Category Archives: review

Portraits and Other Likenesses

I made it up to San Francisco last week to see SFMOMA’s Portraits and Other Likenesses show at the Museum of the African Diaspora. I always love seeing shows which include photos, paintings and sculpture all in conversation together. As a photo-leaning person it’s especially nice to see photography taken out of its own little bubble. This show mixes all media together under the umbrella of portraiture—in this case taken broadly as any artwork that represents a person or people. I’ve seen a few SFMOMA on the go shows now that have done this and I hope it bodes well for the approach the new and improved museum will take when it opens next year.

I am increasingly interested in issues involving portraiture and representation and how frequently-stereotyped communities choose to represent themselvesNavigating the tropes of how they’ve been represented and othered is both difficult and fertile territory. The individual pieces on display aren’t always directly about representation but the entire show, by consisting of representations of blackness by black artists, is.

This is difficult territory. There are so many representations on display— costumespersonalstereotypes, etc. And there are multiple levels of thought behind all of them. This show invites me to look and stare without flinching. As a non-black person of color I ended up both confronting a lot of my socialization as to what my instincts are when viewing black people while simultaneously sympathizing with the amount of effort it takes to present yourself to the white world.

Stereotypes suck. Especially in how they make you second guess and overthink everything in your self-presentation.* Do you avoid the stereotypes even if you happen to enjoy some of them? Do you have to dress extra nice whenever you go out? Is your presentation of beauty based on white beauty standards?

*Man do I wish SFMOMA had a copy of Carrie Mae Weems’s Ain’t Jokin in addition to Boneyard. Also, I wish there was more by Fred Wilson than Me and It. Sadly, SFMOMA appears to be thin on both of their work.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935

And at a certain level almost everything on display is intended for white consumption. Who else buys art? So while there may be important statements in a piece, the way the art market chooses to frame it ends up being out of the control of the artist—no matter how intelligently-considered the representation is, at the end of things it’s still warped by being put in a museum. I wish I could remember the full details of Annie Mae Meriweather’s* story but the story of Consuelo Kanaga’s portrait of her being reduced to just its beauty demonstrates how cruel the market is.

*Google does turn up a Woody Guthrie story related to her but nothing about the photo.

I have similar feelings of guilt by how much I love Seydou Keïta’s work. I’m reacting to the image because of its almost-effortless grace and beauty* while at the same time not knowing, or even really caring, about the subject—who he is, why he might be having his portrait taken, what was going on in Mali at the time.  Yes, there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for the erasure of much of the contextual information, but at the same time I’m still consuming his image** in a way that embodies a lot of the things I dislike about photography. I don’t like erasing the humanity of the subject and while I try not to do it here, I find myself slipping each time I view it and swoon at its beauty.

*There are days when this is my favorite photograph ever taken.

**I’ve seen this image described on occasion as a self-portrait. I’ve never seen this description though in an actual museum. And I’m not sure if his official website is treating it as a headshot or just the best example of his work. If it is indeed a self-portrait I’ll feel a lot better about liking it.

This is potentially bad behavior with many subjects but with black subjects it’s especially awful. The spectre of Black Lives Matter and all the police violence in the news over the past few years is unavoidable. Pieces here touch on issues of presenting and demonstrating and claiming humanity in the white world—actions that shouldn’t be necessary but frustratingly are. And despite all that it’s still frightening easy to erase their humanity and see just surfaces and tropes. This is deadly and violent behavior.

Which is why Glenn Ligon’s Narratives is my favorite piece in the show. They don’t just reference slave narratives and how humanity gets mediated by whiteness. They also, through their size, suggest fugitive slave posters and the erasure of humanity by whiteness. Yet they’re written fully by Ligon so it’s clear that he’s in control and crafting his own story—explicitly bringing together many different threads of the performative aspects of race, americana, assimilation, and authenticity.

The entire content of the pieces are details about Ligon’s humanity—details you’re invited and encouraged to look closely and really observe. It’s a presentation, and representation, that is difficult to erase. That it’s often wickedly funny is the icing on the cake.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013

Caille Millner

I timed my visit to correspond to Caille Millner’s short talk on the exhibition. I’ve been following her on Twitter and Tumblr for a few years now and I was interested in her observations. I was not disappointed. She discussed two of my favorite pieces (Keïta and Ligon) and I especially loved her comments on Keïta where she placed the image as exemplifying, for her, Mali’s belle epoque and the brief joyous period when independence from France was coming but the the realities of being an independent country and undergoing a military coup hadn’t blotted the horizon.* Comparing Keïta and James Van Der Zee by contrasting the societal context and internal migrations going on when each photograph was taken is a great way to think about them

*It helped that I was standing in front of a case of 1960s Malick Sidibé photos while she was making these comments.

Millner also had some nice comments on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the idea of portraits of non-existent people. Yiadom-Boakye’s work is also complicated—in a very good way. I share Millner’s concern about how making people up as a way to address a lack of representation may not be the best way to address an erasure. At the same time, there is something to appropriating classic western/white techniques and making them your own. I also thought of Medieval People of Color’s ongoing work in highlighting the black servants in these classic paintings and how those servants are often crushed into unrecognizable shadows in photo reproductions of those works. There’s an aspect of this piece that I see as being the painting equivalent of fighting against Shirley and learning to depict black skin.

