Category Archives: revisiting

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.

By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent

Part of an occasional series of posts where I revisit books which I grew up with.

Steve McCurry Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

Steve McCurry
Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

My earliest memories of just looking at photos all involve National Geographic. My parents had a subscription and I looked forward to the day each month when a thick magazine slipcovered in brown-paper arrived in our mailbox. I was too young to read the articles but I devoured the photos (and the maps of course) for at least the following week. I also would go through our magazine files and pull out my favorite past issues—reading the spines until I found the one with the feature I wanted—and revisit the photos all over again.

June 1984 was my favorite issue. By far. I paged through Paul Theroux’s By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent repeatedly as I was captivated by Steve McCurry’s photographs. It wasn’t anything specific about the quality of the photos which got me. I just, like many grade-school boys, loved trains and these were like no trains I’d ever seen. Instead of the commuter train pulled by diesel engines which took people up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San José, these were steam trains which wound through mountains and countrysides, were packed with people—including riders on the outsides of the cars—and had dining cars to accommodate multi-day journeys.

The recent McCurry pile-on which started with Teju Cole’s A Too-Perfect Picture coupled with some photoshop disasters encouraged me to both revisit McCurry’s train photos—the first set of photos I can remember loving—as well as to finally read the text which they accompany.

At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made. He has indeed gone full White Guy Photography, peddling a mythical third-world exotic beauty via photos that function as desktop backgrounds or hotel art.* Teju Cole says they’re boring. Paroma Mukherjee points out that the ethics behind these photos are dangerous. As McCurry packages them now I completely agree. They don’t tell us anything beyond confirming our stereotypes of the region and suggesting that modernization will ruin the “real” soul of the place.**

*A use case I actually witnessed at The Tech Awards.

**As stated in Image on Paper’s Jimmy Nelson Post: “It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.”

While I would be a bit worried about looking through all the 30-year-old National Geographics and seeing what I grew up with, this particular article is thankfully not too bad. Rather than being concerned with any sort of “authenticity,” it’s unabashedly a travelog and photos—most of which do not look like what has become the McCurry brand.

Travelogs, when they’re about the author’s trip and don’t claim to be speaking for the country,* are great. The same goes with travel photos. The more specific and personal the topic is, the more likely I am to like them. And I still like these.

*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.

The railroad is a wonderful thread to anchor the entire trip. It grounds the narrative and allows for historical diversions where the infrastructure is older than the political boundaries which it crosses. It also offers glimpses at a large range of the people in India. While Theroux is mostly riding first class, he and McCurry are also interacting and talking with the locals crowded in second class, the people riding on the roof, the white tourists in the separate better-than-first-class tourist cars, and the service workers and public workers who run the trains and the stations.

That I still love trains, and train photography, doesn’t hurt. But there is something distinct about the rail travel and the way it filters how you see both the countryside it cuts through and the built environments which have grown up around it. It’s simultaneously part of the landscape while completely imposing itself on that landscape. And it waits for no one. If one of the chief tenets of photography is taking your time and thinking and picking the right moment, the way the train keeps moving introduces a variable which is out of the photographer’s control.

Steve McCurry Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Steve McCurry
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Seeing McCurry’s work in this context also serves as a reminder of why he became an acknowledged master. There’s maybe only one of those McCurry™ Portraits and all of his colors are more subdued by the necessity of having to stick with the railway itself. But the photos are great. Strongly composed and timed with a sense of place—and on occasion the photographer’s presence—they illustrate the text so well that I have no use for the captions except when they offer a bit of additional story where McCurry’s experiences differ from Theroux’s.

Even the photo of the train at the Taj Mahal—which out of this context becomes about the men and “how well they work as types”—is instead a perfect “holy crap you can see this from the train” photo.

Despite completely agreeing with the critiques being heaped on McCurry now, I’m still glad that these were some of the formative photos of my youth. I’ve kind of grown out of him but I’m happy that I had access to these. It’s always good to be reminded of both my own growth, and what it means if an artist doesn’t grow.

Black in White America

NOTE: I wrote this post for Tom Griggs at Fototazo as part of his Photographers on Photographers series. I’ve crossposted it here with his permission since it fits in with my series of posts revisiting the books I grew up with. Compared to my post on Fototazo, my post here has a few more notes and a lot more links to related material.

"Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach." Coney Island, New York

Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach. Coney Island, New York.

When I was a kid—junior high and high school—I used to look through my father’s high school yearbooks. He grew up in Oakland in the late 60s. His yearbooks hinted at a very different world than what I saw in his family photos. The war stuff and the race stuff were both heavier than anything I had to deal with as a kid and suggested a different side of my dad than I’d ever known.

