Category Archives: photography

Looking at Baseball Cards

While National Geographic is one of main ways I grew up consuming photographs, baseball cards are a close runner up. I never considered them as photos, but in coming back to the hobby, I’m realizing how interesting the photography side of them is and how learning about their history served as a primer on photographic history. Just by looking at the way that the photos have changed over the decades we can see how differently we’ve seen the game.

Being able to recognize within the photos what kind of equipment was used allows us to think about both how the gear has changed and how the gear influences the way we see the world—and the cues we take to determine what age a photo comes from.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the retro-style card trend. Both in my recent post as well as in two posts on SABR,* I’ve been grappling with what I like, and what I don’t, and why. And a lot of it comes down to photographic technology and technique more than anything else.

*Not Hooked on Heritage and an appropriately-titled response called Hooked on Heritage.

Yes, there’s a lot of printing technology and graphic design to talk about too, but when we’re looking at cards and deciding what we like, we’re talking about photos. When we’re comparing eras, we’re comparing photographic techniques. And when we’re looking at baseball card history, we’re looking at photographic history. Maybe it’s best to start from the beginning.

George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400151 Goodwin & Company Michael Joseph "$10,000" Kelly, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge and Gypsy Queen Cigarettes, 1887 American, Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1860) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404613 Buck Ewing, New York, from the series Old Judge Cigarettes http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400227

In the late 19th century (all three examples here are 1887) the cards were albumen prints of posed studio photos—basically cabinet cards but with baseball players. By being cabinet cards, many of them are larger (4.5×6 inches) than modern baseball cards. Some however, like the Gypsy Queen card here, are closer to carte de visite in size (1.125×3.5 to 2.5×4 inches) and thus, much closer to our concept of the modern baseball card.

These photos are typically posed in the studio—backdrop detail is all over the map—in poses which are still familiar. Little leaguers today take pictures in a batting stance and the throwing motion is a long-standing baseball card staple. Others though—such as the pretend fielding—are wonderfully dated and scream nostalgia. In all cases, the poses have to be positions which can be held for a long-enough time to take the photo. Photography needed a lot of light at the time for stopping action

I was surprised to find one card which was taken outside. It’s nice to see bleachers and get a sense of a possible ballpark but I suspect it’s staged for where the best light is. These are all photographs taken within the limitations of the view camera, its plate processing requirements, and the aforementioned shutter speeds. While such cameras could travel, that was not what they were best at and you risked things blurring when you were outside.

Reading about how people used and traded cabinet cards and cartes de visite of celebrities is eerily familiar to me as a baseball card collector. It’s not just trading personal photos between friends, these cards were souvenirs and mementos to be collected into albums and shown off.

It’s in the ability to produce prints en masse and the celebrity subject matter which distinguishes these from tintypes* and other one-off forms of photography. These early baseball cards highlight that it’s not only a matter of creation or consumption of photographs which is important. The technology for distribution and printmaking** is just as integral a part of our visual literacy.

*Baseball tintypes do exist and that’s not even getting into Tabitha Soren’s work—a book I totally need to buy.

**Which is why it’s important to distinguish between cabinet cards and cartes de visite which functioned as baseball trading cards versus those which were for personal use.

Dave Danforth, Pitcher, St. Louis Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E121) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718249 Wallie Pipp, First Base, New York Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E120) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/428994 George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718360

By the 1920s the poses were all outside and the printing was no longer photographic. Instead of contact printing from the camera negatives, the new cards are photos from large-format cameras* which were then re-photographed and reduced in size for lithographic printing.

*My guess is 4×5 inch sheet film.

The film is larger and more sensitive. The cameras are still cumbersome* but are more portable and capable of faster shutter speeds. As a result the poses can be more dynamic and photos can be taken in the actual stadiums. Larger negatives means that the backgrounds are pretty blurry but we can still make out some park details. There’s not enough to really figure out where the photos were taken—for the most part these appear to be in empty ballparks during special photo sessions—but they’re very clearly in a proper ballpark.

*I love this photo from 1911.

Unless the photo is a headshot, the camera is pretty far away so it can show all of the player. Where before the player and the photographer were clearly working together to get a portrait, these photos feel like the photographer is playing things kind of safe with the action and doesn’t want to waste any shots. Since the cameras only held one sheet of film at a time* photography is still a pretty slow process and I understand being extremely conservative with compositions and timing.

