Category Archives: museums

Baseball Americana

We spent Thanksgiving break down in Virginia so that Friday I took the boys into DC to see the Baseball Americana show at the Library of Congress. They’re both into the sport enough that they were excited to go when I showed them the website and they managed to make it through the subway ride and exhibition just fine before they ran out of gas and needed lunch.

To be clear, by “making it through” I mean they put up with me doing the exhibition at my speed instead of theirs. So I got to read the wall text and item descriptions and would call them back to look at things they may have skipped over as they skipped through the gallery. Thankfully te exhibition is a good one for kids. There’s lots of things to touch and video screens that kids can use to kill time while their parents catch up.*

*I usually don’t like video-based exhibits because I prefer to go on my own pace than be limited to what the screen shows but with kids they’re wonderful.

Plus, by being baseball, there’s a lot of things that the kids just recognize and get excited about. I’ve been good about exposing them to the history of the game and they’ve been wonderful about wanting to learn that stuff. My eldest has already surpassed much of my baseball trivia knowledge and his younger brother will catch up any day now.

What this exhibition does best is constantly pair old items with their modern equivalents and invite us to compare the two. This is super accessible to kids and drives home the point at how constant the game has been.

Bats look like bats. Cleats look like cleats. Caps look like caps. Gloves…well those have changed a bit. But we’ve had baseball cards and scorecards and ticket stubs and programs for well over a century and they’re recognizable. It’s not just that the game’s been around for that long, it’s that my 4th grader can look at a scorecard from decades ago and recreate the game in his head and that my 1st grader can see a 100-year-old baseball card and know not only what it is but how it was used and maybe even who the player or team depicted is.

While the equipment is fun to see, because this is the Library of Congress, most of what’s on display is ephemera. Many of these items are programs, posters,* promotional items and all kinds of the accoutrement that accompanies being a fan. These are very fun to see—both from a design point of view and a “how the game is marketing itself point of view—but they’re also almost too familiar.

*Of special note are early promotional posters such as the baseball and chess doubleheader that served as the first collegiate game.

I found myself really enjoying the documents that weren’t just old but offered a perspective on the game that I’m less aware of. So many wonderful items from the players and other people in the game. Photos, letters, scouting reports. I love the scouting reports and how they’ve changed as the game trended toward more data-based in its analysis. But the letters* are great and the contracts provide insights into aspects of the game that fans don’t usually see.

*Jackie Robinson to Branch Rickey.

Contracts are typically private. We’ll be made aware of certain details but it’s not like teams just release the full text as a press release. And I’m okay with this since I certainly wouldn’t want the terms of my employment to be published publicly either. So being able to read Ty Cobbs’s contract is great. As is being able to read the full text of the reserve clause since its legacy on the game is so strong. I appreciate the Curt Flood shoutout since the business of contracts and trades and player movement is such a sore subject even today.

The player-focused documents also allow the exhibition to make the claim that Baseball Americana is the national pastime not just for fans but for participants. It highlights how non-white players played the game long before 1947. How women have played it long before the AAGPBL; and how they’ve continued to play it to the presentHow Americans played it while overseas and introduced it to other countries. How internees played it while being treated as if they were not American.

One of the big points that the show makes is how the traditional narrative of the game’s history excludes the majority of the actual ballplayers. Major League Baseball is the tip of the iceberg and while it’s The Show, it’s also excluded many players and the game is better as a common game for everyone.

I enjoyed this show it immensely. As did my kids and I’m glad we all got to see it together. Do they have the stamina for a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame? Maybe they do. Maybe they do.

Oh, and there’s a part 2 of this review looking specifically at baseball cards that I’ve posted over on the SABR Baseball Cards blog.

Note

The catalog for this exhibition is also fantastic. It has a lot more information than the exhibition does—especially in the formative years—and was definitely worth picking up. I suspect that it will get read through a lot by at least three members of the household. The only criticism I have of it is that it stops in the 1960s and doesn’t take things to the present day.

