My 2010s

I’ve only been blogging for nine years but ending the decade feels like a good time to look back on where this blog has been and how it’s changed from being about photography, museums, and sports to a lot more card collecting.

I still like photography and museums, I’ve just been in a bit of a rut ever since I moved to New Jersey. I need to get out more but I also need to be back in time to pick up the kids from school and I honestly just haven’t been inspired by my surroundings despite being here for six years.

Anyhoo, highlights from the past nine years of blogging. I made it to WordPress’s Discover (previously known as Freshly Pressed) twice. The first time was for a 2013 post about looking at photography which is really about dealing with the proliferation of any media. The second time was for a post about Atlee Hammaker and how, as a kid, I didn’t realize that he shared the same multicultural background I did.

I also had a moment of semi-virality in 2013 when I dashed off a quick (it’s always the quick posts that get you in trouble) post about “white guy photography” which took on a life of its own. I had to follow that up with some clarifications. That was an interesting ride and I’m not sure how people deal with that level of scrutiny and seething anger on a daily basis. I also shudder to think about what would’ve happened if that post had gone viral in the last half of this decade.

Another popular post was in 2014 and forshadowed my return to the hobby when I recognized that my childhood autograph collecting and current photography practices had a bit in common in terms of that push/pull between the process and the result. That reminder to enjoy the process rather than fixating on the result is possibly the single most important thread in my blogging. I don’t seek viewers or an audience, this is for my enjoyment and I just like the writing. That I only average, at most, one view an hour is still a lot more viewers than I ever expect to get.

For a blog where I wrote about sports a lot, I don’t have many sports posts listed on here and that’s because while I started out writing a bit about sports and fandom, the general theme on this blog has involved me drifting away from The Olympicsfootball, and Barcelona. Yes there are some posts in there which I liked but it’s been weird to chronicle and revist my abandonment of a lot of things I used to be a fan of.

The flip side of this is that I’ve also been able to write about my sons’ discover of baseball, especially minor league baseball. Over the past couple years I’ve been able to enjoy going to games with them and collecting cards and autographs with them and it’s been wonderful. I’ve rediscovered how baseball cards are one of the formative items in my childhood photography and design education and not only started blogging for SABR, I’m now the co-chair of the Baseball Card Committee.

This has meant that some of my favorite posts over the past couple years are actually on the SABR blog where I still write about photography and museums with posts about people like Mike Mandel, Cady Noland, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’ve also particularly liked writing about the mental exercise of thinking about what it means to restore a baseball card as well taking a deep dive into R G Knowles and discovering the state of baseball in turn of the 20th century England.

Where will this blog go in the next ten years? Who knows. It’s been a fun ride so far and I owe everyone who’s read any of my posts a big thank you.

Pier 24, Looking Back

Oof. I try and get these posts out faster but sometimes life gets in the way. I took my annual visit to Pier 24 last summer but am only just getting to writing about it now. Posts about cards and my photos I can jam out quickly. Posts requiring me to reflect and think about something I’ve seen take a bit more time than I ca muster while trying to get a new house moved into.

I try to get to Pier 24 every summer no matter what the exhibition is. This summer the show was looking back at the previous years of shows and sort of summarizing where the collection has been over the past half-dozen years. In many ways this was the perfect show to let marinate longer. There’s nothing specific to review. Instead I get to reflect on how my thoughts about photography have changed over the past couple decades.

The Pilara Collection is kind of like the Criterion Collection in that it’s most of the standard canon of must-know works. As a result, it’s heavily western white-guy dominated with a few key Japanese artists thrown in the mix. Most of my formative photographic education came through viewing these artists and they’ll always be there as point of reference.

However, the missing pieces are increasingly obvious. Unfortunately, Pier 24’s no-context display does the collection no favors in terms of admitting any awareness of it’s deficiencies. It’s very easy to walk through the galleries and let yourself be led by the images into imagining a medium and history that’s dominated by a narrow point of view.

