Category Archives: photography

Back to my roots

Despite living in New Jersey I maintain a membership with the San José Museum of Art both because it’s a good deal and because I really value my yearly visit. More than any other museum in the Bay Area I find myself appreciating what San José is doing and how it so frequently manages to display artwork that feels both relevant to the area and which appeals to my specific sensibilities.

DSC_0023
DSC_0024 DSC_0021

The big exhibit this time is a large exhibition of Rina Banerjee’s artwork. Her work investigating is especially relevant to the Bay Area in how it investigates globalism and the way it intersects with identity, assimilation, gender, and colonialism. There’s very much a “the world is at your fingertips” sense in this artwork and she’s asking us—and especially the Silicon Valley culture—to think about the power dynamics at play when we combine things from all over.

Her work straddles that line where it’s simultaneously beautiful and grotesque—very often just the viewing angle is enough flip it from one to another.* Ornamentation becomes something monstrous. Small details show up and totally change the context. Superficial beauty falls apart the more you look.

*It reminded me of Kara Walker’s work and how it often does similar things where you can look lazily or you can really look and see all the layers of colonialism and gender and how things can be simultaneously exotic/alluring and vulgar/threatening.

There was a large tour group from Apple at the museum when I went and I just hoped that they were sensitive to the way that these large, apparently-beautiful objects completely turn the longer you look at them and see all the embedded issues in what they’re made of. While Banerjee is doing this on purpose, she’s also doing it to ask us to look closely at everything.

DSC_0017
DSC_0020

There was a smaller gallery of Catherine Wagner’s photographs. I was unaware of her work but I love it. Her science photos are great and deftly illustrates the artisty in how science is as involved in the process of looking (and seeing) in the same way that photography is.

Her Pomegranate Wall takes this a step further and essentially uses an MRI machine as a camera. The way it’s presented in a back-lit wall of multiple small images abstracts the subject matter and makes my brain think of all kinds of other connections from MRIs of brains to microscopic views of single-celled organisms.

San Jose has had a tendency to put up large pieces that feature small multiples of information (eg Listening Post and Epilogue). Wagner’s work fits right in with this and feels especially appropriate for an area that specializes in managing an overwhelming amount of little pieces of data.

Untitled
DSC_0016

The last exhibition in San José is an installation of Pae White’s foreverago along with a couple other pieces of hers. Foreverago is a lot of fun. It’s huge and a ton of stuff to explore (the back view is as nice as the front) and I appreciate the circular relevance of digital design and jaquard looms. Recasting tapestry as “modern” is the perfect way of reminding people that it was also the original punch-card programming.

I also love the canvases of paper. They’re fabulously tactile and the colors are wonderfully subtle. I just wish there was a video or photos of how they were made since I couldn’t quite picture it based on the wall text.There are also a couple other neat installations in this gallery. The chess pieces in particular are a lot of fun and look like the kind of thing that will show up in museum gift shops eventually.

We Shot the War

An unidentified soldier examines his C ration meal on May 3, 1969. Photo: OW Staffer, Hoover Library & Archive

An unidentified soldier examines his C ration meal on May 3, 1969.
Photo: OW Staffer, Hoover Library & Archive

I was in California for a week and a half last month. It wasn’t vacation but I did make it to the Hoover Institution to see a small exhibition of photographs of the Vietnam War that were shot for and published by the Overseas Weekly.

It’s an interesting show. Vietnam is kind of seared into photography’s memory as a war which defined what photojournalism is supposed to be. Up-close action. Iconic images. I’ve seen way too many lists of “most-iconic” photos that end up being mostly photos of the 1960 and 70s—at least half of them of the war or related events overseas.

The photos at the Hoover are kind of the complete opposite in that they show a more personal side of the soldiers and capture a lot of the downtime of the war effort. So we see how the soldiers spent their spare time and interacted with the Vietnamese locals. Plus we’ve got interviews with the troops asking them what they think about the war, how race relations are in the military are, and other man-on-street type of questions.

The show also includes bios and information about the photographers and publishers of the Overseas Weekly. The Weekly is notable for being published by women and also featuring a number of women correspondents. It’s kind of fascinating to read about their approach to covering the war and I’m impressed at how the show avoids making a big deal about this.

