Category Archives: museums

Also at MCNY

There was a lot of other stuff at MCNY besides Aids at Home. I spent the most time in the NY at its Core rooms familiarizing myself with the city’s history and the way it’s chosen to present itself.

It’s clear to me that in addition to the city’s myths the museum is actively addressing the blind spots in those myths. This is especially true in the first half of the exhibition which focuses on the growth of New York as a port city. So while I get to see all the big names I remember from my history books—Henry Hudson to Alexander Hamilton to Boss Tweed—I also get to read about the original Lenape inhabitants and how, by being a port city, New York was also integral to slave trading.

It’s also very interesting to see how small New York was—both geographically and by population—and how recent its growth and development into New York™ actually is. The exhibition chronicles the advancement of the grid across Manhattan, the transformation from farming to housing and skyscrapers, and the way that New York (before consolidation) wanted to emulate Brooklyn by building large public parks.

It’s good that the museum notes how New York only became THE American city after the Civil War and THE world city after World War 2. It’s important to be aware of how external events have benefitted New York, especially once we get close to the end of the 20th century and the museum gets to cover both New York’s decline and September 11.

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

There was a small exhibition of photographs around the subject of being Muslim in New York. These were good in how they reference a lot of the tropes of New York photography while updating them to reflect Muslims as everyday New Yorkers. Cricket instead of stickball. Halal street vendors instead of Hebrew National or Sabrett stands. These photos don’t challenge stereotypes as much as they treat Muslims as the everyday people they are, showing them working, praying, playing, and growing up.

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There was also a gallery of World War I posters. I don’t have much to say about these except that, while I’ve seen many of them in books and online, it’s always nice to see them in person and get a sense of what their actual sizes and colors are.

I particularly enjoy looking at how these are printed. This information which was sadly lacking in the wall text but I really like being able to distinguish between lithographs and silkscreens and trying to figure out how many inks were used and how certain effects were achieved.

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One wall was full of multi-lingual posters. It was weird for me to not see Spanish among them but the wall served as a reminder that, while one of the myths about America is that it’s an English-only country, we’ve had to deal with multiple languages for a long time.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin's Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin’s Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

The last room I checked out was a gallery of Todd Webb’s photographs. I’d seen these before as part of one of The Online Photographer’s book sales* but the photos, while nice enough, didn’t really grab me. I liked them much better the second time around because the museum did a wonderful job of locating them within the city.

*One I jumped on because of Dorothea Lange and George N. Barnard.

I’m not a New Yorker. I’ll never be a New Yorker. And for me, the appeal of most of Webb’s photos required a level of knowledge of the city which I just didn’t have. So it was great fun to get, in essence, a tour of the city through this photos.

AIDS at Home

Between visiting the Polo Grounds and going to The Met I ducked into the Museum of the City of New York. I’d never been before and while I planned to see the the permanent exhibition, I couldn’t help but go straight to the special ones.

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Of particular interest was the AIDS at Home show. As someone who grew up in the Bay Area during the 1980s, my sense of the epidemic is very much centered on the way that it ripped out the heart of the San Francisco gay community. It’s not a sense that the Bay Area owns the trauma, just that the sheer number of stories I grew up with—and still hear—about friends my parents lost, as well as all the similarly heartbreaking community stories make this a subject which I’m particularly sensitive to.

This is one of the first shows I’ve seen which actually addresses the role art plays in responding to the epidemic. I’d thought about this previously but while one of the critiques of modern art is that it’s often too academic, the AIDS epidemic resulted in art which is intensely personal as it dealt with personal fear and loss and anger.

With every piece I found myself checking first to see whether the artist was still alive.

Much of the art in particular—especially in the earlier rooms which deal with the beginning of the epidemic—is focused on care taking and support. The artists in this case are recording the way that end of life care works or just saving the last precious moments with loved ones. While the horror of AIDS is especially awful, much of the artwork also serves as an indictment of the general quality of both American medical care and the way we treat our elderly and infirm.

People get cut off and alienated from society. Medicine is a beacon of hope which few people can either afford or access. Thirty years later I’m still outraged by the idea that much of America ignored this issue because gays “deserved” it. Thirty years later I’m even more incensed to see the logic used to ignore AIDS being applied to all medical care.

As much as it angers me, where this exhibition is strongest is in how it ties the community response to AIDS to the current struggles to make America support its marginalized and victimized communities in general. It’s explicit in making this connection—especially in terms of gay rights and expanding the definitions of family and marriage.