Or you can walk through like I do and let the no-context stuff be an excuse to project my own context on everything instead. This is especially true with the portraiture section and the way we know how white gaze works coupled with the increased access to photographic self-expression over the past couple decades.

Portraits

That the exhibition started off by grouping Diane Arbus, Paul Strand, and Richard Avedon. I laughed. While this does a disservice to Arbus’s work it says a lot about photography’s tendency toward othering its subjects and putting them on pedestals. The photos are great but we’re immediately put in the position of either gawking at the subjects or worshipping them—neither of which is the frame of mind I want to be in when viewing portraits.

Many of the portraits are beautiful but also emphasize the surface of the of the subject over all else. Halsman’s photo of a refugee woman is a full-on glamour shot even though she’s identified as a refugee. August Sander’s Pastry Chef* is surrounded by other portraits featuring similarly larger-faced subjects. In many ways the key image for me is Valerie Belin’s mannequin since it at least admits that the whole gallery is about the superficial.

*Always a joy to see in the flesh. As much as I sometimes side-eye Pier 24’s displays it’s great to just see some of these images live. Also Sanders’s matting is interesting in that it’s just a hole cut in a piece of paper.

Still even in the one or two images per photographer on display I found my self making connections and learning some things. For example I’d never seen an Edward Weston nude of a black model before. And there were a couple common subjects—a Marilyn Monroe photo booth image vs one by Avedon and an Irving Penn Truman Capote portait vs Avedon’s—that are always something fun to compare.

It was interesting to compare the room of portraits to the room of mugshots. There was a wall of women from Philadelphia, most of them black, which ended up being most of the non-white photo subjects in the entire exhibition.* Even though the rest of the mugshots were mostly white subjects I found myself thinking about the ways the photography canon traditionally represents people.

*Curiously the excerpt in the gallery guide was closer to only 50% black.

I enjoyed going from the mugshots to the deadpan portraits room. That half of that room was Dijkstra was a bit unfortunate though. The idea of featuring deadpan portraits as a way of looking at other expressions in the sitter is great. But a lot of the works on display here pointed the discussion toward the photographer instead of the subject.

Which brings us to Alec Soth who probably more than any other photographer represents where Pier 24 has been. Yes it’s an archive of the photography canon but it’s also been a platform for a certain kind of photo project looking at Rust Belt and other communities which are increasingly overlooked by mass media.

I…These have not aged well for me in the age of Trump. I had the same thought last year but every time I see A-list photo projects investigating poor white communities now I get the same hives I get from the endless media profiles normalizing Trump voters.

Industry and Labor

The rest of the show was mostly typical photo subjects. A big room of industry and labor which showed how factories and labor conditions worldwide have changed, or not, over the century from Lewis Hine to today. These were generally good and provided an interesting counterpoint to the studies of modern American Rust Belt decline in that we got to see where the work is going and can think about whose choices are responsible for that movement.

I was struck by Madon Mahatta’s Escorts Factory photo which showed workers in 1964 wearing sandals and no eye protection. Also, amusingly, my brain misidentified a Burtynsky as a Gursky and in a very un-Peer 24 choice there was a solitary Becher image. This wasn’t as weird as the Met’s solitary Becher since at least there were other industrial photos for context but after SFMOMA has had an entire Becher room up you’d think people in San Francisco would know better.

The highlight of the room though was the wall of Renold and Coventry component cards. Both the cards and the components the depict reflect such a different age of infrastructure and industry. We can see the commonality in photos of factories and assembly lines over the years. However the components of the factories themselves and the way they’re inventoried and cataloged are going to be completely different. Looking at the individual pieces takes us into the technology of the time and orces us to think about what specifically those factories were making.

Locations

There was also a lot of photography of locations in the United States—specifically New York City and the American West. As someone who grew up in California, New York City was always a bit of a cliche. It’s nice to see older photos from Winogrand or Friedlander but the way their influence so dominates what a certain genre of photos is supposed to look like is troublesome.

