Category Archives: International Center of Photography

RFK Funeral Train, The People’s View

Paul Fusco. RFK Funeral Train. June 8, 1968.

My favorite thing I saw at ICP was Paul Fusco’s “RFK Funeral Train” coupled with Rein Jelle Terpstra’s “The People’s View.” I’m familiar with Fusco’s photos (I want to say they were in the 1968 show except I haven’t referenced them on the blog before) but it’s always nice to see them again. They capture a wonderfully raw, impromptu moment in US history where hope and tragedy collide.

I’m also always a sucker for photographs taken from trains and one of the things I like best about the Fusco photos is how, by being shot form the train, they show a side of American cities which we like to avoid seeing. Trains typically front up against the worst parts of town. No one wants to live by them. Industrial shipping and loading needs the access. When I’m on a train I always feel like I’m entering a city via the back door.*

*No this is not a Penn Station joke.

So to see those industrial yards and empty spaces turned into places of emotion and love and thankfulness is extremely cool. As is the way the crowds are so often integrated and focused merely on paying respect to Bobby’s passing.

Annie Ingram. June 8, 1968. From Rein Jelle Terpstra’s The People’s View (2014–18). Courtesy Melinda Watson.

Claire Leary. June 8, 1968. From Rein Jelle Terpstra’s The People’s View (2014–18).

Terpstra flips the lens and tracks down the people who came out to see the train. So we have their photographs and home movies and transcripts of interviews with them. A lot of the photos are of the train but most of the time was spent waiting for the train to arrive so there are photos of crowds and descriptions of the way things felt that day.

There’s that same sense of wonder at the organic nature of it all coming together. People—often kids—just talking about feeling like they had to be there. Some of them out of the feeling that they owed some measure of thanks to RFK. Others out of the recognition that this was a rare chance to see history. But all of them talk about somehow just finding their way to the tracks through the extreme heat and humidity of the day.

My favorite interview note was the story about all the kids putting pennies on the track and then, after the train had passed, retrieving the flattened pennies as souvenirs.

And the photos are equally wonderful. The crowds just waiting. The cars haphazardly parked along the frontage road. Something about the day made people a little extra mindful of everything—a headspace that’s especially conducive to interesting photographs.

Fusco captures how amazing it was to see the support from the train. Terpstra meanwhile captures what was in the air at the time. I’m sure it’s just a shade of the real deal but I’m glad I got to experience it just the same.

Multiply, Identify, Her

After taking in ICP’s HCB and Erwitt rooms, I went downstairs to see the Multiply, Identify, Her portion of the museum. This exhibition featured around ten different women photographers—or artists working in photography/videography-related media—all working on various representative projects.

ICP’s write-up is mostly art-speak gobbledygook but the general theme of the rooms as being about representation and identity holds up. Yes I have problems with the way that museums tend to pigeonhole non-white and/or non-male photographers as working exclusively in the representation and identity realm. And yes it certainly feels like this exhibition is designed to counterbalance the “neutral” while maleness of the HCB and Erwitt rooms. But taking the show on its own terms works well enough.

The last couple decades of photography have been wonderful for increasing access to the ability to create photography* and with this increased access has been an increased awareness of representation. What the male gaze looks like. What the white gaze looks like. What it means to represent yourself and how that exists in conversation with the ways that viewers are conditioned to look at images.

*Reminding me of an old twitter debate about the Kodak 1 and whether consuming photography or creating photography is more important.

I’m very glad that so many of the photographers in this exhibition are non-white women as it allows for many many different approaches and actively discourages me from writing about the exhibition in a general way. Each artist is dealing with representation issues in her own way and so I can only touch on the pieces that really struck me.

Christina Fernandez. Untitled Multiple Exposure #7 (Bravo), 1999.

Christina Fernandez’s rephotography/reenactment project is interesting in how it addresses both the way that photographic representation often relies on tropes and how those tropes are part of our cultural literacy and baggage now. In this case the way that natives get used as unnamed models of some sort of “pure” past is a particularly insidious habit that repeats over photographic history. The way Fernandez embraces her own indigeneity and makes the statement that both she has a name and is still living in the present are important. It’s very easy to present Nativeness as a thing of the past.

