Category Archives: books

Covert Operations

Jenny Holzer. Phoenix yellow white (detail), 2006

Jenny Holzer. Phoenix yellow white (detail), 2006

While I was in California this summer, I visited the San José Museum of Art to see the Covert Operations exhibition. Only part of the show was on display when I went* so this post covers both what I saw in the museum and what I’ve gotten from the catalog.** I’m used to treating catalogs as reminders of an exhibition so it’s a bit weird for me to be using one as a stand-in for portions of one. Thankfully, I saw most of the videos and video games in the show and have been using the book for the photography and painting—both of which translate much better to book form.

*It’s all up now.

**Which I flipped through in the museum to determine that it was worth getting. I have since spent a lot more time looking and reading through it.

On National Security

Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

While the theme of this exhibition is covert operations, most of the work is actually about National Security and the things that government does under that aegis. A lot of work, such as Jenny Holzer’s redacted Freedom of Information Act request prints and Trevor Paglen’s Defense Department investigations offer glimpses of what’s going on when National Defense world intersects with the civilian world.

Holzer’s work takes advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and the theoretical ability of any citizen to request government records. The resulting documents are anything but transparent as they arrive covered with redactions. Holzer enlarges the documents to the point where they feel like Abstract Expressionist paintings—where text, redactions, handwritten notes, etc. all feel like they’re working together in a cohesive piece. Only instead of being abstract, these very clearly show, despite the redactions, many of the ugly details that go into providing what we think of as security.

Paglen’s photography looks almost conventionally pretty—star trails and sunsets—except that there’s one small detail which is off. Maybe it’s a Reaper Drone way off to the side. Maybe that non-star streak is actually a CIA satellite. His other work—in particular Code Names—similarly explores the small ways that the Security Apparatus intrudes into our world.

Meanwhile, other things aren’t really covert at all and just exist outside of the awareness of regular Americans. In particular, David Taylor’s Working the Line documents the security—and the security theater—on the US-Mexico border. There’s nothing especially confidential here, nor is there the sense that there’s a whole bunch of other infrastructure at the border that we’re not seeing. Still, the extent of physical security at the border and the way it’s actually implemented is quite different than the way that we think of it.

Taryn Simon’s photograph of the Alhurra studio is also something non-covert that we just aren’t aware of in the US. The entire point of this network is to be seen by Arab communities so it’s anything but a secret. Yet it’s not allowed to be broadcast in the US despite being based and funded here.

Taken together, all these pieces describe a massive amount of infrastructure and bureaucracy that we’re not aware of. Revealing only the tip of the iceberg allows us to think about how much is going on that we aren’t seeing at all. The way that much of what we do see is already horrifying should also make us really think about how much worse—whether in scale or in degree—the truly hidden stuff is.

But even the non-awful images reveal an apparatus that treats our safety as something where we don’t really want to know the details and assumes that we’ll sign off on anything in the name of security. It’s this assumption that disturbs me more since it’s carte blanche for security agencies to do whatever they want in the name of security while not informing us what it is that they’re doing. It also makes it very easy for those agencies to dismiss critiques and questions by referencing our ignorance of what’s “really” going on.

We’re assumed to not want to know, kept from knowing, and then criticized for not knowing. All in the name of our own safety and security. So I’m glad that people are calling out and highlighting what we can know. I love that many of these people are artists since it makes the glimpses much more accessible and the more of us who know, even a little bit, the better.

On Weaponizing Art and Games

Harun Farocki. Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2009

Harun Farocki. Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2009

Another extremely interesting concept in this exhibition is how it demonstrates the way art, photography, and video games—things which often get criticized as being inherently non-useful—can actually be effectively weaponized or used as diplomacy.

Photography is the most obvious example due to its interaction with surveillance, intrusiveness, and privacy issues being one of its defining characteristics since day one. That much of photography’s acceptance by the public has been a steady erosion of sensibilities regarding these issues is already scary. But even today, much of the concern is about photographs by other individuals rather than the government—we accept security cameras everywhere but freak out about a stranger with a cell phone. Yet it’s the security cameras which are more intrusive since they feed directly in to monitoring by the state. Which is why it’s important to keep in mind where security cameras get installed, who they’re actually monitoring, and whose interests they’re protecting.