This is especially with a lot of Winogrand’s photographs. I still have favorites but more and more of them look dated and uncomfortable as society’s norms around photography and publishing has become a lot more aware of how intrusive photographers can be. When he’s good he’s great but man are a lot of his images tough to look at now. Friedlander-wise I like a lot of his humor and can look at his cat or car photos all day.

Moving to The West and, while as an East Coaster now I see a decent amount of cliched views, photographers like Robert Adams and Henry Wessel are still doing things that new photographers aren’t trying to emulate. Maybe this is because both Adams and Wessel are just too fucking good or maybe it’s because the western cliches I see from the East are all landscapes instead of cityscapes.

Anyway it’s always a joy to see a room of Robert Adams or Henry Wessel. It’s especially nice to see some of the Adams photos be taken in the same photo session since getting a bit of a primer about how Adams worked a scene and moved around to find the angles is a free photography tutorial in finding the light and exploring the relationships between elements in the frame. Wessel meanwhile is all about that glowing light and the way it produces textures and shadows.

The last bit of photos in this section were of San Francisco. I’m unable to react to them the same way as anything else since these are home to me. While I’m no longer a tourist in New York City, I’m in no way a New Yorker either. But with the SF photos I just end up liking what I’m seeing. Highlights here were Ed van der Elsken, Lee Merrit Blodgett, and Fred Lyon.

Looking Forward

Last room of the show was a room of Adou’s ghostly and ethereal photographs. I enjoy these very much but they seem completely out of place with the rest of the show being so Western.* Adou is someone I saw at San José and just doesn’t feel like someone Pier 24 was showing.

*Yes there’s a couple Sugimoto rooms but since they’re his wax museum portraits of Henry XIII and his wives along with the Last Supper they were very western subject matter.

That said the Adou room is something that points the way forward about where Pier 24 can go as it expands the canon. New artists doing work that doesn’t operate in the same Western traditions or with the same gaze that the rest of Pier 24’s show does. Photos that are more inside jobs than one which centers the Western gaze.

I can appreciate Adou’s work as being beautiful and evoking a sense of cultural pride while also mourning the loss of a way of life. But I know there’s more there than I can ever hope to get. And that’s OK, I can still feel the power of the images without having it spoon-fed to me.

Starting a new set

So late last month Matt Prigge decided that he wanted to clear out a bunch of sets and cards that he’d accumulated for accumulation’s sake. Matt just moved and while he had moved with all his cards, I guess that he realized that he didn’t want to buy enough Ikea Kallax units to get them all his basement floor.

I haven’t gone through such a downsizing yet but it’s coming. I have to get what I have organized first though. But with cards it’s easy to fall into the accumulation trap and taking a step back to figure out what I really like is a healthy activity to do every once in a while.

Currently, aside from my Giants, Stanford, and a few mini-projects, I’ve found that I’m enjoying filling out the cards and sets from my childhood but am enjoying just having samples—preferably Giants or Stanford players—from the other years. I’ve been enjoying building a 1978 set but it’s really the guys from 1987–1994 that I remember best. That’s my youth and all I cared about was baseball and cards.

I had collected complete sets of 1987–1993 Topps as a kid. I’ve been building 1986 since it represents the cards that were in existence when I became a fan and I acquired a couple hundred of them over my childhood collecting years. I only had a couple dozen 1994 Topps for comparison. By then I’d realized that I shouldn’t be spending money on packs if I was just going to get the set. When the strike hit and I dropped the hobby cold-turkey I never picked up any more 1994 Topps cards.

As a result I have no real memories of 1994 as a set. It’s not a design that I liked at the time* and I just didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the cards. But I’ve seen more examples in recent years and have found myself liking a lot of things about it. Plus the players are still the guys I knew and the set itself serves as a bit of commemoration of the single best Giants season I’ve ever witnessed.**

*As an autograph hunter I found myself skeptical of glossy cards since we hadn’t figured out the best way to get them signed. In many ways my preferences for non-glossy cardstock and older-style designs versus the fancy-shmancy modern cards the the 1990s pulled the hobby into is rooted in autograph hunting practicalities rather than any design-based critique.