Philadelphia Zoo

A long Veterans Day Weekend trip to the Philly Zoo. Getting cold so a lot of the animals are no longer out and about. But the big cats do have their long winter coats on.

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Philadelphia Zoo

It’s been about a year since we last visited the Philly Zoo. Spring was crazy and the boys had kind of gotten a bit exhausted. We all enjoyed being back this time though it was sad to see that the Polar Bear had died since our last visit.

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SFMOMA

Of course it wasn’t just Susan Meiselas that I saw at SFMOMA. As always I took a spin through the buildings and took not of what caught my eye.

There was a small gallery full of Stephen Frykholm’s Herman Miller Summer Picnic posters. These were a lot of fun in the way the abstracted food into graphic shapes and designs. Very colorful and appealing to me as a photographer. At the same time. Holy moly. This was a picnic with some peak whitey food to the point where I started imagining what posters for other demographics could look like.

Dora Maar. Double Portrait, 1930s.

Dora Maar.
Double Portrait, 1930s.

There was also a decent-sized exhibition looking at portrait photography. It’s one of those donor-centered shows which so I wasn’t inclined to spend a ton of time looking through it. But it’s doing some nice things in taking a dive through the collection and grouping things into themes—in this case various types of photographic portraits.

One of the big problems here is that there’s a bit of the mile-wide, inch-thick thing going on where a lot of the photos are a bit out of context and function as needle drops.* I know enough context to see an appreciate a lot of what’s going on but it’s not something that makes for the most enjoyable show.

*In which I realize that using “needle drop” as an analogy is something that will lose my kids completely.

Still, the self portraits were particularly fun. They sort of always are though. The Masquerade section though was less fun because projects like Cindy Sherman’s work really need enough context so they don’t look like one-off costumes.

The most interesting thing for me though was the comparison of Diane Arbus with Rineke Djikstra. Both of them work in portraiture but the portraits say as much, if not more, about the photographer than the sitter. It’s a good insight although I’d argue that it does a disservice to Arbus and the degree to which she finds sympathy with the subjects of her photographs.

Richard Artschwager. Triptych III, 1967.

Richard Artschwager.
Triptych III, 1967.

The gallery of Richard Artschwager art is a lot of fun as he just plays with our expectations for how objects should be finished. It verges on gimmickry but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. My favorite piece was Triptych III which treats Formica as a finished painting. And not just any Formica but a dark 1970s-textured one which looks either like imitation wood burl or leather which has gotten wet.

It’s the kind of thing that evokes immediate feelings of nostalgia for my friends’ parents homes before they updated their kitchens or various greasy spoon restaurants I’ve eaten a burger in while travelling someplace in California. Something super-familiar but which I never really paid attention to and looked at. Just putting it up on the wall and inviting me to really look is both hilarious and wonderful.

Pirkle Jones. Monticello Cemetery, from the series Death of a Valley, 1956, printed 1960.

Pirkle Jones.
Monticello Cemetery, from the series Death of a Valley, 1956, printed 1960.

It was wonderful to see Pirkle Jones and Dorothea Lange’s Death of a Valley photos. I don’t look enough at Pirkle Jones’s work but it’s fantastic. Very evocative of my sense of home as well as being beautifully sympathetic to the people and place he depicts. Lange of course is always excellent too.

Having just taken a trip to the Central Valley earlier this summer,* I had noticed that all the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” signs that lined I5 the previous half-dozen years had been replaced with complaints about how we didn’t have proper reservoirs to save all the water that fell on the state in 2017. It’s pretty clear that the corporate farms in the valley think that any water which reaches the ocean is wasted so now they want to build reservoirs all over.

*Featured in a few of the photos on this post.  

As I looked at the Jones and Lange photos I found myself ruefully laughing at the concept. The idea of displacing a community like this is something I can’t see anyone in the state feeling comfortable with and to see the evidence of what such a move entails reminds me of how demands for what we “should” do almost never come with any thought about how we should do it.