The true tragedy of the AIDS epidemic is in how many people got cut off from everyone who they thought the could trust. The silver lining is that the resulting fights—which I know didn’t start in the epidemic but certainly came to a head because of the for letting partners be added to leases and medical benefits and the legal ability to make decisions for each other paved a lot of the way for the advanced we’ve made today. And while things aren’t there yet. We have made advances which, while worth celebrating, need to be defended and improved upon as well.

Of note

A few specific items caught my attention. I enjoyed the dive into the AIDS Quilt and framing it as nostalgia and an extension of the previous artworks about caregiving and housing rights. While that’s not how the project frames itself, I love the idea that the quilt, in addition to being a patchwork celebration of everyone who we’ve lost to AIDS, also reflects the sense of comfort and home and caregiving that any homemade quilt represents.

And Kia Labeija’s photography is worth a special shout out. For a show which has to deal with so much loss, it’s important to see what the following generation—in this case an artist who was born infected with AIDS—is dealing with too. Her project of photos with her moms stuff is both a powerful statement about survival as well as a remembrance of her mother—both in terms of loss and dealing with the fact that what her mother left her goes beyond material items.

Philadelphia Zoo

And yet another trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.

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Also at The Met

The main reason I went to The Met was to see Irving Penn. But once I was inside and after I finished with the Penn show I wandered around and checked out a few other exhibitions before I got too tired. This isn’t a comprehensive round-up but rather listing a few of the other highlights of my trip

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The Burdick Collection—specifically the baseball cards—is the first place I head in the museum. It’s still off in a remote corner of the American Wing where it gets very little traffic. This is both disappointing and wonderful. I want more people to see these but I also enjoy having the whole gallery to myself.

I stand by my comments in last year’s Met post in that it’s especially interesting to look at print ephemera as art. While many of the baseball cards on display didn’t fit into last month’s photography history through being more paintings than photographs, they’re still part of our visual culture and language.

Baseball cards in particular are fascinating in how they represent a direct connection from the early days of cardomania to the modern trading card. The cards in the current hang cover the first half of the 20th century—from ~1910 lithographed tobacco cards to offset-printed Topps cards from 1959—which represents a period where many of the other subjects of cardomania disappeared* and the modern standard trading card format developed.

*Yes there are obviously non-sports trading cards for this entire time period, but the rise of movie and movie-star memorabilia resulted in a very different kind of mass-culture ephemera collecting. Instead of trading cards we had posters and lobby cards and promotional stills related to specific films and releases. Also, while I get hives from the current Allen & Ginter retro-revival brand, I have been finding myself intrigued by its non-sport choices and what those say about our national myths and nostalgia for other kinds of collecting.

As fun as it is to see cards from Topps series which I own, it’s the weirdness between the World Wars where cards became more and more kid-focused and tied in with gum and candy instead of tobacco which fascinates me. No standards—the sizes and artwork are wildly variable—yet there’s a certain “baseball cardness” to all of them. Only the rise of good color photography really puts and end to all of this and, while I enjoy the photography, I do kind of miss the wild-west nature of things which came before.

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The big fashion show this year was Rei Kawakubo. I liked it, but for all of its cleverness in blurring categories and dualities in fashion, it all felt a little too similar to me. Still, it’s always good to be reminded at how the entire point of fashion is to mess with the human silhouette. And recognizing the dualities in how we approach any art form is a great exercise in questioning and being aware of what our assumptions are.

The standout items for me were the clothes which were intended to be worn by multiple people at once and her approach to the male/female duality. I don’t have much to say or add to the multiple-person clothing except that I wish there were a video of it on the runway.

The male/female clothes though were very interesting—especially in how they were displayed. Kawakubo’s male clothing for women includes extremely wide-legged trousers. Looking at the catalog it’s apparent that these were intended to be worn as shorts* but in the exhibition, the dress forms suggest that they could also be worn as a miniskirt with the other leg kind of behaving like the front panel of a kilt.

*the last photo on The Met’s image page.

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The Early Photography in Italy exhibition, while small, was also a lot of fun. I’ve not see so many salt prints in one place before and this show was fascinating in the mix of different photography techniques. Paper negatives, glass negatives, salt prints, albumen prints in all possible combinations. And that’s not even getting into the daguerrotypes and colorized cartes de visite. I wish there was more about the processes in this show because I really wanted to note and compare the differences.