The audience discussion about Yiadom-Boakye and Van Der Zee though had me shaking my head and thinking about white comfort. Van Der Zee is a name. When The Met digitized all of its photography holdings, a number of us started counting and confirmed that he was the exception to all their non-white photographers. He’s someone you’re supposed to know and boy did the white audience know him. Lots of comments, most of which seemed intended to demonstrate that they’d heard of him and accepted him as a master. Similarly, Yiadom-Boakye seemed to relax those people because it looked familiar and like other things they’d learned to think of as good.* It was safe and comfortable to appreciate it.

*Reminding me a bit of watching Death and the King’s Horseman at Ashland and how the audience was super-uncomfortable for most of it until the white characters came on stage.

Which frustrates me because this was a museum of black artists. As a visitor, you’d expect and want to be introduced to people you’ve never heard of in the general museum circuit and to gravitate toward the names and styles you recognize misses the point.

Sargent Johnson. Forever Free,1933.

Sargent Johnson. Forever Free,1933

Note on SFMOMA

One piece that caught my eye was Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free. I really liked it because of its depiction of black motherhood and how it captures the pride and strength of black women while also acknowledging the vulnerability they feel because of how their children have to navigate society. I’m sad that I can’t remember seeing it before at SFMOMA despite it being one of their founding pieces. I’m hoping it’s more likely to be on permanent display in the new building.

The Anderson Collection

Anderson Collection

During my trip to the Bay Area I was also able to visit the new Anderson Collection at Stanford. I’ve been watching the building go up for a while* and I’ve been looking forward to an expanded modern art selection at the Cantor Center. I’m very glad I went. I’m…not sure I need to go again.

*You can see where they broke ground in the background here.

The new Anderson building is wonderful. Open, airy, and well-lit with plenty of space for each piece to breathe, it’s a great place to look at art. The art isn’t bad either. The collection is a great primer on the modern art canon and does especially well emphasizing local, Bay Area movements* which often don’t get as much focus locally as they should.

*Specifically: California Light and SpaceBay Area FigurationBay Area Abstraction, and Funk.

At the same time, it’s a primer. It will clearly be a fantastic teaching resource for introducing students to art. It just doesn’t feel like there’s anything more going on than an introduction. I’m not seeing things in a new way. I don’t get the sense that this collection will mix or interact with other pieces in the Cantor. Nor does it look like there’s a lot of potential for changing the way the existing pieces are displayed.

I think that what I’m reacting to is the absence of curatorial voice. I’ve seen more than enough personal collection shows* to realize now that a collection of art that a rich person liked—or was instructed to purchase—isn’t enough to hold my interest without additional information about who the collector is or how the collection is in conversation with art in general. Just giving me a collection without comment or context isn’t enough unless the idea is for me to look through and see the few pieces that really stand out to me.

*Previously on this blog: the Logan Collection, the Emily Fisher Landau Collection, and Shared Vision.

What I did really like though was Leo Holub’s Artist Portrait Project. The Andersons commissioned Holub to take portraits of the artists* whose work they owned. Besides being nice black and white portraits, the resulting series personalizes the collection by acknowledging that the art is about the artist as much as the piece on the wall.** I’m not sure why seeing an image of the human responsible for making a product matters so much. But it does.

*These portraits also make it very easy to do the quick headcounting/confirmation of the number of white men present versus anyone else.

**I regret not looking to see if Holub included a self-portrait in the series.

Secondhand at Pier 24

On Context

Archive of Modern Conflict

Archive of Modern Conflict

While Ai Weiwei wasn’t on my list of things to see at all, Pier 24 was at the top. I’ve been jonesing to go for years and just never managed to get my plans in order to get there. The current show features appropriated photos which, while something I’ve enjoyed intellectually in small doses, I was not sure I was ready for a full-on overload of.

I shouldn’t have worried. The space itself is awesome and the collection is more of a “physical version of a huge website”* in that is seems to have any photo series or print which you’d want to see from the canon.** It’s especially focused on photo series. Many of the rooms have at least one complete series of images. Since I’m used to seeing only one or two prints from each series in a museum, I loved being able to see the complete groups for a change. I can really get into what a specific photographer is doing, both from a sequence and a grouping point of view. It also assuaged a lot of my concerns as a context guy since Pier 24 is also known for its absence of context.

*A description someone much smarter than me came up with but which really captures the scope of the place.

**Comments about the demographics of the canon are best left for a different post.

Pier 24 doesn’t have wall text so you have to open up the exhibition guide to figure out what you’re actually looking at. The guide meanwhile only has super basic information—artist identification and a single project statement. As a result, a lot of people hold up Pier 24 to demonstrate how “only the image matters” or “context is irrelevant.” Inside Pier 24, I can see how that argument holds water. But that’s only because the space provides the context. Displaying the full series all together eliminates a lot of the descriptions that have to accompany a single image displayed by itself. Similarly, the way the different series on display interact with each other provides additional context.

Much of the appeal photography holds for me is in how it’s basically an exercise in recontextualization. As soon as you take a photo, you’ve taken it out of context by choosing what’s in, and out, of the frame. The way you choose to display or share the image after taking it is a new context.* There can be no true absence of context—although I would completely agree that context can be meaningless or unhelpful. In the case of this exhibition, since it’s about appropriated photos and recontextualization, the initial decontextualization serves the general theme.

*As can be the way the world changes after you’ve displayed the images.

The most interesting room in Pier 24 for this is the series of rooms of the Archive of Modern Conflict. These rooms are pretty dense with salon-style hangings of all kinds of photographs. Vernacular photos are mixed with art photos are mixed with functional photos resulting in all kind of new connections between images despite there being no context about the origins of each specific image.

At the same time, something about these rooms doesn’t hold up for me. Without any information, I found myself looking at the images with the half-awake, short-attention-span mindset I look at things on the web. If it doesn’t grab me right now, why bother looking? I wasn’t just missing the original context of the images, I wasn’t finding much compelling in the new context.