I’ve come to realize that I’m also unlikely to ever know this side of him. And while there are parts of our parents that we can’t ever expect to know, not many of them are so well documented as their high school years.

At the same time I was looking through yearbooks, I was also looking through my parents’ photobooks. They had what I’d consider to be the usual suspects for a liberal California couple: A few Sierra Club books,* Family of Man, America in Crisis, and Black in White America. Exactly what you’d expect from a liberal household. Yet, also not something that was common among my peer group growing up.

*Notably: This is the American Earth, The Place No One Knew, and Down the Colorado.

I’ve been looking through these photobooks again now with adult eyes. It’s interesting, I never really paid attention to the dates when I was young. I recognized, roughly, what time periods they covered but never really put together that everything was happening at the same time. Re-viewing them has helped me understand the books, and my parents, a lot better. I’m also figuring a lot out about myself in the process.

In this post, I’m looking at Leonard Freed’s Black in White America.

I even read the text this time; when I was a kid, I only looked at the photos.

Absorbing the images was enough to make me realize there was an alternate reality, and an alternate history, in my country. I grew up in the suburbs, not just without all the turmoil my father experienced in his schools, but totally insulated from it. In particular when it came to race stuff. For all the “diversity” of the Bay Area, it’s remarkable how non-diverse it really is. I grew up without having to really interact at all with black people.* As a result, most of my sense of things came from media.

*I had maybe a handful of black classmates total in my 13 years of schooling.

Black America was outside the standard story of “American” society which I learned in school.* The only time it came up was in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in The South. Freed shows how the Jim Crow South and the suburban white flight in the North resulted in parallel, oppressed societies all over the country.

*Why Cars bothers me now, especially with its romantization of a specific white-male-versioned past, and why the Green Books need to be remembered.

What’s shocking is how much of the book still feels relevant today. The struggle between choosing to submit to the politics of white respectability—with its resulting acceptance of second-class citizenship in exchange for supposed safety—and choosing the struggle for more rights even though that struggle carries greater risks. The ease at which it was possible to be, and desire to be, a white moderate.* How technology—really information (via TV in the 1960s and the internet now)—impacts society by eroding the ignorance between them. How the narrative is always blaming Black America for its ills rather than recognizing how White America created Black America to begin with.

*From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

I can’t look at this project and think that we’ve made a lot of progress in the 45 years since it came out. Do things suck less than before? Yes. But that’s not something to be proud of.

This is another of the reasons why I have such a low tolerance for looking at photos where there’s a huge privilege difference between photographer and subject. A lot of those projects, in addition to being exploitative and boring, only serve to show our lack of progress on addressing the structural inequalities in our society. That so many also appear to have their only goal be portraying the photographer as a savior just for being there and taking the photo is even more infuriating.

Freed though is an example of how to do this kind of outsider photography really well. He’s aware of how privilege works in granting access and providing safety.* And while being close to a white-man-explains-the-world sort of thing, it’s not a quick superficial dip into the other world. No poverty or suffering just for cheap grittiness. He shows how pervasive the different world is and how it’s closely related to our own world.

*Albeit not as much safety as one might think. The ways that southern whites attempted to intimidate any out-of-town whites who fraternized with the blacks is indeed intimidating.

As per the title of the book, many of the photos include White America someplace in the frame. Maybe it’s leaking in via the television. Or through the gaps in the boardwalk overhead. Or the unplugged acquired-via-surplus refrigerator being used to store food. Or the absent landlord of the falling-apart house. Etc. Etc. The photographer, and his world, is constantly present in the photos. Despite much of the subject matter being foreign, it’s still anchored to the mainstream cultural narrative of the increased equity and comfort that occurred during 1950-60s US history.

And there is a lot of joy depicted. Weddings. Kids playing. Music. Families. Life is normal even if it is very different from the “silent majority” lifestyle that we supposedly want to return to now.* Nothing is trivialized into a cheap storyline about suffering or poverty or a lack of virtue—narratives we still hear all too often.

*Something I alluded to when looking at David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole’s work.

Looking at Freed has reminded me how of the way National Geographic in the 1980s was looking at US cities as if they were foreign countries. In the same way I’d see images from abroad, I’d also see images from our cities. Only those images didn’t inspire me to want to travel there. When I was a kid cities were scary. Not just the busyness. They just didn’t feel safe. Black America was scary and foreign to me.