*Maybe two if they had backs which could be loaded on both sides.

It’s worth mentioning here that I’m not writing about the classic T206 Tobacco Cards and other releases through the 1950s which consisted of clearly-painted images derived from photographic sources. While these are important parts of baseball card history, the way that the backgrounds can be painted in means that it’s impossible to get a good sense of the photograph itself.

At the same time, it is also important to remember than almost all of the photographs have gone through a painting step to prepare them for printing. These painted-on prints* are fascinating objects in and of themselves in how they reveal a bit of photographic process—especially the cropping that occurs from the original negative—as well as how the printing itself changes the image.

*More info in the Pier 24 Secondhand post.

Uncut sheet, from the Baseball series (R406-1), issued by Bowman Gum Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/416575

By the 1940s it’s clear that we’ve evolved a bit further. Instead of large-format cameras we have medium-format.* So smaller negatives, even faster film,** sharper lenses, faster shutter speeds, and the ability to get closer and interact with the subject a lot more. Roll film enables much more rapid photography and the ability to try a bunch of different things quickly results in better images. Where the 1920s photos all feel kind of distant and safe, these 1940s photos are much more intimate.

*6×6 or 6×7 so 10 or 12 shots of 2¼-inch-wide images.

**but still really slow compared to what we’re used to today.

Tight crops. Even better ability to freeze action while posing. The smaller negatives mean that we have larger depth of field available and can start to make out the details of where the photos are taken. And the fact that there are probably a dozen images to choose from for each player means that what we’re seeing are indeed better photos.

The only thing missing is color but these photos themselves represent the dominant look of baseball cards through the 1960s.

Topps 1950s-1960s

We can clearly see faces and with the color photos we can tell that baseball is a game to be played during the day when the sun is high, the skies are blue, and the light can shine across the subjects for a nice even exposure. There’s not a lot of latitude with slide film but even with professional gear these photos mimic a lot of the advice I’ve seen in photography guides from that time period.

This is an era where every house had a Brownie Hawkeye Flash and slow medium format film was the standard. Backgrounds are busy but still blurred and the main variation in the cards is whether they’re a tightly-cropped headshot or an above-the-waist pose.

Adding to the view and focal depth of these photos is the actual camera placement. Most of the cards feel like they were shot with a waist-level viewfinder. The camera is both pretty low and the players rarely look directly into the lens. This allows for Topps to do a lot of fudging with players who get traded as the hat logos aren’t visible. But it’s also a viewpoint which comes naturally to this kind of camera. As eye-level and through-the-lens gain acceptance, the camera’s point of view creeps higher and players begin to make more and more eye contact with the lens.

1970 Topps

By the 1970s it feels like 35mm has taken over.* In addition to the higher point of view, we have casual shots now which suggest that photographers are a lot more mobile and using photojournalist-style techniques which 35mm is especially well-suited for. We’re also seeing more wide-angle lenses and can really make out a lot of detail in the stadiums. And we’re seeing more obvious uses of photographic flash.

*You can see some of this in the late 1960s but the player boycott marks a pretty clear dividing line in photographic approach which just happens to coincide with the rise to dominance of 35mm cameras.

It’s not just the cameras which have gotten extremely mobile, the flashes have too, and a smaller film format* is more conducive to taking risks and not getting screwed by having to reload so often. There’s often less interaction with the players again as photographers have the ability to work very quickly and get in and out with pictures. But the posed portrait sessions still exist and, with the additional depth of field available** these photos often give us ballpark detail we hadn’t seen previously.

*36 exposures per roll instead of 10 or 12.

**For a given field of view and lens aperture, the smaller the image sensor the larger the depth of field.

1972 Topps

35mm film also meant that action photography was all of a sudden a legitimate possibility. In the early 1970s, these photos were pretty bad. Telephoto lenses at this time were pretty short, pretty slow, and not very sharp.* Autofocus didn’t exist yet so photographers had to be on the top of their game in order to get anything in focus. Plus Topps still required 100 speed film for quality reasons** so you were constantly pushing the limits of your equipment.

*We’re talking about when a 200mm f/4 was standard.