Which gets at the dangerous thing about buying into the no-context-needed mindset. Poorly-thought-out context invites short-attention-span consumption. This is easy enough to default to without any additional encouragement and, while a legitimate way of approaching a lot of media, is not something I like museums and other places that typically intend to encourage more thoughtful looking (or, at least, that’s why I go to them) to engage in.

Reappropriating vs Mining

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas

Pier 24’s Secondhand was an interesting double bill with San José’s Postdate. Both shows used repurposed photos but where San José involved reclaiming images from a colonial past—demonstrating a very activist way of appropriating—Pier 24 is almost all within the same sort of western tradition and feels more concerned with the surface of images rather than what’s underneath them.

A lot of the work,* focuses on mining archives and extracting keepers—whether sequences, groups, or individual images—that look interesting to us today. It’s tempting to call this kind of thing “curation” only there’s no illumination provided.** They’re generally not about what the photo means and are instead going for the “oh this looks interesting” reaction. Other work*** involves doing clever things to photos to create new, interesting things to look at but which don’t didn’t make me rethink the actual photos themselves.

*Such as with The Archive of Modern Conflict and Erik Kessels (more on him later).

**One of my pet peeves is the way “curation” has become used on the web as a way of describing collections which, while often very tastefully selected, provide no information or educational information about what the point is.

***Most notably for me, Daniel Gordon and Maurizio Anzeri.

In both cases, the results can look pretty fun without really saying much. This isn’t a knock on what was on display, just that after having seen another exhibit which really investigated how powerful appropriation could be—especially in the context of colonialism and the representation of the powerless—I found myself wanting to see more work which explicitly examines the cultural context of the images, presents other meanings, and brings the appropriated images from the past into the present.

The only artist on the show who really did this was Hank Willis Thomas. His work in Pier 24—as well as his recent Unbranded work—looks at more than just how the photos look and instead focuses on the content of the photos and how our understanding of that content has changed over time. His work in the show was also particularly relevant given how Black Lives Matter has been constant over the past couple years. Viewing a lot of the older, recognizable but still-charged images through the flag frames suggests how these are commemorated and remembered as accomplishments rather than as part of an ongoing fight.

Erik Kessels & Vernacular Archives

Erik Kessels. Album Beauty.

Erik Kessels. Album Beauty.

Erik Kessels. In Almost Every Picture.

Erik Kessels. In Almost Every Picture.

Erik Kessels deserves specific comment since, not only does he appear to be the main attraction in the exhibition, much of his work critiques our concepts of vernacular photography and makes us think about how we use images.

One of the things that bugs me about a lot of current photography writing is its tendency to state that people did a good job organizing their photos in the past. From what I’ve seen looking at my friends’s and family’s photos is that staying on top of the photo albums was as rare and difficult to do then as keeping digital images organized now is. Even most people who did do a good job making albums have boxes of decades-old images that they haven’t gone through yet.

Managing and mining this archive—whether digital or physical—is a daunting task. What I like about Kessels is how he suggests other ways of using images than the pure documentary mindset that governs most archives of vernacular photos. In Almost Every Picture has a number of series that pull a common theme—a spouse, a pet, fingers covering the lens, carnival prizes—out of a larger cache of images. The archive doesn’t have to tell a story chronologically, it can have a completely different theme and the chronology will still be accessible. People age, fashions change, we can sense the passage of time despite the focus being something else.

As someone who’s still working through doing something with my photos, seeing alternative ways to approach my own archive is great to see.

Album Beauty meanwhile made me start thinking more about vernacular photos as common memory. While extracting specific series or groups of interest out of a vernacular archive is a nice skill to create fun sequences which tell small quirky stories, much of the appeal of vernacular photos is in their entire corpus and how they show us images that remind us of moments in our own lives.

This is something that Colors of Confinement touched on as well. Because so many Japanese internees have a gap in their family photos from the internment years, the photos that do exist from the camps work to remind them of their own experiences. It’s easy to say how photos erode memories by replacing them with whatever’s in the photograph, looking at other albums demonstrates how photos trigger memories as well.

Vernacular photographs,* describe a sense of place and time in a way that allows for our own memories of that period to be part of the experience. We flip through the contents of an album and pause when we see something that reminds us of our own experiences—a location we also visited, clothing or hairstyles that made us look awful, toys we played with or coveted. Ideally we’re looking through the album with someone else so the pause can become conversation as we share stories. But even if we’re on our own, the pause and remembering and slight smile in recognition will occur before we go back to looking.

*Though this is also something that the “snapshot esthetic” can do too. Blake Andrews’s review of The Family Acid is very relevant here.

And it doesn’t have to be an album. It could be a shoebox of prints or a carousel full of slides. Those are just as much fun to look through and, in some ways are a better shared experiences than an album is since it’s easier to pass individual prints or slides around.

Which brings me to 24 hours of Flickr. This room gets mentioned in every writeup I’ve seen on this show. It didn’t do much for me. It kind of feels like a physical statement about how awful the current deluge of photos is compared to how great the nicely-organized albums of the past were. Yes, people upload way more photos than they’d have printed in the past. And yes, 90% of those photos are crap. But there’s nothing gained by seeing how many 4″×6″ prints a days worth of uploads translates to.

What I took away from that room was how respectfully I treat photographic prints. In a room full of prints, all of which were treated as basically disposable trash, I still found myself trying not to step on any of them—even the brick-wall test shots half-covered in a low-resolution watermark.