I know now that part of that feeling is embedded and absorbed racism from society. I also know now that another part was the recognition that the entire system had failed there.

I look through Freed now and try to distinguish between what’s unchanged and what sucks less. I better understand the barely-contained anger and frustration I see on Black Twitter as each successive Stand Your Ground trial reëmphasizes how little society values black lives. I see how liberal whites’ insistence on being recognized for our progress as a society feels false when things are still horrible. And I wonder what kinds of things my father talks about with his classmates when he attends his High School reunion.

Down the Colorado and The Place No One Knew

Eliot Porter. Amphitheater and Pool, Redbud Canyon, San Juan River, Utah, May 25, 1962

I grew up in a house full of books, among them a few photobooks. I have childhood memories of flipping through the books and looking at photos. I only remember two books distinctly though. One was Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man. The other was Eliot Porter’s Down the Colorado.

—Intro to my review of Yangtze Remembered

I’ve decided to look through my parents’ library of art and photobooks and revisit those which I grew up flipping through.* First on the list, Eliot Porter’s Down the Colorado—and after looking at the bookshelf, also The Place No One Knew since it looks like I may have (correctly) conflated the two in my memory. I’ve already covered a lot of the structure of Down the Colorado in my review of Yangtze Remembered so there’s no need to rehash it. I can say that two key distinctions are how Butler focuses on people compared to how Porter focuses on the land and how Porter in particular avoids any grand-scale vistas.

*In addition to the two mentioned in my quote, my parents’ collection includes America in Crisis, Black in White America, This is the American Earth, The Place No One Knew, and a number of other Sierra Club books

Compared to most landscape photos, Porter’s photos are much more subtle. They don’t show grand vistas or anything high-contrast. They don’t include any of the standard views of the Grand Canyon. Nothing from the rim at all actually. Instead, everything is from the canyon floor. There are no photos even looking up at the rim. We have all kinds of quietly observant low-contrast details focusing on the way things look in the canyon’s shadow and the subtle differences in reflected light colors. Color is hugely important here even though it’s almost invisible at times.

We also have repeated studies of rock and water textures. In a canyon shaped by water, the interplay between the rock walls and water floor or inherently related. Some of these remind of Roni Horn and Hiroshi Sugimoto (who both follow Porter) in how they show how the same kind of view repeated over and over again can have all kinds of variation and character. One photo rarely suffices, it’s the repetition of subject which makes the point.

There’s also the elegiac tone which many of the photos have. Porter’s photos represent—and are presented—as examples of natural beauty which we destroyed. Displaying them along with John Wesley Powell’s diary of his voyage down the Colorado bookends our discovery and destruction of the land there.

Eliot Porter Dungeon Canyon, Glen Canyon, Utah, August 29, 1961

Powell’s diary is a flawed history* but both captures the sense of discovery and serves as great public relations for conquering the last unmapped segments of the United States. This is virgin territory to be measured, mapped, and tamed—a great undertaking in an age of discovery where the entire continent was at our feet and waiting for us to find a way to use it.

*It conflates multiple trips into one.

It’s interesting to note that the first Western assessment of the canyonlands was that they were “useless.” There isn’t much in Powell to hint at what use there is either. It was only in the early 1960s when we really figured out what use they could have and decided that we should dam the rivers and flood the canyons for drinking water and hydroelectric power. Porter retraces Powell’s steps but with the knowledge that the territory is about to be inundated before anyone’s had a chance to know it. His photos are our last chance to see.

During the 1930s, documentary films had portrayed environmental reforms to mass audiences, uniting spectators through sublime images of disaster and transcendent scenes of technology restoring the landscape. In contrast to these collective experiences of nature, the Sierra Club appealed to Americans as individuals, as solitary readers and viewers of coffee table books. The Exhibit Format series continued the environmental jeremiad tradition, fusing words and images to judge and condemn American society. Yet Sierra Club books placed less emphasis on the interdependence of humans and the environment, focusing instead on the therapeutic meanings of wilderness to postwar Americans. Worried about the arms race and the destructive potential of technology, wilderness advocates celebrated a world without machines, a space apart from the problems of modern civilization.

