Category Archives: museums

California and the West

 Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, from Photographs Showing Landscapes, Geological and Other Features of Portions of the Western Territory of the United States, Obtained in Connection with Geographical and Geological Explorations and Surveys, 1871-1873

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, 1871-1873

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

The main photography show at the new SFMOMA is on California and the West and how they have had an integral role in the development of the art form. It’s good but is more of a primer, introducing the different photographic “schools” that have developed here. In other words, it’s a bit thin and I wish it had gone deeper.

The main issue is that it sort of waffles between being organized thematically versus being ordered chronologically. The wall text suggests that things are chronological but the actual photos for a supposed time period end up covering over a century. This is most obvious in the Early Landscapes room. It feels like it’s about the 19th century Watkins, Russell, Muybridge, and O’Sullivan school of mammoth plates, albumen prints, pristine spectacular western landscapes, and our early attempts at taming them. But it goes into Ansel Adams work from ~50 years later and even includes a Friedlander photo from 2004.

In many ways the exhibition would’ve been better off just making the rooms purely thematic—similar to Oakland’s Inspiration Points show a couple years ago. This is pretty much how I chose to approach the show after the first couple of rooms. By focusing on the themes and ignoring the chronology cues, I found myself thinking about how each theme could cover ~150 years of photography in the West.

Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, from the series Gone? Colorado in the 1980s, 1984-1987

Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987

Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974

Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974

Early Landscapes was intended to set up a transition to the New West.* These photographs are very much my thing. I love Baltz and Robert Adams. Henry Wessel’s photo of the  Richmond garage tree is fantastic.** It’s always nice to see Shore prints.

*I’m tempted to start calling the pristine landscapes either “Old West” or “Old Topographics” a retronyms to either The New West or The New Topographics.

**And I’m completely unable to find it online anywhere.

The comparison between these views of The West is one which I feel deeply in my own photography. I very much love going out into nature and hiking with my camera. I also love going out into the suburban sprawl and taking photos of—and criticizing—the cityscape that has resulted. They’re more than just a core part of my visual literacy, they’re home. 

I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

While the Old West is distinct from the New West, the New West is visible in many of the Old West photos. “Photographing the incursion of technology into nature” is one of photography’s original subjects. Watkins and Robert Adams may have had different goals with their photography, but we can see as many similarities in their work as we can see between Watkins and Ansel Adams.

Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978

Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978

Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton's trial, July 30, 1968, from The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers, 1968

Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton’s trial, July 30, 1968

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

I found it interesting that the conflict and chaos theme—really more about demographic change—only started with photos from the 1960s. Muybridge photographed the Modoc War 100 years prior.* Dorothea Lange has photographs from the Great Depression in the adjoining room. The history of California is a history of conflict and demographic change, it’s not something which started in the 60s.

*Also an exhibition at the California Historical Society which I need to see this summer.

I do however enjoy seeing how photographers address the social issues of their time. Where political comment is often absent from the rest of the modern art canon,* photography has always been on the front lines. As much as there’s disagreement about what the democratic camera means, it’s pretty clear that as an art form, photography is somewhat unique in how it’s accessible to many more people and has always had an element of not just witnessing, but being part of any conflicts.

*In the rest of the museum, it’s only visible in the Anselm Keifer and Gerhard Richter rooms. But for the rest of the art from the 1960s and 1970s? If there were politics in it it’s long been scrubbed from the wall texts. 

It’s not just conflicts either. A lot of the changes are long-term gradual things which may not even depict changes but rather illustrate existing inequality. These images though, by Jim Goldberg or Carrie Mae Weems, get short shrift in this exhibition. Goldberg’s Rich and Poor is hung on both sides of a hallway—which makes no sense for a series which encourages both close inspection and zig-zagging between images. Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried meanwhile is one of those photo series which needs to be seen in its entirety yet only two of the images are on display.

That economic and racial inequality are the two big issues for this year’s election, I can’t help but sort of side-eye the way both of them are minimized here.

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Speaking of Lange and social justice, while I approve of featuring the “founders/ƒ.64” as being an important theme of western photography, keeping so much of their work outside of the themes in the rest of the rooms felt strange. The group wasn’t about content but rather technique. Their photos fit with all the other themes in the exhibition. There are pristine landscapes, technological changes, and demographic conflicts on display here, but the exercise in tying them into the other rooms is left to the viewer.

