Category Archives: SFMOMA

SFMOMA

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

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

Dora Maar. Double Portrait, 1930s.

Dora Maar.
Double Portrait, 1930s.

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Artschwager. Triptych III, 1967.

Richard Artschwager.
Triptych III, 1967.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Judd. Armchair, Designed 1984.

Donald Judd.
Armchair, Designed 1984.

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

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

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

Trevor Paglen. Autonomy Cube, 2014.

Trevor Paglen.
Autonomy Cube, 2014.

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

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

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

Susan Meiselas

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other comments

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

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

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

Also at SFMOMA

Having visited Pier 24 that morning and having viewed the Mike Mandel show first, I did a quickish walk through of the rest of SFMOMA. There wasn’t any other big exhibition which I had on my must-see list and, after having done a comprehensive walkthrough the previous year I was able to quickly visit my favorite rooms and wander through the other special exhibitions.

So I stuck my head into the always-excellent Agnes Martin room and made my way through the vestigial old galleries on the second floor to remind myself of the SFMOMA I used to know and love. It’s still there as a shell of its former self. I’m glad that more and more of it is being integrated into the new building even while it seems like the focus is increasingly on “the canon” of old white guys as opposed to the weird California stuff it used to be doing.

Yes, the Mandel show is both very weird and very Californian. But it’s not what the museum has been trumpeting. Instead all I see is press about Edvard Munch and Walker Evans and other shows which, while I agree with the artist’s importance, very much make me think that I’m no longer part of SFMOMA’s desired audience.

Edvard Munch

The Munch show is fine. Very FAMSF, but fine. The paintings are good to see. The brushwork is interesting and the color is fantastic. Just, I have no idea why it’s here. Part of me wants to be generous and suggest that this is intended to be a connection to Femme au chapeau and how a decade ago SFMOMA seemed to be setting that up to be their iconic painting.

The rest of me feels like that’s a total reach. This is art presented as something important because it’s by a famous artist. There’s even a line to take photos of the painting which looks the most like The Scream. There’s actually very good wall text about how he worked with models and had to deal with severe childhood trauma* but even with that the show feels like something which is geared toward moving merchandise in the gift shop.

*He’s an asshole but for sympathetic reasons. 

And I’m not inherently against that goal. It is, after all, something that helps museums stay in business. Just, in this case, it feels like a cynical cash grab.

Soundtracks

Thankfully not all the shows are like the Munch one. Soundtracks is great and confirms that the top floor is likely to be the first place I head after I hit the photography wing. Besides being the floor of contemporary art where SFMOMA attempts to balance out the demographics on display in the rest of the museum, in this case that the exhibition is about sound was a welcome change of pace from the visual nature of the rest of the museum.

It was fun to revisit Ragnar Kjartansson. It’s always a good sign when I’m going to enough museums that I’ll catch a contemporary piece in multiple locations. I first saw The Visitors in DC, it’s interesting to see it in a smaller room with a different layout of screens. I preferred the more spread-out DC installation but SFMOMA’s framing of this as less about the performance-art nature of the piece and more about the music in it meant I got to try a different perspective and isolate each instrument in the score with the musician.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s large pool of floating bowls is also great. It’s an obvious showstopper just based on the visuals—despite the request for people to not take photos everyone was taking photos—but more importantly, the bowls sounded wonderful. The different combinations of sizes produced a handful of clear, pure tones which sounded like bells. I can see wanting to sit by myself just watching and listening to this for a long time.

Other fun highlights included: Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s pieces—especially Sphere Packing and the way it works as a history of music, visually compares different composers’ outputs, and totally messes with our expectations for how music is supposed to be consumed. And Amalia Pica’s Switchboard which takes a childhood game and turns it into something which encourages interacting with other museum goers.

Noguchi’s Playscapes

The design gallery this time had an exhibition of Noguchi’s unrealized playground designs. It’s always great to see design in a museum where the “how will this be used” question is clearly at the forefront of the process. These are all design and architecture for human use and health and it’s a shame that only a couple of them were ever built.

Looking at them today I couldn’t help but envision them as being clad in the now-typical rubber safety padding that would allow them to be built without the safety concerns which seemed to sideline so many of these in their day.* Heck, a lot of the standalone structures such as the cylindrical stairs/slide combination look like things that could work today as smaller plastic playspaces for little kids.

*Though having played on enough cast-concrete playgrounds as a kid these don’t look any less safe than what passed as water-play structures in the 70s and 80s.

