Category Archives: craft

The Mütter

I learned about the Mütter Museum from Penn and Teller’s How to Play in Traffic. Penn made it sound cool in the same way that magic feeds off of the carnie, Victorian, old-school throwback tradition of entertainment that is both incredibly physical yet also oddly spiritual. I mentally filed it away as a place to check out. It only took me twenty years to cross that item off my list. I should’ve gone sooner.

The Mütter is a museum in which the chief feature is the museum itself. There’s no way to make a museum like this today. That it exists at all is kind of a miracle. It feels like it’s stepped out of one of those Steven Millhauser stories which takes place in the same 19th-century world of magic and carnival where the perspective switches halfway through and the viewer goes from observing to being part of the spectacle. While being in the galleries doesn’t go quite that far, I did find myself constantly reconciling my opposing feelings and reactions.

It’s compelling yet repulsive. I want to gawk and point while at the same time really look and learn. Most of the items on display are literally human and have the gravity of that mana* still. I know that everything used to be human and alive. That it came from a person who had a name and existed on this planet just like I do. And yet they’re now specimens in jars or displayed in wonderful Victorian cabinets with warped glass that constantly reminds you about the display. I’m invited to look even while I don’t want to out of respect. I’m compelled to look even though the grotesque nature of what’s on display makes me want to turn away.

*I briefly touch on this concept in my Totality post.

That so many of the displays feature fetuses or fetal tissue makes things sit right in that grey area too. The regular fetal displays—especially the displays of skeletons all disassembled with just the teeth arrayed in a recognizable formation—are uncanny in that I’m forced to think about what happened in order to get the sample.* But it’s all of the jars and skeletons of non-standard fetal development which really does the trick. I can’t help but see these as confirmation that it’s not a baby until it’s a baby. Yet at the same time I look at them and marvel that they were at some level alive.

*While beautiful in their own right these don’t have the beauty of Lennart Nilsson’s photos nor do they allow you to pretend that the subjects are still alive.

The surprising, and disturbing, thing was finding myself feeling secure in the fact that the non-standard fetuses didn’t survive. As different as they are, they’re still human and I didn’t expect myself to be so relieved by realizing how incapable of living they were.

It’s a rare thing to be really forced to think about what makes someone human but that’s the territory the Mütter lives in. So many of the exhibits operate right there on that level. Whether it’s forcing you to think about monstrous births or the abstraction of when tissue samples become too personal. Or maybe it’s just the shelves and shelves of small multiples—skulls and other bones—which at first glance appear to be an impersonal collection but quickly becomes a set of items to compare and notice differences. Each sample has its own personality.

Carnivals and reliquaries

There are also a number of displays which are about specific people. Many of these tend toward the carnie side of things whether it’s pairing the huge and tiny skeletons* or just putting the gigantic colon** on display. We even have the death cast and conjoined livers of Chang and Eng to make that carnival aspect as obvious as possible.

*I appreciate that we get life stories about the two people whose skeletons are displayed.

**It’s also nice that we have his story. I deeply appreciate using “bucket” as the official unit of volume for feces.

We have a long history of calling these outliers “freaks,” specifically “carnival freaks,” and while that sense is still present in the museum—it’s impossible not to gawk—there’s a lot more going on. The Mütter shows a wider range of human possibilities and so rather than being something abnormal or freaky my takeaway is that I should give the entire spectrum of humanity more credit.

The museum itself is wrestling with a certain amount of this as well. The Soap Lady is one of their prize attractions (Specimens? Displays? Again it seems odd to talk about people this way) yet only recently has the museum started tackling and dismantling the myths which surround her. Much of what the museum thought it knew has turned out to be false—in very much the same way that a carnival story is usually a false history—and it’s now trying to learn the real stories behind her history

The weirdest part about learning the details about the people whose bodies are on display though is how fine the line is between the carnival shows and reliquaries. When what makes the people distinct is something physical then it’s hard not to look at the samples with the carnival show mindset. However when the person (or people) involved is legitimately famous, the reliquary side comes into play as well.

Chang and Eng straddle this line. Einstein on the other hand is solidly into reliquary territory even though it’s only his most-important, distinguishing organ which is on display. Yes his brain is there so we can possibly learn from it. But it’s also there because of who he was and how much mystery there is still in intelligence.

