Category Archives: photography

Also at MCNY

There was a lot of other stuff at MCNY besides Aids at Home. I spent the most time in the NY at its Core rooms familiarizing myself with the city’s history and the way it’s chosen to present itself.

It’s clear to me that in addition to the city’s myths the museum is actively addressing the blind spots in those myths. This is especially true in the first half of the exhibition which focuses on the growth of New York as a port city. So while I get to see all the big names I remember from my history books—Henry Hudson to Alexander Hamilton to Boss Tweed—I also get to read about the original Lenape inhabitants and how, by being a port city, New York was also integral to slave trading.

It’s also very interesting to see how small New York was—both geographically and by population—and how recent its growth and development into New York™ actually is. The exhibition chronicles the advancement of the grid across Manhattan, the transformation from farming to housing and skyscrapers, and the way that New York (before consolidation) wanted to emulate Brooklyn by building large public parks.

It’s good that the museum notes how New York only became THE American city after the Civil War and THE world city after World War 2. It’s important to be aware of how external events have benefitted New York, especially once we get close to the end of the 20th century and the museum gets to cover both New York’s decline and September 11.

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

There was a small exhibition of photographs around the subject of being Muslim in New York. These were good in how they reference a lot of the tropes of New York photography while updating them to reflect Muslims as everyday New Yorkers. Cricket instead of stickball. Halal street vendors instead of Hebrew National or Sabrett stands. These photos don’t challenge stereotypes as much as they treat Muslims as the everyday people they are, showing them working, praying, playing, and growing up.

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There was also a gallery of World War I posters. I don’t have much to say about these except that, while I’ve seen many of them in books and online, it’s always nice to see them in person and get a sense of what their actual sizes and colors are.

I particularly enjoy looking at how these are printed. This information which was sadly lacking in the wall text but I really like being able to distinguish between lithographs and silkscreens and trying to figure out how many inks were used and how certain effects were achieved.

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One wall was full of multi-lingual posters. It was weird for me to not see Spanish among them but the wall served as a reminder that, while one of the myths about America is that it’s an English-only country, we’ve had to deal with multiple languages for a long time.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin's Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin’s Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

The last room I checked out was a gallery of Todd Webb’s photographs. I’d seen these before as part of one of The Online Photographer’s book sales* but the photos, while nice enough, didn’t really grab me. I liked them much better the second time around because the museum did a wonderful job of locating them within the city.

*One I jumped on because of Dorothea Lange and George N. Barnard.

I’m not a New Yorker. I’ll never be a New Yorker. And for me, the appeal of most of Webb’s photos required a level of knowledge of the city which I just didn’t have. So it was great fun to get, in essence, a tour of the city through this photos.

Enduring Truths

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1863; albumen print mounted on cardboard; 4 x 2 1/2 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. I sell the shadow to support the substance

I read Picturing Frederick Douglass a year and a half ago. It’s great but I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Yes the photos are good. Yes Douglass’s thoughts on photography are wonderfully modern. But I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to comment on.

It was only upon reading Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths that I realized why I couldn’t figure out anything to say. Douglass—both in his lectures and his photographs—focuses a lot on the image itself. What it means to make them. What it means to sit for them. What it means to look at them. He does not talk much about the photographs as objects, he thinks of them as texts. While I find those discussions interesting, they’re not what really get me excited.

I enjoy photographs as objects and illustrations. I love thinking about how we use them and how they function in society. Enduring Truths is about how people used photographs in the mid-19th century. How they were made. How they were purchased. How they were sold and collected and saved. It’s fascinating stuff—even more so given my return to baseball cards—which captures the beginning of photographs as currency, not just personal images or texts.

That Sojourner Truth sustained herself financially through selling photos of herself* means that the issues of copyright, production (and reproduction), branding, etc. are just as important as the actual content of the image. Grigsby does a masterful job at explaining how copyright law had to change to adjust for photography—especially in terms of choosing whether to prioritize the photographer or the sitter in terms of ownership—and how Truth’s decision to brand her cards with a copyrighted slogan represents an additional level of rights assertion over the fluidity of the situation.

