Someone Else’s Childhood

One of my twitter contacts, upon seeing that I was collecting baseball cards again, realized that he could send me his childhood collection as it would both get it out of his house and ensure that it would go to a good home. So one evening I found a beat up Priority Mail box filled with sheets of baseball cards and a surprise Everett Aquasox cap.*

*I’ve actually been to a ballgame in Everett game back when the club was the Everett Giants.

It’s a weird thing to be entrusted with someone else’s childhood. In the same way that I feel odd about dismantling and re-sorting and mixing my childhood collection with all my new (to me) cards, I also feel weird about immediately re-sorting these ones. With my cards I had to take a few months to reacquaint myself with both the cards and my memory of them. Only after doing so was I able to consider how I might want to reorganize everything.

With @captnarrr’s? I don’t know. Part of me wants to really look through and get to know his collection. Another part feels like that’s getting too personal (if that makes sense). I don’t know. It’s weird. I know how much my collection meant to me as a kid and I feel like that kid-level anxiety about someone else flipping through your collection is lurking deep down inside all of us.

So I’m going to try and find the happy middle ground of looking through these a few time and getting used to them as a collection while trying not to really examine everything. I’m also not going to photograph or scan anything beyond a few representative pages.

I’ve flipped through a couple times so far and it’s eerily similar to mine in terms of what it covers. Especially in the 1986–1988 coverage. I have ~250 1986 Topps cards. So does he. I’ve been meaning to take a run at that set since it’s the first I bought packs for but hadn’t gotten into the hobby fully yet. Hopefully I won’t have too many duplicates between his stack and mine.

The 1987–1988 cards though will become a starter set for my kids (between these and the massive amount of 1987 and 1988 Topps duplicates I have as well I would be shocked if there wasn’t another complete set in here). I have complete sets for both years—1987 was my first serious year collecting—but revisiting all these cards just takes me back. Even with Topps beating the 1987 design into the ground this year.

The big difference is in how he organized things. I was a by-the-numbers kid. Card backs had card numbers and you were obviously supposed to page them in numerical order. Flipping through pages organized by player or team, while it makes sense to me, also feels oddly wrong since it’s not how I’m used to looking at these sets.

This is funny since my current project is focusing just on one team and I’m organizing each year’s team set in my binder alphabetically rather than numerically.

1981 Fleer 1981 Fleer

There’s also a decent amount of 1981 and 1982 cards in here. I have maybe a pack’s worth for each of these sets. Sot it’s fun to have more of them. Admittedly, 1981 and 1982 Fleer are both pretty lousy sets but there’s something kind of charmingly unprofessional about them which appeals to me in today’s crisp over-produced world.

Ken Griffey Jr Bar Ken Griffey Jr Bar
Ken Griffey Jr Bar back

The most interesting stuff in the box though are the oddballs and regional issues. These weren’t in pages so they’re easier to scan. The standouts are the Ken Griffey Jr bar cards. I’ve never seen these in the wild although I remember them existing in all that Juniormania in 1989. Seeing a couple different versions is very cool. Then seeing how the backs state that they’re available “Throughout the Northwest” is wonderful since it takes these back to being a purely regional thing even though I know the bars went around the country.

Tony Gwynn Base Hit Candy Bar Tony Gwynn Base Hit Candy Bar back
Wade Boggs .352 Bar Wade Boggs .352 Bar back

Unlike the Griffey bars I had never heard of the Gwynn and Boggs bars. These look to be the same product but released in 1990. Kind of a shame they’re all just plain milk chocolate but I do like how the font changes for each one. Also it’s nice that the Boggs photo is a more interesting action than just a batting stance.

Brian McRae Denny's Hologram Kal Daniels Denny's Hologram Barry Bonds Denny's Hologram
Jeff Bagwell Denny's Hologram Sammy Sosa Denny's Hologram

Denny’s holograms are always cool. I was out of the hobby by 1995 so I never saw the 1995 versions in the flesh. While I enjoy the full-hologram versions more the scans of the 1995 cards don’t do justice to the depth in the hologram. But this  is a series of sets which I’m very much likely to chase as well so the more of these that I come across the easier that chase will be.

Manager's Dream: Tony Oliva, Chico Cardenas, Roberto Clemente

I think this was the only pre-80s card in the collection. It’s a beaut despite the miscut. I found it interesting that this featured three latino players but feels as if Topps was planning something along those lines and then decided to go with something generic. Or maybe they just couldn’t come up with a decent nickname.

1986 All Star Glossy

I’ve not seen team photos in the All Star Glossies. I should probably research when that stopped being a thing because these are pretty cool. I always love looking at the All Star team photos and seeing all the different uniforms together.