**As per Doug McWilliams.

It’s no wonder that the action cards feel like novelties here. The fact that they exist at all is in many ways more important than the quality of the photograph. Plus, after decades of posed shots, it must’ve felt exciting to see photos of in-game action. There are some gems—I love the 1973 Marichal card—but most of the time we have a generic moment without any emotion and the horrible lighting which comes from trying to get a decent photo of someone wearing a baseball cap in the middle of the day.

Topps 1980s Action

By the early 1980s lens technology and quality had improved to the point where the action shots became more common and no longer felt like novelties. We’re also getting decent zoom and catadioptric lenses* which allow even more options for photographers with both reach and flexibility.

*A lot of the 1980 cards like the Jack Clark above show the characteristic ringed highlights in the background

As a result, in this time period we have a really good mix of posed vs action vs casual photos. No one variant truly dominates.

Topps 1980s Portraits

What did change in the 1980s though is the portrait lighting. Instead of the Topps standard of “photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face”* we start to see a lot more reliance on flash to create separation between the subject and the background. This gets increasingly obvious in the mid-1980s when many of the photos have backgrounds which have been underexposed by a stop or two.

*Doug McWilliams again.

Even if taken on a bright sunny day, these photos are a lot more moody and stand out as a distinct 1980s look.

In the 1980s and 1990s autofocus lenses became commonplace and film emulsions continue to get faster. Couple that with motor drives and we’re able to get much more reliably good action photos. Lots of film wasted but they blow the 1970s photos out of the water.

It’s not a surprise that companies like Score which had only action shots emerged in the late 1980s. Such a set was impossible even five years earlier but there was finally enough good action photography available.

We’re still not particularly close to the plays though. I suspect that 500mm lenses were still the longest reach anyone had. But that’s good enough for anything in the infield.

2016 Topps Heritage

It took another format change to get us to where we are today. Digital cameras, longer lenses, faster lenses, and smaller sensors have allowed us to get closer than we ever have before. It also means that we’re able to get “portraits” and casual images from further and further away. These images are both distinct in the tightness of the crops and in how blurred the background is.

We didn’t have the technology to do this before and the super-blurred background is a pretty clear tell—along with super-punchy color both from better printing, being able to shoot in flatter light, and digital imaging tricks—of photographic trends in the past decade. Most baseball games are at night now and cameras are good enough to be able to focus on and freeze action in artificial light.

One of the reasons why a lot of the Heritage card designs feel weird is that they appear to be shot with the same equipment as the action cards. Digital SLRS. Super-long lenses or professional zoom lenses. We know intuitively what kind of photo to expect from those card designs and when that doesn’t match up our brains kind of freak out.

I’d love to see modern cards shot with medium format film and waist-level viewfinders just to see how that changes things. Or large-format film and view cameras. Or in the studio with props, silly poses, and long exposure times. We’ve a long history of baseball photography and, while computers are wonderful things, there’s still no replicating the way that different equipment allows us to see things differently. For a game which is so steeped in history like baseball it’s important to remember all the aspects of that history and how much of that history is tied to its visual record.

Revealing Pictures

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Sheng Qi

Sheng Qi

So I was back in the Princeton Museum and found that when they changed the galleries they hung more photographs related to their Revealing Pictures show. the show itself is the same, but there are more photos in the surrounding galleries which are now part of it. The new photos are almost all by non-white or non-western photographers and completely change—on a good way—my reaction to the show.

Initially I had mixed feelings. I convinced myself to like it but still found a lot of it to emphasize trauma as being the easiest context in which to understand photographs. It’s nice to see photos from the non-western world but a main narrative of poverty or trauma or suffering indulges Western stereotypes about the rest of the world.

The additional photos are much more representative, both in terms of their subject matter and in terms of the contexts they exist within. They’re photographers photographing themselves and their own communities and, while they require us to understand what else is going on, challenge the western gaze in ways that the original set of photos did not.

I especially liked Deana Lawson and Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou here in terms of how their images feel like inside jobs where the connection between the photographer and the subject is one of being a trusted member of the community. Through this trust we’re allowed to learn about the conditions of the photo and that context is an additional educational experience.

Abbodjelou in particular stood out to me because he reminded me of color Keïta or Sibide work. I realized that I hadn’t made the Vlisco connection with Keïta’s work and, while still in awe of the beauty in his photographs, I kind of want to know what color they were now. Also, knowing the stories behind the fabrics in his backdrops makes me appreciate them even more.