It’s also not lost on me how, despite the sacrifice made to build Lake Berryessa, the state still needs more water than nature can supply. Nor can I avoid thinking about how with the way things are going, we’re more likely to see scenes like this play out again as we retreat from the coasts and move uphill as sea levels rise.

Charles Wong. Year of the Dragon [page 20], 1952.

Charles Wong.
Year of the Dragon [page 20], 1952.

I thoroughly enjoyed the rooms of Charles Wong photos and Hung Liu prints. It’s always nice to see asian artists being treated as locals even though all the Liu prints weren’t of the Bay Area. Wong’s photos in particular are great since they show the life of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the uniqueness of Chinese-American culture.

It’s always great to see an insider view showing how people lived and how the culture is such a mix of influences. Having just watched Chan is Missing I loved seeing a similar slice through the culture form the generation before.

Donald Judd. Armchair, Designed 1984.

Donald Judd.
Armchair, Designed 1984.

The design gallery this time had an exhibition of Donald Judd’s furniture. I appreciate how it (and Judd) draws a direct line from the Arts and Crafts movement to Judd’s designs. The connection is not one that’s obvious to anyone whose familiarity with Judd is mostly limited to his sculptures of multiple boxes attached to the wall; it’s very tempting to see his furniture as working in that esthetic.

The arts and crafts framing is much much better. Taking clean lines to an extreme. Taking simple forms to an extreme. These aren’t arts and crafts any more but the rots are there and they work harmoniously with both older more decorative furniture as well as more-modern semi-industrial furniture.

This exhibition was also the rare design exhibition which provides samples for people to use. You can’t just look at design, you have to use it in order to fully appreciate it. So I got to sit in a few different chairs and see how they felt. The verdict? Kind of disappointing as chairs but they work fine as benches or stools.

Trevor Paglen. Autonomy Cube, 2014.

Trevor Paglen.
Autonomy Cube, 2014.

And on the to floor in the contemporary galleries was an exhibition looking at current events. Many of the pieces on display are artists and work—e.g. Tiffany Chung, An Te Liu, Taryn Simon, and Trevor Paglen—I’ve seen before in other exhibitions and museums in the Bay Area. It’s always nice to see them again and see how well their work has aged and how it interacts with a different set of artworks.

The works on display all touch on the pressing issues of today: security, our trust of government, racism, the imminent environmental collapse… It’s good to see all these things presented together since it’s increasingly obvious that they’re different faces of the same problem. It’s interesting to me to see how certain aspects such as the environment or technological issues are very comfortable for museum goers to deal with and others are much more difficult.

It’s no surprise which ones a lot of visitors are uncomfortable with. Something like Arthur Jafa’s work for example is much more foreign in San Francisco than anything involving data or technology. But it’s absolutely necessary to have it in the same space as work critiquing the news media or the government. Artists can point out the problems all they want but until there’s political will and coverage of that in the media ain’t nothing is going to get done and things will only get worse.

Susan Meiselas

Finally getting to this post after a long break of blogging about museums. The same day I went to Pier 24 I also walked over to SFMOMA. I chose not to see the fancy Magritte show* but did walk through the large Susan Meiselas exhibition.

*I’m opposed to paying surcharges to see traveling shows of big-name artists since they frequently emphasize “here are his most-famous works” and “here’s merchandise featuring his most famous works” and rarely offer good insights about the artist himself. Yes I’m using “him” on purpose. Yes this felt like a total FAMSF show.

One of the reason’s I’ve not blogged about this yet is that I’ve been struggling with what angle to take. The Meiselas show is good and interesting but not necessarily in a way that I always like. And I’m not saying I have to like it, just that in figuring out my critiques I have to figure out what exactly rubs me the wrong way and that was kind of hard.

 

First off, her early work is very good and demonstrates a lot of the things that we don’t get with the typical documentary photography. The photos of Little Italy are wonderful in that kids growing up way. Meiselas is at home and photographing people who trust her and it’s just a great unguarded—or as unguarded as possible— view of adolescence.

The especially great thing seeing these is recognizing the difference in comfort around the camera and photographer that the subjects show. I’ve seen way too many photographs by men where it’s clear that things are a little creepy. None of that is going on here.

