Unexpected connections

A couple days ago I published a bit of a rant on SABR about 2022 Topps Heritage and how lazy its greenscreen photography was. While I try not to go too negative in any of my blog posts sometimes I can’t help myself. Anyway that post was in many ways a lot of words padding an animated GIF that could have been posted by itself and made the exact same point.

After I made my SABR post I realized that 2020 Topps Heritage used the exact same background on a dozen cards as 2022 Heritage did and have expanded the GIF to include all 24 cards. It’s worth noting that the 2020 cards have much more variance in the zoom and cropping of the backdrop (even removing the light standard in one of them) which goes a long way in making the backdrop not nearly as obvious.

Anyway, one of the best things about Twitter is  the way that it encourages people to respond to tweets with things that my observation reminded them of. In this case, Ross/@design_on_deck pointed me toward a fantastic video about post cards which all use the same sky.

While I don’t at all think that Topps did any of this with the level of intent that Dexter Press did, the video reminded me about why I got interested in cards and how they interact with my more-professional interests in photography and print production.

Photography and the way it has been distributed as mass media and informed our visual literacy is indistinguishable from trading card and post card history. Looking through those items and seeing them together in sets or collections is a way of seeing how we used to see and learn about the world. This is the reason why I collect the pre-war cards that I do and I absolutely love digging through piles of postcards and arcade cards at antique shops.

That the Bechers were brought up in the video is perfect. I’ve long admired their work but hadn’t made the connection to their typology grids and the way that I organize trading cards in binder pages. In many ways, the very act of collecting cards and other printed ephemera is an exercise in typologies—especially the further I get away from organizing by number, team, or player.

While I usually bias toward having pages of variety, there’s something wonderful in a clean grid of images all featuring the same sky or red shirt photography. My Candlestick Pages are one such typography which I collect. As are my multi-image action images. I’ve seen other people collect cards which feature catchers, bubble gum, double plays, broken bats, cameras, kids, etc. In many ways all of us trading card collectors are making our own typologies and seeing the different ones is one of the best things about Card Twitter and the way people share their collections.

That’s not the only connection that happened though. After two different artificial cloud discussions I remembered Eadweard Muybridge and his particular skill at artificially adding clouds to his landscapes before he became the animal in motion guy.* Because early photographic emulsions were primarily sensitive to blue light, skies ended up being completely white in the prints.** It was commonplace to add them back in when printing and Muybridge excelled at this.

*Bringing us right back the grids of small prints.

**Blue sensitivity means that there’s no difference between something being white because it has lots of blue or being white because it’s actually white. As a result, clouds disappear.

There’s a fantastic article by Byron Wolfe about both Muybridge’s clouds and how his different prints were often different composites. Wolfe is a frequent collaborator with Mark Klett in rephotographing and putting old photographs into a larger context so seeing his approach to Muybridge’s work is great.

It’s also a reminder that compositing is as old as photography itself. As long as we’ve been using cameras we’ve been messing with the images to improve upon the scenes or create things that aren’t actually there.

Swarm

Almost two dozen years ago I took an introduction to photography course in college. These were always popular but one of the nice things about being a design major was that priority was given to anyone who could use the course as one of their requirements. My instructor was Lukas Felzmann, at the time a relatively new lecturer but who’s still teaching today. He was good. I imagine that beginning photography is simultaneously wonderful and a drag. Great to introduce students to art. But you also have to suffer though what students think Art™ is and how they think it should be discussed.

He had a pretty loose hand in the class. Simple assignments like a self portrait or creating in a sequence of 5 photos. I was shooting a Nikomat FTn with an ancient 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens and we were doing all our own development and printing in the darkroom. I never liked developing. I loved printing though and miss the magic of seeing things emerge in the developer.

Class mainly involved looking at photos. Getting a basic introduction to the black and white canon. Looking at our own work. Us talking about what we liked. Felzmann talking about why things were noteworthy. He also did something very cool in that he showed us his own work. Not in a sense of “I’m so good” but in a sense of fairness. Art class is kind of a scary thing because you have to put yourself out there with every assignment and it’s nice for the teacher to include themselves in that.