As an ƒ.64 room though I liked that they stayed away from most of the super-iconic photos. There’s Lange’s road. And a few of the Weston images are very familiar. But this room could have been full of just photographs I’ve seen over and over again.* I enjoy just absorbing more of their other work.

*Note, there should probably be such a room at SFMOMA because many of those ƒ.64 photos are extremely important to both photography and the idea that photography is art and all of them are inherently part of the Bay Area’s role in art history.

Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, from the series Homeland, 2009

Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 - 2016

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016

The last theme involves photographers playing with the medium itself. I’ve been on record saying that I consider Weston to be part of this group but most of these photos are much more recent. As such, many of them don’t quite do it for me.* The ones that do though I really like. In particular, Larry Sultan using day laborers as models and the weird ethical questions they create in the resulting photos. Did they know what they were getting in to? What does it mean to stage photos of gente day laborers using those day laborers as models? I don’t have good answers here either but I enjoy thinking about the questions.

*Contemporary Art is still being sorted by Sturgeon’s Law.

I also loved Klea McKenna’s photograms. And it’s always nice to see Trevor Paglen on display although putting him in the playing-with-the-medium room risks reducing a lot of his work to being about technique rather than interrogating the inherent nature of photography as being surveillance.

Looking at the recent photos though provides a clear example of how art photography has embraced the “make it fucking large” ethos of the collector-driven market. So many of the prints are not just huge, but possibly too big to the point that they feel like they’re only trying to be appreciated for their size rather than as images to be looked at. I understand why this is the case* but I don’t have to like the results.

*They have to compete with paintings and other media in a “bigger is better” arms race in the art-collector world rather than focusing on just photography collectors.

So yeah. I like many of the individual photos but was kind of unsold on the larger theme of the exhibition. As with the opening shows in the rest of the museum, this felt very much like a for-the-masses sketch of possibilities for future shows while staking a claim on a lot of territory.

Philadelphia Zoo


So we bought a membership to the Philadelphia Zoo this year. Looks like we should have a lot of fun visiting it. I’ve had my rants about zoos before on this blog and I stand by the idea that I’d love to see more local animals at zoos in the same way that aquariums tend to focus on local sealife. At the same time, I have to admit that zoos are much much better than aquariums when it comes to collecting animals from the wild and breeding them in captivity.

Anyway, I should have fun photographing the animals all year too.


Before and After

So this didn’t fit in my general new SFMOMA comments but while I was there I found myself comparing the installations of some of the sculptures with their previous installations. In particular, I ended up comparing Richard Serra’s Sequence and Barnett Newman’s Zim Zum I.

Richard Serra—Sequence

Before the expansion Sequence was installed at the Stanford Art Museum. I visited it many times there. I also much much much prefer it there. Outside it does much more interesting things with light, weather, and sound. In bright sun it casts wonderful shadows. On overcast days you get a real sense of the texture of the steel. Late in the afternoon the color glows as the sun sets. On rainy days there will be dry spots where the sculpture has protected itself, or the floor, from the drops. And because there’s no enclosing space, the sounds of talking or footsteps change as you walk through. You truly feel inside and enclosed when you’re in it.

Inside, you’re always conscious that you’re in a museum. There’s noise from the ticketing lobby that echoes in. You’re on a tiled floor instead of poured concrete. There’s tracklighting above you. The light is flat but not strong enough to see details. The shadows are weak and multi-directional. It’s still an interesting piece to walk around in and explore but yeah…it’s not what it used to be either.

2011 at Stanford


2016 at SFMOMA


Barnett Newman—Zim Zum I

Zim Zum I used to be in the fifth floor sculpture garden where it received full sun and framed both the Pacific Telephone Building and the sky when you were inside it. Now it’s in the new third floor garden, protected by an overhang and framing the living wall. I liked it where it was but the way it interacts with the wall is nice.


Inside Zim Zum I



Neue SFMOMA Grotesk


I’ve missed SFMOMA.* I visited it enough to develop a standard beat through the museum each time—visiting my favorite spaces and getting to know the collection as it rotated through. It closed the same time I moved away from the Bay Area and something’s been missing every time I visit. Ever since it reopened last May I’ve been looking forward to summer when I could both get to know the new, expanded space and revisit an old favorite.

*Bumping Tripod Holes 4 since I have another new camera.