Spc. 5th Class Jimmy L. Arnold with a village child on Christmas Day, 1965. Photo: Ann Bryan, Hoover Library & Archive

Spc. 5th Class Jimmy L. Arnold with a village child on Christmas Day, 1965.
Photo: Ann Bryan, Hoover Library & Archive

It kind of amazes me that these photos and publications were so controversial at the time. To my eyes they’re the kind of thing that the military would want to be circulated. They show soldiers helping children and families. For a time when many in the anti-war public made the mistake of demonizing the soldiers for not avoiding the draft it seems like anything that humanized them could’ve helped prevent some of the backlash.

In many ways the photos felt so much like propaganda for making the soldiers and mission sympathetic that I couldn’t help but find myself be skeptical of the entire thing. For all the Army’s skepticism of Overseas Weekly it’s clearly intended to be for the troops—both news and comfort food. It’s an inside job which avoids anything that would seriously damage the war effort.

I very much appreciate the additional nuance of seeing who the soldiers are and being reminded that being anti-war is as profound a statement of support for the troops as anything.* But yes when one of the chief atrocities of the Vietnam War is also marked by the photographer admitting that he destroyed any negatives which explicitly implicated US troops I can’t look at any Vietnam War photographs without asking myself what’s not shown.

*Yes I know I’ve previously mentioned that valuing US lives over civilians is how we end up with endless drone warfare.

To the Hoover’s credit, many contact sheets are present and their actual archives only show the contact sheets online. So if I were so interested I could look through everything and see what didn’t make it into the show. Though this still wouldn’t show what never made it onto the contact sheets or what the photographers weren’t allowed to access and yeah, I know more than to just accept these at face value.

Notes

The prints on display are all modern—often on metal—and many appear to be be enlarged scans of the contact sheets based on how frequently the wax pencil markings appear on the image. This suggests that negatives may now longer exists of many of the images. It also treats the images as being about the image itself rather than any artistic statement.

Images on metal don’t feel like prints in a museum but instead like signage. It’s weird. They look fine, I just react to them differently even with the wall texts.

Anna Atkins

After I went to MoMA I wandered downtown making my way overland to Penn Station. My route took me past the New York Public Library so I decided to duck inside and see Winnie the Pooh (and send a photo to my kids). I had no idea what the special exhibition was and was pleased to see it was photography-related.

Also, it was awesome.

I had not heard of Anna Atkins before so I was just interested in seeing a bunch of old cyanotypes. There’s something wonderful about the old photographic processes and the way the images emerge from the exposed, colored paper. So unlike anything we’re used to seeing today while also being simple and tactile.

My son made a cyanotype photogram in school this year and I love it. Just seeing the flowers and the shadows they leave on the paper captures so much of the wonder of photography and the way that real things are transformed by how they interact with light.

Anna Atkins is a master. The exhibition was a small gallery filled with prints and bound books of cyanotypes. All kinds of plants delicately arranged on the paper and printed so you can see both their shadows and translucency. They evoke pressed flowers but also have an elegance in how they abstract things to the simple single-color tonal range.

They’re wonderful to look at and see as scientific observations and recording where you can compare the plants and their structures. They’re also flat-out beautiful prints* which are perfect for something like seaweed which floats in water and plays with filtered light.

*Lots of good examples over at Hyperallergic.

One of my favorite exhibits in the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the one which shows the kelp forest and places the kelp between me and the sunlight so I can get a sense of how magical the light in the forests must be. It’s a difficult thing to capture well with a camera and many of these cyanotypes put my attempts to shame.

It’s not just the plant prints that are great though. Atkins used the cyanotype process as a way to print entire books. Text and title pages are all printed as blue prints. It’s a wonderful way to home-brew your own printing just in general and creates a book where everything feels incredibly consistent.

Yes, book. Many of these prints are bound into large volumes of prints. There’s a book of British seaweed. Another of British flowers. I found myself inspecting the bindings to try and figure out how the heck they were assembled since they can’t be bound signatures.

Some of the books are clearly assembled sheets with the edges sewn together. No edge or face trim has left them looking pretty ragged since the pages aren’t exactly the same size or aligned perfectly. Others though look like proper books with gilt edges and I really can’t see how the pages were assembled. It’s an impressive binding job that the exhibit doesn’t even call attention to.