A lot of the new photos also reminded me of Ragnar Kjartansson in how they’re both the evidence of performance or conceptual art pieces and photos which are their own works of art by themselves. Sheng Qi and Zhang Huan* stand out here in how their photos both document their performances and make us viscerally react to the concepts once we read about the context.

*Whose work I saw in San José years ago too.

Also at the Princeton Museum

While not part of the Revealing Pictures show, the Princeton Museum was also showing off its recent acquisition of Susan Meiselas’s Life of an Image. I blogged about is a few years ago and I’m so happy I got to see it live. I don’t have much to add over my Itinerant Languages post but it is indeed very cool to see a collection which shows how a photo has basically become a meme. We live in a remix culture and the more museums and artists embrace this and bring it into the galleries the better our visual literacy will get.

First Packs


Following up from the previous post about baseball cards. A few weeks ago I stuck my nose into a card shop for the first time in decades. I mainly just wanted to poke around and see how things had changed. Or not since it still felt very much the same as the card shops I remembered from my youth. Boxes of packs on the glass countertops. Shelves of wonderful old cards underneath. One case full of whoever the current hot stars are. Another full of local teams.* Higher shelves stuffed and overflowing with god knows what kind of ephemera. And an old guy at the end of the counter working on a collection of cards I can’t imagine ever being able to acquire.**

*Weirdest thing for me is being in Yankees/Mets/Phillies territory.

**Though this is a priorities thing now rather than the financial thing it was in my youth.

I purchased a couple of wax packs* for old time’s sake to relive the experience of opening a pack and seeing who I got. It’s kind of amazing. 25 years later and the feel and smells came rushing back. So what if it was more the feels and smells of the post-wax era. But opening the pack, sliding the cards out, and smelling them** before I even had a chance to look at who I got triggered a rush of sensory memory and nostalgia.

*Are they still called wax packs even though they’ve not been wax since I was collecting?

*Even after working for five years in a print shop, the smell of UV coating—even on a piece of junk mail—invariably reminds me of being a kid and opening a pack of Topps Stadium Clubss.

I chose the bare-bones 2017 Topps Series 1 packs which end up being $2 for 10 cards. They also came in bigger packs which cost $13 for 50 cards. Yeah, the math didn’t make sense to me either. But since the big packs are more likely to have a special insert—aka “hot pull”—they cost more. It’s weird, where 60 years ago you bought gum and got baseball cards too, now you’re buying a raffle ticket which happens to come with cards.

The “hot pull” nomenclature wasn’t around when I was a kid but insert-itis was a big reason why I got out of the hobby. It’s dismaying to return and not only find it to still be part of the culture but realize that it’s now the actual driving force of the industry. The only silver lining is that since the pricing is based around the odds of getting an insert, if you don’t care about them you can buy the cheapest packs available.

Thankfully the cards are nice. With their full-bleed images, glossy surfaces, and foil stamping they feel more like the up-market cards which I could barely afford. And the photos. Wow. Well-lit, sharp, detailed action photos unlike anything I’d seen as a kid.

Topps used to be a mix of posed and action shots. But the action shots were never cropped tightly—maybe below the knee on a corner infielder or batter but you usually could see the player’s feet. Now? All action all the time and you’re right up in the middle of it with crops at the knee and arms barely fitting in the frame. Super graphic and definitely reflective of the kind of thing that digital photography is best at.*

*Blowing tons of frames of action in order to find the best single image of the sequence.

At the same time, after the excitement of looking at all the cards settled down, the photos began to rub me the wrong way. Baseball isn’t an immersive sport. It’s about patience and observation where brief moments of action and excitement break the overall rhythm of the ballgame. There’s plenty of time to look around and soak in the environment and having all the cards be ACTION ACTION ACTION doesn’t reflect what I love about the game.

Many of the cards with player portraits allow you to see the stadium. Whether it’s the quiet of batting practice* where the empty stands are just a backdrop or a photo where the photographer has considered how the player should interact with the architecture, I love seeing the parks and being reminded of how wonderful baseball is when it’s experienced live and in-person.

*I used to love getting to games hours early, hanging over the dugout railing for autographs, and watching batting practice after we were all chased out of the box seats. Also, again, my mom was a saint.

And yes, I understand that Topps has other sets which feature posed photos but those don’t appeal to me. I’d much rather see designs inspired by the classic look of baseball cards rather than ones which explicitly copy them.