The non-natural

While most of the museum is about things that occur naturally, there are also some exhibits about what humans do to each other or themselves. These make a very interesting comparison with the diverse nature of how people can take forms which are beyond our dreams/nightmares.

The room of Civil War injuries is particularly gruesome and relevant today in how it details the artificial nature of death through violence—specifically gunshots and how destructive they were. Still are. We don’t see these kinds of things today. The photos get cropped or blurred if they’re even published at all. There’s just something gut wrenching in seeing the physical evidence of how bones are just shattered by bullets.

With the way that mechanized death led to embalming and a different understanding of death itself I can’t help but wonder if we need a similar shock today. We’ve gone too long just accepting that guns are an unescapable part of this society.

On a lighter note, there’s also the Chevalier Jackson Collection. Note, this is only lighter in a place like The Mütter. Good lord. I don’t have too much to say about it except that looking through the drawers and drawers of things that people have swallowed or inhaled gave me the willies.

Lisa Nilsson

Lisa Nilsson, Angelico.

There was also one special exhibition of items not in The Mütter’s collection.  It was very cool. Lisa Nilsson’s paper sculptures are amazing both in their craft and in what they show. One of my basic art assignments was to cut a piece of fruit or vegetable in half and then draw a detailed rendering of what I found. The point was to truly examine the inside of the item, see it, learn about it, and finally communicate that understanding through art.

Nilsson is doing that but using rolled strips of paper to communicate what the human body looks like in cross section. It’s a masterclass of craft but it also is a fabulous experiment in showing the beauty that comes from abstracting these things slightly. I know and recognize the body parts. But I’m invited to look closely and can appreciate what I’m seeing in a way that I couldn’t let myself do in the rest of the museum.

I also love the sense of humor in a lot of these where some aspects are rendered in cross section while others—like collars or hair or, my favorite, a halo—are not. There’s a willingness to push these into their own fantasy which both speaks to the renaissance origins of quilling and directly contradicts it in how it puts all objects on the same two-dimensional plane.

 

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Great Googly Moogly

Trading over the internet has been a ton of fun so far. Instead of being concerned about “value” or card-for-card sort of trades, we’ve all been able to fill holes in each other’s collections and be surprised by what we receive in return. Still, the exchanges have so far been limited to bubble mailers and exchanges of maybe a dozen cards or so. Which means that when I received Shane Katz’s package I was a bit blown away.

A surprise bubble mailer is fun. A surprise box? Above and beyond any of my expectations especially as an exchange for a bunch of regional food issued cards.

Anyway, digging in. The coolest part was knocking off ten spots on my Giants wantlist. This would have been plenty generous an exchange as it is. Getting a few additional items—specifically the McCormick Game card and the Halicki mini—which I wasn’t actively seeking is a cool bonus.

That the 1968 Lindy McDaniel is a high number and the 1969 Bobby Bolin is a white name variant deserves special mention here.

The rest of the box is all Giants cards. At first glance I thought these were all dupes. Turns out it’s a set where there’s one card for each home run Barry hit. I can’t imagine how insufferable this must’ve been to non-Giants fans. Bondsmania was annoying enough in the Bay Area as it was and we actually liked him. When I see things like this I’m reminded of the way Topps has been behaving about Aaron Judge right now. Very glad we didn’t have Topps Now during the Bonds year.

Also, Shane packaged these with the 666 on top. As well he should’ve.

Oh-Pee-Chee! Always fun. I was very surprised to learn that Upper Deck purchased the brand. In some ways this is the most disturbing change to me in the entire hobby. Oh-Pee-Chee has always been Canadian Topps. Not anymore though.

It’s been pointed out on Twitter to me that because Upper Deck purchased Oh Pee Chee, Upper Deck felt like they could print cards using old Topps designs. Topps obviously felt otherwise but this would certainly explain the 1963 Topps designed Upper Deck which I found in a repack.

Topps Magazine and Wacky Packages. not much to say about these except that they’re fun. The Topps Magazine cards in particular presaged a lot of the archives/heritage product in how they use the old designs with current players. Aside from the card stock issues by being magazine inserts, I found their interpretations of the old designs to be better homages than the current product in stores.

First true WTF is this moment of the box goes to Toppstown. I gather that these are redemptions for digital cards—a product which is now covered by Topps Bunt. I’m just going to show my age and admit that I still don’t understand digital cards.