I’m surprised at how much of his work I remember now. Camera obscura stuff which he was doing at the same time as Abelardo Morell. Weird little sculptures of string, sticks, and rocks which he created in the field as subjects for large-format photographs as well as in the gallery to be displayed with the photographs.

And then there were his bird photos.

Lukas Felzmann, Swarm

A large part of his presentation consisted of photos of flocks of birds. Highish contrast so the birds were mostly silhouetted agains a flat grey sky. I don’t think I quite understood them at the time. As much as they invited careful looking (I remember him being passionate about little details in the frames such as how they look almost bomb-like when their wings aren’t extended) they didn’t grab me as photos.

Flash forward a dozen years and the photography bug has not only bitten me really hard but I’m actively viewing, taking, and writing about photographs. I’m even taking photos of birds* which means that I’m spending even more time just watching birds fly—sometimes solitary, other times in flocks.

*Oof that blog post has not aged well as the changes WordPress has made to how linked images work have torn apart all my careful HTML sizing.

And yeah Felzmann’s bird photos came back to me whenever I would watch a flock of birds do its thing. The ones by my work were countershaded so not only were the flocking shapes interesting they shimmered as the birds turned and I got a glimpse of their white undersides. But I remember seeing  flocks in the city taking off of building tops and casting shadows of mirror flocks on the building sides as they swooped around.

Many times I’d just watch and forget to pick up my camera. Other times I’d try and take a photo and be disappointed with every single frame. Every. Single. Frame. Part of this is a lack of skill. Another is a lack of equipment. But the largest part was actually the mindset that I had to get it right in a single image.

Around this same time I noticed Felzmann’s book had come out. I added it to my Amazon wish list because it reminded me of where I started as a photographer and I felt it would be nice to own a memento of those years. But I also had a suspicion that the finished project would be much more up my alley than it had been when I was an undergraduate. It took another decade years for me to actually get the book (too many books, not enough time) but I finally go it as a gift last Christmas and was very pleased to find out that my suspicions were correct.

Lukas Felzmann, Swarm

My problem when I was a student and when I was birding was that I was operating in the mindset that each photograph needs to be of something. Yes, many of the photos in the book are beautiful frames in and of their own accord. But that’s not the point. As a group? That’s where the magic is.

Felzmann realized that filling a book with a series of swarm images is the best way to convey the experience of actually watching the swarm. This isn’t a moody book like Fukase’s Ravens; it’s joyous in the way that watching a flock of birds swarm is one of those things that makes you feel alive because nature is so beautiful.

There are images of swarms in the landscape. Images which are edge-to-edge birds. Images which are only a couple birds. Images where the birds are strong distinct silhouettes. Images where the birds are almost lost in the atmospheric haze.

Lukas Felzmann, Swarm

We’re invited to look closely but the images also hold our hands in this. Multiple pages of the same framing with just the flock changing gives us a sense of movement. Other times it feels like we’re zooming in and getting right into the middle of things so we can notice details we didn’t notice before. Like those aforementioned bomb shapes but also “intruders” in the flock which are both disrupting and causing the flock activity.

It’s a book that works as both a slow deep look and a quick skim but in both cases is something that offers a whole host of new observations each time. I can’t point out to any individual images or moments that caught my attention. Instead it’s the way it made me feel and reminded me of those moments where, despite carrying a camera which was intended to help me focus my observation, I just forgot myself and watched nature unfold.

Lukas Felzmann, Swarm

I’m a bit upset at myself that it took me this long to get this book. It would’ve been useful a decade ago in terms of guiding my birding photography and it definitely would’ve been useful in guiding my editing. It is however a nice thing to realize that I can still learn from my photography instructor decades after taking his class.

Even though I’m no longer really birding, this approach to a project and how it can capture the feeling through multiple images rather than anything specific is one that’ll stick with me. And as I’m putting family photos into albums I’ll also be keeping similar principles in mind.

1938 Bowman Horrors of War

While we tend to use ~1941 as the cutoff for what cards we consider to be “pre-war,” I’ve never fully felt comfortable with that date. A large part of this is due to the fact that I consider World War 2 to have started in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria. The fact that the 1938 Gum Inc./Bowman Horrors of War set exists underlines this point. The set is full of scenes from what is actually World War 2 in China and the proxy World War 2 which was the Spanish Civil War. It even ends with series of cards about Hitler and his impending threat to world peace.