The use of modern art as cultural diplomacy is less obvious but is explicitly mentioned by Taryn Simon’s photograph of the CIA art gallery. The connection between art and culture and the idea that “good” art demonstrates a superior culture is shocking to see laid out—even though it’s used by many people now to malign* art which has not been accepted as “good” in the West. It also forces us to really question our understandings of our own taste and how we learned what we like. I certainly didn’t even consider that it could reflect Cold War indoctrination about what is “American” (or at least non-communist) even though thinking about it now makes complete sense.

*Or the similarly-related phenomenon of only praising “foreign” art that feels western and familiar.

Video games get a lot of play here as well. Harun Farocki shows how, instead of being entertainment, they’re now used for military training—which is pretty cool in that it allows for a safer and more varied training experience. At the same time, it’s disturbing how easy it is to go from a medium of pure entertainment to something that’s life and death and literally training people how to kill other people. There’s no noticeable difference in the form, just the use case. That many of these training videos look less realistic than what’s currently on the market is the kind of thing that makes it very easy to see the defenses of video games as being “just a game” as being somewhat hollow.*

*I’m not anti video games, but I’m increasingly critical of everything about them as mass entertainment. 

On the positive side, the way video games are also used as therapy for soldiers recovering from the stress of battle is both interesting and promising. They’re not fun here either, but seeing them used in a much more life-giving situation is nice to see. Still, it’s interesting to note the differences in quality and how there is more effort spent on training than on rehabilitation—but that’s a comment on the military’s priorities and not the medium itself.

I’ve long been used to technology’s give-and-take with the military. One of the best ways to really refine a technology is to push it to its extremes and the military is great at this. Much of what we take for granted today either started as a military project or got refined there. Art and culture are no different except that many people don’t understand how they’re useful.

Amazingly, the military does. And the way that the military uses art and culture should show us how dismissing them as a waste of time is lazy and incorrect. Art matters. It’s how we know and demonstrate who we are. It’s how we convert other people to our way of seeing the world. Entertainment matters. It’s how we interact with the world and the easiest way to introduce ourselves to new worlds. It’s a shame that for the military, new worlds have to be approached with a gun in hand, but that, again, is more about the military’s priorities rather than the medium.

Rethinking Evidence

David Taylor. Seismic Sensor, TX, 2007. From the series "Working the Line

David Taylor. Seismic Sensor, TX, 2007

One last thing about this exhibition is that it has me rethinking Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence. Many of the photos in Covert Operations are similarly bizarre in the way they show objects and places that exist outside of our understanding—except where in Evidence I found myself making up my own narratives and finding the humor in things, the Covert Operations photos biased me toward looking at the dark side. I have an inkling what they’re about but I’m still scratching the surface and know that there’s a lot more sinister stuff lurking underneath.

The result is that I can’t help but see Evidence now as a more innocent project* and which has made certain tradeoffs in opting for a fictional sequence rather than revealing or critiquing something real.

*Similar to how looking at Robert Adams’s later work has me rethinking the New Topographics.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like humorous work. It’s just that while I understand and enjoy the impulse to poke fun at banal government photographs, I’ve also come to realize that opting for humor—especially the “WTF this is so bizarre” humor of Evidence—is a choice that tends to rule out critiquing what government is actually doing. And so the next time I view Evidence, I’ll keep in mind how the recontextualization gives a free pass to the ways that the baby boomers were pulling up the ladder on the next generation.


Apologies for the hiatus in my writing. I’ve been traveling and haven’t had the time to be on a computer—let alone the internet—long enough to put a post together. I’ve also finally gotten my act together and started making photobooks of my own. Instead of blogging, or even taking photos, I’ve been working on my stream, editing things down, and creating physical things out my photos.

These aren’t even “art” photobooks. They’re just family photobooks to take the place of the albums I used to make before I started switching* to digital a decade ago. There are still some sequencing issues I have to work out but for the most part, the photos are ordered chronologically. Most of my work is instead on the layout side as I’m often trying to fit multiple photos on a page without making it look too scrapbooky.

*While my main camera was film until 2007, I’d started shooting digital point and shoots on the side around 2005. Once that happened I didn’t feel like I could have a proper photo album until I started printing the digital photos. Turns out it was scanning the film ones that I needed to do instead.

