Continuing from October.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
I finally made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve been living in Princeton for three years now but the last time I’d visited The Met was way back in 2002. While that was so long ago that it doesn’t really count in terms of being familiar with the museum, I decided that this time I’d start off and hit the sections that I wasn’t able to get to last time.
Given that the day I visited was super busy, this turned out to be a decent strategy. I had previously only really seen the European and American galleries and ran out of time before I got to the Asian and Africa/America/Polynesia galleries. The day I visited? Europe and the Americas were packed. Too crowded to really see anything. Too loud to really think. Non-western though? Practically empty. I could wander at my own pace and think about things.
The Asian galleries are nice. They actually do tend to talk about the objects both from an art history point of view and a functional use point of view—such as the Vishnu Masks which describe how the masks were used in performance as well as the history of those performances over centuries. Unfortunately, the way they treat modern art results in them committing one of my pet peeves.
The galleries aren’t in the basement but they consistently other the modern artists. Noguchi isn’t a multiracial American artist, he’s a Shōwa Period Japanese craftsman. Inoue Yūichi goes into the same bucket even though his work explicitly references Franz Kline. And things get even weirder when you get into “Heisei Period” work like Kohei Nawa’s which more contemporary than most of the work in the Modern Art galleries.
On the topic of The Basement, The Met also groups Africa, The (indigenous) Americas, and Polynesia are all together as, effectively, native craft. While there are a decent amount of old artifacts here, there are also many which are not only new, but actually—such as the Papua New Guinea Ceiling—commissioned by the museum.
When the traditional crafts become detached from their traditional uses and instead are created for export and tailored to western tastes, we’re in an area where the museum needs to flag how the resulting artifact is a product of multiple cultures.* If the museum itself is commissioning pieces, I’d love to read more about how that transaction works and how the resulting art differs from the traditional form.
*Something that the National Museum of the American Indian does a good job of in its permanent exhibition. Not only does it talk about the influence of “the market” but it goes out of its way to name the artists and talk about how they were able to become collectible.
The indigenous galleries also treat modern art the same way the Asian galleries do. In this case for example, El Anatsui is only in conversation with Africa and, while these galleries are right next door to the Modern Art galleries, the hallway is not the only thing that separates them.
I did venture into the crowds to check out the Manus × Machina show. As the current headliner these galleries were super crowded and a pain to navigate.
Fashion shows are often a mixed bag. They’re designed to bring in massive crowds and in doing so often fail as educational opportunities. Fashion in particular tends toward the pretty or the trendy and while there is often a lot of function or process involved, that information is ignored unless it can be used to explain why something is so expensive.
This show though is all about how the dresses were made. In particular the interplay between hand-made processes and machine-made processes on the bleeding edge of clothing design. It puts mid-century fashion in conversation with contemporary fashion and breaks everything down by process—pleating, lacework, etc.—so we can both compare the hand-made with machine-made versions as well as see how the use of the machines has allowed for even more fantastic creations.
I particularly enjoyed the Issey Miyake designs on display as they demonstrated what technology allows while also playing with the way that clothes transform when worn. That Miyake’s designs are so different when “flat” versus when they’re on a model is a level of interest that isn’t present in most fashion shows.
There’s also an unexpected amount of actual use going on. In high fashion like this, often the only real use is on the runway. These aren’t practical garments. At the same time, that some of these—notably the Hussein Chalayan dresses—are intended to move on their own or change the way the wearer moves is a level which I’m not expecting in most fashion shows.
To the photography. The Met didn’t have much on display. One small exhibition which will be a distinct post and a few alcoves in a hallway. Two displays did catch my eye though.
The first was a pair of Japanese ambrotypes* where I was struck by how differently they were displayed. I’m used to seeing ambrotypes and tintypes in small folding metal frames. Seeing them in little wooden boxes was a nice change of pace. While I wonder how well the wood and the ambrotype interact archival-wise, I think I prefer the way this method looks.
The other thing that caught my eye was a solitary Becher print. I’ve never seen one by itself. I’ve never even considered that they could be displayed by themselves. I mean, it’s nice enough but the entire point is the typology grid where you can see everything and start to notice the ridiculousness of both the form and the way each one does its own thing.
Anyway, the more I think about that solitary Becher the more I wonder about encyclopedic museums like The Met. They’re great at what they are—both as art primers as well as a place to go if you can’t travel. But I find them frustrating now. Too broad and, as a result, too conservative. The Met shows the world the way we saw it decades ago. When Asia was far away and different rather than where we call for tech support and manufacture everything. Where we could lump everything “3rd-world” into one set of galleries and visit those in a “safe” environment. Where a small sampler of modern art and photography suffices for everything which we’ve created in the past century.
I can’t help but feel that everything there is essentially a solitary Becher, stripped of context, a big name to check off the “must see” list.
Where I get the most excited is in The Met’s print and ephemera collection. This is partly due to me being a print enthusiast but it’s also a massive collection of works which, while requiring artists to produce, is rarely thought of as art. It’s in these printed items though that most of us interact with and experience art now. We just don’t think of these things that way.
The Burdick Collection in particular is wonderful even though very little of it is on display.* There’s a small gallery of baseball cards in the backwaters of the mezzanine level of the American Art wing. I was able to spend a long time there by myself as the only people who came near me were completely lost and trying to find either stairs or a bathroom.** And there were a few tables of post cards in the print and design room. But it’s a massive collection of printed material from the first half of the 20th century, most of which would be some of the coolest things to ever come across in an antique shop or your grandparents’ attic.
*And there’s not even a catalog to purchase.
**Both are admittedly difficult to find.
I’d love to see The Met do more with these. As much of our print culture has switched to the digital space and redefined what we think of as ephemeral media, there’s a huge opportunity to look at the printed material from the last century in new ways from expanding on the existing history of centuries of printed material to looking at how printed material and images and ideas as cultural currency.