There’s no way I can consider this set to be “pre-war” even though the hobby categorizes it as such. I’ve come around to treating the pre-war category as actually being pre-VJ Day since there are pretty much no releases after 1941. Drawing the line at 1945 avoids all the issues about deciding when the war began.

Maybe I should just start calling them pre-nuke or pre-Little Boy instead.

Anyway I had to pick up the card of “pretty Gerda Taro” being run over by a tank since I apparently can’t avoid the cards which intersect with my photography hobby. Besides stuff like Mike Mandel’s Baseball Photographer Trading Cards* or the few cards that can be credited to specific photographers there, not surprisingly, isn’t a lot of overlap** here.

*Of which I have a Lewis Baltz.

**Instead I’m sort of searching for cards like the T218 Edward Weston which happen to have the same name as famous photographers. There’s also a PCL player named Paul Strand who has both an Obak and some Zeenut cards.

Taro’s life and work kind of got subsumed into the Capa mythos to the point where I first learned about her as Capa’s romantic partner rather than as the photojournalism pioneer she actually is. I don’t think I’m alone on this though since her work has only really been displayed on its own accord in this century.

Looking at her work turns up a few images I’m familiar with as well as a bunch of contact sheets from the Battle of Brunete where she was mortally wounded. Those sheets are all 35mm film and correspond with the fact that by this time she was shooting a Leica which looks nothing like the giant camera depicted on the card front.

Aside from depicting war and the camera looking more like the Graflex Dorothea Lange used to shoot,* the card looks pretty great. Bright and colorful with a lot of detail crammed into a small frame.** I kind of love the explosion details and how the card manages to capture the chaos while also depicting a specific moment.

*Taro shot a TLR which produced square images on 120 film before switching to 35mm. She never shot 4×5.

**The same 2.5″×3″ size as Gum Inc’s Play Ball cards.

Despite how striking they look, I have no real desire to get more of these. I’m glad it’s called the Horrors of War but when my reaction to them is superficial instead of what they depict I have to rethink my motivations. Also I kind of refuse to chase any set that puts me in a position where I’m looking for cards of Hitler.

A look in the mirror

So Magnum Photos has been a trashfire for a while but I’ve only been sort of paying attention to it. Thankfully Benjamin Chesterton over a Duckrabbit has been on top of it. A couple days ago he published a comprehensive wrap of everything that’s been going on with Magnum over the past four years. It’s heavy stuff. Difficult to read and I cannot even begin to fathom how hard it was to research and write.

I have nothing to add to specific discussion about the Magnum rot. Their behavior has been abhorrent and the organization needs to just disband. But to think this issue is limited to Magnum misses half of the problem.

Reading Duckrabbit’s post reminded me how important it is to reevaluate my visual literacy. What kinds of photos I find pleasurable. Who is depicted as human versus who gets objectified. We like to think that the abhorrent stuff is obvious but it didn’t get magicked into being just overnight. It’s the logical result of a century of certain viewpoints and methods being lionized as authoritative.

All of us in photography—whether as photographers or just consumers—grew up seeing certain photos as being good or important. We’ve learned to accept the white male gaze. We’ve learned to expect the western colonial framing. We’ve learned to treat white men as impartial and everyone else as being biased by their identity.

Magnum is a huge part of that tradition. No matter how good their founding members are, you can see the first steps down this road. I’ve said before that I like Cartier-Bresson’s European work but am generally not interested in his work abroad. None of it as as bad as what Magnum has become but the trajectory is there from the beginning.

I went semi-viral a half-dozen years ago when I said I found this kind of thing boring. Looking back on that now, I kind of cringe at my reaction. Boring is still coming from a place of privilege. It’s a good first step but it allows me to ignore things that are harming other people instead of  actively denouncing them.

I need to do better. Be more vocal about reprogramming my visual literacy. Boost other people like Duckrabbit who are also doing the work. And even just simple things like sharing what kinds of things I’m looking at and how they expand my eye.

