Category Archives: photography

California and the West

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

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

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

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

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

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

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

Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 - 2016

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

about:blank is my Light Table


While I was traveling this summer, I shot a bit of film. Since I didn’t have a scanner with me, I ended up hacking together a mobile contact sheet workflow so I could share some shots before I got back home to my scanner. Doing this required an iPad,* iPhone, Photoshop Express, and Snapseed.

*I’m working in Appleverse so these will all be within the iOS space. Nothing here requires Apple stuff however since Google makes Snapseed and Adobe makes Photoshop Express.

First, pointing the iPad toward about:blank is a super-simple way of getting a light table. This is useful in general for previewing negatives or slides and once I started doing that the obvious next step was to use my phone as a loupe and take photos of the negatives.


When I’m doing this I set my iPhone to invert colors. This is a standard Accessibility option and only changes the phone display—the camera and even the screenshots all result in the non-inverted colors. Inverting the screen allows me to get a better sense of the negative and even adjust some of the camera exposure settings before I take a photo. The hardest part is minimizing the reflection of my phone off the negative sleeves.


The resulting image should look like a decent negative. I didn’t worry about cropping or even getting things super square since I can fix all that later on in Snapseed.


I use Photoshop Express to invert the negative. It’s one of the basic looks and there’s not much to say about it. Open the app, select the photo, invert, and save the photo. If I screwed up and reversed the negative on the iPad I often flip it here. But that’s something Snapseed can do too.

Since this is just an inversion, it won’t work with color negatives. Removing the color mask is a lot more complicated than a global color correction can handle so this workflow only works with black and white film.


The result is a low-contrast positive image. This is sufficient for sharing and previewing but I like to run it through Snapseed and adjust the levels to reflect just what’s in the film. No recipes here. I adjust the crops and perspective correction until it looks square enough. And I play with the image tuning so that the histogram covers the entire gamut.


I don’t push things too far though. I like seeing the negative borders and keeping a sense of “contact sheet” to these. They’re supposed to be roughish and prepare me for scanning them for real. I just want them to be nice enough that I enjoy sharing them too.

Border Cantos

Richard Misrach. Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.

Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.

Richard Misrach. Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.

*My post on Russell’s Great West Illustrated covers more of this but Carleton Watkins has some train photos too. It’s also worth looking at Marc Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire here, in particular photos like this one.

I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.

That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.

This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.

The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.

*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.

**The wall itself also reminds me of Christo and Jeane Claude’s Running Fence except that where the Running Fence used the landscape, the border wall is imposed upon it.

Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.

It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.

*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.

What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.

This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.

Guillermo Galindo. Zapatello, 2014.

Zapatello, 2014

Guillermo Galindo. Efigie. 2014.

Efigie. 2014

The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.

There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.

The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.


It caught me by surprise at how much Emmett Mann’s death affected me. I don’t know him. Or even claim to know him. I only have a book with many many photos of him. But his image and his youth have had a deep and lasting impact on me as a photographer.

As a student, Immediate Family was one of those works which taught us how to look better and really think about how photography works. How family photographs work. How the simplest, purest motive for taking photos has room for some of the most amazing art—without having to do anything “arty” in order to get there.

Yes Mann’s photos aren’t “snaps” but neither are most family photos.

The photos of Emmett were especially poignant. He’s captured during his pre-teen transition from being innocent and unaware of how people saw him to thinking and considering his self-presentation. Because he’s my age, many of the clothing details* are the same small details I remember from my youth. While Mann’s work has never felt like a either new or dated—I can’t imagine photography without it—that I also see explicit examples from my youth in the photos does make them even more meaningful.

*Friendship bracelets!

Now as a parent of two boys, re-looking at Immediate Family brings a whole new level of recognition and understanding. As wonderful as it is as an project to introduce to young photographers, its best attribute is how it rewards my own maturation both as a photographer and as a man. I’m no longer just seeing myself in the photos and relating to the images on that level, I’m seeing them as a photographer and a parent.

It’s not just the seeing and realizing that family photos can be art. Or that they should be art. It’s the encouragement to see and notice and record those quiet moments of natural grace and beauty which my sons’ just have whether they’re engrossed in some minutia in the dirt or running around the house without their clothes on. I don’t always have the willingness or skill to tell them to stop and hold a pose but my brain is recording them. Hopefully I’ll remember a few of the moments I don’t photograph.

But Mann’s vision is there in the back of my mind the entire time. Nudging me. Encouraging me. Reminding me. Which means that Emmett is always there in the back of my mind. Just as he no doubt lives in the backs of so many other photographers’ minds.