The best of the rest

The Nam June Paik show is fun. I most-enjoy the sketches which play with language and character forms. There’s a sense of spontaneity and play in pushing what the symbols mean, or could mean, which just makes me smile. His more TV-centered work doesn’t grab me as much.

It’s also always neat to see the SECA Art Award winners. I only ever expect to really like one of the artists on display—the newer the art the more likely we are to run into Sturgeon’s Law issues—and this time was no different. In this case I really liked Sean McFarland’s work. McFarland works in photography poking at the grey area between truth and representation that most photographers tend to ignore. So he takes photographs and provokes them in the printing to show how they’re artificial. Or he finds simple objects like broken glass and photographs them so that our brains fill in the details and think they’re a mountain landscape.

Good 70s

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Mrs. Kilpatric, 1974

from the series Mrs. Kilpatric, 1974

Mike Mandel, Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston

Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the portfolio People in Cars, 1972

from the portfolio People in Cars, 1972

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series, Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971

from the series, Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971

I was sad to miss the Larry Sultan show but I’m very glad I made it up to SFMOMA for the Mike Mandel show. Sometimes it’s nice to just see things that are fun and make me smile.

This isn’t to say that Mandel’s work is somehow simple or trivial, just that the concepts are both remarkable easy to grasp and Mandel’s default approach mines the humor. It’s a goofy humor which I really love and, despite being funny, manages to maintain a certain seriousness and empathy for the subjects. I’m not laughing at the photos or the people in them, I’m laughing because of them and what they make me recognize. This is an approach which is sadly lacking in a lot of photography.

Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston is a perfect example of this. It could easily be seen as a stunt. Or something making fun of Edward Weston—or all these other Edward Westons. But it avoids those pitfalls and becomes so much more. It touches on how everyone takes and consumes photography—each of the Edward Westons supplies a portrait and talks about photography. It touches on the nature of fame and what it’s like to have a name in common with someone famous. It provides a sympathetic glimpse into seven men’s lives. Seven men whose only thing in common is that they share the same name as a famous photographer and were generous enough to share about their lives to a complete stranger.

It’s also hilarious. Not because of who those men are what their responses are but because there’s simultaneously an everyman, what if I shared my name with someone famous, thing going on plus the sly suggestion that maybe each of these guys is actually the Edward Weston. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when I read each of these and looked at the photos.

Mrs Kilpatric is also fun. So simple that in many ways it’s just about goofing around with a friend and neighbor. But the unposed—well, semi-posed—unplanned nature of it all is completely disarming. She’s incredibly trusting of Mandel to let him take her photo no matter what she’s doing or wearing. But the photos are great. They’re the kind of photos that she might not like because they’re a bit silly but which her family members will love because of how they portray her.

People in Cars is a similarly straitforward project.  One of the things which stands out looking at Mandel’s work is how visible he must’ve made himself as a photographer. Even a series like this which lends itself to surreptitious shooting is very clearly full of interaction. Most of them are people being amused by whatever Mandel is doing when he’s behind the camera. Which makes the few where the subject is upset really stand out in a way which produces a wry smile from me.

Myself meanwhile had me laughing in the gallery. I love the Half Dome one (of course there’s a Half Dome one) but they’re all great. Mandel is indeed a goofball. The idea of photobombing his own photos is hilarious. As is the way that the other people in the frame end up having to react to him. Sometimes there’s surprise, other times there’s group acceptance, and sometimes he’s ignored. But you know that everyone in the frame has watched him set up the tripod and camera and is now trying to figure out what the hell this skinny kid with long hair is doing standing with them while the camera is buzzing.

You can hear the camera buzzing.

There’s confusion. There’s joy. There’s curiosity. There’s all the things that we all do when confronted with a camera. But Mandel is in the frame along with the “subjects” adding an extra layer of bizarreness and humor. It’s fantastic.

Mike Mandel, Skyway

Looking at how Mandel interacts with the people he’s photographing brings me to his photos of The Boardwalk.*  Having just been at Pier 24 earlier that day I couldn’t help comparing Mandel’s photos to Winogrand’s. Mandel isn’t creepy even though many of his subjects are Winogrand-bait. It’s not just that he’s made eye contact or something before taking the photo, there’s a level of interaction which gets a flirting versus a death stare.