Minis! Specificaly, Fleer minis. The Topps minis I have. Not these ones but I have some of the set. Fleer? I’d not even heard of. I even had some 1975 minis when I was a kid—no idea where I got them—but I never saw the Fleer. So that’s a fun discovery.


1985 Fleer is a set which I have a pack of plus some random commons. So I don’t have many, if any, Giants. I do now. This is cool.

The other oddballs are a lot of fun too. I’ve started collecting these—especially Giants samples— and they’re a wonderful combination of regional issues and samples of what players and highlights from the year are considered nationally noteworthy. The regional stuff is always fun to discover. The national stuff meanwhile is fun for a team collector because it signifies that someone on your team did something noteworthy.

Woolworths meanwhile, while it existed on the West Coast, seems to have disappeared by the time I was collecting cards. Not a store I was ever familiar with. And these cards are not something I ever saw until I started collecting again this year.

And there was a decent amount of junk wax which I know I collected. I suspect that I have half of these. But I’m not sure which half and the ones which I “need” are especially welcome since they fill in holes in the Giants teams I cared about the most.


Allen&Ginter, Gypsy Queen, and more Minis. I’m glad to have some representative samples of these sets since none of them interest me. Gypsy Queen’s managed to find a way to make HDR look even worse and the faux-retro plus over-processed digital photograph combination gives me hives.

Ginter on the other hand is much more interesting. I still don’t know quite know what I think about it. I know I don’t like it as a baseball card set. It’s also super expensive for what’s basically a gimmick. But I do like the tobacco card size and I’ve found myself enjoying the non-sports cards on the checklist.

Actually looking closely at them though is disappointing. The printing is screened process inks rather than a solid spot color and as a result looks like someone’s tried to counterfeit a vintage card.

Cards from that time period were printed as multiple-color lithographs. So not halftones or screens—especially on the text. For the price that the Ginter brand costs cost I’m disappointed to see that, not only weren’t they printed with solid inks, that no one bothered to confirm that the tiny type wouldn’t be destroyed by the halftone screen.

I was also amused by the all-text stats on Ginter’s backs. I know this is a vintage touch but it also feels a bit twee. That the T-206 style card includes a real cigarette ad on the back also surprised me. I didn’t expect this even though both Allen&Ginter and Gypsy Queen are also tobacco/cigarette brands. That none of those brands are in production and are instead associated with baseball cards is presumably why Topps can use the names.

Still, I learned that Topps changed the advertisement from “The Cigarette of Quality” to “The Brand of Quality” so it appears that you can’t actually say cigarette still on what’s ostensibly a kid’s product.

Lots of Topps Fan Favorites. This is indeed a fun set. As a Giants fan all of these strike me in the exact right way. Yes it’s weird to see these glossy but the better quality printing and trimming is very nice. It’s especially nice to see them using the correct vintage Giants logo.

I am curious why Monte Irvin’s signature is missing—it’s there on his actual 1953 Topps card. And with Bobby Thomson being in the 1952 high numbers this is likely to be as close as I’ll ever come to that card. Ditto with the Willie Mays cards too but that’s a much more obvious situation.

And finally a ton of stuff which is still very new to me. It’s going to take me a while to figure out what these all are. I recognize Topps Heritage and some of the Topps flagship cards. But the rest? Way over my head. I’ve got two decades of card collecting to figure out and sets to investigate. Though I do know that it’s Bowman Chrome which throws my autofocus all out of whack.

So yes. Giant box of cool stuff from Shane. If I ever come into an unexpected cache of 1956 Topps cards I’ll have to return the favor. Until then I’m just overwhelmed and grateful.

Peter Koch

Since I was at the Cantor Center, I wandered across campus to the library to see whatever special exhibition they had up. Oh boy did I luck out. Turns out it was a Peter Koch show.

So beautiful printing. Bookbinding as part of the design instead of merely being a craft. And fantastic woodcuts and photogravures. As a print geek the only problem is that everything’s under glass and I can’t get as close a look at things I wish I could.

What I can see is great and I love that the library had enough specimens to be able to display both a spread from the book and the binding itself. While print is a craft which people take for granted, bookbinding is one which makes printing look like common knowledge.

Koch’s bookbinding is frequently gloriously about the binding. This isn’t just the kind of thing where you can see bumps on the spine where the cords are under the leather, in these cases the stitching isn’t hidden at all and functions as a design feature. Look at the book and you can see how it was made. I can only imagine what handling such a thing must be like.