That the resulting layered images don’t quite work is also something I really like about these. Reconciling the tropes as someone who’s subject to them is an impossible task which is also impossible to escape.

Lorna Simpson. Blue Wave, 2011.

Lorna Simpson’s hair pieces are a lot of fun in a provocative way. They remind me of Ellen Gallagher’s Wiglettes but rather than critiquing the beauty standards of the past there’s an element of looking forward and celebrating the possibilities of creating new standards.

Simpson’s work also does this thing where it simultaneously makes the hair the focus of the piece while drawing our attention to the models’ faces.

Roni Horn. This is me, This is you 1998-2000

My favorite piece is Roni Horn’s “This is me, This is you.” I love how it goes right at the ways family photography is its own difficult way genre where picking that one good photo is impossible. There are always multiple nice photos and they’re always somehow both indistinguishable from each other yet distinctly different.

Horn’s photos of her niece also capture that wonderfully awkward transition age between childhood and adolescence—an age my eldest is about to enter. It’s an age where everything is awkward but you’re just learning how society expects you to be. It’s an age where you’re still a kid but also trying to be “grown up.” It’s really the first time that concept of representation is something that begins to matter.

Gina Osterloh. Press and Outline, 2014.

And Gina Osterloh’s movie/dance with her shadow is one of those subtle things that I increasingly appreciate the more I think about it. At first it’s merely neat. But the way it touches on how so much of the way society pressures women comes down to literally their silhouettes is kind of genius. The dance and way that her shadow is distinct but also inescapable suggests the push-pull nature of trying to control her silhouette while also being beholden to its demands.

I also very much like the idea of including Osterloh’s film in an exhibition of photography. Not just because the way that film and photography are related but in how light and shadow are the basic ingredients of photography itself. All photography is the same dance between light and shadow and seeing which position within there works best.

ICP

I’ve been meaning to visit the International Center for Photography for a while now. I’ve made it to their Jersey City branch but just haven’t gotten to downtown New York until a few weeks ago. It’s a good space, big enough to have a few decent-sized exhibitions without feeling like too much. But you can still do it all in an hour or so. The current round-up of exhibitions includes warhorses of the art like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt coupled with a number of newer photographers.

The newer projects will be their own posts but Cartier-Bresson and Elliot Erwitt will get covered here since I don’t have much new to say about them.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 25–26, Italy, 1933

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Downtown, Manhattan, New York, United States, 1947.

The Cartier-Bresson images are all part of The Decisive Moment. It’s always nice to see the classics up close and each time I do so I notice something new like the poster details in Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare. Despite how much I know these images it’s reassuring to see that there’s always more to see.

Every time I see his work though I’m struck by how different his in-Europe work feels compared to his work in the rest of the world. I keep looking and even hoping that things will change but where his European work feels very much a part of the life of the place, when he’s abroad the work feels more like standard photojournalism with its focus on the indigent and suffering.

Sometimes this works for me like his photos of the USA which show it as an impersonal oppressive place full of solitary hunched figures just trying to survive. I also love the photo of Hoboken which shows the frozen aftermath of a fire and Manhattan seeing to grow from the ruins. But in many other places it feels more like tourists just pointing out how different people dress. Like in India and Egypt it seems the only point is how everyone is fully covered and hoe different that is from Europe. Instead of being about the everyday life of the place it just feels superficial to me.

Still it’s wonderful to see the actual book on display as well. I know it exists in a reprint variety but there’s something about being able to scope out the original printing and see how the world came to know these photos. As much as silver-gelatin prints are supposed to be the correct way of viewing Cartier-Bresson, most of us learned of him via black and white halftones or duotones.

Elliott Erwitt. The View Looking toward Downtown Pittsburgh from Oakland, Pittsburgh, PA, 1950.

Elliott Erwitt. Downtown Hat Shop Window, Pittsburgh, PA, September 1950.