Fantasy Life

I received a copy of Tabitha Soren’s Fantasy Life for Christmas. Fantasy Life tracks the careers of ten members of the Oakland A’s 2002 draft class—the Moneyball class—as they make their way through the minors. Most of them top out at AA or AAA. A couple got a cup of coffee in the bigs. Two—Nick Swisher and Mark Teahen—had decent Major League careers.

It’s set up as a scrapbook of sorts with many different kinds of photos—both in terms of technique and content. As a photographer who shoots with multiple kinds of cameras and lenses it’s nice to see a photobook like this which is all over the place yet still comes together. Because the different types of photos—including tintypes from screenshots—aren’t labelled* I don’t look at them for what they depict but instead recognize the sense of place that they describe.

*There is an index in the back but it’s clear that the photo identification isn’t part of the project.

Minor League Baseball is its own subculture of baseball as a local phenomenon coupled with baseball for people who love baseball. When I go to a game and wear a Minor League cap, I end up I conversations with other fans about where else I’ve seen games and what the experience was like. It doesn’t matter who the cap is of, just wearing one marks me as a certain kind of fan who likes the smaller parks, watching the games, and seeing guys before they’ve made it big.

Looking through the photos in the book and I recognize so many glimpses into the Minor League experience. The way things are a bit run down. The way the players are almost all uniformly young. The way the stands are close and you can see a lot more of the mechanics of what it takes to stage a ballgame. As an autograph collector I’m used to arriving at stadiums early and staying late and seeing it go through its quieter moments when few people are around.

The games aren’t about the details and they all blur together. In a good way. Summer nights. Saturday afternoons. Sitting back. Watching a game. Keeping score. Eating a hot dog. As much as it’s a fantasy life for the players who are all chasing a dream, it’s a bit of a fantasy for the fans too where there’s often no better place to spend three hours of the summer.

This book isn’t new and I’ve wanted to take a good look through it for a while. It is however especially interesting to view it right now in the aftermath of the whole reorganization of the Minor Leagues and with almost 20 years of hindsight on the Moneyball revolution.

We’ve had a couple decades of ownership treating players increasingly as interchangeable parts where the right mix of net velocity or OPS is all that’s needed and stardom is in fact a liability because it increases a player’s salary. This isn’t a knock on the Moneyball ethos as much as it’s an observation about what how something that was great for a small-market team without a lot of money became a way for larger market teams to become cash cows for their owners.

Traditionally, baseball teams made money for their owners when they were sold. Money and cash flow is of course always an issue but you didn’t run a team in order to get richer. The past decade though has been all about maximizing a team’s yearly profit, often a the expense of the product on the field. It’s not about who the best players are or

We’ve also just cut over forty Minor League teams as a cost-saving measure without any thought about what that means to the communities which support those teams and the hundreds of players who are being cast out of professional baseball.

Yes I know baseball is a business. But this thing where it’s behaving in a way that doesn’t understand how its product consists of people who fans are supposed to connect with is hugely dismaying. That Soren isn’t a baseball fan but kind of intuits exactly this is what makes the book so fascinating.

She’s tagging along with Michael Lewis and taking photos of the games, and ostensibly the players. But it’s clear that her interests aren’t with the on-field action. She likes the moments in between the action that really captures the experience of being at the ball park. Little details like the dents on a metal door or discarded gum wrappers on the ground. The way that players sit on the bench waiting for something to happen. The way that fans behave in the stands.

Baseball is a game of waiting and being and Soren recognizes immediately how important the human side of it all is. How the minors are a grind and dream deferred while simultaneously being a fantasy where everyone exists as pure potential. Where the games are there to be enjoyed on their own without the weight of standings and playoff positioning that accompanies the major league games.

She captures the way that the players are playing their hearts out. Training as much as they can. Getting by on their meager per-diems. The game action doesn’t look fun but the interviews with each player reveal how much  they love the game. Especially in the minors where it’s never just a job. There’s a sense of loss that accompanies each of the players’ retirements. Not because they didn’t have the career they wanted but rather that retiring meant that they had to give up the game.

That sense of loss really hits hard since I know that hundreds of players were essentially cut from professional baseball this winter. Guys who weren’t yet ready to give up on playing a game they loved now have nowhere to play. Maybe there will be more independent leagues but my guess is that a lot of them are stuck in the wilderness.