The printing, particularly the typesetting—is also often virtuosic. Small pieces like Real Lead do things with type and typefaces which most of us shouldn’t even consider trying. Other pieces are more traditional but show how beautiful properly-selected fonts can be—especially when given enough white space to breathe.

But Koch’s books are not just about type.* They frequently include images and these, while not always printed by Koch, are as well crafted as the text. In particular I love Richard Wagener’s engravings. His work appears in a couple of books but I love the Sierra Nevada prints most of all. They look high contrast but there’s so much shadow detail in them when you look closely. Online images don’t do them justice.

*Even though he keeps returning to make books consisting of just pages of “wordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswords”

Other books feature photographic prints, photogravures, and watercolors. In the small print runs which these were made, the special care taken with the images really shows.

It’s nice to see too that Koch’s work embraces digital techniques. The photogravures went through a digital intermediate. It looks like a lot of the type is also set by computer rather than being cold metal. And many of the books and prints use digital printing for the images.

His Lost Journals of Sacajewea book in particular is a great example of the mix of digital and traditional techniques. Hand-made paper with digital photographic printing as well as letterpressed type. The resulting product looks great.

And the content also looks amazing. One of the things it’s easy to miss with these artist books is how important the actual content of the book is. The craft is overwhelming but it’s important that the book itself be worth reading too. Many of the poems and texts look good. The Lost Journals of Sacajewea though looks great—both in terms of the content of the writing and the general subject matter of the work.

Koch is very interested in investigating and challenging the myths of The West while still operating in a printmaking and publishing tradition which stems from those days. So many of his projects look like Old West publications until you look closer and see how they’re challenging everything.

Two of them—Hard Words and Nature Morte aren’t even letterpress works. These are purely digital series where Koch placed wood and metal type directly on the scanner with the photograph and printed the resulting composition. And even here, despite the purely digital workflow, these manage to reference the history of The West. I couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain’s teenage portrait with “SAM” in the composing stick and the way that both printing and photography play with negatives and reversals in the image.

Creativity on the Line

Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. George Washington.

One of the Cantor Center’s big shows this summer is about Mid-century Corporate Design. It’s good and tracks the rise of corporate design after World War 2 when the emergent consumer culture* meant that products had to distinguish themselves in ways beyond function and value.

*Note, there was a ton of government investment in infrastructure which had to happen in order to enable this culture and while that’s all outside of this write up I viewed the entire exhibition with this in mind.

So of course we start with Bauhaus in order to get a baseline of both product design and corporate design. But it quickly gets into Walter Paepcke and the Container Corporation of America and the International Design Conference in Aspen. This is the highlight of the show and there’s lots of very interesting stuff here both in terms of the relationships between corporations and designers and the implication that exporting American products is exporting American design—and by extension, American principles.

I was reminded of the Covert Operations show—in particular Taryn Simon’s work—and how much of America’s image abroad during this time could be tied to American art and design. And by extension how corporate design, more than any other media is a reflection of both who we are and what what we value.

Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. Teddy Roosevelt. Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. Thomas Paine. Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. Jean Jaques Rousseau.

This is especially apparent in the Container Corporation of America’s advertisements. I can’t imagine the controversy which would occur if they were printed today. I can’t imagine a company having the guts to print these today. Yet, they represent exactly what America™ claims to be while also serving as examples of how modern design—especially in the advertising space—is now broken.

As much as the Aspen conference subject matter is concerned with “accepted” taste, it’s also aware of how design has to pick a position and can’t be left to corporate defaults. Nowadays it feels like few, if any companies care about picking any positions. Even supposed design leaders like Apple are mysteries when it comes to their politics and the way their products ship with glaringly obvious design flaws with regard to who it was designed for is dismaying.

If one of the tenets of good design is that everything has been considered, what does it mean if our best design now is so constantly distinguished by a lack of consideration?

That so much of this show focuses on things—companies and events—that Paepcke touched has me wondering if design itself has regressed or if the designs on display have always stood as exceptions to the rule. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both where not everything was as excellent as what’s been selected but corporations have also devalued design because “anyone” can be a “creative.”

This regression is especially apparent in the realm of corporate identity and logo design. There are many mid-century corporate logos and identities on display here—many of which are now sadly extinct. Of these logos, while some are indeed dated, most of them display a level of clean clear graphic design which I just don’t see much anymore.