The other exhibition space in the library is dedicated to contemporary works which are riffing on what Atkins did. So more photograms and cyanotypes and experiments in how the photo paper itself reacts to light. They’re fun to see but none of them match the originals.*

*Collector Daily has a decent write up.

I did however especially enjoy Alison Rossier’s exposed expired photo paper both in the simplicity of the work and how it shows the numerous different responses that paper can have to light.

Humanitarian Photojournalism

About a month ago I attended a conversation about humanitarian journalism. Susan Meiselas was the headliner and, having seen her retrospective this summer, I was curious to hear both her thoughts and how the discussion potentially reframed her work.

It was indeed an interesting conversation which demonstrated exactly what makes photography so hard to pin down as a medium. As much as all the photojournalists claim to be interested in the image first and not actually photojournalists, it’s clear that they’re all aware of how photos in particular can have a life of their own.

Whether or not a photo becomes a true icon, because of its distribution and context—both the context of the image and the context of the distribution—the image is always subject to things out of the photographers’ control. It’s what’s so wonderful about the medium and what’s so scary about it. There’s immense power but it’s not clear who, if anyone, controls it.

As a result, much of the conversation wasn’t about photography at all but instead its context. Who’s taking the photos. How are they being distributed. What’s being shown. What’s being hidden. What’s the goal of the distribution. How successful is that goal. How appropriate is the goal.

It’s taken me a while to write this post since I’ve had to digest and think about many things and decide how far away from photography I want to go.

In many ways though, the most interesting frame on humanitarian photojournalism that came out of this discussion is aligning it with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and humanitarian action.

Modern humanitarian action and modern photojournalism are both born of war. In particular modern war. Photos of atrocities, action, refugees, displacement, etc. are the language in which we understand war. They’re how we learn about things and how we expect to see them covered.

Heck most of the photos of famine and environmental disasters also qualify as war photographs. They’re two sides of the same coin as humanity fights over resources and control and leaves communities worldwide without basic human necessities. There’s always a war or colonial legacy lurking behind the curtain.

Photography has aligned itself with journalism but it’s really an independent contractor which attaches itself to whatever the distribution network is. The pictures don’t “matter,” the space for distribution does. As journalism has lost its funding, photography jumped from being the way that news sells itself to becoming the way that NGOs fundraise.

Which means that the question of whose agenda the photographs serve becomes more obvious. In the NGO space, photographs are requesting aid from the global West and selling an image of the global South is being inherently in-need of progress.

The action that photography is prompting from us is action that the West wants to perform in order to absolve itself of feeling guilty. This isn’t aid that poor people need, it’s aid that rich people want to provide.

We’d rather feed starving children than fix the system that’s causing famine. We’d rather aid displaced children than stop the war that displaced them. We want to donate money which changes something specific and concrete that we can point to instead of investing in long term changes. And an NGO would rather develop a sustainable donation base than solve the problem it’s trying to solve.

Yes this is colonialism. It also clearly paints photography’s previous use case as photojournalism as also being colonialism.* When we’re looking at the photography we have to ask what it’s asking us to do and for whom are we being asked to do it.

*A key note here is how photography functions as community memory yet most photo archives are inaccessible to many of the communities they depict.

It also makes me to want to dump the term “photojournalism” and instead just talk about the channels photographs are distributed in. Every year there’s controversy about photojournalism prizes and ethics in photojournalism and every year it’s increasingly obvious how bankrupt the term is.

We should be talking about the photos and how they relate to the cause they were attached to. How those causes got visibility and support and how well that support matched up with the actual humanitarian needs. Treat them as the advertising and propaganda they are and credit both the photographer and the network in creating the campaign.

This way, when something unethical comes up, we‘re at least being honest about how the issue is about how the lack of ethics reveals a desire to solicit money over anything else.

Notes

Quick notes on what each panelist said that caught my attention.

Gary Bass spoke about photography as way of breaking down barriers and showing how distance doesn’t matter—especially important with visceral evidence instead of  numbers-based arguments. I appreciated that he starts WW2 in 1931 when he showed an image of a baby in a bombed-out Chinese train station in 1937. Exploitative it is, this image was viewed by over 130 million people in a month yet ultimately didn’t work. While the distance is no longer important, the question of whose lives matter remains.