Well, layout and editing. I’m wrestling with over a decade of digital backlog which, while I’ve sorted everything on Flickr, I haven’t been particularly ruthless about cutting anything. The family format is a nice way to ease into editing since it offers a bit of a cushion where sentiment and emotional attachment to lesser images is still a good thing. They’re not images I want to have blown up, but I enjoy having them alongside the images I’m prouder of.

So I get to include a number of smaller photos instead of “tossing” them. Meanwhile, I’m only picking one of two from a given event to print larger so I’m still winnowing things down.*

*Not that I’ll be making a proper photobook from these, but it’s still a good exercise for myself to cut things down to the tightest edit possible.

My biggest problem with this approach is that Blurb’s software isn’t strong enough to handle layouts with multiple photos—let alone text—in a way that I like. I tried them all and while the programs and plugins (especially the Lightroom plugin) work great for basic one-photo-per-page layouts, they don’t have enough control over dimensions and text flow for me. I had to fire up my ancient copy of InDesign and do everything by hand instead. Thankfully Blurb’s dimension calculator is accurate.

Printingwise, I’m plenty happy. I’ve been watching digital printing for a decade now and part of the reason for my waiting to make books has been waiting for the quality to be acceptable. While I can still see rosettes, they’re consistent with the higher-quality commercial print screens (~175lpi) I’m used to seeing. They don’t have the weird look of a lot of non-halftone digital screens nor are they as good as high-quality stochastic or super-fine (~600lpi) photobook screens.

The rest of the book feels great too. The premium matte paper is very nice and the bindings and covers are also solid. My family and I have already enjoyed looking through them and remembering things and I can’t wait to make more books now.

A few discoveries

Not exactly lessons learned, instead more like assumptions confirmed. I was a bit ambitious and made and ordered three books before getting a chance to confirm that they were indeed going to satisfy my expectations.

  • Converting grayscale images to RGB before creating the PDF resulted in nice black and white images.
  • 1.75″×2.625″ is indeed large enough to work in an album
  • I’m not wedded to aspect ratio with small photos
  • 10 point text is just fine

The black and white images were my largest concern since digital printing has a tendency to consider black and white printing as the budget option and not do as much quality control over print quality as it does over detecting color clicks for ink usage. But sending as RGB images worked fine. I’d consider toning them a little warmer since the Blurb defaults are slightly cool for my taste, but that may also be a lot more work for a minimal gain and a lot of potential problems.

Colors of Confinement

Bill Manbo. Colors of Confinement

Bill Manbo’s Colors of Confinement is very different than anything I cover in my Born Free and Equal post. Where even Miyatake as an insider was taking photos as documentation of the camp itself, Manbo is just photographing his life. There’s no expected audience besides his own family and no goals beyond remembering.

The photos are a lot of fun. It’s a beautiful area and Manbo’s a technically competent photographer who’s able to work in low light with slow film* as well as frame things beyond just bulls-eying his subjects. Color is especially welcome. Given how popular colorizing old photos is it’s always nice to be reminded that color images do exist from the 1940s. Something about seeing things in color moves internment into the “color” era rather than the “black and white” era and even while I know better, I have to admit that there is something more accessible about these.

*Lots of sunrises and sunsets which, while obvious subjects, are not the easiest thing to shoot with ASA8 or ASA10 speed film.

What sets the book apart though are the essays. They’re all great but the most-interesting point is Jasmine Alinder’s assertion that the family snapshot is a human right. She reaches this point by describing why cameras were eventually allowed into the camps but the general point stands on its own. Despite the tendency of photography rights to get caught up in documentary evidence and whistleblowing, it’s vernacular photography which allows us to construct our sense of self.

This is much of the appeal of looking through old photo albums in general. There is a universality to images of kids playing and growing up; local celebrations and events; group photos just because everyone’s together. We see ourselves and recognize elements of our own lives in these photos. They aren’t art or journalism but while every family has very similar images, these are the first things to be saved in a disaster.

Manbo’s photos are a perfect example of this. He shows life and the good things going on just like most people’s photos do. There’s lots of fun and joy and the kind of memories everyone wants to have. The only difference here is that the setting is an internment camp.

Bill Manbo. Colors of Confinement.