*The first time I’ve seen an extensive series about a place which I’m super-attached to as home. My kids love going every summer. Just seeing what it looks like in the 70s and how much has, or hasn’t, changed is wonderful from a purely documentary point of view.

And yes, a lot of this might be 1960s New York versus 1970s California. But Mandel was a skinny goofball kid and Winogrand was a larger more serious presence. And it certainly seems like their approaches were also quite different—especially in that Mandel appears to be having fun with his photography. It doesn’t feel like an obsession or quest but instead just messing around and playing with the camera.

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series SF Giants, an Oral History, 1978–1979

from the series SF Giants, an Oral History, 1978–1979

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Prelude to Making Good Time, 1979

from the series Prelude to Making Good Time, 1979

Which brings us to Mandel’s baseball photos. I had a hard time viewing these as a photographer since I was a Giants fan first and those instincts are much more deep-seated than any of my art appreciation instincts. But they’re great. I’d love to spend a lot more time with SF Giants, an Oral History—it’s a shame this isn’t part of the catalog—but just looking at the photos is plenty enjoyable.

Mandel again both includes himself in the frame and manages to create an interaction where players are encouraged to be silly rather than serious. The resulting images feel like insider snapshots more than anything else. Part of me wonders whether this approach would’ve worked on a better team—mid 70s to mid 80s Giants were not so good—and part of me feels like he only took photos of the players who were cool with him anyway.

In any case, even with everyone having access to social media, Mandel’s photos manage to capture a view which we still don’t usually see.

And his light painting images caught me by surprise. This is one of those gimmicks which has been beat to death as self-indulgent Flickr explore bait. Mandel‘s images though show that he understands the game. Rather than being a gimmick they illuminate key action traces like how and when a batter twists his wrist during a swing or a pitcher’s hands come apart during his windup. It’s motion capture which highlights important details in the motion.

Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975

Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975 Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975

Which brings me to the Photographer Baseball Cards. Aside from Evidence, these are what I knew best about Mandel. I’ve always loved this project but had never really had a chance to look at a complete set before. So many wonderful things going on with these just as photographs without even getting into the baseball card aspect.

I love that his range of subjects runs from Ansel Adams to Bunny Yeager.* We’ve got star photographers who everyone knows, photographers’ photographers who aren’t appreciated as much as they should be, and photographers who’ve kind of been forgotten now. It’s very much a proper baseball card set in this way.

*Though women are still outnumbered like four to one and the non-white photographers can be counted on one hand. As always, lists are a bad idea.

I love that we get to see what the photographers look like. That Lewis Baltz is called “Duke.” That John Divola’s card features him in blurred motion. Divola’s card is the best in the entire set in terms of capturing a sense of what Divola was interested in as a photographer—pushing the boundaries of the concept of what a photograph depicts, or should depict in terms of time or reality— while also being “baseball” in terms of its pose and language.

I love the way that these are mass-produced offset lithography. Photography, especially art photography, is almost always obsessed with process and image quality. Even in  a book we get duotones or quadtones and insanely fine line screens and every attempt to make them look like “real” photographic prints. But these are printed by Topps. The line screen is coarse. The cuts are common. The ink is black only. And that’s not only appropriate but any other option would be just wrong.

I love the way that everyone seems to know what baseball and baseball cards are. You can see this especially in the contact sheets where each subject plays with different tropes of baseball posing. There’s a common language both in terms of baseball and baseball cards that we all know. But of course we should know, we’ve been making and consuming these photos since the 19th century.

I also appreciate that SFMOMA dedicated two rooms to showing samplings from many of the depicted photographers. This is helpful as both a reminder to people like me who recognized names but momentarily blanked on what they photographed* and an explanation for people who may have questioned whether the subjects of the cards were photographers at all.

*Nathan Lyons, Art Sinsabaugh, and Judy Dater in this case for me.

Sometimes though the photograph selected by SFMOMA felt like the wrong choice. This sampling isn’t the time to go on a deep dive into a photographer’s work but rather an “explain this person in an image or two.” So yes, I was mightily confused why they selected an black and white Eggleston image to display for him.

All in all though, a great show. I knew who Mandel was when I walked in. I just wasn’t aware about how much I liked his work. Also, while I still have concerns about SFMOMA’s new direction turning away from local art and artists—especially given the general sense of its upcoming exhibitions being much more FAMSF rather than what I’ve gotten used to at SFMOMA—I have to give them props for putting on a show which couldn’t possibly be more local.