Roy Thomas autographed busines card

And Roy Thomas is an interesting autograph. Not a player I’m familiar with. I like that it’s a business card with a baseball card printed on it. I’m a bit curious what Thomas Enterprises was since it seems like his main post-career gig was being a middle-school teacher. I’m also a bit curious about about the context in which this autograph was acquired but I don’t really want to get into asking all kinds of questions about this collection.

All in all a very cool mailing which I’ll have fun flipping through and sorting in the future. And in the short term I’ll have to think about how to properly thank @captnarrr for the package.

Now With 49ers

A semi-surprise mailday from Andrew (@earthtopus). He’s a Tampa Bay fan/collector who focuses on the Bucco Bruce Creamsicle era. It’s no surprise that his plain white envelope was a bit of silliness and a bit of trolling.

I’m not a football card collector nor am I really a football fan anymore. But these are all from the era when I did care, sometimes a lot, about the 49ers and it’s fun to be reminded of that part of my youth.

Steve Young

1987 Topps Steve Young. I totally missed “the ”Now With 49ers” when I opened the envelope and thought this was just meant to be an amusing look at Young as a Buccaneer. Seeing that minuscule “traded” stamp makes it even funnier as this is technically now the first card of Young as a 49er. I don’t remember much about him in those first seasons with the Niners beyond never feeling comfortable when he had to sub in for Joe Montana.

Football Brothers: Chris and Matt Bahr

But the Young card makes a nice pair, of sorts, with this 1982 Topps card. Andrew just had to remind me of Matt Bahr 15–49ers 13. While that wasn’t how I remembered the game (Roger Craig’s fumble hurt me more), I never really put together that that was also Montana’s last real 49ers game too. Which means it also marks the beginning of the Steve Young era.

Tampa Bay Play Action Tampa Bay Play Action 1978 Topps

LOL this is hilariously dire. I appreciate that Fleer included Tampa in its 1978 set of football action but the dig on the back about “finally broke into the victory column” makes it seem like it took them three seasons to finally win a game instead of the 0–26 record they had before winning their first.

Doug Wiliams

The 1981 Topps Sticker of Doug Williams wasn’t meant to be silly. As with seeing Steve Young as a Buc, it’s also weird to see Williams as one since we’re all used to him with Washington.

1992 Pro Set Spirit of the Game 1992 Pro Set Spirit of the Game

What the hell is going on in 1992 ProSet? Is that a fake bottle of rum and a plastic child’s katana standing in for a dagger? And putting a glossy spin on there being two Steve DeBerg eras? Sheezus. I may not like Malcolm Glazer but I’m happy for any Tampa fans who stuck with the team through thin and thin until that Super Bowl.

Mark Carrier 1991 Pro Set Mark Carrier

This spanish-language 1991 ProSet card on the other hand has me jealous that there weren’t any real spanish-language cards for baseball at this time. Googling around lead me into discovering Pacific though so now I have a potential new collecting lead to run down for baseball cards. And I get to indirectly thank Andrew for that rabbit hole.

Good 70s

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Mrs. Kilpatric, 1974
from the series Mrs. Kilpatric, 1974
Mike Mandel, Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston
Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston
Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the portfolio People in Cars, 1972
from the portfolio People in Cars, 1972
Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series, Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971
from the series, Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971

I was sad to miss the Larry Sultan show but I’m very glad I made it up to SFMOMA for the Mike Mandel show. Sometimes it’s nice to just see things that are fun and make me smile.

This isn’t to say that Mandel’s work is somehow simple or trivial, just that the concepts are both remarkable easy to grasp and Mandel’s default approach mines the humor. It’s a goofy humor which I really love and, despite being funny, manages to maintain a certain seriousness and empathy for the subjects. I’m not laughing at the photos or the people in them, I’m laughing because of them and what they make me recognize. This is an approach which is sadly lacking in a lot of photography.

Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston is a perfect example of this. It could easily be seen as a stunt. Or something making fun of Edward Weston—or all these other Edward Westons. But it avoids those pitfalls and becomes so much more. It touches on how everyone takes and consumes photography—each of the Edward Westons supplies a portrait and talks about photography. It touches on the nature of fame and what it’s like to have a name in common with someone famous. It provides a sympathetic glimpse into seven men’s lives. Seven men whose only thing in common is that they share the same name as a famous photographer and were generous enough to share about their lives to a complete stranger.

It’s also hilarious. Not because of who those men are what their responses are but because there’s simultaneously an everyman, what if I shared my name with someone famous, thing going on plus the sly suggestion that maybe each of these guys is actually the Edward Weston. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when I read each of these and looked at the photos.

Mrs Kilpatric is also fun. So simple that in many ways it’s just about goofing around with a friend and neighbor. But the unposed—well, semi-posed—unplanned nature of it all is completely disarming. She’s incredibly trusting of Mandel to let him take her photo no matter what she’s doing or wearing. But the photos are great. They’re the kind of photos that she might not like because they’re a bit silly but which her family members will love because of how they portray her.