The Carnival Strippers series take this a step further. It’s great to see a series like this without the male gaze. There’s no leering going on and the images concentrate on the lives of the women. Yes there’s a lot of skin on display but it’s more nakedness and exhausted vulnerability instead of nudity.

Susan Meiselas. Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979.

Susan Meiselas.
Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979.

Where her early work is pretty much straight documentary photography, her subsequent work, starting with El Salvador and Nicaragua, gets more interesting the more you divorce it from photojournalism.  Not that it’s not photojournalism—it very much is—just that what seems to interest Meiselas is the life of the image itself.

There’s a reason her work was featured in Princeton’s Itinerant Language of Photography show. Where most exhibitions show just prints and have a small case showing how they were originally published in magazines, Meiselas is putting her prints on the wall with the magazines and other publications so we can compare how they’ve been used.

It’s conceptual art about how photography exists in the world and the ways we use the images. I enjoy seeing it—both in a how the sausage is made way and in the way that it shows Meiselas thinking about the life of her images while she works. She’s appearing on campus this week and I’m looking forward to seeing the conversations.

Susan Meiselas. Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq, 1992.

Susan Meiselas.
Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq, 1992.

Her work in Iraq documenting the Kurds moves even further away from straight photography and is as much about the history of the entire region rather than just what was happening while she was there. In addition to her photos there are archival images and maps which document western involvement in the area as well as the refugee diaspora.

How much of this is western responsibility? The archive photos show England getting involved in Kurdish politics in 1914. All too often photojourmalism feeds a narrative of awful things happening right now without considering the background of why people are suffering. Why they’re fighting. Why they’re fleeing. Why it’s impossible for the West to disassociate itself from the consequences of what’s going on.

All too often looking back into the history of the region—even just the photographic history—reveals our (“our” meaning “The West’s”) involvement in the area decades ago followed by decades of neglect after we destabilized the area. This lack of awareness makes it easy to claim that we have no responsibility for the current state of things and lay the blame at the people who we left holding the bag after we messed things up.

It’s a shame this kind of photojournalism seems more at home in museums than any current media. But it’s exciting to see photoland grappling with these issues.

The exhibition ends with a couple works where Meiselas is working collaboratively with her subjects. These two pieces are the primary cause for the delay in posting since I couldn’t wrap my head around my feelings about them.

The first one documents abuse in the UK. This is an important piece which is perfectly timed to hit at a moment when society has had a much-needed shift in its perception and framing of abuse and whose stories matter. Taking “portraits” of survivors’ rooms and letting their words hold equal weight to the image is a powerful way of centering their stories and making the point at both how important it is to listen to what victims say and how long-lasting the emotional and mental trauma from abuse can last.

At the same time, I got some weird vibes from this room in that I couldn’t escape the impression that this issue was an immigrant, refugee, non-white problem rather than a universal one. It’s hard. Small sample sizes like this are tough to handle and can produce inadvertent framing issues. I don’t know if by balancing for racial diversity meant we ended up with a mostly-immigrant one. Or maybe this is just the demographics of the refuge that Meiselas was working with. I just know that something felt off to me.

Twenty Dirhams or One Photo is another one that just doesn’t sit right with me. I do like some of the concept—especially the idea of trying to acknowledge the power issues which are at the core of most photography but especially haunt photojournalism and the way it’s frequently intertwined with colonialism. I like the idea of compensating sitters. I like the idea of considering whether or not people want you to take their photo. I like the idea of giving the sitters agency over whether or not to publish the photos. But something about the nature of this transaction still felt off to me.

One big thing is that the price feels like it’s something which is substantial enough to be tempting to the sitters but isn’t a big deal at all for Meiselas. Rather than a fair transaction, it’s more of a game where power is always with the photographer. This game aspect also gets triggered by the whole “decide before I take your photo” thing in the setup and how, while there’s agency in whether or not the photo gets published, I’m still wondering what brought the women into the studio to begin with. I’ve been a parent long enough to recognize how someone with power can offer the appearance of choice by controlling the options available to choose from.