Crime Stories

Tom Howard. Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York.

Tom Howard.
Electrocution of Ruth Snyder, Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York.

Alexander Gardner. Execution of the Conspirators.

Alexander Gardner.
Execution of the Conspirators.

Weegee. Outline of a Murder Victim.

Outline of a Murder Victim.

Unknown Marius Bourotte.

Marius Bourotte.

William Klein. Gun 1, New York.

William Klein.
Gun 1, New York.

The one small photo exhibition I saw during my trip to The Met was about Crime Stories. I enjoyed it, especially since when I saw it I was still thinking about war photography. Crime and crime-related photographs operate in a very similar category of allowing us to see and really look at events which we don’t usually get to experience. Rather than war, we’re talking about crime. But in both cases it’s the proximity to death and danger which is compelling.

Photography has always had an intimate relationship with death and danger. Its voyeuristic aspects allow us to see things we’ve been culturally conditioned to think of as of limits and its documentary aspect lends itself to evidence and observation. We don’t want to look but not only is it hard to turn away, we often look closer and try and discern some level of truth out of the photo.

The danger is seductive. Executions have a long history of being public spectacles. As much as we now decry executions and the publishing of images which show death, there is still part of us deep inside which wants to see that evidence. Confronting that violence inside ourselves is how photos like William Klein’s, which don’t actually depict violence, draw their power. It’s all imagery we grow up with in stories, act out as kids, and then act all shocked about when it’s used to attract clicks.*

*I almost wrote “sell tabloids/newspapers” but this is the world we now live in.

Looking at crime photos—whether by Weegee or an unmanned surveillance camera—lets us play amateur detective as we try and spot details and get a sense about what happened. The same thing with looking at mugshots and other typographies of “criminal types.” As much as we know that we can’t really know what criminals look like, I don’t think we fully believe it in our guts. So we look at the photos and try and reach any sort of conclusion.

As much as I liked the show though, I wanted more. I’d love to see these taken to the present day where cell phone cameras and the autopanopticon of citizen photography have taken surveillance to a whole new level. I can’t look at the history of crime photos without thinking about the events of the past couple years. I’m not just thinking about how it’s the police which are committing the crimes either.

It’s been increasingly obvious that we, as a culture, object to crime images a lot more with certain kinds of victims while others are still seen and sold as entertainment. It’s no longer just about the fascination we have with viewing and consuming crime images that we need to discuss, we also have to confront our biases about whose images are still commodities and who we see as human.



Richard Avedon
Dick Hickock, Murderer, Garden City, Kansas, April 15

The mug shot–like portrait captures Hickock’s sullen, lopsided face with mesmerizing clarity, as if searching for physiognomic clues to his criminal pathology.

The Met 

The minimal, straightforward style of the photograph highlights the idiosyncrasies of the killer’s face and suggests that the photographer is looking for evidence, should it exist, of a homicidal pathology.


While I would like to think that all the very similar celebrity portraits Avedon made were “looking for evidence, should it exist, of a homicidal pathology,” that seems doubtful.


Sometimes museum texts make me smile. I’ve long been amused by SFMOMA’s description of Avedon’s Dick Hickock photo. Seeing essentially the exact same description at The Met made me laugh in the gallery. Yes, while this is what we do when viewing this photo when it’s presented in the context of Crime Stories or some other salacious setting, it seems weird to describe an Avedon this way. As Kukkurovaca points out, this is pretty much the Avedon modus operandi.

All that said, if someone wants to use The Met and SFMOMA’s text as a way of describing The Family I’m totally for it.

The Met

I finally made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve been living in Princeton for three years now but the last time I’d visited The Met was way back in 2002. While that was so long ago that it doesn’t really count in terms of being familiar with the museum, I decided that this time I’d start off and hit the sections that I wasn’t able to get to last time.

Given that the day I visited was super busy, this turned out to be a decent strategy. I had previously only really seen the European and American galleries and ran out of time before I got to the Asian and Africa/America/Polynesia galleries. The day I visited? Europe and the Americas were packed. Too crowded to really see anything. Too loud to really think. Non-western though? Practically empty. I could wander at my own pace and think about things.




The Asian galleries are nice. They actually do tend to talk about the objects both from an art history point of view and a functional use point of view—such as the Vishnu Masks which describe how the masks were used in performance as well as the history of those performances over centuries. Unfortunately, the way they treat modern art results in them committing one of my pet peeves.