People in Cars is a similarly straitforward project.  One of the things which stands out looking at Mandel’s work is how visible he must’ve made himself as a photographer. Even a series like this which lends itself to surreptitious shooting is very clearly full of interaction. Most of them are people being amused by whatever Mandel is doing when he’s behind the camera. Which makes the few where the subject is upset really stand out in a way which produces a wry smile from me.

Myself meanwhile had me laughing in the gallery. I love the Half Dome one (of course there’s a Half Dome one) but they’re all great. Mandel is indeed a goofball. The idea of photobombing his own photos is hilarious. As is the way that the other people in the frame end up having to react to him. Sometimes there’s surprise, other times there’s group acceptance, and sometimes he’s ignored. But you know that everyone in the frame has watched him set up the tripod and camera and is now trying to figure out what the hell this skinny kid with long hair is doing standing with them while the camera is buzzing.

You can hear the camera buzzing.

There’s confusion. There’s joy. There’s curiosity. There’s all the things that we all do when confronted with a camera. But Mandel is in the frame along with the “subjects” adding an extra layer of bizarreness and humor. It’s fantastic.

Mike Mandel, Skyway

Looking at how Mandel interacts with the people he’s photographing brings me to his photos of The Boardwalk.*  Having just been at Pier 24 earlier that day I couldn’t help comparing Mandel’s photos to Winogrand’s. Mandel isn’t creepy even though many of his subjects are Winogrand-bait. It’s not just that he’s made eye contact or something before taking the photo, there’s a level of interaction which gets a flirting versus a death stare.

*The first time I’ve seen an extensive series about a place which I’m super-attached to as home. My kids love going every summer. Just seeing what it looks like in the 70s and how much has, or hasn’t, changed is wonderful from a purely documentary point of view.

And yes, a lot of this might be 1960s New York versus 1970s California. But Mandel was a skinny goofball kid and Winogrand was a larger more serious presence. And it certainly seems like their approaches were also quite different—especially in that Mandel appears to be having fun with his photography. It doesn’t feel like an obsession or quest but instead just messing around and playing with the camera.

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series SF Giants, an Oral History, 1978–1979
from the series SF Giants, an Oral History, 1978–1979
Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Prelude to Making Good Time, 1979
from the series Prelude to Making Good Time, 1979

Which brings us to Mandel’s baseball photos. I had a hard time viewing these as a photographer since I was a Giants fan first and those instincts are much more deep-seated than any of my art appreciation instincts. But they’re great. I’d love to spend a lot more time with SF Giants, an Oral History—it’s a shame this isn’t part of the catalog—but just looking at the photos is plenty enjoyable.

Mandel again both includes himself in the frame and manages to create an interaction where players are encouraged to be silly rather than serious. The resulting images feel like insider snapshots more than anything else. Part of me wonders whether this approach would’ve worked on a better team—mid 70s to mid 80s Giants were not so good—and part of me feels like he only took photos of the players who were cool with him anyway.

In any case, even with everyone having access to social media, Mandel’s photos manage to capture a view which we still don’t usually see.

And his light painting images caught me by surprise. This is one of those gimmicks which has been beat to death as self-indulgent Flickr explore bait. Mandel‘s images though show that he understands the game. Rather than being a gimmick they illuminate key action traces like how and when a batter twists his wrist during a swing or a pitcher’s hands come apart during his windup. It’s motion capture which highlights important details in the motion.

Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975

Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975 Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975

Which brings me to the Photographer Baseball Cards. Aside from Evidence, these are what I knew best about Mandel. I’ve always loved this project but had never really had a chance to look at a complete set before. So many wonderful things going on with these just as photographs without even getting into the baseball card aspect.

I love that his range of subjects runs from Ansel Adams to Bunny Yeager.* We’ve got star photographers who everyone knows, photographers’ photographers who aren’t appreciated as much as they should be, and photographers who’ve kind of been forgotten now. It’s very much a proper baseball card set in this way.

*Though women are still outnumbered like four to one and the non-white photographers can be counted on one hand. As always, lists are a bad idea.

I love that we get to see what the photographers look like. That Lewis Baltz is called “Duke.” That John Divola’s card features him in blurred motion. Divola’s card is the best in the entire set in terms of capturing a sense of what Divola was interested in as a photographer—pushing the boundaries of the concept of what a photograph depicts, or should depict in terms of time or reality— while also being “baseball” in terms of its pose and language.

I love the way that these are mass-produced offset lithography. Photography, especially art photography, is almost always obsessed with process and image quality. Even in  a book we get duotones or quadtones and insanely fine line screens and every attempt to make them look like “real” photographic prints. But these are printed by Topps. The line screen is coarse. The cuts are common. The ink is black only. And that’s not only appropriate but any other option would be just wrong.

I love the way that everyone seems to know what baseball and baseball cards are. You can see this especially in the contact sheets where each subject plays with different tropes of baseball posing. There’s a common language both in terms of baseball and baseball cards that we all know. But of course we should know, we’ve been making and consuming these photos since the 19th century.