I also have to admit to loving how Score was all action when it came out. But that kind of photography was new and all the other brands had similar mixes of portraits and action. Now though, between card after card of tight action and the shallow depth of field required to photograph that action, I feel no sense of the game or the place.

Which brings us to the backs of the cards. I’m not impressed. One of the reasons I used to prefer Topps was because it had all of a player’s career stats—often including the minor leagues—on the back. I remember comparing cards, searching for who had the most stats,* and seeing how far back they went. Other companies had only a handful of recent seasons and filled their backs with other stuff that wasn’t consistent card-to-card.

*I used to love Nolan Ryan’s cards for this reason.

Now, Topps’s backs include only a half-dozen seasons and devote the rest of the space to what reads like a PR statement and a giant graphic which prominently lists the player’s twitter and instagram accounts. I don’t dislike the social media stuff being there but it still weirds me out. I find myself wondering how those will age in 25 years—and what 25-year-old gimmicks my kids will ask me about. And if the complete stats were present I’d have no complaints at all.

Besides the lack of stats the only other real complaint I have is the Rookie Card badge. It’s bad enough that the Rookie Card phenomenon is still going strong. But having a special badge for ALL the rookie cards is just rubbing my nose in an aspect of the hobby which ruined it for me as a kid. There’s no legitimate reason for Rookie Cards to be a thing except that collectors have decided that they should be. And the badge, by being slapped on every rookie card, indulges this obsession by marking the cards as being “special.”

Still, despite my curmudgeonly complaints, I’ll continue to grab a pack here and there. After all I didn’t get any Giants players yet.

on inserts


While I don’t care about them, I did get both a Father’s Day and a Mother’s Day card. The way that Major League Baseball has been screwing around with special holiday-themed uniforms has been driving me nuts for a few years. I don’t like messing with alternate uniforms anyway but when they stop including the team colors and end up looking like a youth league where every team has the same home and away shirts? Disaster.

So yeah, seeing the inserts mirror those horrible made me shake my head. Still yay Kris Bryant. And at least the Father’s Day insert is interesting in how it screwed with my brain. At first I thought they’d screwed up and missed one of the printing plates. I’ve seen too many pulls off the press where Black or Magenta is missing and this looked just like that.

Mana Contemporary

I went to Jersey City specifically to see the Han Youngsoo exhibit. But since ICP at Mana is part of Mana Contemporary, I figured I should budget enough time to see everything else which Mana had to offer. I’m glad I did.

Mana isn’t a museum per se. It’s an art center which offers everything from studio space to storage to crating service. The only way to see it is via a guided tour which takes you through the old tobacco factory, its industrial freight elevators, and other machinery remnants.

Most of the art in display is the collection of the Ayn Foundation. Very much like Pier 24 and the Pilara Foundation, Mana’s exhibitions are a way of taking art which would normally be hidden in storage and putting it on some level of public view. Ayn and Pilara are actually very similar in how their collections are extensive and show complete sets of a series rather than a single piece. It’s fantastic to be able to see how an artist worked through a concept and the more collections and installations I see which do this kind of thing the more annoyed and distrustful I am of exhibitions which feature a single piece without context.

The bad side of the similarities—aside from having hours which make it nigh-impossible for anyone who works a real job to be able visit—is how there’s a similar lack of context and explanation both in the scholarly content of the shows and in the reason why the collector purchased the pieces. As a viewer I have to bring a lot of my own knowledge to the exhibitions and make my own connections. This can be wonderful and freeing but I really do like to learn about why things are being displayed the way they are.

The tour though is good. Because of the nature of the space I suspect that it’ll always be a small group (just me and one other person plus our guide) and as such it’s not a docent “let me describe this” kind of tour but instead a “let’s check out this space and I’ll give you a brief intro and feel free to ask me any questions as you take as much time as you want” thing. There’s still a bit of external pressure to keep things moving so, while I did get to check out Han Youngsoo on the tour, I went back later* to go through a second time at my own pace.

*ICP has independent hours from the rest of Mana and does not require a tour.

Arnulf Rainer

Arnulf Rainer, Helles Morgenkreuz (Bright Morning Cross), 1987.

Arnulf Rainer, Helles Morgenkreuz (Bright Morning Cross), 1987.