About Time

I really liked SFMOMA’s other photography show, About Time. Maybe a good pun is all I need. But the show was literally about time and how the essence of photography is in messing with that element. It works well as both a history of photography and as a nice slice into the permanent collection.

Eadweard Muybridge, Ascending an incline with a bucket of water in each hand, plate 81, from the series Animal Locomotion, 1887

Eadweard Muybridge, Ascending an incline with a bucket of water in each hand, plate 81, from the series Animal Locomotion, 1887

Hiroshi Sugimoto, U.A. Playhouse, Great Neck, New York, 1978

Hiroshi Sugimoto, U.A. Playhouse, Great Neck, New York, 1978

At its most-basic level, photography is about depicting a moment of time in the photographic image. Sometimes we’re conscious of the motion because a subject is blurred—as seen in old photos where motion blurs due to the technical limitations of the media or in newer ones which blur motion on purpose—or whatever you want to say is going on in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie theaters—in order to make an artistic point about time. Similarly, John Divola’s “As Far As I Could Get” series is explicitly about having time in the frame.

Other times the photograph is clearly about stopping motions which are too fast for our eyes to see. These photos often feel more like science experiments than art but for every Doc Edgerton there’s someone like Aaron Siskind. This section also includes works by Eadward Muybridge and Paul Graham which get at the way that photography both captures and replays motion for us.

As much as photography education still focuses on the “decisive moment” it’s important to see that a “moment” can be anywhere from the thousandths of a second to many hours. And that even after that, there might be nothing decisive and instead the combined moments tell the story.

Alfred Stieglitz, Old and New New York, 1910

Alfred Stieglitz, Old and New New York, 1910

Drex Brooks, Ghost Dance Site in the Badlands, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, from the series Sweet Medicine, 1989

Drex Brooks, Ghost Dance Site in the Badlands, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, from the series Sweet Medicine, 1989

We’re also very familiar with photography as evidence that something has happened. Rather than being about the moment of time in the frame, it’s about what happened before the photograph—or what’s going to happen afterward. These photographs rely on our understanding the image’s context. These are the photos which come closest to the ways that we all use photography every day.

Everyone uses photographs to mark the passage of time. Family albums, kids growing up, parents growing old, the photographs are waypoints which we’re all familiar with. Fittingly, this show dedicates an entire gallery to The Brown Sisters* since Nicholas Nixon’s project is one of the best examples of photographs telling a story about what happens over time.

*Though I found it interesting the latest print was missing.

Similarly, there are many photographs of cities which show their change over time. While SFMOMA had no series which covered a period of change, we saw photographs marking what’s about to be lost—e.g. Zoe Leonard’s storefronts or Janet Delaney’s South of Market—or, as with Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris or Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of New York, what’s being built.

Instead of gradual change, photographs also document what just happened. This show has photos by Rineke Djjkstra and Frank Gohlke which require us to know the story about what’s being depicted. This context isn’t optional. We need to know that the bullfighters have just come from the arena or that Mt. St. Helens just erupted to really understand what we’re seeing.

There are also some wonderful George N Barnard photos which show the impact that war has on the land. These photos of the Sherman campaign are both about evidence of what’s going on—both before and after the photo was taken—but also hint at larger-scale time issues in photography. Namely that you don’t have to photograph evidence of an event immediately after the event has occurred.

Photography is wonderful for revisiting a place where something happened a long time ago. We need the same context about what happened but we’re no longer looking at the evidence of that event. What’s of interest is what’s happened in the time since that event happened and what our understanding of that history brings to our understanding of the scene in the photography. In addition to Mark Ruwedel, I enjoyed being introduced to Drex Brooks’s photographs of locations from the Indian Wars.

Matthew Buckingham, Image of Absalon To Be Projected Until It Vanishes, 2001

Matthew Buckingham, Image of Absalon To Be Projected Until It Vanishes, 2001

Jason Lazarus, Recordings #3 (At sea), 2014–2016

Jason Lazarus, Recordings #3 (At sea), 2014–2016

What I loved most about this show though is that it dealt with photographs as objects in and of themselves. It’s not just that photographs capture time in the image, they also exist as physical things which are subject to the forces of time.

Phil Chang’s unfixed photographs reminded me of Rauschenberg’s white paintings in how they’re about the concept of repeated aging despite being essentially blank. They critique how art, especially photography, is conceived of as being something which doesn’t change once it’s been hung on the wall.