Aside from the weirdness I felt about the experimental aspect of the piece,it is worth commenting on how the portraits themselves are quite nice. They show a wonderful variety of attire and age and really give a sense of the vitality of the market population.

So yeah. It’s been a couple months since I saw this show and the fact that I’m still grappling with conflicted feelings is ultimately a good thing. Even if I end up deciding I don’t like some parts, the fact that I had to think about it is great and even a failed experiment has value in what we can learn from it.

Other comments

One of the most frustrating things about this show is how aggressively SFMOMA enforced the “no photography” rule. I’m not complaining about not being allowed to take photos but if you’re going to have your guards shout at people whenever they take out their iPhone and point it at the wall, you’d better not have wall text that tells you to open the SFMOMA app and scan the code. I even pointed out the mixed messages to a guard and he just shrugged.

Anyway if my phone was new enough to run the app I’d’ve considered squeaky wheeling it and seeing how often I could get yelled at for following the directions that the curator had written. As it is I just took it as another example of the new SFMOMA no longer knowing what it wants to be.

Along with this sense of SFMOMA incompetence, nothing was translated even though Meiselas is very good about including what the locals call places in her captions. My notes show that I was particularly indignant about how a location Meiselas called “cuesta de plomo” (hill of lead) is merely listed as an assacicination location.

Coyote Point

Our annual summer trip to Coyote Point and CuriOdyssey. The boys are kind of outgrowing the zoo although the fact that the animals were easily visible and very active this trip helped assuage that. But they’re liking the exhibits more and are starting to make connections to stuff they’re learning in school. This is encouraging. I remember going to the Exploratorium at least once every year when I was a kid* and I don’t remember ever paying attention to the science behind the exhibits.

*Usually on both a school fieldtrip and a summer camp field trip.

We also did our usual thing of hitting the Magic Mountain playground for a bit of fun on the gigantic slide. Then I took the boys up the road a bit to Burlingame for It’s-Its. It was, after all, National Ice Cream Sandwich Day.

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This Land is Whose Land

It’s kind of funny. I had to move away from the Bay Area in order to find the time to visit Pier 24. Before I moved I could never get into the city for a visit. Something about the weekday-only hours and having to reserve an appointment made it something that was just way too much work to fit into my schedule. Now that I live in New Jersey, it’s been relatively straightforward to include it on my itinerary when I return to California on a vacation. I’ve been three times in five years.

The current exhibition focuses on recent work documenting the United States. It’s not all photos of people but everything on display depicts elements of society and how it’s changed in the past decade. For me, as someone who’s spent the last decade paying a lot of attention to photography—especially new photography—many of these photos are not new to me. I’ve seen them online, in galleries, and at other museums. I haven’t seen them put together like this though as a depiction of, and conversation about, the current US social climate.

I got through two rooms before I had to stop and write down in my note book, “How white is this show going to be?”

This is not a dig at those two rooms* but rather a recognition that I had walked into the photoland equivalent of the endless media profiles of Trump Country which focus on “economic anxiety” and center the plight of poor white people.

*One was the entry room featuring photos by Katy Grannan and Richard Misrach. The other was a room of Alec Soth’s Songbook. Yes I’ve seen all of those before. Yes I even like many of them.

Bryan Schutmaat

Bryan Schutmaat

Heck, this is not a dig at any of the rooms. Rather it’s how Photoland missed—and misrepresented—the same things that the general media does. Any one of these photo projects is fine. Seeing them all together though just reinforces the tropes about who we consider to be American and who we’re expected to sympathize with.

It’s bad enough that I’m tempted to view a lot of this as Ruin Porn. It’s not the same as the luscious-surface-texture ruin porn that we saw in the beginning of the decade. In this case the themes and emotions represent the same easily-identifiable tropes of an alienated white middle and working class. We get that golden light of sunset and see the decline of towns and the isolation of the people who live there.