Sure, I see new corporate identities and style guides all the time. But nothing like the way they all convened at the 1964 World’s Fair and all too often biased toward digital technology and reproduction. And for sure, the world has changed from the age where the only concern was print and spot colors were cheap and plentiful. I totally understand reworking logos so that they are more consistent across printing and display technologies* but too many modern logos contain elements which just don’t work outside of a full-color environment.

*the absence of any print/display notes on how the old logos were intended to be reproduced is something the exhibition was missing.

Seeing logos which can work in 2-color instead of 4-color printing is great. Maybe spot inks aren’t needed anymore for print but they’re still useful for silkscreening tshirts or embroidering bags or even neon signs. Seeing logos which work as just black a and white—let alone logos which can be truly reversed to knock out a background color—is turning into an increasingly rare occurrence. All the mid-century logos do this and it’s what makes their designs so strong.

Also of note

On the topic of logos, There’s a great sequence of Bauhaus designs of the AEG logo which were made with paper cutouts. I enjoy seeing the cut-out paper since it’s both a more tactile way to create a design and it results in a much stronger color presentation and reproduction.

The Olivetti designs in their red dot school purity are always fantastic to see in person. Similarly, a lot of the Henry Dreyfuss designs are great to see in person. Although in all these cases, as with the Dieter Rams show, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the younger generations had any idea what these products did now.

I do love seeming any drafting and industrial design sketches. Especially the ones on medium grey paper which use white pencil for highlights along with various darker colors.

My First Box Break; My First Relic

Continuing from yesterday. I was expecting a package from Peter at Baseball Every Night. I’d sorta-hesitantly joined his box break—I’m new in baseball card twitter and don’t want to be that guy who just takes without having contributed anything. But he convinced me to join and I’m glad I did.

Getting a batch of over a dozen Giants cards in the mail is always fun. And I’m still a bit in awe of the print quality of modern cards. Yes I agree with the complaints about the TV-style graphics and the over-cropped ACTIONACTIONACTION photographs. But at a pure technical level these even blow the original Stadium Clubs out of the water.

It’s nice to get a bunch of long-time franchise favorites. Cain’s been scuffling for a while but when I see his cards I’m still reminded of the first half of this decade. Pence is basically the team mascot now. And I don’t need to say anything about Posey. When I grew up I loved Will Clark. Posey has been the same kind of a guy since his rookie year.

A few other key names, some of whom I’m only just getting used to. It’s been a weird season so far and I’ve had a hard time keeping track of how far off the rails we’ve gotten. I can’t catch a lot of the late games on the East Coast so it’s nice to get photos to match the names.

Also, the Nunez card is a great example of both how the horizontal format works well and how it fails in this particular design template. Sometimes the action just has to be displayed horizontally and a sliding picture is one such play. At the same time, the weird fade-out Topps is doing at the bottom of the cards gets super distracting and noticeable here. Rather than being a fade it looks like the entire photo’s been deleted—only badly.

And some people who I’ve just not heard of. This is both exciting and also a reflection of how this year has been going. We’re doing so badly that it seems like we should just be churning through the complete 40-man roster looking for players who might stick.

Anyway, very nice variety in the break and the kind of team set which, as a team set collector, leaves me feeling super satisfied. It’s important to have some stars but it’s also great to have a good cross-section of the entire team. This break does that perfectly.

Peter also threw in a couple Series 1s thrown in as a bonus. I didn’t get any Giants in my first packs so it was nice to get them this way instead. Thanks Peter, this was a lot of fun and I need to put together a thank you package to send your way in return.

My First Relic


The good news is that I “won” the break. That’s also the bad news. I’m kind of sheepish about this since I’m not big on chase cards and feel like the prize is wasted on me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to have gotten a relic card. It’s just that my reasons aren’t what Topps is going for.

When I was drifting out of the hobby in the early 90s, relic cards were only beginning to appear. I was intrigued by them then but the idea of chase cards also directly contributed to my disillusionment.* At this point I can’t see myself ever actively acquiring one so getting one from a lucky pack or box break is the only way I’d ever own one.**

*I just found all my 1994 cards. I never bothered to put them in albums at all and, once the strike occurred, they just ended up in a shoebox.

**This is true with most chase cards. The only ones I can see myself acquiring are the printing plate ones which I’m interested in from a purely craft point of view.