DSC_0122

The Arnulf Rainer pieces are either vibrantly-overpainted religious images or cross-shaped canvases with similar painting. My tour guide insisted that Rainer didn’t see them as inherently religious but I’m not sure I completely buy it.  They are a lot fun but the real draw is the room. It’s a huge space which, based on the overhead crane, used to be for loading and unloading. Now, with the white gallery walls and high ceiling, it feels like a chapel.

Aside from the lack of light, the pieces work perfectly in the space. Yes, they’re religiousish but here they also suggest how the language of religion works architecturally to suggest that we should be pensive and quiet and respectful.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, Sunset, 1972

Andy Warhol, Sunset, 1972

DSC_0123 DSC_0124

The Warhol room was a ton of silkscreen prints—many of which are the iconic ones of Marilyn Monroe, Mao, and the Flowers. It was wonderful to see so many prints from the same series together. All too often there’s only one or two; here there are like nine or ten.

As a print geek I loved being able to closely study how he changed things between editions. It’s not just playing with color. Sometimes a screen will be double struck. Other times a screen is omitted. Othertimes it’s flipped or rotated. Seeing the different combinations is a joy and reminded me of what Vlisco was doing. I wish that I knew the order in which they were printed because it would be awesome to learn how Warhol progressed through color and screen variations.

This exhibition also included a number of Warhol prints which I’d never seen before. His darker material—not just the skulls but the Sing Sing electric chair—was particularly striking. And his most-recent prints of the sunsets as well as his abstract diamond dust shadow prints were also unlike any other Warhol’s I’d seen. The diamond dust ones in particular play with texture in a way that expanded my understanding of silkscreening. Many of the prints include solid color sections which consist of three or four different hits of the same color of ink. Not all the hits use the same screen though and the different thicknesses of ink create a textures surface to the print.

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

DSC_0125 DSC_0126

I’m familiar with John Chamberlain’s sculptures of twisted metal. I had no idea about his photography. He’s a Widelux junkie* and his photos are just a ton of fun. A lot of them are playing with the distortion capabilities of the swing lens. While this is the kind of thing which could easily become a trite gimmick, in Chamberlain’s hands the resulting images look a lot like his sculptures.

*The most famous of which may be Jeff Bridges. God damn do I want a book of his photos.

His series of vertical selfies meanwhile is goofy and a good reminder that panoramas don’t have to be horizontal. They suggest a more casual project and are a nice reminder that not everything an artist works on has to be high-concept.

The worst part of this room is that now I want a Widelux—or at least a Horizon—more than ever.

Surface

Matthias Brown, Falling Faces, 2017.

Matthias Brown, Falling Faces, 2017.

In the basement of the Mana building are a ton of artist studios as well as a number of artist residencies. The result is a casual art/work space with a number of improvised exhibition spaces. Surface was one such exhibition and consisted of taking GIF artists and giving them the opportunity to create animations for a gallery setting.

The results are interesting—some hits and, as you have to expect with contemporary art, some misses—but the whole show is quite charming. These are artists who typically do not make physical things and so seeing their first forays into a physical, interactive space reminded me of being in school and experiencing the joy of making your first physical art object.

I particularly liked creating a whirlpool with a spinning stir magnet instead of screwing around with pumps and plumbing. I also enjoyed how Matthias Brown’s piece involved projected animation interacting with static images which he’d painted on the screen itself.

Mana BSMT

Apostrophe NYC

Apostrophe NYC

Another residency/exhibition is Apostrophe NYC* in the Mana BSMT. This is a dozen or so artists working together, making their own art, but also sharing a space and bouncing ideas off of each other. While their art is neat, I most-enjoyed poking my head into their studio spaces, seeing how they create things, and what kinds of random stuff they have up on their own walls.

*Who got a bit of press last year for their guerrilla Whitney show.

It’s been a long time—too long—since I’ve been in a space like this* and I’m glad I had the opportunity to take the tour. I’ll definitely be looking forward to future ICP shows as an excuse to head back to Mana. And who knows, maybe Mana will put a show together which could drag me out there as well.

*The Product Design loft at Stanford was a similar space—as was the machine shop where we all made our projects.

Han Youngsoo

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

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

It totally was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This is the American Earth

This, as citizens, we all inherit. This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future.

—Nancy Newhall

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.

Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.

Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.

Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.

Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.

Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.

Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.

Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.

Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

And to what shabby hells of our own making do we rush? A poisoned, gutted planet, rolling through noxious air?

—Nancy Newhall

I’ll probably write this in every post of this series but one of the best parts of revisiting the photobooks I grew up with is finally reading the text. When I was a kid, photobooks were for looking at the photos and, maybe, reading the captions. Longer text that goes with the photos? No way. Which is a shame since all of the photobooks I grew up with were inherently political and had things to say beyond just the photos.

This is the American Earth is distinct among my parents’ photobooks because it’s the only one which I remember looking at for PHOTOGRAPHY™ reasons. Ansel Adams was definitely the first brand name photographer I learned of* and I seem to recall not only ignoring the text but also all the non-Adams photos in the book.

*One of the reasons I suspect that so many photographers profess to no longer like Ansel’s work is due to how he’s typically the first famous photographer people learn of and so is a distinctly obvious choice.

This meant that I missed out on a much of the best parts of the book. Adams, for being the “featured” photographer cedes a lot of space to other artists in order to flesh out the argument for conservation and demonstrate the different ways we use and experience the land.* And Newhall’s text is a wonderful short history of human civilization as explained by ruins and despoiling.

*While I skipped the text I apparently couldn’t fully-ignore the photos. I may not have studied them like I did the Adams images yet many of them (e.g. Eliot Porter’s  Terns or Margaret Bourke White’s Contour Plowing) are deeply familiar to me in and “oh THAT’S where I saw that” kind of way.

Reading that text one month into the Trump administration is still a shock even though I know and agree with what it’s saying. This book is almost sixty years old. 60. Yet its warning and advocacy are as important and relevant as ever. Our history of ruins. Our history of despoiling. The idea that we only know what we’re losing now that it’s almost gone. The call to action.

Part of it feels as inspiring as it must’ve felt in 1960. The idea that we can do something. The idea that we were smart enough to create National Parks. That we can obviously do more. And I know that we did make a lot of progress in these areas. When I was a kid, acid rain was a thing, air quality was awful, we were dumping trash in the ocean, and everyone was worried we’d run out of landfill space. None of those are issues my kids have to learn about because we’ve made changes in how we live.

Despite everything though, we never made a dent in the climate change disaster we’re about to endure. Plus we’re in the midst of trying to roll back the past six decades of advances. While I know that it’s short-term “pro-business” thinking doing the pushing, but there’s more to it that that. Like much of the backlash against the social progress we’ve made since the 1960s, I think that we’ve been almost too successful in making the changes and so we’ve forgotten what the alternatives are.

We’re now used to beautiful unspoiled landscapes. We live with them as our computer wallpapers. We see friends post them on social media. Meanwhile we’ve now forgotten that the images in This is the American Earth images existed effectively in parallel with Documerica. And yes, we have photos of ruined and wasted landscapes now too, but they don’t have the same sense of next door that Documerica does. We no longer see the pollution and, after a cold winter, even a disturbingly early spring feels like a blessing instead of a portent.

So the other, stronger reaction I have to the book now is reading it as an epitaph for America—if not humanity. A last hurrah of hope and change before everything melted away. I thought of Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures and how its point of view involved both contemplation of humanity’s impact on the Earth with the hope and promise of new experiences and new generations.

Except where Paglen is looking into the future and designed an object to outlast us all, Adams and Newhall have given us a book which will remind us of what could’ve been had we been less selfish and afraid.

There’s still hope in here, but it’s less in the beautiful photos of unspoiled wilderness and more in the photos which show how we’re using the land. As long as we’re invested in use—farming, housing, water, etc.—there’s an incentive to keep the land sustainable. These photos depict infrastructure that we’re still familiar with and understand the necessity of. They explicitly remind us how humans and the Earth are intertwined.

Meanwhile, the wilderness photos—especially the number which depict regrowth or new growth—suggest that no matter what humans do, Earth will survive. Many beautiful things and places will be lost but nature’s capacity to reclaim what we’ve despoiled is much stronger than we give it credit.

Princeton Art Museum Grab Bag

I’ve visited the Princeton Art Museum a couple times over the past few months and, while I haven’t had the ganas to write a full post about each exhibition I saw, I did still have some thoughts. So what follows is a quick grab bag post about a handful of exhibitions and installations which caught my eye or provoked a reaction.