I also appreciate that SFMOMA dedicated two rooms to showing samplings from many of the depicted photographers. This is helpful as both a reminder to people like me who recognized names but momentarily blanked on what they photographed* and an explanation for people who may have questioned whether the subjects of the cards were photographers at all.

*Nathan Lyons, Art Sinsabaugh, and Judy Dater in this case for me.

Sometimes though the photograph selected by SFMOMA felt like the wrong choice. This sampling isn’t the time to go on a deep dive into a photographer’s work but rather an “explain this person in an image or two.” So yes, I was mightily confused why they selected an black and white Eggleston image to display for him.

All in all though, a great show. I knew who Mandel was when I walked in. I just wasn’t aware about how much I liked his work. Also, while I still have concerns about SFMOMA’s new direction turning away from local art and artists—especially given the general sense of its upcoming exhibitions being much more FAMSF rather than what I’ve gotten used to at SFMOMA—I have to give them props for putting on a show which couldn’t possibly be more local.

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.

An unexpected bubble mailer

Okay this is fun. I returned from vacation last week and found two bubble mailers waiting for me. Yes, one was in New Jersey while the other was in California, but it’s still an exciting thing to find waiting—especially when one of the mailers was unexpected.

Before I left for vacation I sent CommishBob a couple cards to help him with his 1970 set build. My current collection focus* has been pretty efficient so far. What duplicates I do have are typically junk wax from my childhood collection. But for whatever reason I’d accumulated a bunch of Giants dupes from 1970—including two that Bob needed. So I sent them out and, once I learned that they arrived okay, kind of forgot about the whole thing figuring that some day an envelope would arrive with a couple early-70s Giants cards that I needed.

*San Francisco Giants team sets as I suggested would happen a few months ago. I’ll have to write a proper post about this in the future.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about what would arrive and I’m kind of bummed that my wife* got to open the package instead of me. Thankfully she sent me photos. I’d’ve been happy with just the 1957 Sauer card let alone a 1957 and a 1958 card. As a kid, my oldest cards—aside from the 1917 Zeenuts which I discovered late and belong in their own category—were from 1960. Anything from the 1950s was unfathomable for me. And getting a card from before the Giants moved to San Francisco? Amazing.

*Stuck in New Jersey for work reasons.

But Bob didn’t stop there. There were also three 1959 cards. Aside from the age factor, there’s something about the 1950s designs which are especially evocative for me. Where Topps in the 1960s defined and refined what baseball cards are supposed to look like, the 1950s cards are a little more all over the place.

The best thing is that many of the 1950s designs seem to polarize opinions.* Some people will love a given year; others will hate it; there’s rarely any in-between. 1958 and 1959 are two designs which exemplify this. Some people love the colors. Others hate the small photos.

*Yes there are some gems like 1956 which everyone likes.

I love them as artifacts of their time but I also feel that they need to be left there. I’ve never really liked baseball cards which paint over the photo background with a design—whether it’s a solid color or all that refractor stuff going on today. I like that this particular 1958 reminds me of the Cracker Jacks cards with their red backgrounds. And I appreciate the 1950s-ness of the lettering.

The 1959s are pretty similar. As with the 58s, I can appreciate the colorfulness of them all. And I like the way the font is hinting at what’s to come in the 1960s.* But good lord those photos are small and feel like the secondary photos that Topps would later use.

*Typewise the design evolution from 1958 to 1960 feels very natural.

But wait there’s more. The 1960 rookie is a nice bridge between the 1959 design and the circus colors of the 1960 design. And the 1962 is one of those sets which, as someone who really got started in the hobby in 1987 when Topps had another wood-grain background design, just scratches all my nostalgia buttons. That the Giants went to the World Series this year is a bonus.

And yeah. Super generous from Bob and I have no idea how to properly thank him. It’s very cool to be back to trading cards again. It’s going to be immensely fun to see these all in person.

3D

Baseball team, White Oak Cotton Mills. Greensboro, N. C. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-9912-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 Players of the "Cubs" in dugout before calling of a game of World Series, October, 1929, at Chicago, Ill. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/stereo/item/92508756/

In looking at early photographic baseball cards I found myself wondering whether stereographs should also count as trading cards. I never see them mentioned in baseball card discussions but they fit the bill in terms of being photographs which were intended for mass consumption and trading.

The only difference is that stereograms tend to be about locations or events rather than people. Doing a quick search of large online repositories doesn’t turn up a lot of baseball, just some team photos—such as the one above from 1909—or special events such as the 1929 World Series. And while these are both subjects which come up time and again on baseball cards, they’re always supplements to the set of individual player photos.