It’s certainly an interesting object. I knew they were thicker than the average card but I never realized exactly how thick.* But aside from the cleverness in how it’s made there’s little in this that I find appealing. The patch is a small square of cream CoolBase and there’s literally nothing else of interest on the card. The photo is nice enough—especially if you’re into the cut-out player look—and I enjoy the spot UV coating. But that’s about it. There’s not even anything interesting on the back.

*What the hell do you do with these, just keep them in the toploader and find a box to store the toploader in?

And without the card itself having any interesting information, I’m left holding a small square of fabric and thinking whether I’d be excited about such a thing if it didn’t have the cardboard frame around it.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be.

I understand the point of these relics but they’re not for me. At a certain point the small square of cut fabric becomes too abstracted from any emotional meaning. It’s explicitly not from any specific game. And there’s no context to suggest that it’s even from an actual jersey—for all I can tell it’s from a bolt of fabric.* I have to take Topps’s word for it.

*The relic cards which include cuts of patches or numbering are better in this regard.

Holding this card in my hand left me feeling underwhelmed and disappointed about what the hobby has turned into. That pack searching for this kind of card is a thing makes me sad. That hobby packs cost more per-card than retail packs because of this kind of thing makes me sad.

Still, I’m happy to have gotten a relic card because I had no idea how I would react to actually owning one. I did enjoy looking it over and really examining it and thinking about how it’s constructed as a product. I also enjoyed thinking through my reactions to it and trying to figure out why . I even plan to keep it so I can remember why it’s not for me. It’s a rare thing for card to evoke that many different thoughts and emotions.

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.

Looking at Baseball Cards

While National Geographic is one of the main ways I grew up consuming photographs, baseball cards are a close runner up. I never considered them as photos, but in coming back to the hobby, I’m realizing how interesting the photography side of them is and how learning about their history served as a primer on photographic history. Just by looking at the way that the photos have changed over the decades we can see how differently we’ve seen the game.

Being able to recognize within the photos what kind of equipment was used allows us to think about both how the gear has changed and how the gear influences the way we see the world—and the cues we take to determine what age a photo comes from.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the retro-style card trend. Both in my recent post as well as in two posts on SABR,* I’ve been grappling with what I like, and what I don’t, and why. And a lot of it comes down to photographic technology and technique more than anything else.

*Not Hooked on Heritage and an appropriately-titled response called Hooked on Heritage.

Yes, there’s a lot of printing technology and graphic design to talk about too, but when we’re looking at cards and deciding what we like, we’re talking about photos. When we’re comparing eras, we’re comparing photographic techniques. And when we’re looking at baseball card history, we’re looking at photographic history. Maybe it’s best to start from the beginning.

George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400151 Goodwin & Company Michael Joseph Buck Ewing, New York, from the series Old Judge Cigarettes http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400227

In the late 19th century (all three examples here are 1887) the cards were albumen prints of posed studio photos—basically cabinet cards but with baseball players. By being cabinet cards, many of them are larger (4.5×6 inches) than modern baseball cards. Some however, like the Gypsy Queen card here, are closer to carte de visite in size (1.125×3.5 to 2.5×4 inches) and thus, much closer to our concept of the modern baseball card.

These photos are typically posed in the studio—backdrop detail is all over the map—in poses which are still familiar. Little leaguers today take pictures in a batting stance and the throwing motion is a long-standing baseball card staple. Others though—such as the pretend fielding—are wonderfully dated and scream nostalgia. In all cases, the poses have to be positions which can be held for a long-enough time to take the photo. Photography needed a lot of light at the time for stopping action

I was surprised to find one card which was taken outside. It’s nice to see bleachers and get a sense of a possible ballpark but I suspect it’s staged for where the best light is. These are all photographs taken within the limitations of the view camera, its plate processing requirements, and the aforementioned shutter speeds. While such cameras could travel, that was not what they were best at and you risked things blurring when you were outside.

Reading about how people used and traded cabinet cards and cartes de visite of celebrities is eerily familiar to me as a baseball card collector. It’s not just trading personal photos between friends, these cards were souvenirs and mementos to be collected into albums and shown off.

It’s in the ability to produce prints en masse and the celebrity subject matter which distinguishes these from tintypes* and other one-off forms of photography. These early baseball cards highlight that it’s not only a matter of creation or consumption of photographs which is important. The technology for distribution and printmaking** is just as integral a part of our visual literacy.