**Yes winning a World Series is great but there’s also something wonderful about seeing your team dominate the regular season. The sting of getting pipped to the pennant by the Braves still hurts but looking back on it I just remember a heck of a run and pennant race.

So when Matt sent out feelers for who’d be interested in various junk wax sets I said hat I’d be interested if he had a set or partial set of 1994 Topps. The price was more than reasonable (especially since it was coming already-paged) so I sent over the money and a week later (thanks to Thanksgiving) the box arrived.

Yeah they don’t make sets like this anymore. I’m still not sold on the design but it’s not as bad as I remember and the only time it makes itself noticed is on cards like the Brett where it brilliantly mirrors the scoreboard. Photography-wise though this is fantastic stuff. A great mix of close action, distant action, experimental action, quiet candids, and poses.

What I like best is how much stadium detail I get. There’s enough depth of field to see what the grandstands are like. Many of the candids are wide-angle shots that show off all kinds of dugout details.

There are also plenty of horizontal cards too with the same mix of images. These are things we have to look for the photo-specific Stadium Club set to see nowadays and it’s a shame since this set is three times as large and so offers an abundance of photographic riches.

One of the things I like best about the photography in the set is how it allows the photos to remain grounded. We can see feet on the ground and know where the play is occurring. How far off the ground a dive is. That plays at second base refuse to hide the baserunner and bag behind the card graphics. These are cards that have been designed by people who know and understand baseball.

While it’s easy for me to rue my bad luck about getting into cards at the peak of card worthlessness, comparing these to what 1986 Topps looks like allows me to be thankful for being able to witness the incredible improvement in the quality of baseball photography.  Just the fact that I got to see the changes as they happened was a lesson in and of itself.

Anyway, Matt’s cards plus the ones I had already left me 45 cards short of a complete set. Most of those holes are in Series 2, much like my 2014 build. Full list of what I need is here. I’ll also keep an updated list on the set need page but this one will mark my starting point.

155 200 387 408 411 416 417 421 428 442 447 465 473 476 477 480 484 486 528 549 586 589 593 615 626 637 649 662 664 668 670 671 672 677 678 679 688 702 718 733 736 738 750 772

Matt, of course, was not content to just send me what I paid for and instead packed assorted other goodies into the box. Two packs of Topps Baseball Talk are so cool I almost don’t want to open them. Since I don’t have the player I need to go to YouTube to listen to the cards but the cards themselves are pretty cool too. As oversize versions of the 1989 design they feature nice big images and with the record grooves on the back are among the oddest to the oddballs.

Most of the packing though was assorted Giants cards from over the years. Many of these I have but I have two boys who are more than happy to take my duplicates too. I’ve already given them each a 300-count box each of cards from 1960 to  2019 as a house-warming present and need to put together other gift packs of duplicates for them now.

In the batch here it turned out that I was missing a bunch of the 1985 Donruss, 1987 Donruss, 1987 Fleer, and 1988 Donruss cards. 1989–1991 though were my peak years and if there’s a hole in my binder it’s because the card is autographed and so is merely in a different binder.

Which means I fastforward to 1992 here and mention that I’ve never seen those blue Classic cards before. They’re kind of horribly printed but I’m amazed that I’m still finding out about new cards from my peak collecting years.

The 1994 Bowmans are also mostly new (I do not remember this design from my youth even though I had a bunch) and the Upper Deck Fun pack represents a set I never saw as a kid. I’ve gotten some Fun Pack cards in previous trade packages but the Pro Files Bonds card is a completely new one to me as well.

Past the strike now and into cards I never saw as a kid No idea if the red lettering on Pinnacle means anything but all that gold foil still kind of amazes me. The 1996 Donruss Steve Scarsone though is a perfect demonstration of how quickly cards designs went from grounding the action to covering it up.

Instead of looking like a fantastic play Scarsone looks like he’s trying and failing to imitate the Karate Kid. Unfortunately, this school of card design is what Topps does repeatedly in modern cards and it’s noticeable enough that my 10-year-old complains about it.