Viewmaster

Still, this got me thinking both about 3D photography and 3D baseball cards. If stereograms don’t feel like cards, what about Viewmaster? I didn’t remember any Viewmaster baseball sets but I figured they had to exist. They do. As with the stereograms, this doesn’t feel like a baseball card to me. But it’s closer in how it’s about individual players and, if these were sold cheaply in packs and were a collectible set, could very well have become part of the baseball card collecting world.

Viewmaster rubs a lot of the same nostalgia feels that baseball cards do. It’s a simple concept we all loved as kids—my kids still love it. The only problem is that you need the gadget to see the photos. At least with stereograms you could view the photos in 2D without needing a device. But requiring the 3D viewer and having that viewer limit the experience to a single person viewing a single image at a time means that it’s hard to share and display your collection.

I did some searching for anaglyph baseball cards but found nothing. This surprised me since, even if the cards would look awful, anaglyph 3D and its red/blue glasses is the iconic 3D look even today.

Kelloggs 3-D Super Stars

Instead what we have is lenticular 3D cards. It seems like the first versions were the super-limited-release Topps 3D set in 1968. I’ve not seen these but I have seen the more-common Kellogg’s 3-D Super Stars from the 1970s and 80s. These were always cool even with the cracking and bending issues.

The lenticular effect is less 3D and more more of just a layer of depth in the card. But it’s still a fun technology* which was much more accessible than stereograms or Viewmasters. A whole batch of these cards could be viewed at once by many people and, if in a binder sheet, the entire sheet would have depth rather than each one needing to be looked at individually.**

*As a 1980s kid I grew up with Sportsflics which used lenticular printing as a way to show motion. These were also super cool but belong in their own discussion.

**I also need to flag 1985’s Topps 3-D which are actual textured card surfaces rather than an optical effect and so in my view belong with the various die-cut cards as something distinct from 3D photography.

1992 Upper Deck Denny’s Hologram

By the 1990s hologram technology was no longer the parlor trick it was when that first National Geographic came out with the eagle on the cover.* Where it was initially part of how Upper Deck branded its logo, their Denny’s sets in the early 1990s were entirely holographic cards.

*March 1984. I still remember it blowing my mind and expecting to find something, anything, hidden in the magazine because it couldn’t just be on the cover.

I haven’t looked at mine in two and a half decades but I remember them as being similar to the lenticular cards—not true 3D but rather multiple flat layers which still gave the card depth. I suspect that this is because they couldn’t take a proper holographic image of the player and instead had to use an existing photograph and layer it with other images.

They weren’t as easy to look at as the lenticular cards. There was no real color and your viewing angles were kind of limited. But I still remember them fondly and kind of want to acquire more of these. They’re cheaper on eBay than buying a Grand Slam was 25 years ago.

I also googled around to see if there were any Magic Eye baseball cards but, as opposed to my dissappointment in finding no anaglyphs, I was relieved to find no autostereograms.

Am I doing this right?

So I’ve been on ebay buying baseball cards. It was coming. But I’m trying my hardest not to go too crazy and limit my bids to the $5 range. It’s hard, every week there’s a lot or two that comes up and looks very tempting. But I don’t have the time or space or money to jump on those and besides, I really do need to go and look at my old collection to remember what I have already.

Masanori Murakami 1965 Topps

What I’ve been doing instead is running down specific items of personal interest which I wouldn’t have cared about at all as a kid. For example, Masanori Murakami. He used to be a non-story. There’s one entry about him making his debut in September 1964 in the Giants Diary and while it mentions him being the first Japanese to play in Major League Baseball, it’s mainly an aside. Not a big deal at all. Nor, really, should it have been.

This was all before Hideo Nomo became a sensation in 1995 and opened the pipeline of Japanese talent to the US. Murakami wasn’t just the first Japanese Major League player, he was the only Japanese player. An oddity before we figured out how to deal with translators and not part of any legacy. Post-Nomo? Now he has a legacy and the Giants can claim to have been the first, three decades before anyone else. And as a nikkei Giants fan, this makes me happy.

Learning about Murakami also takes me into learning more about how players move from Japan to the US. I also really enjoyed learning about other Japanese players in the Giants’ farm system during the same era. As someone who’s followed international soccer for a couple decades, it’s interesting to me how different everything is with baseball. As baseball gets increasingly international with professional leagues abroad where the quality is at least as good as American minor leagues it’s going to be very interesting to see how these rules develop.

All this made me curious about whether Murakami had ever appeared on a baseball card. When I found out that he had appeared on only one I felt compelled to track it down. I’m a little sad that he doesn’t get his own card, but the photo is good and the 1965 design is fantastic so I can’t complain.

Marvin Miller 2005 Topps Fan Favorites

I’ve also learned a lot about baseball’s labor history since I was a kid. When I was little I found the contract holdouts and concerns about money to be absurd and frustrating. I eventually came to realize that my sympathies should be with the players even while the strike in 1994 broke me of both my baseball habit and my card-collecting habit.