As much fun as albumen printing is, there’s something even more evocative in salt printing which feels less like a photograph and more like an illustration in terms of how certain details and contrasts get fuzzed out. This also holds with the negatives as the glass collodion negatives hold a lot more sharpness and detail (at the cost of being a lot more work to travel with).

But the photos themselves also represent a very important moment in history. It’s tempting to view these as being tourist prints and imagery from the early days of casual tourism. And they are. But the fact that tourist imagery is inherently tied up with national identity is important to remember. Where tourists travel and how a country markets itself are intimately connected and feed off of each other. That Italy at this point is uniting as a single country means that many of these images—especially the Gustave Le Gray photos of Garibaldi and the “new ruins” resulting from his campaigns—in addition to selling “Italy” to the world are also selling it to Italians themselves.

Irving Penn

After viewing the Met’s Irving Penn Centennial, I can’t remember ever having had to reevaluate my understanding of an artist to this degree. This is different than recognizing that someone who I hadn’t paid attention to is actually a legit talent;* I knew and respected Irving Penn’s work as a portraitist and the Met’s show made me completely reconsider whether that was what he was.

*e.g. Ai Weiwei

Irving Penn. Joe Louis, New York.

Joe Louis, New York

Irving Penn. Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes.

Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes

Don’t get me wrong, Penn’s portraits are great and there’s a reason I conceived of him as a portraitist first. I especially love the corner portraits in how the constraint of the set gives the sitters things to do—suggesting certain poses and postures, offering places to put their arms—which don’t involve props but allow people who may not be used to posing ways of finding their angles. It’s a fantastically simple idea which more people should steal.

His later portraits are also wonderful in that they’re very clearly collaborations with the sitters and as such are often beautifully tight and intimate*—often just a face and a hand being constrained by the edges of Penn’s viewfinder in the same way he used the tight corner to constrain his sitters a decade earlier.

*I also love that the Met has his backdrop on display—even if it’s being used as selfie-bait.

Irving Penn. Salad Ingredients, New York.

Salad Ingredients, New York

But at heart he’s clearly a still life photographer. The Met makes this point by both starting and ending the exhibition with his still lifes—the implication being that they’re both his first love and the thing which has kept him sane through decades of commercial photography.

I’m not usually a still life guy* but these are wonderful in their restraint and attention to detail. Every small thing matters. Every detail is considered. If a still life is an opportunity to essentially brag about how good you are at your craft, Penn is indeed a master.

*It doesn’t matter what genre or medium we’re talking about. I very rarely find myself interested in still lifes.

But there’s more to it than that. Penn, as a photographer, is extremely interested in doing the most with the least and making sure that the few details we can see not only adequately describe everything which we don’t see but also overwhelm us with their textures and tones so we feel like we don’t even need to see anything else.

Irving Penn. Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris.

Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris

It’s this sensibility which makes Penn such a fantastic fashion photographer. We don’t need to see the full garment—let alone the entire look. Just a sleeve will suffice. Or a hat. Or the ruffle of a collar.

He understands how fashion works—how clothing works. It’s not about looking pretty, it’s about the structure and construction and the little details and textures which distinguish one garment from another—not only giving them character but also suggesting what events or occasions they could be used for.

Clothing, even at it’s most impractical extreme, is functional. It’s always doing something whether it’s merely protecting the body or making a statement about the wearer.

Irving Penn. Marchande de Ballons, Paris.

Marchande de Ballons, Paris

Irving Penn. Garçon de Café.

Garçon de Café

There’s no reason why this approach should be limited to high fashion and indeed, Penn does not limit himself to that world either. His small trades series is fantastic as an August Sanderesque approach to functional clothing.

I love his Small Trades series so much. We’re invited to look—really look—at the different ways that tradesmen dress in order to do their jobs. How they need to present or protect themselves. Where their clothing gets worn out or reinforced. Every photo is a reminder of how clothing works and is intimately connected to what the person wearing it is doing.

That so many of these trades are blue-collar jobs which we—or at least the people who visit the Met—are no longer familiar with adds an extra layer of interest to these photos. I overheard a number of people trying to figure out what jobs like “blast furnace tender” were before settling on things like “the guy who takes care of the heating in your apartment building.”

Most of the jobs still exist somewhere in the world but to us these photos also serve as a memorial to a more physical world as seen through the clothing of the people who worked in it.

Irving Penn. Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs.

Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs

Which brings us to Penn’s ethnographic work. In another setting this would’ve deserved a massive amount of side-eye but here, it’s not only enjoying the context of the fashion and trades photography, it’s a continuation of that photography.