The photos don’t deny or hide the setting. It is what it is—heck, there’s even some palpable anger present in some of the frames. But they humanize the inhabitants by showing how they live and how normal life is—despite the obvious abnormal nature of the situation—by presenting them in the same kinds of photos that we all have in our family albums.

The standard documentary approach typically involves casting the subjects as tragic figures. This is conventionally powerful and absolutely necessary, but the more I see it the more I find myself questioning our tendency to treat it as the most important point of view. It’s not exactly a trope, but it comes really close to that in how the subjects of the photos are only important in how their otherness can move the viewers emotionally.

Again, this isn’t to say that Dorothea Lange’s photos of internees are bad and that we shouldn’t see the suffering. But it’s important to be aware of the kinds of photos which are missing from most documentary photography. If you don’t see the photos of people living, kids growing up, normal everyday life, you’re not seeing the things that make them human like the rest of us. And that’s a bit of a problem.

Are the camps awful? At one level, absolutely.* At another. Not really. It’s clear looking at these photos why so many of the sansei kids who grew up in these camps don’t remember them as being bad. There was so much for them to do since the goal was to keep the kids busy.** Skating, sledding, sports, scouting, bands, etc. Kids had free reign in a safe environment and got to grow up in school and social environments where they weren’t minorities.

*Nor were they ever as great as Adams portrays them. Compared to Lange, Adams’s heroic photos are the other side of the coin in how they have very specific aims about how they want their white audience to react to what the non-white people depicted in the photos have gone through.

**And turn them into Americans.

Bill Manbo. Colors of Confinment.

Treating the camps as uniformly and undeniably awful does a disservice to the diversity of the experiences of the internees.* It’s weird to say you enjoyed the camps if you feel you’re supposed to have hated it and it robs you of your own agency and memory to have a forced narrative like that. Manbo’s photos directly challenge the standard narrative by showing all the fun parts of the camps in a non-PR way.

There’s also a lot to be said for the cultural developments in the camps as the internees formed distinct Japanese-American traditions like Obon which are still celebrated today. This isn’t just cultural pluralism which celebrates Japanese things alongside American ones, it’s the development of new American traditions.

*Lon Kurashige’s essay in the book thoroughly covers this territory.

Where the WRA and the Ansel Adams photos emphasize “American” activities like scouting and baseball, Manbo shows other cultural aspects which didn’t fit that narrative but are as important and recognizable to Japanese Americans today. While I like the photos which demonstrate the traditionally American activities, the incompleteness of the picture frustrates me. Each time I go to Obon I see kids participating who are a fourth, or less, Japanese. But this is their culture and it’s a highlight of summer. It’s great to see photos of the beginning of new American traditions rather than getting only the prescriptive framing about what kinds of things are, or aren’t, American.


A selection of these photos came to Princeton for display in one of the dorm galleries. It’s nice to see big prints on the walls but I think I prefer these in book form. They’re more something I’d like to flip through and take in as an album rather than browsing through in a gallery. This might be an “art or not” distinction but it’s also related to how Manbo’s photos work better as a group rather than individual images.

One thing about the big prints that did catch my eye is that they’re printed with the black edge of the slide holder visible but cut off (much like the images on this webpage are). The book puts these images on black backgrounds so the presentation looks more like what a slideshow would look like.

I also caught much of the round table discussion about these photos. Not enough to provide a summary but I really liked Joshua Chambers-Letson’s talk about race as performance both from a double consciousness point of view and with the idea that Americana itself is a performance. This made a lot of sense in the context of al the internment photos since the tensions between being American and being foreign and being “loyal” and resisting what was being done to you course through everything here.

There’s also always the sense of oversight in the internment photos. Whether it’s oversight by the WRA censors or the camp management or the watchtowers looming in the background—or just out of frame of the images themselves. It’s not much a stretch to consider the oversight in photography now as we construct our own panopticons and continue to deal with racial issues in current society.

Born Free and Equal

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.  Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Richard Kobayashi, farmer with cabbages.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Richard Kobayashi, farmer with cabbages.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Harry Hanawa, mechanic.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Harry Hanawa, mechanic.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Corporal Jimmie Shohara.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Corporal Jimmie Shohara.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Pictures and mementoes on phonograph top: Yonemitsu home.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Pictures and mementoes on phonograph top: Yonemitsu home.