I was surprised to discover that Topps had made a Marvin Miller card in 2005. I’m even more surprised to learn that it’s part of their Fan Favorites line. This speaks very well of baseball fans since Miller ushered in a lot of things which, on the surface, fans love to complain about.

Still, aside from the moral issues of treating labor fairly, fans have a lot to thank Miller for too. For all the complaints about contracts and mercenaries, the flip side is being able to fantasize about free agent signings and the idea that any player can move to whatever team he wants to play for.

I found it interesting that Topps chose to use its 1970 design for Miller card. Miller had already taken it to Topps with a player boycott in 1967 and 1968 so any of those years could’ve worked. But going with 1970 means that Topps is referencing the Curt Flood issue.

Which meant that I found myself checking for Curt Flood cards. Specifically for 1969 when he has traded. I couldn’t pass up the 1970 card because of how wrong it is to show him playing for a team that he not only never played for, but which he refused to play for and went to the Supreme Court to avoid playing for. And the 1971 card completes the set since it’s the team he eventually chose to play for.

I wish the 1969 card had a better photo. I know that 1969 was hampered as a set because of aforementioned player boycott of Topps so it’s possible that Topps just didn’t have a good photo of Flood on hand. Though given the nature of what happened to Flood, the eyeroll/no fucks given expression is also appropriate. The 1970 and 1971 photos are typical “hide the hat logo in case he changes teams” shots. I like that in 1971 he looks somewhat relieved even though he has about to retire.

It’s a shame how little this side of baseball history gets covered. Ball Four* touched on it but the timing is off in that it occurs before the main conflict and then all the afterwords are more about Bowie Kuhn and Marvin Miller and the concept of how the owners could’ve avoided free agency by being slightly more generous with salaries and meal money.

*Now there’s another theme for card collecting I might run down some day.

And that’s kind of the thing. Flood was objecting to being bought and sold as if he were a piece of property. This wasn’t exactly about free agency—which Flood eventually got by sitting out all of the 1970 season—but it signaled to the players where that fight would have to be fought.

So on to Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and the Seitz decision in 1975. The courts turned out not be the best place to fight labor issues but the National Labor Relations Board was. It still amazes me that none of this history is really mentioned anywhere. In soccer, free agency is named after the player who fought for it. In baseball, there’s no similar reference that suggests how things changed to become the way they are today.

Something about the spring-training glow in these photos perfectly complements  the garish card design. We’ve got foliage and palm trees in the background. Process colors being run at 100% by themselves for maximum brightness. These are cards which are very much of their time.

I’ll eventually get 1976 and 1977 Messersmith cards. Unlike with Flood where the card the year after the fight tells part of the story, the 1976 Messersmith card is kind of redundant to the 195 one. His 1977 card though features him with the Braves, the team he signed for as a free agent in 1976.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

First Packs


Following up from the previous post about baseball cards. A few weeks ago I stuck my nose into a card shop for the first time in decades. I mainly just wanted to poke around and see how things had changed. Or not since it still felt very much the same as the card shops I remembered from my youth. Boxes of packs on the glass countertops. Shelves of wonderful old cards underneath. One case full of whoever the current hot stars are. Another full of local teams.* Higher shelves stuffed and overflowing with god knows what kind of ephemera. And an old guy at the end of the counter working on a collection of cards I can’t imagine ever being able to acquire.**

*Weirdest thing for me is being in Yankees/Mets/Phillies territory.

**Though this is a priorities thing now rather than the financial thing it was in my youth.

I purchased a couple of wax packs* for old time’s sake to relive the experience of opening a pack and seeing who I got. It’s kind of amazing. 25 years later and the feel and smells came rushing back. So what if it was more the feels and smells of the post-wax era. But opening the pack, sliding the cards out, and smelling them** before I even had a chance to look at who I got triggered a rush of sensory memory and nostalgia.

*Are they still called wax packs even though they’ve not been wax since I was collecting?

*Even after working for five years in a print shop, the smell of UV coating—even on a piece of junk mail—invariably reminds me of being a kid and opening a pack of Topps Stadium Clubss.

I chose the bare-bones 2017 Topps Series 1 packs which end up being $2 for 10 cards. They also came in bigger packs which cost $13 for 50 cards. Yeah, the math didn’t make sense to me either. But since the big packs are more likely to have a special insert—aka “hot pull”—they cost more. It’s weird, where 60 years ago you bought gum and got baseball cards too, now you’re buying a raffle ticket which happens to come with cards.

The “hot pull” nomenclature wasn’t around when I was a kid but insert-itis was a big reason why I got out of the hobby. It’s dismaying to return and not only find it to still be part of the culture but realize that it’s now the actual driving force of the industry. The only silver lining is that since the pricing is based around the odds of getting an insert, if you don’t care about them you can buy the cheapest packs available.