Matthew Buckingham’s work takes this a step further in that it also involves how technology will age. His work isn’t just about the slide projector destroying the image which it is projecting, it’s also a race between the projector and the slide as to which will vanish first. Photography, by being so interwoven with technology, is also subject to the way technology changes over time—whether it’s the technology of the image making or the technology of the image display.

Jason Lazarus’s work is worth special comment here because of how it’s about both how we try to attach extra context to the photographs and how that content is often hidden and forgotten. Rather than focusing on the photographic image, Lazarus shows us the backs of the photos where people have written notes about who’s in the photo, when or where it was taken, notes to the intended recipient, etc. None of these things is typically art but they’re all part of the medium and how we relate to it.

For a relatively new medium to already be wrestling with issues of preservation and aging and the way that the art is a physical object beyond what it depicts is a lot of fun to see. I don’t see these discussions in most museums. Preservation is performed on an artifact, but the art itself doesn’t usually concern itself with how it wants to be preserved. I’m looking forward to further explorations along this line in future shows.

California and the West

 Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, from Photographs Showing Landscapes, Geological and Other Features of Portions of the Western Territory of the United States, Obtained in Connection with Geographical and Geological Explorations and Surveys, 1871-1873

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, 1871-1873

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

The main photography show at the new SFMOMA is on California and the West and how they have had an integral role in the development of the art form. It’s good but is more of a primer, introducing the different photographic “schools” that have developed here. In other words, it’s a bit thin and I wish it had gone deeper.

The main issue is that it sort of waffles between being organized thematically versus being ordered chronologically. The wall text suggests that things are chronological but the actual photos for a supposed time period end up covering over a century. This is most obvious in the Early Landscapes room. It feels like it’s about the 19th century Watkins, Russell, Muybridge, and O’Sullivan school of mammoth plates, albumen prints, pristine spectacular western landscapes, and our early attempts at taming them. But it goes into Ansel Adams work from ~50 years later and even includes a Friedlander photo from 2004.

In many ways the exhibition would’ve been better off just making the rooms purely thematic—similar to Oakland’s Inspiration Points show a couple years ago. This is pretty much how I chose to approach the show after the first couple of rooms. By focusing on the themes and ignoring the chronology cues, I found myself thinking about how each theme could cover ~150 years of photography in the West.

Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, from the series Gone? Colorado in the 1980s, 1984-1987

Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987

Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974

Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974

Early Landscapes was intended to set up a transition to the New West.* These photographs are very much my thing. I love Baltz and Robert Adams. Henry Wessel’s photo of the  Richmond garage tree is fantastic.** It’s always nice to see Shore prints.

*I’m tempted to start calling the pristine landscapes either “Old West” or “Old Topographics” a retronyms to either The New West or The New Topographics.

**And I’m completely unable to find it online anywhere.

The comparison between these views of The West is one which I feel deeply in my own photography. I very much love going out into nature and hiking with my camera. I also love going out into the suburban sprawl and taking photos of—and criticizing—the cityscape that has resulted. They’re more than just a core part of my visual literacy, they’re home. 

I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

While the Old West is distinct from the New West, the New West is visible in many of the Old West photos. “Photographing the incursion of technology into nature” is one of photography’s original subjects. Watkins and Robert Adams may have had different goals with their photography, but we can see as many similarities in their work as we can see between Watkins and Ansel Adams.

Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978

Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978

Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton's trial, July 30, 1968, from The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers, 1968

Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton’s trial, July 30, 1968

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

I found it interesting that the conflict and chaos theme—really more about demographic change—only started with photos from the 1960s. Muybridge photographed the Modoc War 100 years prior.* Dorothea Lange has photographs from the Great Depression in the adjoining room. The history of California is a history of conflict and demographic change, it’s not something which started in the 60s.

*Also an exhibition at the California Historical Society which I need to see this summer.

I do however enjoy seeing how photographers address the social issues of their time. Where political comment is often absent from the rest of the modern art canon,* photography has always been on the front lines. As much as there’s disagreement about what the democratic camera means, it’s pretty clear that as an art form, photography is somewhat unique in how it’s accessible to many more people and has always had an element of not just witnessing, but being part of any conflicts.

*In the rest of the museum, it’s only visible in the Anselm Keifer and Gerhard Richter rooms. But for the rest of the art from the 1960s and 1970s? If there were politics in it it’s long been scrubbed from the wall texts. 