I’ve had a copy of Born Free and Equal* on my shelf for a while. I’ve flipped through it a few times but never really looked that closely, or read the essays, in it until recently. It took receiving a copy of Colors of Confinement** for Christmas to give me the push to actually look at Adams’s work and realize how distinct—in both weird and great ways—it is.

*I have this version of it which is very clear about not being associated with anything officially Ansel Adams branded. Given how the photos are in the public domain there’s probably some interest in comparing different printings too. It’s also interesting to see how the Library of Congress has digitized the collection by scanning both Adams’s prints and his negatives and presenting both versions as high-resolution downloads.

**Yes I’ll have a post on this coming eventually to.

Adams’s work was not part of the WRA and so isn’t government propaganda. At the same time, with its heroic headshots and optimistic assimilated future it feels incredibly propagandalike. There’s nothing here about hardship or injustice. None of the camp watchtowers or fences are pictured.* Everyone is identified as American. And all the activities depicted—baseball, scouting, marching band, home decor, toys, clothing, etc.—are “American.” The rare “unamerican” things—tofu preparation and buddhist rituals—are part of larger lists rather than highlighted images in their own right.

*While the texts says that Adams was not allowed to shoot the fences or watch towers, his photographs are not about confinement at all.

The portraits in particular are indeed heroic: full sun, tightly cropped, no context besides occupation. While we know that the subjects suffered hardships, they’re unbowed, optimistic, and looking forward to bigger and better things. The other photos are similar in tone and emphasize the working settlement and community which they have built in a tough landscape. The text accompanying the images expands on these themes by emphasizing loyalty, their post-internment relocation plans, and how they’ll become productive Americans.

I fully understand why this point of view was needed at the time. And why it got Adams into a bit of trouble when he exhibited these photographs in 1944. Still, the assimilationist view bugs me. Both in how it defines what it means to be an American and by extension, what it implies is non-American. While these photos aren’t about confinement, they are about a loss of culture.* To present as American, most of the Japaneseness has been scrubbed out of the photos.

*Which, given how big a deal Obon and other Nikkei Matsuri are still today, is distinctly not what happened.

At the same time, I can’t hate on these photos. Despite my issues with them, a large part of me is overjoyed to see Asian-Americans presented as simply, American. What makes these photos distinctly great is that it’s sadly jarring to see this view even today. Many people still do not expect “regular Americans” to be Asian. We need to see this representation more often.

Looking through the photos with today’s eyes and I also see some weirdness going on. Despite not being about confinement at all, because Adams published them at a larger scale under his name, they sort of became the most-likely collection of internment images for people to have seen. Internment is correctly remembered as one of the United States’ major mistakes in civil rights yet the images associated with it are these heroic ones which gloss over most of the abuses. I found myself wanting to look at some of the more critical photos as well. Thankfully, the book has essays which point in the correct direction.

Archie Miyatake’s essay about his father, Toyo, is especially informative. Toyo Miyatake became the official Manzanar camp photographer after smuggling in a lens and ground glass. At first he photographed on the sly with his home-made camera* and smuggled film and chemicals but eventually gained the acceptance of the camp director and photographed officially.

*This camera has become a symbol in its own right of the internment and internees willingness to fight the system.

I went looking for more of Miyatake’s photos of the camp. There are precious few of them online* but I was able to find copies of Two Views of Manzanar—a catalog from a 1978 show of Miyatake’s and Adams’s Manzanar photographs— and Elusive Truth: Four Photographers at Manzanar—a 2002 book** which features Miyatake, Adams, Clem Albers, and Dorothea Lange and frames the internment as something we need to remember in a post-September 11 world.*** There’s also a good, but long, series of posts by Nancy Matsumoto which covers all this ground and then some.

*Which is why there are none in this post.

**I can’t recommend it since some of the photos are printed horribly. Thankfully JARDA exists instead so I can find higher resolution versions of what’s in the book.

***There’s no need to discuss Adams’s photos again but it is worth noting that the subjects are identified by name instead of occupation in these two books.

Miyatake’s photos are interesting. Lots of posed documentary shots since that’s what he was supposed to be doing in the camp. But also a lot of images that Adams didn’t, or couldn’t show.  The watchtowers. Posing by the barbed wire fences. Kids lined up at the toy loan center. It’s very clear how this is strange confined world which is not acceptable.