Getting into the 21st century. Standout card here is the First American Church of Baseball Tim Lincecum. I have no idea what this set or organization is (its Facebook page suggests it is/was a Giants fan club) but it’s wonderfully odd and hand-numbered to 500 on the back.

Also the two Buster Posey 2015 cards are part of the Giants team set and NL All Stars set. Needless useless variants that I refuse to chase. But having a sample in the binder is fu none the less. The only reason I actively want those team set cards is if they included a guy who otherwise doesn’t have a Giants card that season.*

*A few of the hardest Stanford cards for me are guys who only showed up in the team sets.

And finally the 2018 and 2019 cards. I appreciate the Gypsy Queen since I categorically refuse to buy these. Ditto to Gallery. Not my cup of tea even though seeing how they’re made is of interest to me from a technical point of view. Like it appears that 2019 Gypsy Queen cut back on the logo and nameplate stupidity of 2018 and doesn’t feature any areas that look like they were printed in a second printing pass.*

*This is a long-overdue SABR post.

Lastly, buried in the stack of Giants cards was this Bill Swift autograph. I had to double check that this was included on purpose but Matt confirmed that it was. Bill Swift was a good Giant whose two full seasons were good enough that I forget that they were his only two complete seasons with the club. His 1993 was especially fantastic and he fully deserved to be in the running for the Cy Young Award.*

*As an aside, how awful was Jose Rijo’s run support that season since he was pretty damn good in every other stat besides Wins/Losses.

This card in particular has always been one of my favorites since it includes the Giants’ awesome Turn Back the Clock uniforms. I liked this card so much that I got it signed back in the day.

Yeah. This is from Spring Training 1993. And this isn’t a complaint about having two but rather an observation at how much Swift’s signature is different. I’m assuming Matt got his card signed TTM at some point in the past couple decades. The signature there more closely matches the neat signature examples Google pulls up. My card meanwhile is a hasty scrawl while getting into or out of the Scottsdale clubhouse.

Anyway, thanks Matt! I’m looking forward to finishing this set build too.

A Lonnie Mailday

A surprise envelope from Mark Hoyle arrived late last week. When I opened it up I found a couple non-card items that, on the heels of the Jay Publishing mailday, suggest that my collection is crossing from being just cards and is instead getting into card-adjacent areas.

The first item is a 4×6 print of Jim Lonborg being interviewed after the Red Sox won the 1967 American League Pennant. I always like these kind of post-celebration photos* where athletes are still happy but the reality is setting in too.

*There’s a reason I sent the Trevor Wilson card I did.

This one is also a great look at how interviews worked before today’s much-more organized media room press conference table. One interviewer with a microphone plus another mic on a stand and two more being held by disembodied hands belies the relative calmness of the photo.

Mark’s a Lonborg supercollector. While I have a much more casual Lonborg collection due to him being just a part of my Stanford Alumni project, because I’m making customs and things* for my own usage I’m able to send Mark some Lonborg items he doesn’t have.

*This will be a post of its own someday.

This Gypsy Oak custom is an example of other Lonborg customs that Mark has acquired over the years. It’s also a 4×6 print even though it looks like it should be a linocut.* If I remember correctly there are versions of these that are more like postcards and evoke vintage Exhibit/Arcade cards instead.

*While I haven’t jumped into the world of 3D printing yet I’m keeping an eye on it for both linocut/letterpress related printing and investment casting.

I’ve kept my eye on Gypsy Oak’s work for a while* but never pulled the trigger since I’ve been a bit scared to jump down the rabbit hole of modern card-related art. As nice as the artwork looks it’s something that I can see getting out of hand. It’s hard enough to limit my scope with just cards. Including other stuff like this? Where do I draw the line?

*Well until I got blocked on Twitter and he closed his BigCartel shop.