The Met does a great job at flagging how the idea of documenting indigenous cultures before they disappear is a dated concept.* But it’s not really necessary here. Penn isn’t really doing ethnographic work. He’s making the same photos he always does—treating the Peruvian clothing with the same respect and reverence he treats all clothing whether it’s a Balenciaga gown or a dirty apron.

*Sadly not as dated as it should be but at least new projects which continue to reduce cultures to an artificially-imposed appearance of “authenticity” receive the criticism they deserve.

For Penn everything is Balenciaga.

So we get to see the clothing in whatever view best presents the clothing. Maybe it’s a typical model shot which also works as a portrait of the villagers. Or maybe it’s a pose where the villager’s is looking at the ground so we can appreciate the full glory of her hat.

Irving Penn. Two Women in Black with Bread, Morocco.

Two Women in Black with Bread, Morocco

He skirts very close to reducing culture to appearance but, for me, he steers clear of that pitfall and winds up in a much more interesting place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his photographs of the Moroccan women still wearing their veils.

Again, Penn approaches the veils like he approaches all clothing. But because of the austere nature of these garments and the way that the women wearing them are posing, instead of looking at the fabric and construction details, we see how the garments themselves are worn. How they’re tucked and folded. Where they hit on the body and where they drape.

We get a sense of character through the different ways each women carries herself in the photo. There’s a wonderful video showing how Penn took these photos in a mobile tent with wind swirling all over the place. The degree of cooperation and trust between him and the veiled women is also readily apparent.

Irving Penn. Cigarette No. 98, New York.

Cigarette No. 98, New York

Irving Penn. Nude No. 105.

Nude No. 105

I also enjoy the sense that Penn grappled with the morality of his work as a fashion photographer. In addition to being a still-life photographer at heart, the way his personal work serves as a way for him to sort of rebel against his commercial work is very interesting. That he chose decidedly non-fashion-figure women for his nude photography is great. And I love his cigarette photography and the way it reflects his pathos over glamorizing it.

The photos are beautiful but ugly with strong recognizable branding that’s burned and trash. 40 years later I’m amazed at how I recognize the brands even though I don’t think Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield even existed while I was alive.

This was a good show as it was just based on the content on display. Lots of good photos and every period covered well. But the way it balanced Penn’s personal work with his commercial work in terms of both who he is as a photographer and what he felt about the photos he was paid to make makes it a great show.

On Process

Irving Penn. Man with Pink Face, New Guinea. Irving Penn. Man with Pink Face, New Guinea.

There’s not a lot of information on Penn’s process but what there is is fascinating. One of the long-running jokes we have online is the color vs black and white debate and how a number of people on the web trot out the axiom that photographing in color is photographing clothes. That much of Penn’s work involves shooting on color slide film then printing in black and white repeatedly made me chuckle since Penn essentially specialized in taking pictures of clothes.

I found myself wondering a lot about how Penn converted his slide film to black and white prints. There’s a lot of information about Penn’s Platinum printing but  precious little about everything leading up to the printmaking itself. Is the internegative an enlargement made in the darkroom? Did he do any color filtering while making the enlargement?

The Platinum Printing information on the other hand is very interesting in how Penn created registration pins and repeatedly coated and exposed the paper so as to have more control over the final print. It’s a pretty interesting refinement on standard contact printing which definitely appeals to my background working in a printshop.

"Christmas at Cuzco," Vogue

“Christmas at Cuzco,” Vogue

"America, Inc.," Vogue

“America, Inc.,” Vogue

At the same time, I didn’t like a lot of his Platinum prints and—I readily admit how blasphemous this is—often preferred the halftoned prints in Vogue. I felt like Penn may have been a bit too seduced by what he could do with his fancy pin-registration contact-printing rig and, while I like the photos, found a lot of the details to be unnecessarily muddy.

And I say unnecessarily because the magazines were on display and the details were clearer there—as if someone in Vogue’s prepress recognized that shadows would block up on press and opened everything up so that would print nicely.

The magazines on display also included many more color prints of photos which were only black and white on the walls. It’s great to see both and see how Penn reimagined the scene in black and white.

New Jersey State Museum

A field trip with the preschool so I didn’t get a chance to really check out the museum. But from what I could tell it’s a cute little local museum which is extremely kid-friendly.

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Philadelphia Zoo

Making the most of our membership to the Philadelphia Zoo.

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