There’s also a lot of the flip side to what Adams’s photos show. Where Adams photographed members of the 442nd as American heroes, Miyatake photographed their departure and their funerals and the way this impacted the community left behind—especially the Issei who Adams didn’t depict and who can’t be described as Americans because they weren’t allowed to become citizens.

The photos aren’t all negative though. Miyatake’s aims were more about capturing and remembering what happened rather than publishing and achieving social change. He wanted to be in Manzanar for the duration and have images which showed the entirety of the camp to future generations. There are photos of graduations and Christmases and other events showing how life went on and people had fun and things weren’t horrible even though nothing depicted should be considered normal. Ever.

Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42. A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry arrives here by train prior to being transferred by bus to Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center.

Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42.
A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry arrives here by train prior to being transferred by bus to Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center.

Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry arrive here by train and await buses for Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center.

Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42.
Evacuees of Japanese ancestry arrive here by train and await buses for Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center.

Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42. Evacuees clearing brush to enlarge this War Relocation Authority center which will house 10,000 evacuees of Japanese ancestry for the duration.

Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42.
Evacuees clearing brush to enlarge this War Relocation Authority center which will house 10,000 evacuees of Japanese ancestry for the duration.

Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42. Evacuees of Japanese descent carry their personal effects preparatory to setting up housekeeping at this War Relocation Authority center.

Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42.
Evacuees of Japanese descent carry their personal effects preparatory to setting up housekeeping at this War Relocation Authority center.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42. A chef of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center. Evacuees find opportunities to follow their callings.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42.
A chef of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center. Evacuees find opportunities to follow their callings.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 6/30/42. View of barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority center, showing outside entrances.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 6/30/42.
View of barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority center, showing outside entrances.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 5/20/42. Enjoying an afternoon stroll at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 5/20/42.
Enjoying an afternoon stroll at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42. Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42.
Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center.

Sort of ironically, it’s the official WRA photographs which end up hammering the social justice angle of the camps. Clem Albers and Dorothea Lange have different axes to grind—Albers is skeptical of the government and Lange is all about social change—but together their photos capture a much different Manzanar. Instead of the self-sufficient settlement that Adams shows, the WRA photos show the camp at its worst—needing to be cleared and built by the same people who were to be confined there.

Albers in particular is very smart about trying to show confinement while following the guidelines of not showing actual confinement. He frames subjects behind glass or in tight rooms or somehow otherwise confined. And if he can’t do that he includes a caucasian authority figure who, while not being depicted negatively, implies that there is more going on in the image. Why does the military police need to be involved with getting children or the elderly off of a train?

Lange meanwhile sees the internees as tragic figures who are being horribly wronged by their government. Her photos emphasize the existing context of what has been done to the internees. If you include her work of the evacuation before the camps were set up,* this point of view becomes even stronger. They’ve lost so much and are now working extremely hard in an inhospitable place to eek out their living. There’s no future in mind, only our complicity in what’s been done to them already.

*Most famously her I Am An American photo.

Lange and Albers’s photos look more like what I’d expect images of the internment to look like. Harsh, brutal, unjust images of an unjust event. Looking at them solidified my takeaway from Adams’s work about how weirdly great it is. Despite its assimilationist tones, there is something wonderful about presenting an oppressed group not only as humans but as peers who have persevered despite the oppression. All too often we only see the oppression and suffering which, while important to witness, risks making someone else’s pain into a spectacle.

Photographers’ Sketchbooks

Photographers Sketchbooks

I always love it when I’m at a museum and information about how an artist worked is available along with the actual art. I’m not just interested in learning how something was constructed,* I love to see how artists worked through their ideas and found what worked and what didn’t. The effort part of art is too often framed as being only in the actual creation side of things—painting, sculpting, etc.—not in the ideation and working through of the concepts or in the decision making about what to actually show people.

*Though that’s cool too.

This is especially important with photography since discarded work is preserved in ways which are often indistinguishable from the keepers. Unlike other arts, photography is in many ways a permanent work-in-progress as discards return to the archive and projects evolve. Being able to view a photographer’s unpublished work and see how it evolved is a rare pleasure.