As a museum, the expansion is great. It’s full of light. There are plenty of places to sit—benches, window ledges, etc. Every floor but one has access to an outside gallery or balcony. It’s easy to navigate without getting lost or overwhelmed. For such a large space it flows well without forcing you through a specific path. For a museum which now requires close to six hours to do all of,* having these breaks is crucial for getting through it all.**

*Compared to the two hours or so that the old museum required.

**The only rough part is the bathrooms where every surface is covered in the same super-saturated color (each floor of the museum features bathrooms in a different color). It hurts your eyes as they first think that there’s colored light to adjust to and then realize—much too late—that it was wight light all along.

And it serves the Fisher Collection perfectly. The Collection consists of many of the big names people will want to see. Rather than just featuring one or two pieces from each big name, the Fishers’ collection has both depth and quality. The large galleries dedicate entire rooms to specific artists and there’s plenty of space for the art to breathe.


Bernd and Hilla Becher

So instead of than having favorite pieces I want to go back and see, I have favorite rooms. I love the small octagonal Agnes Martin room and how it invites quiet contemplation and rewards her subtle paintings. The room of Bechers is wonderful and probably the best display of their work that I’ve seen anywhere. The William Kentridge room is pure joy and I could watch Preparing the Flute repeatedly.

Outside of those, the Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter rooms are great.* As are the Sol Le Witt, Alexander Calder, and Ellsworth Kelly rooms. There’s a lot of good art to see and return to.

*Actually, most of the rooms involved with the German Art After 1960 theme are pretty good.

But it’s funny. I like the new SFMOMA in general but I can’t stop wanting to call it Neue SFMOMA Grotesk. What I used to find interesting about SFMOMA now feels like an afterthought—both architecturally and in terms of the collection. As per SFMOMA’s statement, “Seventy-five percent of the work on view in the expanded galleries will be drawn from the Fisher Collection and the other 25 percent will come from SFMOMA’s collection.” The expansion dwarfs the old museum so it feels more like a Fisher Collection museum than anything else.

I suspect—and hope—that most of this is growing pains and an opening set of shows which feels more like four distinct museums housed in one building.

  1. The Fisher Collection with its focus on mainstream (mostly) white male artists.
  2. The original SFMOMA collection which had been trending toward making a case for greater Bay Area involvement in the narrative of modern and contemporary art.
  3. The Campaign for Art which consists of contemporary artists—including many non-male or non-white.
  4. The photography collection.

Right now we’re being introduced to everything again. Hopefully in a year after we’ve gotten used to the space, things will mix more and the emphasis on “This is a Fisher Collection Gallery” versus “This is a Campaign for Art Gallery” will be toned down and it will feel more like one cohesive museum.

I am concerned though at how the original collection is now almost completely detached from everything else. There’s a massive ticketing and membership lobby with “entrance this way” signs pointing toward the elevators and staircase up to the galleries. In the exact opposite direction are two doors leading to the original building. It’s basically a distinct museum.

From 2012:
iconic works

As things are currently displayed, new visitors to SFMoMA will come up the stairs, turn left toward the permanent collection, and find Femme au chapeauFrieda and Diego, and The Flower Carrier right there welcoming them. This is exactly how it should be. All three of those pieces are the kind which the museum could market as things to see in San Francisco.

SFMOMA roundup

The art is still in the exact same place only now it’s no longer welcoming anyone. They’re like the dioramas at the Academy of Sciences—a vestige of an earlier iteration of the museum—which makes me sad.

I used to feel like SFMOMA had made a major change in direction around the Anniversary Show in making a claim on early, important modern pieces (Femme au chapeauFrieda and Diego, and The Flower Carrier) being locally-promoted. Same goes with how  many of SFMOMA’s big acquisitions over the past decade (e.g. Robert Arneson and Margaret Kilgallen) were also important local artists. Heck, even their foray into Google Arts and Culture emphasized the local angle. But the Fisher collection now dominates and it feels like SFMOMA has given up on its claim that the Bay Area is important to the modern art discussion.

I do enjoy the larger photography space. The old space always felt like it could handle either a special exhibition or the permanent collection, but not both. The new space has enough room for a good-size exhibition in addition to keeping a significant number of galleries of just the permanent collection on display. Photography also, both because of its relatively-recent emergence into the world of art dealers and collectors and because of its close ties to the Bay Area, counteracts the dominance of the Fisher Collection in being able to tell a different, more local tale of art and its importance to the larger art world.