The galleries aren’t in the basement but they consistently other the modern artists. Noguchi isn’t a multiracial American artist, he’s a Shōwa Period Japanese craftsman. Inoue Yūichi goes into the same bucket even though his work explicitly references Franz Kline. And things get even weirder when you get into “Heisei Period” work like Kohei Nawa’s which more contemporary than most of the work in the Modern Art galleries.


On the topic of The Basement, The Met also groups Africa, The (indigenous) Americas, and Polynesia are all together as, effectively, native craft. While there are a decent amount of old artifacts here, there are also many which are not only new, but actually—such as the Papua New Guinea Ceiling—commissioned by the museum.

When the traditional crafts become detached from their traditional uses and instead are created for export and tailored to western tastes, we’re in an area where the museum needs to flag how the resulting artifact is a product of multiple cultures.* If the museum itself is commissioning pieces, I’d love to read more about how that transaction works and how the resulting art differs from the traditional form.

*Something that the National Museum of the American Indian does a good job of in its permanent exhibition. Not only does it talk about the influence of “the market” but it goes out of its way to name the artists and talk about how they were able to become collectible.

The indigenous galleries also treat modern art the same way the Asian galleries do. In this case for example, El Anatsui is only in conversation with Africa and, while these galleries are right next door to the Modern Art galleries, the hallway is not the only thing that separates them.

Untitled Untitled

I did venture into the crowds to check out the Manus × Machina show. As the current headliner these galleries were super crowded and a pain to navigate.

Fashion shows are often a mixed bag. They’re designed to bring in massive crowds and in doing so often fail as educational opportunities. Fashion in particular tends toward the pretty or the trendy and while there is often a lot of function or process involved, that information is ignored unless it can be used to explain why something is so expensive.

This show though is all about how the dresses were made. In particular the interplay between hand-made processes and machine-made processes on the bleeding edge of clothing design. It puts mid-century fashion in conversation with contemporary fashion and breaks everything down by process—pleating, lacework, etc.—so we can both compare the hand-made with machine-made versions as well as see how the use of the machines has allowed for even more fantastic creations.

I particularly enjoyed the Issey Miyake designs on display as they demonstrated what technology allows while also playing with the way that clothes transform when worn. That Miyake’s designs are so different when “flat” versus when they’re on a model is a level of interest that isn’t present in most fashion shows.

There’s also an unexpected amount of actual use going on. In high fashion like this, often the only real use is on the runway. These aren’t practical garments. At the same time, that some of these—notably the Hussein Chalayan dresses—are intended to move on their own or change the way the wearer moves is a level which I’m not expecting in most fashion shows.



To the photography. The Met didn’t have much on display. One small exhibition which will be a distinct post and a few alcoves in a hallway. Two displays did catch my eye though.

The first was a pair of Japanese ambrotypes* where I was struck by how differently they were displayed. I’m used to seeing ambrotypes and tintypes in small folding metal frames. Seeing them in little wooden boxes was a nice change of pace. While I wonder how well the wood and the ambrotype interact archival-wise, I think I prefer the way this method looks.

*By Fujita and Matsusaburō.

The other thing that caught my eye was a solitary Becher print. I’ve never seen one by itself. I’ve never even considered that they could be displayed by themselves. I mean, it’s nice enough but the entire point is the typology grid where you can see everything and start to notice the ridiculousness of both the form and the way each one does its own thing.

Anyway, the more I think about that solitary Becher the more I wonder about encyclopedic museums like The Met. They’re great at what they are—both as art primers as well as a place to go if you can’t travel. But I find them frustrating now. Too broad and, as a result, too conservative. The Met shows the world the way we saw it decades ago. When Asia was far away and different rather than where we call for tech support and manufacture everything. Where we could lump everything “3rd-world” into one set of galleries and visit those in a “safe” environment. Where a small sampler of modern art and photography suffices for  everything which we’ve created in the past century.

I can’t help but feel that everything there is essentially a solitary Becher, stripped of context, a big name to check off the “must see” list.

Untitled Untitled

Where I get the most excited is in The Met’s print and ephemera collection. This is partly due to me being a print enthusiast but it’s also a massive collection of works which, while requiring artists to produce, is rarely thought of as art. It’s in these printed items though that most of us interact with and experience art now. We just don’t think of these things that way.

The Burdick Collection in particular is wonderful even though very little of it is on display.* There’s a small gallery of baseball cards in the backwaters of the mezzanine level of the American Art wing. I was able to spend a long time there by myself as the only people who came near me were completely lost and trying to find either stairs or a bathroom.** And there were a few tables of post cards in the print and design room. But it’s a massive collection of printed material from the first half of the 20th century, most of which would be some of the coolest things to ever come across in an antique shop or your grandparents’ attic.