Kodak Rookie Card

Anson over at Pre War Cards has been running weekly sales for a couple months now. I got in on his first couple but recently things are both getting a bit too expensive for me and are getting snapped up super fast. I’m happy they’re so successful for him.

Even though I’m not buying anymore I still look at what he’s selling because 75% of what he shows are things I’ve never seen before.

One such card that he showed last month was a “History of Sports and Pastimes of all Nations” trade card for Arbuckle’s Coffee which showed the United States’ pastimes as of 1893. While the main draw is the fact that it shows baseball, I almost sprained my back snapping forward to take a closer look at the card because it depicted a camera.

Why? Because it was a box camera that looked eerily like a Brownie…only Brownies didn’t get introduced until 1900. Brownie cameras are traditionally credited with creating the amateur photography market due to costing only a dollar (with film and processing being another 50¢)*

*So around $30 bucks for a camera and $15 for film/processing in today’s money.

I was plenty confused, even going so far as to conclude that this card must’ve been printed later and that the copyright date had to be incorrect. This would eventually not make sense to me either since other cards in the set—for example Cuba which is clearly before the Spanish-American War—are clearly placed in the first half of the decade.

The mystery plus the fact that the card depicted a camera placed it solidly on my ebay search list. It’s not that easy to find but late last month one popped up at a much more palatable price and so I jumped on it. Lower grade than the one Anson sold but I don’t care about condition.

When it arrived it was indeed awesome as I got a chance to give it a much better look. The chromolithography printing is great and there’s just so much going on. Not just a camera and baseball, there’s yachting, fishing, bicycling and the circus.

The back is fantastic and details all the front images and more. I appreciate the way baseball is described as the pinnacle of ball sports* but again it’s the description of photography that I like best.

*Very similar in tone to RG Knowles’s building up of baseball.

Amateur photography is a fad that has come in recent years, but it has come to stay. The camera fiend is abroad in the land, and there’s little of note he does not capture.

This still makes me think of the Kodak Brownie first but then I remembered that Kodak released a couple box cameras before the Brownie.

The Brownie is noteworthy both because it was cheap and took roll film. The original Kodak however came out in 1888, cost $25 (over $700 in today’s money), and came pre-loaded with enough paper film to take 100 photographs. I kind of love the simplicity of this camera with how it had no viewfinder and shot circular images to both avoid horizon issues and to have the most-efficient lens usage.

It however is not the camera depicted on the Arbuckle card. The Arbuckle camera has viewfinders so my best guess is that it’s the Kodak No. 2. It’s not an exact match but it’s pretty close and the timeline feels right. Is this a Kodak “Rookie Card”? Perhaps it is.

I love the idea that by 1893 amateur photography is both a fad and clearly not going away. It gives me a sense of how ready people were to not only consume photographs but to create their own. Even an expensive camera like the first Kodak was enough to create enough “photo fiends” for photography to be considered an American™ pastime.

This card and the description on the back really shows how important the first Kodak was to democratizing photography. I can’t imagine how primed the market was by 1900 for something affordable like the Brownie.

Notes

This is not only my oldest trading card now but, because of the baseball depiction, it’s my oldest baseball card as well. Where my previous oldest baseball card depended on how you categorized my RG Knowles, this is a no-doubter. It’s very cool to have one that predates Major League Baseball. Once I get a no-doubt baseball card from the 1900s I’ll have a card from every decade starting with the 1890s. That’s kind of amazing to me.

A White Whale

Mike Mandel’s Baseball Photographer Trading Card set has been one of my favorite things for a few years. It’s the venn diagram intersection of my interests on baseball cards, printing, and photography but is unfortunately frequently priced as Art™ in the few instances when cards are even available.

I don’t even want to collect the set (although I’m kicking myself over missing the window on buying the catalog to his Good 70s show which included a complete second-edition set). It’s just that there are a handful of cards in it that I kind of love.

Last week though I landed one of those cards. I wasn’t internet stalking it or anything, I just randomly check ebay like I do a couple times a year and lo and behold this was available.

For the last five years or so if I had to pick a favorite photographer I would’ve answered Lewis Baltz. It’s not just that he was a photographer’s photographer whose work I can look at all day,* but the fact that his work taught me how to see.