Photographs as Byproduct

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Evidence.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Evidence.

Baseball halftone

Embroidered postcards

The rooms I liked best though contained photographs which were, essentially, byproducts of other ventures. Rather than being vernacular photos that people took to document their lives, these are things produced by governmentbig business, or a media company as part of an offered product or service. Some are intended as communication and illustration to accompany other information; some are merely an intermediate step of a production process; and others are artifacts that happen to feature photography but aren’t photos themselves.

The highlight is Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence. It’s one of the granddaddies of the field of appropriated photography and it’s awesome. Is it a bit superficial? Absolutely. But it’s funny and bizarre and simply a very well-selected sequence. I find it hard to believe it’s as old as it is since it still sets the bar for this kind of thing as an example for how decontextualization and recontextualization can work.

The photos in Evidence come from all sorts of governmental and industry archives. By themselves, in their original context, they would have been pretty boring, of interest to a small, specific audience—quite possibly boring to even that audience. Out of context and grouped together though makes these technically-competent photos anything but boring. Rather than wanting to know what’s going on, I found myself making up my own narratives and noticing things in the images that weren’t originally the main point—like the interactions between people in a group shot or the way a headless person is holding the intended subject of the image.

I also really liked Viktoria Binschtok’s work investigating the locations of Google Street View (GSV)photos. There have been a lot of GSV projects but I really like the idea of not just rephotographing the street view image but going inside and making the automated, corporate image into a real place. GSV in many ways demonstrates everything that makes for bad photography. It’s automated and distant and unedited and presents an unnatural point of view. But these are also what make it so compelling to play with. There is no existing editorial voice to contend with and you can sit down, dig though as much of the archive as you can handle, and do whatever you want with the results.

Most of the projects though have been either commentaries of GSV itself or attempted to find street view images that looked like “real”* photographs.  Binschtok though uses GSV as just the jumping off point to play with the concept of intent. Her photographs paired with the GSV imagery produce a result that makes both much more interesting. It reminds me a little of rephotographing Stephen Shore with GSV but rather than starting with the interesting, fully-intended image and showing how bland the location looks on Google, these start with the bland GSV images and force us to see how they can be transformed by looking with intent instead.

*Read, images that look like the accepted canon of “good” photography. This is also an idea that deserves a post all of its own.

The collections of photos that have been prepared for halftoning and printing are fascinating.* These are byproducts of the printing process. They’re not the original negatives nor are they the final halftoned prints. Instead they’re photographs which have been painted and marked up to improve the contrast and eliminated unwanted details so that they will reproduce well after offset printing.

*Especially given my background in printing. I’ve worked as a prepress operator at an offset printing shop as well as an OEM support lead for digital printing and so have lived the “how to go from paste-up (or digital file) to printed page” life for over a decade.

This is the kind of thing that would be called cheating today so it’s instructive to see how much manipulation was required in order to get a usable final image. None of these photos are lying even though they’re all faked. It’s also a reminder of how much image processing is always needed behind the scenes in order to make a decent photographic print.

Outside of being a reminder of how photographs end up on paper, these objects are also wonderful commentaries on photography as an exercise in recontextualization. They’re not just extracting what’s in the photo from what’s outside it, they’re also painting out details and reframing what’s in the photo as well—in-game action photos become posed studio images, group photos become headshots. And then they’re put on the wall of a museum where we no longer know who the players are you see what an editor selected decades ago as the most-important part of these images.

Finally, there are photos which are used as the substrate for other products. The embroidered postcards are beautiful objects and the ID badges are great fun to look at. In neither case am I really looking at the photos though. I’m seeing them as objects and remnants of a specific period of time. I appreciate seeing multiple specimens—Pier 24’s scale does most of the heavy lifting here—as I can get a better sense of the craft and usage of the pieces.

It’s no surprise that my favorite pieces at Pier 24 were these byproduct photos. They were useful objects which we can relate to—even after their previous functions are no longer needed or remembered, we recognize enough about how they were used. Recontextualizing them into a museum allows us to relate to them as useful objects and appreciate the new context along with the original craft. Looking at photography—or really anything else in a museum—needs to be more than just an academic surface-level exercise for me. I need to see what the photos are doing, how they’re being used, or what statement they’re making.

The City Lost and Found

Baltimore on my Mind

Paul Rudolph. Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Bird's-eye perspective section. Rendering. 1970

Paul Rudolph. Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. 1970

John Malmin. Aug. 13, 1965: National Guard troops secure a stretch of 103rd Street, dubbed Charcoal Alley, in Watts to help Los Angeles authorities restore order. This image is looking east from Compton Avenue.

John Malmin. Watts. August 13, 1965

Helen Levitt. New York. 1972

Helen Levitt. New York. 1972

Bertrand Goldberg. River City I, Chicago, Illinois, 1972/79

Bertrand Goldberg. River City I, Chicago, Illinois, 1972/79

Wall of Respect. Ebony Magazine. December 1967.

Wall of Respect. Ebony Magazine. December 1967.

Seeing Princeton’s City Lost and Found show a week before Baltimore blew up* was very interesting timing. It’s weird to be working through my reactions to a show while a real world event unfolds which essentially references everything I’m working through. But this show covers the 1960s and 1970s in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Which means it covers the Harlem riots, Chicago riots, and Watts riots—all of which are extremely relevant to the discussions we’re having today about Baltimore. We still haven’t learned the lessons from 1968.

*I’m really curious to see how that Wiki page changes since the whole riot/protest/rebellion/uprising discussion is also ongoing.