Thankfully the cards are nice. With their full-bleed images, glossy surfaces, and foil stamping they feel more like the up-market cards which I could barely afford. And the photos. Wow. Well-lit, sharp, detailed action photos unlike anything I’d seen as a kid.

Topps used to be a mix of posed and action shots. But the action shots were never cropped tightly—maybe below the knee on a corner infielder or batter but you usually could see the player’s feet. Now? All action all the time and you’re right up in the middle of it with crops at the knee and arms barely fitting in the frame. Super graphic and definitely reflective of the kind of thing that digital photography is best at.*

*Blowing tons of frames of action in order to find the best single image of the sequence.

At the same time, after the excitement of looking at all the cards settled down, the photos began to rub me the wrong way. Baseball isn’t an immersive sport. It’s about patience and observation where brief moments of action and excitement break the overall rhythm of the ballgame. There’s plenty of time to look around and soak in the environment and having all the cards be ACTION ACTION ACTION doesn’t reflect what I love about the game.

Many of the cards with player portraits allow you to see the stadium. Whether it’s the quiet of batting practice* where the empty stands are just a backdrop or a photo where the photographer has considered how the player should interact with the architecture, I love seeing the parks and being reminded of how wonderful baseball is when it’s experienced live and in-person.

*I used to love getting to games hours early, hanging over the dugout railing for autographs, and watching batting practice after we were all chased out of the box seats. Also, again, my mom was a saint.

And yes, I understand that Topps has other sets which feature posed photos but those don’t appeal to me. I’d much rather see designs inspired by the classic look of baseball cards rather than ones which explicitly copy them.

I also have to admit to loving how Score was all action when it came out. But that kind of photography was new and all the other brands had similar mixes of portraits and action. Now though, between card after card of tight action and the shallow depth of field required to photograph that action, I feel no sense of the game or the place.

Which brings us to the backs of the cards. I’m not impressed. One of the reasons I used to prefer Topps was because it had all of a player’s career stats—often including the minor leagues—on the back. I remember comparing cards, searching for who had the most stats,* and seeing how far back they went. Other companies had only a handful of recent seasons and filled their backs with other stuff that wasn’t consistent card-to-card.

*I used to love Nolan Ryan’s cards for this reason.

Now, Topps’s backs include only a half-dozen seasons and devote the rest of the space to what reads like a PR statement and a giant graphic which prominently lists the player’s twitter and instagram accounts. I don’t dislike the social media stuff being there but it still weirds me out. I find myself wondering how those will age in 25 years—and what 25-year-old gimmicks my kids will ask me about. And if the complete stats were present I’d have no complaints at all.

Besides the lack of stats the only other real complaint I have is the Rookie Card badge. It’s bad enough that the Rookie Card phenomenon is still going strong. But having a special badge for ALL the rookie cards is just rubbing my nose in an aspect of the hobby which ruined it for me as a kid. There’s no legitimate reason for Rookie Cards to be a thing except that collectors have decided that they should be. And the badge, by being slapped on every rookie card, indulges this obsession by marking the cards as being “special.”

Still, despite my curmudgeonly complaints, I’ll continue to grab a pack here and there. After all I didn’t get any Giants players yet.

on inserts


While I don’t care about them, I did get both a Father’s Day and a Mother’s Day card. The way that Major League Baseball has been screwing around with special holiday-themed uniforms has been driving me nuts for a few years. I don’t like messing with alternate uniforms anyway but when they stop including the team colors and end up looking like a youth league where every team has the same home and away shirts? Disaster.

So yeah, seeing the inserts mirror those horrible made me shake my head. Still yay Kris Bryant. And at least the Father’s Day insert is interesting in how it screwed with my brain. At first I thought they’d screwed up and missed one of the printing plates. I’ve seen too many pulls off the press where Black or Magenta is missing and this looked just like that.

The Met

I finally made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve been living in Princeton for three years now but the last time I’d visited The Met was way back in 2002. While that was so long ago that it doesn’t really count in terms of being familiar with the museum, I decided that this time I’d start off and hit the sections that I wasn’t able to get to last time.

Given that the day I visited was super busy, this turned out to be a decent strategy. I had previously only really seen the European and American galleries and ran out of time before I got to the Asian and Africa/America/Polynesia galleries. The day I visited? Europe and the Americas were packed. Too crowded to really see anything. Too loud to really think. Non-western though? Practically empty. I could wander at my own pace and think about things.

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The Asian galleries are nice. They actually do tend to talk about the objects both from an art history point of view and a functional use point of view—such as the Vishnu Masks which describe how the masks were used in performance as well as the history of those performances over centuries. Unfortunately, the way they treat modern art results in them committing one of my pet peeves.

The galleries aren’t in the basement but they consistently other the modern artists. Noguchi isn’t a multiracial American artist, he’s a Shōwa Period Japanese craftsman. Inoue Yūichi goes into the same bucket even though his work explicitly references Franz Kline. And things get even weirder when you get into “Heisei Period” work like Kohei Nawa’s which more contemporary than most of the work in the Modern Art galleries.