Sim Chi Yin spoke about her family history project in British Malaya from 1948–1960. In particular she’s focusing on happened to her leftist grandfather, how he’s been referred to as either a terrorist or a bandit, and how her family was deported to China based on genealogy lines. She’s accumulated an archive of objects and songs (including the Internacional in Chinese) in addition to the official British photographs. There’s an interesting frame shift in what it means to tell this story as a family story rather than the more traditional depiction of British “success” (especially in comparison to Vietnam) shown in the archives.

Virginie Troit, by being associated with the Red Cross had a very interesting perspective on who counts as a humanitarian photographer, how photography serves as interaction between different responding groups, and where images ultimately appear. Her most important observation was that NGOs had replaced the press as image producers and distributors and how the NGO apparatus itself paralleled photojournalism as organizations born of 20th century wars.

Troit compared Salgado in the 80s with Lewis Hine and the ways that Médecins Sans Frontières blurs the distinction between information and intent as the increased of professionalism in NGO branding means it has t also ask the hard questions about how the ethics of the image as it relates to tropes and consent.

Susan Meiselas spoke briefly about the Bangladesh factory collapse and how the embrace photo resulted in nearly instantaneous international agreement for improved working conditions and upgraded factories. Definitely a good thing but also nothing sustainable since labor rights did not improve.

Peter van Agtmael is interested in the nature of icon and the surreal nature of experiencing them, how we cling to them, their arbitrary nature, and what exactly they’re symbols of.

Susie Linfield spoke about Syria and the failure/inability of Syrians to assert/represent themselves. She wonders where the future of photojournalism lies when the perpetrators document and disseminate their own atrocities. Photos do not work by themselves but instead require an existing political consciousness and conviction—which The West currently lacks. Instead of compassion fatigue we have no clue what to do.

Katherine Bussard brought out a bunch of Life Magazine spreads covering Nazi atrocities (Life being the first publisher of the concentration camp images) and life in post-WW2 Germany. Interesting to compare the cover story showing Nazi sympathizers and few photos with the other story in the magazine showing the concentration camps through multiple photos, minimal captions, and the admonishment that “dead men die in vain if no one will look at them.”

Bussard also highlighted how photojournalism repeatedly uses  children for humanitarian concerns. Childhood hides the prejudice, is accessible to everyone, and helps eradicate difference because it’s not perceived as threatening.

Andrew S. Thompson followed up the childhood observation by contrasting a 1960 UN propaganda photo in Congo with a 1970 Biafra War photo. Both photos are from post-colonial wars. The Congo photo features a happy mother and child and hides UN atrocities. The Biafra photo has a starving child and confronts the (presumably Western) viewer’s complicity in the conflict. The question. Who is the photo for and is the aid that NGOs are requesting the aid that’s actually needed.

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.

This Land is Whose Land

It’s kind of funny. I had to move away from the Bay Area in order to find the time to visit Pier 24. Before I moved I could never get into the city for a visit. Something about the weekday-only hours and having to reserve an appointment made it something that was just way too much work to fit into my schedule. Now that I live in New Jersey, it’s been relatively straightforward to include it on my itinerary when I return to California on a vacation. I’ve been three times in five years.

The current exhibition focuses on recent work documenting the United States. It’s not all photos of people but everything on display depicts elements of society and how it’s changed in the past decade. For me, as someone who’s spent the last decade paying a lot of attention to photography—especially new photography—many of these photos are not new to me. I’ve seen them online, in galleries, and at other museums. I haven’t seen them put together like this though as a depiction of, and conversation about, the current US social climate.

I got through two rooms before I had to stop and write down in my note book, “How white is this show going to be?”

This is not a dig at those two rooms* but rather a recognition that I had walked into the photoland equivalent of the endless media profiles of Trump Country which focus on “economic anxiety” and center the plight of poor white people.

*One was the entry room featuring photos by Katy Grannan and Richard Misrach. The other was a room of Alec Soth’s Songbook. Yes I’ve seen all of those before. Yes I even like many of them.

Bryan Schutmaat

Bryan Schutmaat

Heck, this is not a dig at any of the rooms. Rather it’s how Photoland missed—and misrepresented—the same things that the general media does. Any one of these photo projects is fine. Seeing them all together though just reinforces the tropes about who we consider to be American and who we’re expected to sympathize with.