It’s not just conflicts either. A lot of the changes are long-term gradual things which may not even depict changes but rather illustrate existing inequality. These images though, by Jim Goldberg or Carrie Mae Weems, get short shrift in this exhibition. Goldberg’s Rich and Poor is hung on both sides of a hallway—which makes no sense for a series which encourages both close inspection and zig-zagging between images. Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried meanwhile is one of those photo series which needs to be seen in its entirety yet only two of the images are on display.

That economic and racial inequality are the two big issues for this year’s election, I can’t help but sort of side-eye the way both of them are minimized here.

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Speaking of Lange and social justice, while I approve of featuring the “founders/ƒ.64” as being an important theme of western photography, keeping so much of their work outside of the themes in the rest of the rooms felt strange. The group wasn’t about content but rather technique. Their photos fit with all the other themes in the exhibition. There are pristine landscapes, technological changes, and demographic conflicts on display here, but the exercise in tying them into the other rooms is left to the viewer.

As an ƒ.64 room though I liked that they stayed away from most of the super-iconic photos. There’s Lange’s road. And a few of the Weston images are very familiar. But this room could have been full of just photographs I’ve seen over and over again.* I enjoy just absorbing more of their other work.

*Note, there should probably be such a room at SFMOMA because many of those ƒ.64 photos are extremely important to both photography and the idea that photography is art and all of them are inherently part of the Bay Area’s role in art history.

Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, from the series Homeland, 2009

Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 - 2016

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016

The last theme involves photographers playing with the medium itself. I’ve been on record saying that I consider Weston to be part of this group but most of these photos are much more recent. As such, many of them don’t quite do it for me.* The ones that do though I really like. In particular, Larry Sultan using day laborers as models and the weird ethical questions they create in the resulting photos. Did they know what they were getting in to? What does it mean to stage photos of gente day laborers using those day laborers as models? I don’t have good answers here either but I enjoy thinking about the questions.

*Contemporary Art is still being sorted by Sturgeon’s Law.

I also loved Klea McKenna’s photograms. And it’s always nice to see Trevor Paglen on display although putting him in the playing-with-the-medium room risks reducing a lot of his work to being about technique rather than interrogating the inherent nature of photography as being surveillance.

Looking at the recent photos though provides a clear example of how art photography has embraced the “make it fucking large” ethos of the collector-driven market. So many of the prints are not just huge, but possibly too big to the point that they feel like they’re only trying to be appreciated for their size rather than as images to be looked at. I understand why this is the case* but I don’t have to like the results.

*They have to compete with paintings and other media in a “bigger is better” arms race in the art-collector world rather than focusing on just photography collectors.

So yeah. I like many of the individual photos but was kind of unsold on the larger theme of the exhibition. As with the opening shows in the rest of the museum, this felt very much like a for-the-masses sketch of possibilities for future shows while staking a claim on a lot of territory.

Before and After

So this didn’t fit in my general new SFMOMA comments but while I was there I found myself comparing the installations of some of the sculptures with their previous installations. In particular, I ended up comparing Richard Serra’s Sequence and Barnett Newman’s Zim Zum I.

Richard Serra—Sequence

Before the expansion Sequence was installed at the Stanford Art Museum. I visited it many times there. I also much much much prefer it there. Outside it does much more interesting things with light, weather, and sound. In bright sun it casts wonderful shadows. On overcast days you get a real sense of the texture of the steel. Late in the afternoon the color glows as the sun sets. On rainy days there will be dry spots where the sculpture has protected itself, or the floor, from the drops. And because there’s no enclosing space, the sounds of talking or footsteps change as you walk through. You truly feel inside and enclosed when you’re in it.

Inside, you’re always conscious that you’re in a museum. There’s noise from the ticketing lobby that echoes in. You’re on a tiled floor instead of poured concrete. There’s tracklighting above you. The light is flat but not strong enough to see details. The shadows are weak and multi-directional. It’s still an interesting piece to walk around in and explore but yeah…it’s not what it used to be either.

2011 at Stanford

Sequence
sequence-wet-4
Sequence

2016 at SFMOMA

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Barnett Newman—Zim Zum I

Zim Zum I used to be in the fifth floor sculpture garden where it received full sun and framed both the Pacific Telephone Building and the sky when you were inside it. Now it’s in the new third floor garden, protected by an overhang and framing the living wall. I liked it where it was but the way it interacts with the wall is nice.

2012

Inside Zim Zum I

2016

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