*And there’s not even a catalog to purchase.

**Both are admittedly difficult to find.

I’d love to see The Met do more with these. As much of our print culture has switched to the digital space and redefined what we think of as ephemeral media, there’s a huge opportunity to look at the printed material from the last century in new ways from expanding on the existing history of centuries of printed material to looking at how printed material and images and ideas as cultural currency.

By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent

Part of an occasional series of posts where I revisit books which I grew up with.

Steve McCurry Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

Steve McCurry
Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

My earliest memories of just looking at photos all involve National Geographic. My parents had a subscription and I looked forward to the day each month when a thick magazine slipcovered in brown-paper arrived in our mailbox. I was too young to read the articles but I devoured the photos (and the maps of course) for at least the following week. I also would go through our magazine files and pull out my favorite past issues—reading the spines until I found the one with the feature I wanted—and revisit the photos all over again.

June 1984 was my favorite issue. By far. I paged through Paul Theroux’s By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent repeatedly as I was captivated by Steve McCurry’s photographs. It wasn’t anything specific about the quality of the photos which got me. I just, like many grade-school boys, loved trains and these were like no trains I’d ever seen. Instead of the commuter train pulled by diesel engines which took people up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San José, these were steam trains which wound through mountains and countrysides, were packed with people—including riders on the outsides of the cars—and had dining cars to accommodate multi-day journeys.

The recent McCurry pile-on which started with Teju Cole’s A Too-Perfect Picture coupled with some photoshop disasters encouraged me to both revisit McCurry’s train photos—the first set of photos I can remember loving—as well as to finally read the text which they accompany.

At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made. He has indeed gone full White Guy Photography, peddling a mythical third-world exotic beauty via photos that function as desktop backgrounds or hotel art.* Teju Cole says they’re boring. Paroma Mukherjee points out that the ethics behind these photos are dangerous. As McCurry packages them now I completely agree. They don’t tell us anything beyond confirming our stereotypes of the region and suggesting that modernization will ruin the “real” soul of the place.**

*A use case I actually witnessed at The Tech Awards.

**As stated in Image on Paper’s Jimmy Nelson Post: “It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.”

While I would be a bit worried about looking through all the 30-year-old National Geographics and seeing what I grew up with, this particular article is thankfully not too bad. Rather than being concerned with any sort of “authenticity,” it’s unabashedly a travelog and photos—most of which do not look like what has become the McCurry brand.

Travelogs, when they’re about the author’s trip and don’t claim to be speaking for the country,* are great. The same goes with travel photos. The more specific and personal the topic is, the more likely I am to like them. And I still like these.

*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.

The railroad is a wonderful thread to anchor the entire trip. It grounds the narrative and allows for historical diversions where the infrastructure is older than the political boundaries which it crosses. It also offers glimpses at a large range of the people in India. While Theroux is mostly riding first class, he and McCurry are also interacting and talking with the locals crowded in second class, the people riding on the roof, the white tourists in the separate better-than-first-class tourist cars, and the service workers and public workers who run the trains and the stations.

That I still love trains, and train photography, doesn’t hurt. But there is something distinct about the rail travel and the way it filters how you see both the countryside it cuts through and the built environments which have grown up around it. It’s simultaneously part of the landscape while completely imposing itself on that landscape. And it waits for no one. If one of the chief tenets of photography is taking your time and thinking and picking the right moment, the way the train keeps moving introduces a variable which is out of the photographer’s control.

Steve McCurry Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Steve McCurry
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Seeing McCurry’s work in this context also serves as a reminder of why he became an acknowledged master. There’s maybe only one of those McCurry™ Portraits and all of his colors are more subdued by the necessity of having to stick with the railway itself. But the photos are great. Strongly composed and timed with a sense of place—and on occasion the photographer’s presence—they illustrate the text so well that I have no use for the captions except when they offer a bit of additional story where McCurry’s experiences differ from Theroux’s.

Even the photo of the train at the Taj Mahal—which out of this context becomes about the men and “how well they work as types”—is instead a perfect “holy crap you can see this from the train” photo.

Despite completely agreeing with the critiques being heaped on McCurry now, I’m still glad that these were some of the formative photos of my youth. I’ve kind of grown out of him but I’m happy that I had access to these. It’s always good to be reminded of both my own growth, and what it means if an artist doesn’t grow.