*Baseball tintypes do exist and that’s not even getting into Tabitha Soren’s work—a book I totally need to buy.

**Which is why it’s important to distinguish between cabinet cards and cartes de visite which functioned as baseball trading cards versus those which were for personal use.

Dave Danforth, Pitcher, St. Louis Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E121) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718249 Wallie Pipp, First Base, New York Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E120) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/428994 George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718360

By the 1920s the poses were all outside and the printing was no longer photographic. Instead of contact printing from the camera negatives, the new cards are photos from large-format cameras* which were then re-photographed and reduced in size for lithographic printing.

*My guess is 4×5 inch sheet film.

The film is larger and more sensitive. The cameras are still cumbersome* but are more portable and capable of faster shutter speeds. As a result the poses can be more dynamic and photos can be taken in the actual stadiums. Larger negatives means that the backgrounds are pretty blurry but we can still make out some park details. There’s not enough to really figure out where the photos were taken—for the most part these appear to be in empty ballparks during special photo sessions—but they’re very clearly in a proper ballpark.

*I love this photo from 1911.

Unless the photo is a headshot, the camera is pretty far away so it can show all of the player. Where before the player and the photographer were clearly working together to get a portrait, these photos feel like the photographer is playing things kind of safe with the action and doesn’t want to waste any shots. Since the cameras only held one sheet of film at a time* photography is still a pretty slow process and I understand being extremely conservative with compositions and timing.

*Maybe two if they had backs which could be loaded on both sides.

It’s worth mentioning here that I’m not writing about the classic T206 Tobacco Cards and other releases through the 1950s which consisted of clearly-painted images derived from photographic sources. While these are important parts of baseball card history, the way that the backgrounds can be painted in means that it’s impossible to get a good sense of the photograph itself.

At the same time, it is also important to remember than almost all of the photographs have gone through a painting step to prepare them for printing. These painted-on prints* are fascinating objects in and of themselves in how they reveal a bit of photographic process—especially the cropping that occurs from the original negative—as well as how the printing itself changes the image.

*More info in the Pier 24 Secondhand post.

Uncut sheet, from the Baseball series (R406-1), issued by Bowman Gum Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/416575

By the 1940s it’s clear that we’ve evolved a bit further. Instead of large-format cameras we have medium-format.* So smaller negatives, even faster film,** sharper lenses, faster shutter speeds, and the ability to get closer and interact with the subject a lot more. Roll film enables much more rapid photography and the ability to try a bunch of different things quickly results in better images. Where the 1920s photos all feel kind of distant and safe, these 1940s photos are much more intimate.

*6×6 or 6×7 so 10 or 12 shots of 2¼-inch-wide images.

**but still really slow compared to what we’re used to today.

Tight crops. Even better ability to freeze action while posing. The smaller negatives mean that we have larger depth of field available and can start to make out the details of where the photos are taken. And the fact that there are probably a dozen images to choose from for each player means that what we’re seeing are indeed better photos.

The only thing missing is color but these photos themselves represent the dominant look of baseball cards through the 1960s.

Topps 1950s-1960s

We can clearly see faces and with the color photos we can tell that baseball is a game to be played during the day when the sun is high, the skies are blue, and the light can shine across the subjects for a nice even exposure. There’s not a lot of latitude with slide film but even with professional gear these photos mimic a lot of the advice I’ve seen in photography guides from that time period.

This is an era where every house had a Brownie Hawkeye Flash and slow medium format film was the standard. Backgrounds are busy but still blurred and the main variation in the cards is whether they’re a tightly-cropped headshot or an above-the-waist pose.

Adding to the view and focal depth of these photos is the actual camera placement. Most of the cards feel like they were shot with a waist-level viewfinder. The camera is both pretty low and the players rarely look directly into the lens. This allows for Topps to do a lot of fudging with players who get traded as the hat logos aren’t visible. But it’s also a viewpoint which comes naturally to this kind of camera. As eye-level and through-the-lens gain acceptance, the camera’s point of view creeps higher and players begin to make more and more eye contact with the lens.

1970 Topps

By the 1970s it feels like 35mm has taken over.* In addition to the higher point of view, we have casual shots now which suggest that photographers are a lot more mobile and using photojournalist-style techniques which 35mm is especially well-suited for. We’re also seeing more wide-angle lenses and can really make out a lot of detail in the stadiums. And we’re seeing more obvious uses of photographic flash.