Elliott Erwitt’s photos are a selection from a project he made in 1950s Pittsburgh that he thought had been lost. They’re wonderful but I feel like I need to be more familiar with Pittsburgh to properly appreciate them.

The most interesting part of the set though was the idea that it was editing 1950s photos with 2014 sensibilities and I would have loved more information about what it’s like to unearth such a project and shape it 60 years after the fact. How many of the photos are things that we only see as being important now.

There’s a lot of race stuff going on in terms of Black residents living and confederate flags just being visible. Nothing dramatic, just more slice-of-life. But it all takes on added import with the events of the past half-decade as we discover how so much of the country is either still stuck in the 1950s or yearns to return there.

That lack of information is pretty consistent with the rest of ICP’s display. It very much trends toward the Pier 24 ideal of believing that the images themselves without context are all that matters. Yes there’s a decent amount of wall text. But it’s not nearly as deep as I’d expect from a “Center of Photography” and instead just gives you enough to be able to recall the official titles of what you’ve seen.

Han Youngsoo

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

I saw tweets about ICP’s Han Youngsoo show at Mana Contemporary and the photos looked good enough to pique my interest. So I made my way up to Jersey City just to visit ICP and had my fingers crossed that the show would be worth the trip.

It totally was.

It’s not a huge show but what’s on display are examples of how fantastic good street photography can be.* The photos are strongly composed and beautifully seen. The prints blow away all the digital images on the web. Most of the images are strong on their own accord but, when seen as a collective they have a distinct point of view and narrative.

*I have a mixed relationship with street photography. On the web it’s become a bit of a bad brand where—typically—men have chosen to emulate the alpha-male “I have a right to photograph anything in public” mentality and much of what’s presented is a reflection of the photographer’s “daring.” At the same time, street photos are one of the hardest things to do well because of the ever-changing unexpected dynamic on the street and I can’t help but admire people’s ability to get wonderful spontaneous images and capture strangers in what appear to be completely-honest expressive portraits.

They’re beautiful and clever. I love the way that the overhead street car wires end up looking like birds. I love the way the men in the shadows inside the butcher shop mirror the expressions on the pig heads outside. I love the perfect timing in capturing gestures and posture as people walk down the street or gaze at shop windows. I love the textures in the snow that the footprints on the frozen river leave.*

*I couldn’t help but think of Max Desfor’s Pulitzer-winning photo here though.

I love how beautiful Seoul ends up looking despite the ruins and overcrowdedness. At their most-basic level these photos are about a place rather than the people in it. It’s clear that, rather than being photos of people, the actual subject in each photo is Seoul. There’s a palpable sense of love and romance. Seoul is home and Han Youngsoo is sharing how he sees it—what he feels about it—with us.

And it’s a Seoul in transition. The Korean War ended in 1953. These photos cover the period between 1956 and 1963. The city is in the midst of rebuilding as well as westernizing and modernizing. There are still some ruins visible—a shattered roofline here or there but never as the focus of the image. There are english-language signs all over the place. Infrastructure is in a state of flux where streets—when they’re paved—are shared between handcarts and electric trollies. The trajectory is clear.

It’s with the women though—especially their clothing—where the photos tell their most interesting history. These aren’t Winogrand-like photos of women, they’re just conscious of how the changing nature of the city is impacting women in particular. They wear clothing which ranges from hanbok to cutting-edge 1960s fashion. The advertisements and street displays and magazines are all peddling western fashions. Only in one crowded street market is traditional clothing still available.

It’s clear that with the changing fashions that the women’s roles are also changing toward a more middle class direction. And that the city itself is becoming a consumer-based city* of shops and merchants.

*The men don’t show this narrative at all. They all wear western clothing and none of the shops or new consumer goods are marketed for men’s consumption.

I love a great photo as much as anyone but with street photography much of the appeal is how it can document a specific time and place—whether it captures a city and its population in a specific window of time or manages to document how they change. Han Youngsoo’s photos are beautiful but the history and changes he documents is even better