*I wish I could say I own all his books but, alas, I only have Industrial Parks.

Baltz’s photos are transformative, beautiful images of buildings and places that most people deride as ugly and uninspired. As a child of the suburbs who learned to drive in deserted industrial parks, these places speak to me as “home” just as much as any photo of the natural beauty of the American West does.

Looking at his work trained me own eye in noticing what’s interesting about industrial buildings and the way their façades interact with light. There’s a surprising amount of texture and going out through an Industrial park to go “baltzing” is one of my favorite ways to take a photo walk.

While the photos start off being very much in his style, like anything artwise if you stay on that path you eventually end up someplace more personally interesting. In my case, one of my favorite projects I’ve been working on is a mix of color and black and white photos of the locations where my kids attend birthday parties.

These are frequently in warehouses and other nondescript buildings but of all the things in New Jersey they are by far what I’ve enjoyed photographing the most.

I’m very happy to have this. It’s the first card I’m considering putting in a one-touch and keeping on my desk. …well…keeping on my desk on purpose.

1928 Cavander’s Peeps Into Many Lands

Another Monday, another pre-war set. This time I’m looking at my 1928 Cavander’s Peeps Into Many Lands. This is the second series of at least three that Cavender’s released. It’s yet another set like the Wonders of the Past which serves as a way of seeing the world back in an age when international travel was something most people couldn’t conceive of.

I grabbed these a couple months ago but haven’t gotten around to making a post since this is more than just a set of tobacco cards. For one, they’re actual photographic prints instead of lithographs. Second, this is a set of 36 stereo photos across 72 cards. Yup. These were intended to be viewed in a small stereoviewer.

While I wasn’t going to scan everything like I did with my Viewmaster,* I wanted to do a few in 3D. I limited myself to only four stereo images for this post to give a sense of the effect. The 3D is cool. But the photos themselves work pretty well by themselves.

*Unlike the Viewmaster these are prints I can see without needing a special tool so there’s less reason for me to convert them into a more-viewable format.

There are roughly three kinds of images in the set. The first are scenic views of places. This set is for British customers and it’s clear in this case that “Many Lands” is short for “non-Europe.” So we’ve got small scenic images from around the world. Some depict nature but most are architecture of some sort.

These are very nice and give a window into different architectural styles around the world. I can’t help but laugh at the way they put the United States’ neoclassical buildings and elevated subways in the same conversation as various pagodas and temples. The USA cards look incredibly mundane to me now but their inclusion shows how different the American buildings looked to Europe at this time.

There are also a handful of animal images. While they purport to be images of wild animals it’s clear that these are all photos of animals in captivity. As with the scenic images though these take us back to an era when the world was bigger and something super-common like a Sea Lion is exotic because it doesn’t live in the Atlantic Ocean.

About half of the set though is photos of people in a very National Geographic Human Zoo sort of way. We’ve got lots of people, most of them with dark skin, most of them in some sort of non-Western clothing. It’s very telling that where the United States is represented with city scenes, the only people depicted from here are American Indians.

We’ve got busy street scenes from around Asia. Many of these are cool because of the street details and how you can get a larger sense of place from them. That quite a few show people around the subject who happen to be in Western clothing is also interesting and says a lot about what these photos focus on and how they emphasize differences.

We’ve also got a lot of scenes around Oceania which replace the street with more natural settings. Palm trees and other tropical foliage. Beaches and boats with unfamiliar riggings.

Between the Asian and Oceania images there are a decent number of photos that veer into the pretty girl territory. Some could even be pin-ups. I didn’t scan them but they’re there and combine with the rest of the tropes to remind me about how damaging photography’s gaze can be.

Do I like this set? I do. Very much. But it’s selling a very colonial gaze that I have to acknowledge. That it’s from 1928 helps here since I can view these as historical documents of how the world was sold to the English back when they used to run it. Photography is still young at this point and the world was still large.

Ninety years later I can look at these as examples of what we should have matured away from. That so often in modern photography we see the same kinds of images and experience the same kind of use which exoticizes the subjects and forces it into a western-framed concept of “authenticity” is the problem.

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.