The show isn’t about the riots, but rather the way cities were evolving in the 1960s and 1970s as the demographics and industry changed. A lot of people and industry moving out. And a lot of people and infrastructure being left behind in ways that the powers that be viewed as requiring renewal or fixing or controlling.  While the backstory is missing in the show, even the gist of it is enough to get started.

We get to see urban renewal plans, municipal commission documents, documentary photographs, street photographs, photojournalism, investigative art projects, performance art projects, guerrilla art projects, and more, all capturing various ways that the city was in flux and various groups were reacting to the changes, proposed changes, or lack of changes, that were going on. It shows us what the cities were like ~50 years ago and what the primary issues were then. Looking at everything, even before the Baltimore protests erupted, I was struck by how little had really changed since that time period.

The issue between balancing the need to improve aging cities with being fair to the people who still live in the cities* with addressing the injustices that have left many of those people in, or a single catastrophe removed from, poverty is not just a difficult problem we have to solve, it’s the problem we have to solve.

*Whether they’re blacks living in formerly redlined neighborhoods or artists who need affordable housing or immigrants trying to start new lives here.

And the cities do need to be improved and renewed. While urban renewal is frequently code for gentrification or the destruction of existing communities, neglect and non-investment* are just as destructive. The plans all look glorious. Wonderful mixed-use developments. High density—affordable high density—living coupled with urban parks and communal greenspaces. Transportation** accessibility as a key feature of everything. Even a lot of balancing new developments with old architecture by incorporating the old buildings into the design. I look at these plans and wish that they’d built them since they address almost all the issues*** currently afflicting cities.

*Let alone actual theft in the form of subprime mortgages or “buying” homes on contract or the systematic destruction of property and businesses if, against all odds, these areas actually do flourish.

**One of the few things that betrays the age of these plans is how car-focused everything is. Though it is interesting to note that while New York was trying to improve access for cars, the LA plans were trying to improve walkability.

***Public transportation being the notable absence.

A new city built along these lines would be a thing of beauty. The plans still look futuristic because we just can’t do things like this. Part of me wants to tear my hair out because we’ve known that we need to do this for decades. The other part of me looks at the plans and understands why we can’t.

Because I also look at these plans and notice that the ideas for renewal all involve destroying and rebuilding entire swaths of the city. And I know that to do any of this, city government will have to eminent domain the cheapest available land occupied by the least-politically-powerful people. And that the land is cheap because of racist governmental policies and white flight. And that the new growth, even if truly affordable, will not—cannot—replace the former neighborhoods.

And I look at the photos of those neighborhoods and remember the Leonard Freed book in my parents’ house and see that while they look worn down and in need of upgrading, people live their entire lives there and take pride in their neighborhoods.

And this is all ~50 years ago and things are basically the same and this wasn’t a new problem even then and no wonder people are pissed and frustrated and the real wonder is why these kind of demonstrations don’t happen more often.

The reality on the ground and the promised beauty of the plans are two threads that this show is unable to reconcile. This feels like a weakness in the exhibition as much of my time in the galleries involved being frustrated by what felt like the absence of a thesis statement for the exhibition. But this absence also feels honest and when I wasn’t frustrated I was nodding my head in agreement and recognition of this. I want to see an easy answer. We wish there were an easy answer. There is no easy answer.

The only conclusions I can draw from the exhibition require me to think about what I didn’t see there. There are no plans that treat the city as something that needs retrofitting rather than being a complete teardown and rebuild. None that view anything beyond the architectural legacy of the area to be worth considering for selected salvation.* None that involve the communities and give them any agency over what they need. All of these are projects and visions that, if they exist, would live in the disconnect which is on display. I suspect though that they don’t exist, whether 50 years ago or today.

*Not that I disagree with saving architecturally-significant buildings. Just that it says a lot about priorities when it’s only the architecture that’s considered worth saving.

Photography as social document

Richard Nickel. Untitled (Construction of McCormick Place), 1958/60

Richard Nickel. Untitled (Construction of McCormick Place), 1958/60

Aaron Rose. Untitled (The demolition of Pennsylvania Station), 1964-1965

Aaron Rose. Untitled (The demolition of Pennsylvania Station), 1964-1965

New York City Planning Commission. Spread from Plan for New York City. 1969

New York City Planning Commission. Spread from Plan for New York City. 1969

Department of City Planning, Los Angeles. Spread from Concepts for Los Angeles. 1967

Department of City Planning, Los Angeles. Spread from Concepts for Los Angeles. 1967

William Reagh. Bunker Hill to soon be developed. 1971

William Reagh. Bunker Hill to soon be developed. 1971

Thomas Struth. West Broadway, New York. 1978

Thomas Struth. West Broadway, New York. 1978

John Humble.  300 Block of Broadway, Los Angeles, October 3, 1980

John Humble. 300 Block of Broadway, Los Angeles, October 3, 1980

Aside from the general reactions I had to this show, it’s also very interesting from a photography point of view. While a lot of the photos on display were intended as art photos, they’re not being used as art here—despite being exhibited in an art museum. These are photos as social history, social documents, items that tell us about the place, who lived there, how it’s changing, what life is like on the ground rather than from the planning offices.

It’s not about the photos as objects: Some of them are vintage prints. Some are slides. Some are mechanical prints. Some are halftones in magazines or books. Some—as with the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition—are digital prints from scanned negatives. It’s about the photos and the stories they contain.

I still looked at the photos with an eye toward the art side of things. But even as someone who often looks at the social context around the photography* I was even more tuned into this element here. The photos—and the rest of the art in the exhibition—were telling me the stories. I didn’t have to pull them out on my own. And there are too many stories to mention so I’ll just go over the ones that caught my eye.