It’s some pretty cool stuff though—especially his Helmar Stamp cards. They just don’t quite feel right for my Giants collection but they very much feel more appropriate for the Stanford one. I’m glad my first is a Lonborg since he’s sort of the first noteworthy Stanford baseball star. Thanks Mark!

Jay’s Housewarming

Last week I came back from picking the kids up at school to find a bubble mailer from Greg/Night Owl waiting in my mailbox. This time he’d addressed it to my new address. It felt “off” when I picked it up. I’ve gotten enough of these now that I know what cards usually feel like. This one was different, sort of more dense and rigid and I was more curious than usual to open it.

Inside I found a stack of over a dozen Jay Publishing photopack cards. I’ve picked up a couple of these over the years but to-date they’re tended to be outside my collecting radar. When Greg received a huge batch of them earlier this year I began to realize that I’d been ignoring some good stuff.

As someone who got back into baseball cards because of photography reasons, these team photopacks are especially relevant because they represent a different branch of the image sharing/collecting culture that started in the 19th century. They’re basic halftone prints but they represent another way that photos circulated.

Unlike cards—whose size and thickness encourages handling—the photo packs are paper and are clearly meant to be put on display or pasted into an album. The ones I received from Greg are all in petty good shape and don’t have any pinholes or tape residue.

Jay Publishing printed these team packs for about a decade. They all look mostly the same with a large black and white photo over the player’s name, city, and team. In 1962 the font changed from san-serif to serif but other than that the only clues for dates are knowledge of the roster and the team uniforms.

Thankfully, Trading Card Database has photos of all the different Giants photo packs so I was able to determine that my stack was a combination of 1961 and 1963 photo packs.

Eight of the photos are from 1961. There are two doubles. That photos are often reused year-to-year makes determining if things are truly doubles kind of difficult. The ones here though do in fact appear to be identical in terms of the photo cropping but from different print runs.

In this batch I particularly like the Sam Jones photo which shows off the spring training facilities and the Bob Schmidt which is just a great image with the mask flying out one corner and his shadow anchoring another. The other four images aren’t bad either.

Of the six missing images it’s no surprise that Mays, Marichal, and Cepeda are among them. The thing I’m most confused by is how McCovey didn’t make the checklist and how Bob Schmidt, who only played two games for the Giants in 1961, did.

The 1963 photos to my eye aren’t quite as nice. Sanford is a bit blurry, O’Dell and Pagan are awkwardly cropped. Hiller’s a decent baseball pose though and Pierce is similarly strong. Haller’s meanwhile isn’t a bad image either but the crotch-eye view is a bit weird for me.

It’s kind of amazing to  compare Pierce and O’Dell though since they’re identically composed and timed but one is great and the other not. The difference in angle makes so much of a difference here.

From these six I’m missing Mays, McCovey and Cepeda this time (Felipe Alou and Al Dark are also missing from both 1961 and 1963). Again, not a surprise since those will be of interest to a much wider audience while  the rest of the players resonate only for Giants fans.

Greg also took the opportunity to clear out a dozen unwanted Giants cards. We’ll start off with a handful of older cards. Many of these I have so they’ll go to the boys. The 1984 Jeffrey Leonard though is new to me and doubles my 1984 Fleer Giants holdings. Yeah. Even though these all come from the overproduction era and represent sets my kids still pull from repacks I only have two 1984 Fleer Giants.

Some newer Giants cards. That Bumgarner All Star is one of the last cards Topps made of him. It’s nice to add it to the binder. The Stadium Club Hunter Pence is also quite welcome since I somehow only had the gold and black foil versions. And that Bergen/Coonrod Rookie Combo card confuses me since Bergen also has his own card in that set.

The last four cards are Archives cards using the 1975 design that Greg loves so much. As a non-collector of Archives I always appreciate getting these in the mail. I like seeing how Topps remakes its old designs even though it typically screws things up in an uncanny valley way.

These aren’t too bad: Team name is a bit small. Autographs are super bold. Colors are slightly off. But all in all they feel about right, especially when I see a group like this where every card is a different color combination.

Super cool Greg. Thanks!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.