Epic Tales from India

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

The Epic Tales show was super-detailed and, in many ways, was more like seeing an illustrated book than a collection of paintings. This was one of the most narrative-heavy shows I’ve seen and even despite all that I was glad to have a working knowledge of most of the tales on display. There still wasn’t enough room to have proper descriptions of the stories.

The paintings are wonderfully intricate and colorful with lots of small detailwork to inspect as you’re expected to read the story through the images. I particularly like how images from different regions are compared and how you can see distinctions in regional style while still seeing the same story.

I also can’t help but think that it would be very interesting to structure an exhibition of “Epic Tales from Europe” which focused on the narrative and functional aspects of what museums traditionally display as “fine art.” Much of the European tradition of religious art is explicitly about telling the stories in the Bible or the lives of the saints yet those narratives are almost absent from the museums now.*

*I’ve had to explain to people before—particularly with the saints—what it is they’re looking at since the museum texts assume a level of cultural knowledge that no longer (if it ever) existed.

Beading African History

Yoruba artist Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century Colored beads, cloth, and leather bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.) strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.) Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951 Place made: Nigeria 1998-733

Yoruba artist
Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century
Colored beads, cloth, and leather
bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.)
strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.)
Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951
Place made: Nigeria
1998-733

I loved the Beading African History installation. It acknowledges how beads and beading reflected a global trade in beads and supplies and also used the beadwork to compare and contrast art across multiple countries and regions. It’s not as cool as the Vlisco show but it’s working along the same lines.

Given how the Princeton Museum has a tendency to lump all of “Africa” together in the basement where all countries and all time periods get flattened into a generic “tribal” presentation, seeing it embracing a medium which demonstrates the commonalities through the lens of trade and colonialism was a nice change of pace.

Echoes of One Hand Clapping

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912 Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915 Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉 Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894 Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.) overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.) Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection Place made: Japan 2008-122 a-c

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912
Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915
Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉
Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894
Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper
each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.)
overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.)
Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection
Place made: Japan
2008-122 a-c

Minor White. The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York) October 10, 1957 Gelatin silver print image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.) sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.) x1980-3278

Minor White.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York)
October 10, 1957
Gelatin silver print
image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.)
sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.)
x1980-3278

Ugh. Echoes of One Hand Clapping is one of the laziest exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Yes it’s great to see all of Minor White’s Sound of one Hand Clapping sequence on display. But to use that as a jumping off point for an entire exhibition of “sound in Asian art”? Please.

It’s a cliched title with a surface-level understanding of asianness being used in a way which is directly contradictory to the koan’s meaning. It does a disservice to White’s photos and doesn’t tell us anything about the rest of the artwork on display.

And yes, the ten photos are good and I enjoy the sequencing. It’s always nice to be reminded that photos aren’t supposed to be viewed as single images. I was however far from the proper state of mind when I looked at them. That they’re hung a little high, there’s a small counter in the way so you can’t look closely, and the light is pretty dim didn’t help either.

Revealing Pictures

Edmund Clarke Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Edmund Clarke
Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

Pieter Hugo
Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

I had to walk through Revealing Pictures twice. The way the museum has chosen to display the photos gave me an uneasy sense of treating black bodies as a form of ruin porn where an aesthetic appeal is used to gloss over the underlying trauma in the image. This is specifically a problem with the hanging and wall text and is not at all a critique of the images themselves. The installation over-emphasises the underlying trauma and spends a lot of time trumpeting the presence of non-western, non-white subject matter.

The show however is not about this at all and is instead both much simpler and much more my kind of thing.

While there’s no catalog, the small saddlestitched handout includes a short bio of the collector* The bio saves the entire show. He’s not interested in trauma, he’s found himself interested in understated portraits and landscapes which require additional context to understand. And he’s been smart enough to recognize that instead of collecting one image per artist, collecting a handful of images from each series/artist explains the context better than any wall text.

*As well as a picklist for the show which is the kind of awesome thing every museum should hand out.

There’ve been occasional rants in photoland about the increase in conceptual photography and how photos are no longer about just the image. I find myself rolling my eyes at these rants because you can’t escape context no matter how hard you try. This small show makes the case for context in even the most straightforward images and for recognizing how much photography relies on that information for its power.*

*Two things I’ve thought about before on this blog both in a general sense and in terms of a specific exhibition on context.