*cf. my Winogrand writeup.

Danny Lyon and Aaron Rose’s photos of the destruction of lower Manhattan at first have some ruin porn vibes going on except that rather than capturing the superficial beauty of decay and abandonment, these are about change and questioning the idea that progress requires destroying the past. These photos get compared to the photos that show new buildings going up. Same metal frames, same men in hard hats, and the same dust and dirt of power tools. Just a different side of the coin.

The planning commission documents contain essentially photo essays of street photography as a way of understanding that people live in the city. Where street photography often has a bad reputation, these documents show what it does well. It’s not just about the tropes and getting that decisive moment where everything in the frame lines up perfectly. It also captures a sense of place and time in a way that no other kind of photography really can.

There’s plenty of street photography on display just by itself too. Classic black and white work by Garry Winogrand or Leonard Freed. Color work by Helen Levitt or Bruce Davidson. In a different show I’d be appreciating the photos individually. In this show, between the planning commission documents and the magazine photo essays,* I’m fitting the rest of the photos into my own imagined social documents of how the city works and what it’s like to navigate one on foot.

*Including Gordon Parks’s Harlem Family and Ebony’s Wall of Respect.

Street photography is a human’s-eye view of the city. Even in the age of the automobile, this perspective is necessary to keep in mind. No matter how much the cities need to be fixed, if they don’t work on the street-level human scale they don’t work at all. And while I appreciate Martha Rosler’s attempts reject the theatricality of traditional street photography, the way she added distance between herself and her subjects resulted in a point of view that felt closer to a car’s-eye view of the city. There’s something about being in the middle of things in the city that’s absolutely necessary.

This is of obvious import in a city like New York but it’s also relevant to Los Angeles. There are a series of photographs by various photographers looking at the demolished but undeveloped Bunker Hill site in downtown Los Angeles. These photos are coupled with images of different redevelopment plans that were attempted over the years. Some were not pedestrian-friendly, others were. Part of the problem with the site is that the less pedestrian-friendly plans were tried first and they just didn’t work. The resulting buildings were not a place anyone wanted to be.

This emphasis on the importance of scale comes up in a lot of the more landscape-like photography in the city too. From Thomas Struth’s super-precise photographs of New York to John Humble’s photos of LA, you can see the contrast between new developments and the way they dwarf the older, human-scale architecture. We need both types of building in the modern city and making sure they work together is the challenge.

Other highlights

Art Sinsabaugh. Chicago Landscape #117, 1964

Art Sinsabaugh. Chicago Landscape #117, 1964

John Divola. MGM #12 1979-80

John Divola. MGM #12 1979-80

ASCO. Instant Mural. 1974

Asco. Instant Mural. 1974

I really liked Arthur Tress’s Open Space in the Inner City* in that it felt like one of the few instances where the photography and plans where being discussed at a local level. These were originally mechanical prints rather than fine-art prints and the goal was to discuss locally about reclaiming existing open space into real parks. I’m not sure it ever got past this stage but it’s one of the few examples which even kind of sits in the middle of the divide between planning and local input.

*Holy crap he has a Blurb presence and you can get Volumes 1 and 2 there.

Art Sinsabaugh’s panoramas are also great. I’m kind of a sucker for panoramas in general but I enjoy the way these show the commitment to the automobile. One of the things missing from the New Topographics is focusing on the architecture of the highway system itself. Sinsabaugh’s work is interesting to view with that context in mind.

Hans Haake’s real estate holdings piece isn’t photography per se but does rely on photographs of each location to really make concrete the point about the way so few people control so much of the land. And how labyrinthine the holding companies are so as to obscure who’s actually in charge.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto was a nice discovery for me. His quieter Chicago cityscapes feel a lot closer to the kinds of photographs I enjoy making and I’ll be looking more into his work in the future.

John Divola’s MGM lots are a brilliant addition to the show in that they blur the lines between fictitious and real urban decay and the way it’s presented in the media.The lots are fake creations meant to look like New York or Chicago or anywhere else, but they’re also open space that will eventually be developed into self-contained modern cities with Los Angeles.

It’s always nice to see Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Especially now with more and more Google Street View projects occurring, it’s nice to examine one that predates them all.

Bruce Nauman’s LA Air meanwhile is one of two references in the show to explicit environmental issues in the city.* It’s funny and snarky but also points out one of the things that is an issue now but which wasn’t under consideration ~50 years ago. The environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s is barely mentioned in this exhibition despite all the grand plans involve improving automobile circulation in the city. While a lot of the race issues would remain the same in a similar exhibit of today’s cities, I’d expect a lot more LEED-certified or Cradle to Cradle ideas in the aspirational city plans.

*The other is Documerica which, while environmental, also feels like a slice of everyday like in the 1970s.

Another blind spot involves non-black ethnic groups in the cities. I understand why the exhibition is so black-focused but other non-white communities are also an important part of the New York, Chicago, and LA experience. I only noticed mentions of these other groups in a few photos by Jonas Dovydenas documenting ethnic enclaves in Chicago, Luis Medina’s photos of Latino gang members in the 1980s, and Asco’s Chicano activist work.

Of those, Asco caught my attention since they combined Latino traditions like mural painting with Chicano activism about how Latinos are mistreated in the city. Asco’s work, by being self-representational, also pointed out how little non-white self-representation was present in the rest of the exhibition.* As with the environmental stuff I’d expect a lot more self-representational work in a modern version of this exhibition.

*I think just Gordon Parks and the Ebony article. Though there’s also a collage by Romare Bearden on display. 