Which is what makes Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals’s Photographers’ Sketchbooks so exciting. Rather than being about a single photographer, this book has samples from dozens of them. The term “sketchbook” doesn’t begin to describe the various working methods in here. There are contact sheets, maquettes and dummies, online streams, notebooks, workbooks, work prints, plans, sketches, and more. All vastly different ways of conceiving projects, working through them, and editing them. This is how art is made. There’s never one right way.

Many of the samples involve working with the stream and the archive. Taking unfinished work and knocking the corners off or reshuffling things. Showing the results to trusted peers. Rinse and repeat. That we’re allowed in to see this unfinished, unreleased work—oftentimes without explicit references to the finished pieces—is a major privilege which demonstrates the significant amount of trust that the artists have placed in McLaren and Formhals to handle and present these private documents into a more public space.

For photographers whose work I was familiar with it was great to see the behind-the-scenes side of how the work was produced. For those whose work I was unfamiliar with, I enjoyed being introduced to new work as well as learning some backstory for when I encountered the finished work. I can see myself returning to this book as I encounter more photography in the wild.

As a photographer, it’s also great to see how many different approaches there are. This isn’t a how-to guide. But it is inspiring. It’s easy to accumulate an archive of photos. Winnowing through and turning that archive into projects—even if they’re just family photo albums—is something I’ve been putting off for too long. Where most photobooks influence how I take photos and see things, Photographers’ Sketchbooks is encouraging me to do something with them.

California State Railroad Museum

Andrew J. Russell. The "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, U.T., May 10, 1869.

Andrew J. Russell. The “Last Spike”

We’ve been going to the train museum for a couple years now. Now that the kids are finally old enough to leave alone in the train table area,* I’ve finally been able to take a proper look at the exhibits. I also finally caught the movie** they show there so I can comment on that too.

*As in they don’t care if one parent disappears for a while now.

**They can sit through movies now too! Though the youngest still cries out “TRAIN!” whenever he sees one on-screen.

Corky Lee. Restaging The "Last Spike."

Corky Lee. Restaging The “Last Spike”

The movie is different that I remember as a kid. Makes sense since it’s from 1990 even though it looks at least 5 years older than that.* It’s much more multicultural than the museum and film I remembered. When I was a kid my mom always pointed out how the famous “Last Spike” photo had none of the Chinese workers in it. Only this spring has it been officially acknowledged by Congress. And it’s been fun to see Corky Lee’s restaging of the photo in celebration. Now, the Chinese contribution to the construction of the railroad is emphasized almost immediately and the museum displays include artifacts from the labor camps.

*Seriously. This screams early/mid-80s, not 1990 to me—which confused me a lot this time since it LOOKS like something I should have been able to watch as a child.

The movie also mentions that the industry employed a ton of black labor on the service side and latino labor on the trainyard side. Very multicultural. Kind of nice to see this degree of awareness in something so dated. And kind of scary since it’s evidence that we’re into three decades now and so many people still don’t see, or refuse to see, this side of things.

There was also a special photography exhibit this time. In this case, it was about early railroad photography and how it sold the industry to the public. There was lots of stuff about early cameras and stereoscopic prints* which I kind of glossed over. I was more interested in how the museum displayed original photos with the engraved versions printed in newspapers, noting the differences in composition and scale and suggesting that these were intentional changes made on behalf of the people who owned both the railroads and the newspapers.

*Though if that’s your bag, they had a lot of Alfred A. Hart on display. The Getty has a decent sample of the kind of thing which was on display. The University of Nevada Reno has a ton of his work. And Stanford has a decent collection too.

The highlight though was being able to look through a full-size reproduction of Andrew J. Russell’s Great West Illustrated. As someone whose favorite photobook may be Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire, looking through, in many ways, an identical project documenting the landscape around a railroad’s construction, rather than its ruins, was great and pointed out a lot of details that were lost by the time Ruwedel did his project.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael's Cut, Granite Canon.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael’s Cut, Granite Canon

Much of the geography of railroading involves cutting through the landscape in order to keep a track graded correctly. These scars are prominent in Ruwedel as they’re the most-permanent landscape modification from railroading. I was unaware that they had names and seeing each cut given a special name in Russell’s album, gives a a more personal sense of things.

It’s not just a scar on the landscape. The cuts reflect a lot of manpower and effort and each one is unique. We no longer see the uniqueness since we’re looking at the absence of the railroad rather than marveling at its presence.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River

Russell’s photos also include a number of references to coal beds and even a town called Coalville. This is something else that is easy to forget. Railroads are inherently tied to the natural resources they need to consume in order to run. Especially when building them in a place without any existing railroads for transport.