At the same time, part of the photography galleries also feels like a step backwards. While SFMOMA was closed, they had a few On-The-Go shows which mixed photography with painting and sculpture. Flesh and Metal explored the new textures and surfaces which resulted from the mechanical age. Portraits and Other Likenesses approached as portraiture any artwork which represents a person or people. I was hopeful that the expansion would embrace this level of mixing media. Instead, the photography wings feel even more isolated than they did in the old museum.

That said, the two opening exhibitions, California and the West and About Time are both interesting and warrant their own posts. So those will be coming later.


Glenn Ligon

The Campaign for Art is also in the new building so it benefits from the same large gallery spaces. Unlike the Fisher collection though, the rooms a little more crowded and there are many artists on display in each room. While I was a little too tired by the time I made it to the top floor to fully engage with the contemporary art, I can note that the artists on display are noticeably more diverse than the artists in the floors below—e.g. Glenn Ligon, Ai Wei Wei, and Brad Kahlhamer.

It’s good to see that SFMOMA is collecting in that direction now. There’s obviously nothing calling out how 75% of the museum is supposed to be dedicated to white guys but I’m very interested in the directions the new acquisitions will take.

There are some hints of SFMOMA doing this in the permanent collection downstairs too. There’s a prominent display of Ana Mendieta’s work (balancing a bit of the prominence that Carl Andre has in the Fisher galleries) as well as a room featuring Ruth Asawa and Martin Puryear.

If merging with the old collection is one huge challenge that SFMOMA will have to tackle in the future, taking the modern and contemporary collection into a more diverse direction is another. I’m glad the early signs look good in this department.


Corita Kent

I was also pleased to see that SFMOMA has kept a large space for design. This used to be the first place I headed to in the old museum. It’s no longer as easy to get to but I’m already working out what my new standard path through the museum will be. The current design show is Typeface to Interface and covers graphic/information design as it’s evolved from mechanical to digital typesetting.

It’s one of those shows which is good but never really becomes more than the sum of its parts. I totally buy the idea that graphic design is inherently interactive. It’s how I’ve always approached my own work in design and typesetting and an exhibition which took that approach and really addressed how would have been awesome. This one has nice objects and artifacts which all involve text—much of Helvetica—but I have to stretch to make the connections.

Still, it’s always wonderful to see Corita Kent or Susan Kare in a museum. Same goes for the Feltron Annual Reports. I really enjoyed learning about Aaron Marcus. And the video of how the IBM Selectric typewriter works is fantastic.

All in all, the new SFMOMA is both a good museum and one which I look forward to revisiting many times. I can’t help myself from being cynical and thinking that massive wealth and development completely changing the character of a place does capture a certain San Francisco gestalt. But I’m also an optimist who believes that the museum’s trend of acquiring artwork by both local and more-diverse artists will continue. I’m excited to watch the results.

Tabaimo: Her Room

Tabaimo DanDAN, 2009 Video installation with sound 4 minutes, 34 seconds Installation view at James Cohan Gallery, New York, September 2011 photo: Jason Mandella © Tabaimo / Courtesy Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo and James Cohan Gallery,New York/Shanghai

After seeing Border Cantos, I wandered through San José’s Tabaimo show. Seeing videos in an art museum is always a weird thing where I have to remind myself to give the loop some time to grow on me. It’s a good thing that there’s a space for short films that can play with not conforming to the expectations of plotting, etc. that we have about films shown in a theater. I just have to remember myself that I can’t judge these like I would judge a movie. Yes there’s often a start but I don’t always begin there. Nor can I expect it to hook me immediately when I start watching.

As an animation junkie, I liked a lot of  this show. Tabaimo’s pieces are more like video sculptures than films. They’re projected onto three-dimensional surfaces and often involve additional depth and dimension in addition to those surfaces. I especially liked DanDAN and the way it slipped through the different units and floors of an apartment building. I also found myself appreciating just the craft of putting together and staging everything. Juggling the animation, how the projection will hit the surface, and how the different projections will interact is an impressive amount of stagecraft.

I also always like looking at hand-drawn animation which mimics other media in its brush and line styles. This is especially true now when so much of the goal of computer animation is achieving a realistic look. Instead, I love when the animation still looks like drawings or paintings that have come alive. All of Tabaimo’s work has that sketchy/brushy quality and it’s just fun to look at.