*You can see some of this in the late 1960s but the player boycott marks a pretty clear dividing line in photographic approach which just happens to coincide with the rise to dominance of 35mm cameras.

It’s not just the cameras which have gotten extremely mobile, the flashes have too, and a smaller film format* is more conducive to taking risks and not getting screwed by having to reload so often. There’s often less interaction with the players again as photographers have the ability to work very quickly and get in and out with pictures. But the posed portrait sessions still exist and, with the additional depth of field available** these photos often give us ballpark detail we hadn’t seen previously.

*36 exposures per roll instead of 10 or 12.

**For a given field of view and lens aperture, the smaller the image sensor the larger the depth of field.

1972 Topps

35mm film also meant that action photography was all of a sudden a legitimate possibility. In the early 1970s, these photos were pretty bad. Telephoto lenses at this time were pretty short, pretty slow, and not very sharp.* Autofocus didn’t exist yet so photographers had to be on the top of their game in order to get anything in focus. Plus Topps still required 100 speed film for quality reasons** so you were constantly pushing the limits of your equipment.

*We’re talking about when a 200mm f/4 was standard.

**As per Doug McWilliams.

It’s no wonder that the action cards feel like novelties here. The fact that they exist at all is in many ways more important than the quality of the photograph. Plus, after decades of posed shots, it must’ve felt exciting to see photos of in-game action. There are some gems—I love the 1973 Marichal card—but most of the time we have a generic moment without any emotion and the horrible lighting which comes from trying to get a decent photo of someone wearing a baseball cap in the middle of the day.

Topps 1980s Action

By the early 1980s lens technology and quality had improved to the point where the action shots became more common and no longer felt like novelties. We’re also getting decent zoom and catadioptric lenses* which allow even more options for photographers with both reach and flexibility.

*A lot of the 1980 cards like the Jack Clark above show the characteristic ringed highlights in the background

As a result, in this time period we have a really good mix of posed vs action vs casual photos. No one variant truly dominates.

Topps 1980s Portraits

What did change in the 1980s though is the portrait lighting. Instead of the Topps standard of “photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the bill across their face”* we start to see a lot more reliance on flash to create separation between the subject and the background. This gets increasingly obvious in the mid-1980s when many of the photos have backgrounds which have been underexposed by a stop or two.

*Doug McWilliams again.

Even if taken on a bright sunny day, these photos are a lot more moody and stand out as a distinct 1980s look.

In the 1980s and 1990s autofocus lenses became commonplace and film emulsions continue to get faster. Couple that with motor drives and we’re able to get much more reliably good action photos. Lots of film wasted but they blow the 1970s photos out of the water.

It’s not a surprise that companies like Score which had only action shots emerged in the late 1980s. Such a set was impossible even five years earlier but there was finally enough good action photography available.

We’re still not particularly close to the plays though. I suspect that 500mm lenses were still the longest reach anyone had. But that’s good enough for anything in the infield.

2016 Topps Heritage

It took another format change to get us to where we are today. Digital cameras, longer lenses, faster lenses, and smaller sensors have allowed us to get closer than we ever have before. It also means that we’re able to get “portraits” and casual images from further and further away. These images are both distinct in the tightness of the crops and in how blurred the background is.

We didn’t have the technology to do this before and the super-blurred background is a pretty clear tell—along with super-punchy color both from better printing, being able to shoot in flatter light, and digital imaging tricks—of photographic trends in the past decade. Most baseball games are at night now and cameras are good enough to be able to focus on and freeze action in artificial light.

One of the reasons why a lot of the Heritage card designs feel weird is that they appear to be shot with the same equipment as the action cards. Digital SLRS. Super-long lenses or professional zoom lenses. We know intuitively what kind of photo to expect from those card designs and when that doesn’t match up our brains kind of freak out.

I’d love to see modern cards shot with medium format film and waist-level viewfinders just to see how that changes things. Or large-format film and view cameras. Or in the studio with props, silly poses, and long exposure times. We’ve a long history of baseball photography and, while computers are wonderful things, there’s still no replicating the way that different equipment allows us to see things differently. For a game which is so steeped in history like baseball it’s important to remember all the aspects of that history and how much of that history is tied to its visual record.