I would also expect a lot more Asians—both traditional Asian communities under pressure to gentrification and the rich Asian gentrifiers who are displacing a lot of the old-time residents. But that’s for the modern show which also has to include the rush back to the city by booming businesses and young professionals alike.

AI Weiwei @Large

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I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about Ai Weiwei. I’m not totally sure why—definitely a reaction to hype but there was more going on too. Anyway, I was in the Bay Area for a week and while there were many other museums I wanted to see, the big Ai Weiwei show on Alcatraz was not on my list. But my family bought tickets and we had a nice outing to Alcatraz to see the show. I’m glad I went and I can report that Ai also completely won me over.

Ai Weiwei’s work presented a very interesting double bill with the Trevor Paglen show I’d seen a few days earlier. There are overlaps—specifically the Edward Snowden area—where the effect of surveillance on free speech and national security and how observation and confinement are often two sides of the same coin. But where Paglen is concerned about surveillance and our lack of awareness of being observed, Ai instead addresses the situation where we know we are being observed and his art concerns the resulting cost to freedom that this entails.

That scary thing about governmental surveillance is that it makes no sense unless there is some consequence for saying the wrong thing. Most of us assume that what we say is if little importance yet at the same time, the observer effect does seem to apply to more than just physics. Being watched does imply a certain amount of being controlled.

Situating the exhibition on Alcatraz is a masterstroke. There are few prisons with an international reputation as a prison space—let alone a maximum security space—that also function as a tourist destination. Repurposing a tourist prison, with its already-existing information about how prisoners are controlled and watched, allows for visitors to physically experience how closely surveillance and incarceration can be related.* Experiencing this exhibition involves walking through both prisoner-exclusive spaces and guard-exclusive spaces and really seeing how they inform each other.

*After all, the panopticon was a prison design.

Ai Weiwei’s point though is that as much as this crackdown on free speech is bad, it’s imperative that we continue to speak—even after you know the state is trying to silence you. And as heavy as this subject is, Ai treats it as something joyful and beautiful. To exercise your freedom of speech is to be free—no matter that the state is doing everything in its power to restrict your freedom.

His kites are a joyous, beautiful way of making this point. The juxtaposition of flight and color with the heavy content and the situation inside prison allows for so many different interpretations. Taking flight from within the walls of a prison. Or being restricted from that freedom. Desiring to fly but being weighed down by all the heavy baggage that comes with that freedom. Or being free and carrying and accepting the inherent risks of that freedom. They call out individual countries for restricting speech while implying that free speech will always be trying to take off and free itself.

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The Lego portraits also touch on this by being creative free-expression* childrens toys used for a serious purpose. They also demonstrate how so many small pieces can work together to deliver a message. I can see what he’s trying to do with these and they do look kind of cool. But even with all that they don’t quite work for me since everything feels a bit forced and the result is less than the sum of its parts. But the parts are still good—especially the list which forces us to think about who’s pictured** and what they are being silenced for saying. The medium in which the portraits are realized doesn’t add much to this. Portraits alone, and the acknowledgment that these people exist and matter, are enough.

*Well, ideally. In practice Legos have become a bit too model-like and instruction-based for my taste.

**And who’s not. For example, doing a gender headcount is recommended here.

I really loved Stay Tuned though. Sitting in a jail cell and listening to the words or music created by people who the state has tried to silence through incarceration? Quite a powerful way to experience their voices. And an even more powerful way to prove how those words have also lived on and not been silenced. While not quite the same experience as being in a prison cell, I highly recommend listening to the the recordings on the @Large website.

The sense of listening to all this is both that free speech cannot be silenced and that governments from all over the world—including the US—have tried, and will continue to try, to silence people anyway. I had a special soft spot for the Víctor Jara room* because I can understand Spanish but hearing languages from all over is a wonderful demonstration at how this is a universal human right.

*I also wondered whether Aloha ʻOe could/should have been included here.

Ai’s global point of view in selecting the detainees in this section is wonderful and deserves special note. I’m not sure a western artist would have been so sensitive about selecting from all over the world. That Ai manages to both show a global awareness while not letting the US off the hook for its own abuses is a perfect balancing act.

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Blossom is also great. Where the other works on display are pretty heady, it’s nice to have something at such a smaller, subtler scale. The porcelain flowers are so delicate and beautiful. It doesn’t matter whether they represent hope or joy or just whatever small amount of fragile humanity you can hold on to while being imprisoned. Where the Legos ended up being less than the sum of their parts, these are more—most dramatically for me in the empty rooms where you can’t get close to the flowers and have to take in the entire, empty space with just a trace element of humanity and freedom present in one far away corner.

It’s Ai’s Illumination piece that sealed the deal for me. So. Smart. Just two rooms with a sound recording to listen to in each one.* But rather than being about individuals, this piece is about cultures—American Indians and Tibetans—that have seen attempts at governmental erasure and silencing. That a Chinese artist making a piece for specific installation in the US is making this comparison between the two countries is smart. Locating this piece in the psychiatric observation rooms as a way of commenting on how this erasure works is brilliant.

*As with Stay Tuned, the recordings are on the @Large website. They’re worth listening to even without the psych ward experience.

And the site-specificity goes beyond brilliance. Ai doesn’t just use a “native” chant, he uses a Hopi one—with the full awareness that Hopis were some of the first governmental prisoners on Alcatraz and that their imprisonment was specifically because of the fight to keep their culture and freedom. That Alcatraz was later occupied by American Indians just emphasizes the importance of this piece in this location. There are deep wounds here and acknowledging and learning about them is something all of us non-natives need to do.

