tributaries function the way you’d expect train stations to show up on a modern transport map.

The process of straightening out the river—but not too much—is one which I’d love to learn more about too. They very clearly had to get the river to fit in a straight line but there’s still a lot of meander detail visible. I don’t know the river well enough to gauge whether or not it’s done well but I love how this map keeps a sense of riverness in the abstraction.

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

Similarly, the London to Aberistwith wayfinding map interested me because it’s another map built around a specific use case. As with the Mississippi map, this one is very clearly a navigational map which takes a traveler from one point to another.

These kind of maps are also interesting because while the intent of these kinds of maps is to help inexperienced travelers, they also end up describing the journey and the territory covered. Where my kids like to trace on their maps the exact route of their journey, this would be like giving them a straight-line map showing them only what they encountered.

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Seeing the Aberwistwith map paired with the Photo-auto “map” was fantastic. While I have a hard time calling this a “map” I also don’t know what else to call it. It very clearly serves the same navigational use-case as a map does. It’s probably even easier than a map for some people to use as it mimics the kind of verbal instructions that people create. When we tell people where to go we highlight waypoints and tell them what to look for. Yes, street names and cardinal directions are also helpful, but it’s really things like “second left after the gas station” which make directions useful.

This also reminded me of Google Streetview and GPS-based navigation. Very useful when you can’t get verbal directions from someone but also no sense of the overall journey. While I am grateful for step-by-step directions, I’m never satisfied unless I can also figure out how they fit in to the general area.

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

The historical atlas with fog-of-war to give a sense of what hasn’t been explored yet was very striking. I love the idea of “what we don’t know yet” being an integral part of the design. Instead of zooming out to reveal more of the world, it’s very obvious that there’s a lot of world out there which is unknown.

I also enjoyed how this depiction reminded me of the fog-of-war feature in Warcraft and Starcraft. As with the Street View navigation photos, it’s fun to see how old ideas have been rediscovered today.

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

I don’t have much to say about the atlas for blind except to note that I was impressed that it was raised relief text rather than Braille.* It’s also just a neat artifact to see since we rarely see things like this in any museum. Even in the design exhibitions at dedicated art museums I can’t think of any pieces of accessibility design.

*That this was published the same year that Braille was developed is a nice coincidence.

Underground, in Map of London's Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

Underground, in Map of London’s Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

It’s always lovely to see a classic in the flesh. The Beck map is one of those landmarks of design. I can’t imagine the world without it as we’ve absorbed its lessons so thoroughly that this is what all subway and transport maps have as their reference now.

As is often the case with landmarks of design, I was surprised by how small this was. I know I know, of course it’s small, it’s a subway map. But because of its prominence in the history of design, I had imagined it as something bigger.

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

What I like most about Bachmann’s Panorama of the East Coast of The Confederacy is that it’s a view looking West from the Atlantic ocean. In addition to not being a standard view, it also ends up being a specifically political view. Orienting the map this way makes it represent the point of view of the Union blockaders. It’s not just the seat of war it’s an “us versus them” view of that seat.

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

Frank Dorn pictorial history of Beijing was just a lot of fun. It’s a reminder of how maps aren’t just about super-accurate roads and locations, they’re also a way of depicting and remembering a place. When I was a kid, these kind of pictorial maps—typically a gimmick for local advertising—where what sucked me into being interested in maps in general. The Dorn map is a much older example which is about memory instead of advertising.

This map has also gotten me thinking about trying to draw my own pictorial maps of my youth. As I’ve come to be more of a tourist in my hometown, I’ve been finding myself filling in my childhood memories and connecting where everything used to be. I’d like to be able to share these with my kids rather than be one of those dads pointing out the window while driving past where something used to be decades ago.

Emmett

It caught me by surprise at how much Emmett Mann’s death affected me. I don’t know him. Or even claim to know him. I only have a book with many many photos of him. But his image and his youth have had a deep and lasting impact on me as a photographer.

As a student, Immediate Family was one of those works which taught us how to look better and really think about how photography works. How family photographs work. How the simplest, purest motive for taking photos has room for some of the most amazing art—without having to do anything “arty” in order to get there.

Yes Mann’s photos aren’t “snaps” but neither are most family photos.

The photos of Emmett were especially poignant. He’s captured during his pre-teen transition from being innocent and unaware of how people saw him to thinking and considering his self-presentation. Because he’s my age, many of the clothing details* are the same small details I remember from my youth. While Mann’s work has never felt like a either new or dated—I can’t imagine photography without it—that I also see explicit examples from my youth in the photos does make them even more meaningful.

*Friendship bracelets!

Now as a parent of two boys, re-looking at Immediate Family brings a whole new level of recognition and understanding. As wonderful as it is as an project to introduce to young photographers, its best attribute is how it rewards my own maturation both as a photographer and as a man. I’m no longer just seeing myself in the photos and relating to the images on that level, I’m seeing them as a photographer and a parent.

It’s not just the seeing and realizing that family photos can be art. Or that they should be art. It’s the encouragement to see and notice and record those quiet moments of natural grace and beauty which my sons’ just have whether they’re engrossed in some minutia in the dirt or running around the house without their clothes on. I don’t always have the willingness or skill to tell them to stop and hold a pose but my brain is recording them. Hopefully I’ll remember a few of the moments I don’t photograph.

But Mann’s vision is there in the back of my mind the entire time. Nudging me. Encouraging me. Reminding me. Which means that Emmett is always there in the back of my mind. Just as he no doubt lives in the backs of so many other photographers’ minds.

Norton Juster

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So a month or so ago I had a chance to attend a conversation with Norton Juster.* There wasn’t much new information or anything if you’ve already read the Annotated Phantom Tollbooth but it was still wonderful. 2016 has been a rough year for everyone’s heroes. I’m very happy that I got to see, meet, and thank one of mine.

*It’s available on podcast now.

My favorite part of the talk was Juster’s response to the “which of the characters is your favorite” question. While mentioning the Tollbooth demons in general is funny enough, zeroing in on the bird and taking things “out of context” is the perfect answer. It also reminded me, again, how much context matters and how aggressive changing the context can be. And while Juster does this with wordplay, I know that much of my photo consumption—heck, this entire blog—is really just about context.

There are too many posts on here to link to all of them but they range from taking photos out of the context in which they were originally made to questioning the context in which art is displayed and labelled to playing with my own photographs and the contexts in which I display them. Again and again though, Juster’s point about questioning and being willing to change the context is key. And while the Phantom Tollbooth isn’t why I think like this, I’m grateful that I grew up with kids books which encouraged that thinking.