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On the topic of The Basement, The Met also groups Africa, The (indigenous) Americas, and Polynesia are all together as, effectively, native craft. While there are a decent amount of old artifacts here, there are also many which are not only new, but actually—such as the Papua New Guinea Ceiling—commissioned by the museum.

When the traditional crafts become detached from their traditional uses and instead are created for export and tailored to western tastes, we’re in an area where the museum needs to flag how the resulting artifact is a product of multiple cultures.* If the museum itself is commissioning pieces, I’d love to read more about how that transaction works and how the resulting art differs from the traditional form.

*Something that the National Museum of the American Indian does a good job of in its permanent exhibition. Not only does it talk about the influence of “the market” but it goes out of its way to name the artists and talk about how they were able to become collectible.

The indigenous galleries also treat modern art the same way the Asian galleries do. In this case for example, El Anatsui is only in conversation with Africa and, while these galleries are right next door to the Modern Art galleries, the hallway is not the only thing that separates them.

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I did venture into the crowds to check out the Manus × Machina show. As the current headliner these galleries were super crowded and a pain to navigate.

Fashion shows are often a mixed bag. They’re designed to bring in massive crowds and in doing so often fail as educational opportunities. Fashion in particular tends toward the pretty or the trendy and while there is often a lot of function or process involved, that information is ignored unless it can be used to explain why something is so expensive.

This show though is all about how the dresses were made. In particular the interplay between hand-made processes and machine-made processes on the bleeding edge of clothing design. It puts mid-century fashion in conversation with contemporary fashion and breaks everything down by process—pleating, lacework, etc.—so we can both compare the hand-made with machine-made versions as well as see how the use of the machines has allowed for even more fantastic creations.

I particularly enjoyed the Issey Miyake designs on display as they demonstrated what technology allows while also playing with the way that clothes transform when worn. That Miyake’s designs are so different when “flat” versus when they’re on a model is a level of interest that isn’t present in most fashion shows.

There’s also an unexpected amount of actual use going on. In high fashion like this, often the only real use is on the runway. These aren’t practical garments. At the same time, that some of these—notably the Hussein Chalayan dresses—are intended to move on their own or change the way the wearer moves is a level which I’m not expecting in most fashion shows.

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To the photography. The Met didn’t have much on display. One small exhibition which will be a distinct post and a few alcoves in a hallway. Two displays did catch my eye though.

The first was a pair of Japanese ambrotypes* where I was struck by how differently they were displayed. I’m used to seeing ambrotypes and tintypes in small folding metal frames. Seeing them in little wooden boxes was a nice change of pace. While I wonder how well the wood and the ambrotype interact archival-wise, I think I prefer the way this method looks.

*By Fujita and Matsusaburō.

The other thing that caught my eye was a solitary Becher print. I’ve never seen one by itself. I’ve never even considered that they could be displayed by themselves. I mean, it’s nice enough but the entire point is the typology grid where you can see everything and start to notice the ridiculousness of both the form and the way each one does its own thing.

Anyway, the more I think about that solitary Becher the more I wonder about encyclopedic museums like The Met. They’re great at what they are—both as art primers as well as a place to go if you can’t travel. But I find them frustrating now. Too broad and, as a result, too conservative. The Met shows the world the way we saw it decades ago. When Asia was far away and different rather than where we call for tech support and manufacture everything. Where we could lump everything “3rd-world” into one set of galleries and visit those in a “safe” environment. Where a small sampler of modern art and photography suffices for  everything which we’ve created in the past century.

I can’t help but feel that everything there is essentially a solitary Becher, stripped of context, a big name to check off the “must see” list.

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Where I get the most excited is in The Met’s print and ephemera collection. This is partly due to me being a print enthusiast but it’s also a massive collection of works which, while requiring artists to produce, is rarely thought of as art. It’s in these printed items though that most of us interact with and experience art now. We just don’t think of these things that way.

The Burdick Collection in particular is wonderful even though very little of it is on display.* There’s a small gallery of baseball cards in the backwaters of the mezzanine level of the American Art wing. I was able to spend a long time there by myself as the only people who came near me were completely lost and trying to find either stairs or a bathroom.** And there were a few tables of post cards in the print and design room. But it’s a massive collection of printed material from the first half of the 20th century, most of which would be some of the coolest things to ever come across in an antique shop or your grandparents’ attic.

*And there’s not even a catalog to purchase.

**Both are admittedly difficult to find.

I’d love to see The Met do more with these. As much of our print culture has switched to the digital space and redefined what we think of as ephemeral media, there’s a huge opportunity to look at the printed material from the last century in new ways from expanding on the existing history of centuries of printed material to looking at how printed material and images and ideas as cultural currency.