The parallels with Tibet are also interesting. I think they’re completely valid both in a government eradication way but also in a whitey appropriation way.* It’s a good reminder to us that as much as we like to shake our heads at what the Chinese government is doing, we would do well to look at our own government, and its history, as well. As for the appropriation stuff, I can’t help but wonder how much the attempts at erasure have made it easier to do, whether it’s perceived as an orphan culture or as a way of raising “awareness.”

*Similar to what Annu Matthew’s work reminded me of.

Still, despite the attempts at erasure, Tibetans and Native Americans are present and continue fighting for their freedoms. As sobering as it is to see all the oppression in all of the artwork on display, Ai’s point about continuing to speak and be free carries the day. I didn’t come away from this exhibition depressed at the state of things. This is artwork that reminds you, pushes you, to use your freedoms. There’s inherently uplifting about that.

Postdate

Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012.

Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012

Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph). From the photo-performance project Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs , 2000-2004.

Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph)

Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar, from the series Notes from the Desert, 1999-2010.

Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India

As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.

*Off the top of my head, Rising Dragon’s Chinese photography and Mexicanismo’s Latino art are both relevant here.

Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.

Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*

*Something I explore a bit in an older post on self representation, this time involving American Indians. 

Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.

Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.

I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?

*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.

I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.

Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen. NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014.

NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014

One of the constant discussions in photography has been about the issues of surveillance and voyeurism and the appropriateness of observing and recording the lives of other people. Much of this discussion is as much about the identity of whoever’s doing the recording as much as it’s about the actual act itself. Some people get upset by government surveillance while others find individual photographers more threatening.

I’ve seen numerous projects over the years which push the issues with regard to individual photographers. Hidden cameras, infrared flash and film, telephoto lenses, anything really that allows you to take pictures of people in situations they wouldn’t want to be observed in. At their best, these kinds of photos make me think about the nature of photography and my practice of it. At their worst they end up being creepy and creepshotty. But the experience is always as much about the individual photographer and his technique in capturing people candidly as it is about the subjects themselves. Looking at the photos makes it easy to put ourselves in the photographer’s shoes; we see what he sees and our enjoyment of, or reaction to, the image often aligns itself with his intent.

Trevor Paglen though is one of the few photographers who addresses the other side of the discussion. Paglen investigates the pervasive surveillance by the state and its effect on all of us as subjects, or possible subjects, of that surveillance.* His show at the Altman Siegel gallery is small** but extremely thought-provoking in this regard.

*His Last Pictures project is sort of related in that it covers the infrastructure of surveillance but is a much different provocation in that it asks questions about what kinds of images and things humans will leave behind after our extinction.

**You can see everything in the show on the website.

It’s especially interesting in that rather than being angry or outraged, Paglen’s work is very quiet and contemplative. It’s easy to be upset about rights abuses and blame politicians for prioritizing immediate comfort over principles. It’s quite another thing to really think about the nature of how much we, as a society, have invested in watching ourselves and what it means to have that subtext lurking underneath everything.

Trevor Paglen. NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Point Arena, California, United States, 2014.

NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site
Point Arena, California, United States, 2014

The photos are pretty in a minimal, natural, elegant way.* Which is exactly the point. Just underneath the quiet scene is a ton of infrastructure dedicated to watching and monitoring and controlling us. All of us. A few images are paired with maps that feature a lot more information** about the location and the nature of the infrastructure there. This information demonstrates the magnitude of the surveillance while also giving it a material presence. As clean and elegant as the photos may be, the maps show the messiness we’re not supposed to know about. They work really well together as diptychs and really increase the sense of wrongness and unease that I get when just looking at the photos.

*I happen to like minimalist seascapes anyway so that’s a bit of a bonus.

**Much of which comes from the Edward Snowden disclosures.

Paglen’s photos are also especially noteworthy here because they’re photographs where the actual subject of the image isn’t just hidden but is actually incomprehensible without any of the provided context. This isn’t merely hard to do with photography, it’s not how photography is supposed to work at all. Yet Paglen manages to not only make it work but turns all the potential problems into features. How do you take photos of hidden infrastructure? Don’t show it at all and instead imply that it could be anywhere and everywhere.

Rather than showing what we think of when we think about surveillance—cities and security cameras and other places where physical crimes may be expected to occur—these quiet scenes tell us that we can’t get away from that eye. And that it’s not being watched physically that’s the really creepy part of the surveillance state.

What’s creepy is the sense that the surveillance is everywhere and watching everything.  What’s creepy is that we’ve all bought into the system that supports this. What’s creepy is realizing that as much as this upsets me, there’s part of me that’s glad it’s there.

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Which makes it nice that Autonomy Cube is also in the gallery. It’s always fun to have some artwork that you can interact with. And while this isn’t a major bit of interaction—just connecting to a Wireless Access Point which routes everything through Tor—it’s enough make me start to think about the alternatives. The idea that it’s part of an ostensibly private/anonymous internet is comforting. At the same time I also felt myself questioning whether or not I could trust it. Or whether anonymity is even all it’s cracked up to be.

As much as I may not trust the government, it is the devil that I know. Anonymousland meanwhile is unknowable. And the internet so far has not been particular good about demonstrating that anonymous cowards are any better.

Plus there’s the whole question about the wisdom of changing your behavior because you can’t trust the government to act responsibly.* I totally understand wanting to protect yourself. But this is also the first step toward victim blaming. The scale and scope of surveillance should prompt us to think about reining it in or providing proper guidelines about its application, not how each of us should protect ourselves better on an individual basis.

*A point Snowden himself makes at the end of this video.