It’s bad enough that I’m tempted to view a lot of this as Ruin Porn. It’s not the same as the luscious-surface-texture ruin porn that we saw in the beginning of the decade. In this case the themes and emotions represent the same easily-identifiable tropes of an alienated white middle and working class. We get that golden light of sunset and see the decline of towns and the isolation of the people who live there.

We don’t get a sense of why things are the way they are. We don’t get to see other communities and demographics. We don’t really get to learn anything from these. As well-crafted as these images are they also feel like the same story and same people over and over again. And as a result my brain just registers objections.

The Pier 24 no-context thing definitely hurts here too. Many of the images are ones where I want to know more about where they were taken and who used the structures. If the first round of ruin porn just involved us appreciating the way ruins look, this second round is about indulging in how the ruins represent people’s dreams. Not knowing whose dreams we’re looking at is a problem.

Highlights

Corine Vermeulen

Corine Vermeulen

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey

It’s not all bad though. A few artists in particular stood out as saying something beyond just photographing the decay of white America.

Corine Vermeulen’s photos of Detroit are exceptional in how they celebrates perseverance and survival rather than limiting themselves to only portraying decline. Yes there are images in there of empty lots and abandoned buildings. But they’re outnumbered by images of life. Diverse images. All different ages. All different races. Individuals, couples, groups.

Have things sucked? Yes. Are things still hard? Also yes. Are things hopeless? No. Vermeulen’s work is optimistic and points at where we can go.

Dawoud Bey’s photographs of gentrifying Harlem meanwhile are wonderfully subtle—almost too subtle given the obviousness of the tropes at play in most of the other galleries. The images are often familiar but the focus is intentionally off from what I’d expect to be in focus.

The result is a set of images which is quietly about development and change. It turns the lens on the gentrifiers but in a way which never neglects to include an aspect of the old neighborhood also in the frame. Because of the focusing choices I was forced to really look at the photos and notice how details that are often used as background texture are in fact the lifeblood of the neighborhood being displaced.

An-My Lê’s photographs of New Orleans are another fabulously subtle collection* which gets into how history and myth interact—specifically in The South where the subtext of the Civil War and Slavery is everywhere. Her work feels especially relevant now as the whole country has had to grapple with these myths and where remembering history crosses over into glorifying atrocities.

*Yes I like subtle photographic themes in general but in this particular show where so many of the galleries are filled with unsubtle tropes I was particularly taken with the ones that encouraged me to stop and think.

The power of her photographs is such that when I can’t readily make the historical connection I find my brain suggesting plausible possibilities. Which means that her photo of that one solitary tree remains deeply disturbing to me weeks after I’ve seen it.

Lowlights

Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo Pellegrin

As much as I found a lot of the rooms to be over-troped, very few of them were what I’d call outright bad either. Paolo Pellegrin’s Rochester photos though really bugged me. Aside from my remembering his captioning controversy, the whole set just rubbed me the wrong way with a grittiness that felt like I was looking at clickbait.

My biggest problem is that it feels like the entire set is pro-police propaganda which shows all the “low lifes” they have to deal with now. The way Pier 24 hung the images caused me to see all of them as through this perspective. Even the photos which weren’t actually police-related. The tropes are so strong and this gallery leans so strongly into them that just a photo of kids running through a field ends up feeling like a police chase.

Given how much we all know now about how police interact with black communities, seeing these photos displayed like this really gave me hives.

Notes

Brian Ulrich

Brian Ulrich

A few notes about specific projects that caught my eye. I enjoyed Alessandra Sanguibetti’s work as a window into how a foreigner perceives America. Also the concept of photography as pre-emptive preservation for eventual death is pretty cool.

I also love Brian Ulrich’s deserted malls. A little bit of Todd Hido’s House Hunting. A little bit of Lewis Baltz. A little bit of Camilo José Vergara. There’s the suggestion that all old industry models are now dead in these.

James Nares’s slow-motion movie is a very interesting concept that just didn’t work for me. The big thing is that I feel like it needs more depth of field since I couldn’t help but watch it for photographic moments—many of which occurred in the out of focus areas. It is nice that this was as diverse as it was but it’s also yet another New York street photography project.

Daniel Postaer’s photos of San Francisco are fun because they’re of San Francisco and I recognize the locations. They also point out one of the weaknesses of good photographic practice and searching for nice light. All that wonderful golden light not only makes everything look the same but is literally the least San Francisco looking light possible.