Finis Dunaway

What about a show on the whole of conservation?… Clear up the confusion in people’s minds, show them the issues at stake, and the dangers… Show the importance of the spiritual values as well as the material ones by making the most beautiful exhibition yet… A lot of people think Conservationists are a bunch of long-haired cranks and wild-eyed mystics. It’s about time they were given a chance to understand the broad principles and the full scope for which we’re fighting…

David Leland Hyde

Although the book did not stop that closure, it built important public and government support for limiting further dam construction on western rivers. Just as important, this experience revealed to Porter how his photographs could be used in the service of a cause without diminishing their artistic integrity. The book also helped jumpstart the Sierra Club’s transformation into an international environmental force and gave Porter a new career identity. He now concentrated on creating extended photographic portraits of diverse natural sites, first in the United States and then across the world. While he would never stop making fine quality prints, books became his main way to make a living and share his vision.

Amon Carter Museum on Porter

They’re also the cornerstone of the modern environmental movement. Environmental photos up until then were often in the context of “this is land which I have conquered.” Even Ansel Adams, with his Sierra Club pedigree, glorifies nature in the sense of “things you have to photograph.” Adams at least limits his conquests to being just photographic conquest, but there’s still a sense of taming the wild in his photos.

Porter is a different beast. These photos force us to ask whether all nature should be tamed and whether our presence or activity is always a good idea.

Epilog

Eliot Porter. Plunge Pool, Cathedral in the Desert, Clear Creek Off Escalante River, Utah, August 23, 1964 Michael Melford. The ghostly arms of cottonwoods emerge from Halls Creek Bay, and water again spills through Cathedral in the Desert, uncovered as Lake Powell hits its lowest point since 1969.

Porter didn’t need to show the post-flood impact and destruction and just presented beauty with the information that we destroyed it without understanding what it is that we were destroying. But we’ve been given the interesting chance to actually see what we did. In 2006, Lake Powell’s levels dropped, revealing many of the features which Porter had photographed. It’s interesting to revist the place no one knew, especially with easier access due to the still-higher-than-before water levels which meant you could boat to places instead of hiking.

Things are obviously still destroyed. But it’s nice to see that they haven’t been completely lost yet.

Innocence lost

One of the best parts about being a parent is introducing my kids to the books I loved as a child. It’s a wonderful experience to share and it helps me remember my own childhood as well.

One of the toughest part about being a parent is reading all the books I remember loving as a child and seeing how flawed they are now.

A large part of this is just a function of the books being products of a particular period of time. Richard Scarry and Curious George for example are both pretty bad when it comes to gender roles—both in terms of what jobs boys and girls can grow up to have as well as the division of labor within the home.

I’m okay with them as products of their time.* But I find that particular world view is easily forced on to other books which we’re reading. I’ve caught myself pointing at a picture of a woman in a white coat in a hospital and calling her a nurse just because she’s female. This scares me. I know better and really don’t want to be teaching things like that.

*I’m a bit less charitable when it comes to current things. I haven’t gone off on Cars treatment of race though I’ve touched on it a couple times. I suspect that if I ever watch Cars 2, I’ll be unable to resist that post. 

The products of time thing also makes me think about technology. Some things like milkmen were essentially obsolete* when I was a child. Now, telephones and newspapers look to join them.** I was not fully prepared to go into “when I was your age” mode yet.

*Yes, I know you can still get milk delivered but it’s a niche market now.

**Interestingly, both should survive with the same sort of niche market as milk delivery.

Also, the lack of any real white collar jobs is interesting. Yes, it was actually possible to be middle class on a blue collar job. And yes, little boys (in particular) really like the construction workers and truck drivers of the world. But still, it’s somewhat odd to for a kid to be reading about where adults work without having anything even close to what his parents, or his parent’s friends, or much of his family, do listed.

Curious George has other problems since I realized that he doesn’t have a tail. Yes, I know this means he could be a monkey still. But he’s more likely an ape and I always try to call things by their correct name when I’m reading books.*

*This is how my son surprises people by knowing what an obelisk or the Eiffel Tower is.

The biggest tragedy though is Babar. I loved those books as a child. I can’t bear to read them now. I get too much of a Hawai‘i, or any other post-colonial, vibe from it now. The idea that it’s a good thing to emulate European society, pave over native lands to do so, and lose any semblance of what was unique and wonderful about the original culture reminds me of the tragedy told in the Hawaiian Hall in the Bishop Museum.

Thankfully, The Monster at the End of This Book is still as great as it was when I was little.

Note

It’s interesting to read about this issue when it becomes a national one. In Germany, there’s currently a debate about both the content and the language in some old children’s favorites. Should they be changed? Is this censorship? I tend to fall into the camp which wants them kept as they are, but also would discourage keeping them in circulation as kiddie books. This is the same point of view I have with Song of the South. It’s important to keep these as they were and let kids see how things have changed. But it’s also important to be clear that this is no longer socially acceptable.