We don’t get a sense of why things are the way they are. We don’t get to see other communities and demographics. We don’t really get to learn anything from these. As well-crafted as these images are they also feel like the same story and same people over and over again. And as a result my brain just registers objections.

The Pier 24 no-context thing definitely hurts here too. Many of the images are ones where I want to know more about where they were taken and who used the structures. If the first round of ruin porn just involved us appreciating the way ruins look, this second round is about indulging in how the ruins represent people’s dreams. Not knowing whose dreams we’re looking at is a problem.

Highlights

Corine Vermeulen

Corine Vermeulen

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey

It’s not all bad though. A few artists in particular stood out as saying something beyond just photographing the decay of white America.

Corine Vermeulen’s photos of Detroit are exceptional in how they celebrates perseverance and survival rather than limiting themselves to only portraying decline. Yes there are images in there of empty lots and abandoned buildings. But they’re outnumbered by images of life. Diverse images. All different ages. All different races. Individuals, couples, groups.

Have things sucked? Yes. Are things still hard? Also yes. Are things hopeless? No. Vermeulen’s work is optimistic and points at where we can go.

Dawoud Bey’s photographs of gentrifying Harlem meanwhile are wonderfully subtle—almost too subtle given the obviousness of the tropes at play in most of the other galleries. The images are often familiar but the focus is intentionally off from what I’d expect to be in focus.

The result is a set of images which is quietly about development and change. It turns the lens on the gentrifiers but in a way which never neglects to include an aspect of the old neighborhood also in the frame. Because of the focusing choices I was forced to really look at the photos and notice how details that are often used as background texture are in fact the lifeblood of the neighborhood being displaced.

An-My Lê’s photographs of New Orleans are another fabulously subtle collection* which gets into how history and myth interact—specifically in The South where the subtext of the Civil War and Slavery is everywhere. Her work feels especially relevant now as the whole country has had to grapple with these myths and where remembering history crosses over into glorifying atrocities.

*Yes I like subtle photographic themes in general but in this particular show where so many of the galleries are filled with unsubtle tropes I was particularly taken with the ones that encouraged me to stop and think.

The power of her photographs is such that when I can’t readily make the historical connection I find my brain suggesting plausible possibilities. Which means that her photo of that one solitary tree remains deeply disturbing to me weeks after I’ve seen it.

Lowlights

Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo Pellegrin

As much as I found a lot of the rooms to be over-troped, very few of them were what I’d call outright bad either. Paolo Pellegrin’s Rochester photos though really bugged me. Aside from my remembering his captioning controversy, the whole set just rubbed me the wrong way with a grittiness that felt like I was looking at clickbait.

My biggest problem is that it feels like the entire set is pro-police propaganda which shows all the “low lifes” they have to deal with now. The way Pier 24 hung the images caused me to see all of them as through this perspective. Even the photos which weren’t actually police-related. The tropes are so strong and this gallery leans so strongly into them that just a photo of kids running through a field ends up feeling like a police chase.

Given how much we all know now about how police interact with black communities, seeing these photos displayed like this really gave me hives.

Notes

Brian Ulrich

Brian Ulrich

A few notes about specific projects that caught my eye. I enjoyed Alessandra Sanguibetti’s work as a window into how a foreigner perceives America. Also the concept of photography as pre-emptive preservation for eventual death is pretty cool.

I also love Brian Ulrich’s deserted malls. A little bit of Todd Hido’s House Hunting. A little bit of Lewis Baltz. A little bit of Camilo José Vergara. There’s the suggestion that all old industry models are now dead in these.

James Nares’s slow-motion movie is a very interesting concept that just didn’t work for me. The big thing is that I feel like it needs more depth of field since I couldn’t help but watch it for photographic moments—many of which occurred in the out of focus areas. It is nice that this was as diverse as it was but it’s also yet another New York street photography project.

Daniel Postaer’s photos of San Francisco are fun because they’re of San Francisco and I recognize the locations. They also point out one of the weaknesses of good photographic practice and searching for nice light. All that wonderful golden light not only makes everything look the same but is literally the least San Francisco looking light possible.