That the photos include a lot of the infrastructure required to support the railroads shows that it’s not just about the achievement of laying the track, this is about development and taming nature.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains

It’s this intersection of development and nature which really puts Russell’s photos into the tradition of people like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins who are credited with defining much of the way we view the American West. When Russell isn’t showing how the railroad infrastructure is conquering the landscape, he’s showing us photos of the incredible views and wide open spaces available for people to move into. This is a land of opportunity, a land of growth, a land of potential.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon

Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes.

Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes

There’s also a completely different scale to the landscape in the West. Almost all of the photos include a human figure in the image. Some of this may be to hammer the “we’re here and can conquer this” point. But a lot of it is also just to provide scale. The landscape is huge.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle

But it’s settleable. Russell ends his journey in Salt Lake City with images that show a legitimate city nestled in the mountains. There’s also some curiosity about the Mormons, but it’s very clear that we can live in the West. And the railroads can take us there.

Besides the history side of things, I like a lot of the photos as photos even though all I had available to look at was a laminated digital print from a copy of the albumen print in the book. It’s not enough for him to just photograph the distinct landscape elements, I like his compositions and the way he’s able to situate so many of them in the landscape. I especially like the Hanging Rock photo and the way he’s used it to frame the settlement below it. Makes me wonder how much it would cost to buy a real print from the Oakland Museum.

LBM Dispatch 4: Three Valleys

After seeing Alec Soth’s photos of Silicon Valley, I wanted to see them in his Three Valleys series to see how my perception of them changed. My reaction to the Silicon Valley photos was very personal and while I appreciated what Soth was doing, I felt that it was an inadequate portrait of my home. I like them immensely more in their Three Valleys context.

My main issue with the Silicon Valley photos involved the lack of area history in the photos.

I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.

I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing.

Alec Soth’s Silicon Valley

This is no longer an issue when the San Joaquin Valley and Death Valley photos are included. What was a portrait of Silicon Valley has become more about California and its mythos as the promised land and how closely together success & failure and new & old and nature & technology live together. Instead of being about the details of one industry, it’s become about the ways different industries come and go and how people are left behind when the industry moves on.

As someone who visits the Central Valley regularly from the Bay Area, I’m very familiar with the time-warp nature of traveling from Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley. Everything is different. Life moves at a different pace. Driving huge distances becomes normal. Technology even seems somewhat marooned in the past and any cutting edge technology is like magic.*

*For the first few years when Priuses were backordered in the Bay Area, you could drive them off the lots in Fresno.

Comparing the two valleys really shows the two sides of the California dream and does a better job at suggesting the boom/bust nature of things than anything I’d hope to see in just the Silicon Valley series. Soth’s photos also consistently show how isolating the California myth is. The myth is to go out and strike it rich on your own. On. Your. Own. There’s no sense of community in any of the photos. Instead Soth shows people working on individual projects or isolated by their technology or soldiering on as the last of their kind. Kids are left to their own devices—albeit safely tethered. For such a supposedly free place we’ve erected a lot of walls for ourselves.

The people all feel familiar to me too. I know them. I’ve been them. I’ve talked to them. I’ve listened to them. They’re portraits of both people and archetypes

Bringing Death Valley into the mix adds another aspect of the California experience—namely how close the state is to getting wiped out by nature. Throughout the Silicon and San Joaquin sequences, Soth has included photos of nature butting up with industry. In the Bay Area we love that nature—whether the foothills or the bay— are right there. At the same time, both threaten to wipe us out. Faultlines go through the foothills on both sides of the bay. Global warming meanwhile promises higher sea levels in the future. In the Central Valley, it’s more about resource usage and how everything dies without water.

Nature is always there, lurking, as something to be respected. Especially with regard to water availability. Everything in California relies on water at some level. Death Valley is the ultimate warning of what we risk becoming, or returning to, should we screw up our resource management.

Death Valley also serves as an example of land which we haven’t managed to tame despite all out technological advances. For all our glittering promise and talk about being able to do anything, there are parts of the state which are inhospitable and lack mobile phone coverage and won’t be getting any of that any time soon.