At the same time, all of the work on display draws on cultural references which I don’t understand. This isn’t a critique of the art as much as it’s a critique of how it’s displayed. I don’t think really any of the museum goers will understand the textual or cultural references and while the works are named on the wall text, there’s not much about what those works are about. Which is a shame since I think I’d enjoy these all a lot more if they were presented in a way which took them beyond the “don’t these look cool” appeal.

Border Cantos

Richard Misrach. Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.

Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.

Richard Misrach. Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.

*My post on Russell’s Great West Illustrated covers more of this but Carleton Watkins has some train photos too. It’s also worth looking at Marc Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire here, in particular photos like this one.

I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.

That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.

This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.

The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.

*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.

**The wall itself also reminds me of Christo and Jeane Claude’s Running Fence except that where the Running Fence used the landscape, the border wall is imposed upon it.

Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.

It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.

*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.

What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.

This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.

Guillermo Galindo. Zapatello, 2014.

Zapatello, 2014

Guillermo Galindo. Efigie. 2014.

Efigie. 2014

The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.

There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.

The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.

Crime Stories

Tom Howard. Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York.

Tom Howard.
Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York.

Alexander Gardner. Execution of the Conspirators.

Alexander Gardner.
Execution of the Conspirators.

Weegee. Outline of a Murder Victim.

Outline of a Murder Victim.

Unknown Marius Bourotte.

Marius Bourotte.

William Klein. Gun 1, New York.

William Klein.
Gun 1, New York.

The one small photo exhibition I saw during my trip to The Met was about Crime Stories. I enjoyed it, especially since when I saw it I was still thinking about war photography. Crime and crime-related photographs operate in a very similar category of allowing us to see and really look at events which we don’t usually get to experience. Rather than war, we’re talking about crime. But in both cases it’s the proximity to death and danger which is compelling.

Photography has always had an intimate relationship with death and danger. Its voyeuristic aspects allow us to see things we’ve been culturally conditioned to think of as of limits and its documentary aspect lends itself to evidence and observation. We don’t want to look but not only is it hard to turn away, we often look closer and try and discern some level of truth out of the photo.

The danger is seductive. Executions have a long history of being public spectacles. As much as we now decry executions and the publishing of images which show death, there is still part of us deep inside which wants to see that evidence. Confronting that violence inside ourselves is how photos like William Klein’s, which don’t actually depict violence, draw their power. It’s all imagery we grow up with in stories, act out as kids, and then act all shocked about when it’s used to attract clicks.*

*I almost wrote “sell tabloids/newspapers” but this is the world we now live in.

Looking at crime photos—whether by Weegee or an unmanned surveillance camera—lets us play amateur detective as we try and spot details and get a sense about what happened. The same thing with looking at mugshots and other typographies of “criminal types.” As much as we know that we can’t really know what criminals look like, I don’t think we fully believe it in our guts. So we look at the photos and try and reach any sort of conclusion.

As much as I liked the show though, I wanted more. I’d love to see these taken to the present day where cell phone cameras and the autopanopticon of citizen photography have taken surveillance to a whole new level. I can’t look at the history of crime photos without thinking about the events of the past couple years. I’m not just thinking about how it’s the police which are committing the crimes either.

It’s been increasingly obvious that we, as a culture, object to crime images a lot more with certain kinds of victims while others are still seen and sold as entertainment. It’s no longer just about the fascination we have with viewing and consuming crime images that we need to discuss, we also have to confront our biases about whose images are still commodities and who we see as human.



Richard Avedon
Dick Hickock, Murderer, Garden City, Kansas, April 15

The mug shot–like portrait captures Hickock’s sullen, lopsided face with mesmerizing clarity, as if searching for physiognomic clues to his criminal pathology.

The Met 

The minimal, straightforward style of the photograph highlights the idiosyncrasies of the killer’s face and suggests that the photographer is looking for evidence, should it exist, of a homicidal pathology.


While I would like to think that all the very similar celebrity portraits Avedon made were “looking for evidence, should it exist, of a homicidal pathology,” that seems doubtful.


Sometimes museum texts make me smile. I’ve long been amused by SFMOMA’s description of Avedon’s Dick Hickock photo. Seeing essentially the exact same description at The Met made me laugh in the gallery. Yes, while this is what we do when viewing this photo when it’s presented in the context of Crime Stories or some other salacious setting, it seems weird to describe an Avedon this way. As Kukkurovaca points out, this is pretty much the Avedon modus operandi.

All that said, if someone wants to use The Met and SFMOMA’s text as a way of describing The Family I’m totally for it.