*at 50¢ a pop which adjusts to ~$10.00 per photo today. Which seems both like a lot but is also the amount for a single Topps Now card.

Grigsby also gets into how the cards are made—especially the way that photography had to adjust for taking photos of dark skin—, the time frames involved, the quantities purchased, and the way they’re taxed by the government as a way of describing the culture of carte de visite (CdV) creation and collecting. They’re not exactly cheap because you have to order multiple copies—tintypes are still more affordable for lower-income people—but they’re cheap enough that at a certain middle-class level you could afford to not just make your own but acquire other peoples’ too. You had to purchase your own cards and it’s notable that Sojourner Truth purchased up to a hundred at a time when most people were purchasing maybe a dozen.

Where Grigsby outdoes herself though is in bringing in paper currency and autograph collecting as parallel developments which deserve to be seen as part of burgeoning CdV photography culture.

At the same time photography is coming into its own as a mass culture phenomenon, autograph collecting is also developing. Put these together—sometimes literally with either signed CdVs or CdVs of signatures—and we see the beginning of celebrity culture where we can traffic in both collectible images and something indicating a personal touch.

Photography, from its very beginning, has been tied up with celebrity culture and assignations of “value.” For Grigsby to compare it with paper money, both in terms of how they develop at the same point in history and how fraught the discussion about who should be depicted on the money has always been* is fantastic. I love, LOVE her description of both photography and paper currency as “reverse alchemy” where precious metals are transformed into paper.

*There’s a reason the US passed a law to prohibit anyone who was alive from appearing on money.

But it’s more than just the idea that paper is worth something. It’s the idea that images are intended to circulate and through their circulation they take on lives which are outside the control of the sitters or the photographers. As a photographer, I love how Douglass’s lectures make me think about why I’m taking photos. But as someone who loves to look at photos, it’s in the life of the images and how we consume them—or try and direct that consumption like Truth did with her assertions of copyright—that fascinates me.

Also at The Met

The main reason I went to The Met was to see Irving Penn. But once I was inside and after I finished with the Penn show I wandered around and checked out a few other exhibitions before I got too tired. This isn’t a comprehensive round-up but rather listing a few of the other highlights of my trip

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The Burdick Collection—specifically the baseball cards—is the first place I head in the museum. It’s still off in a remote corner of the American Wing where it gets very little traffic. This is both disappointing and wonderful. I want more people to see these but I also enjoy having the whole gallery to myself.

I stand by my comments in last year’s Met post in that it’s especially interesting to look at print ephemera as art. While many of the baseball cards on display didn’t fit into last month’s photography history through being more paintings than photographs, they’re still part of our visual culture and language.

Baseball cards in particular are fascinating in how they represent a direct connection from the early days of cardomania to the modern trading card. The cards in the current hang cover the first half of the 20th century—from ~1910 lithographed tobacco cards to offset-printed Topps cards from 1959—which represents a period where many of the other subjects of cardomania disappeared* and the modern standard trading card format developed.

*Yes there are obviously non-sports trading cards for this entire time period, but the rise of movie and movie-star memorabilia resulted in a very different kind of mass-culture ephemera collecting. Instead of trading cards we had posters and lobby cards and promotional stills related to specific films and releases. Also, while I get hives from the current Allen & Ginter retro-revival brand, I have been finding myself intrigued by its non-sport choices and what those say about our national myths and nostalgia for other kinds of collecting.

As fun as it is to see cards from Topps series which I own, it’s the weirdness between the World Wars where cards became more and more kid-focused and tied in with gum and candy instead of tobacco which fascinates me. No standards—the sizes and artwork are wildly variable—yet there’s a certain “baseball cardness” to all of them. Only the rise of good color photography really puts and end to all of this and, while I enjoy the photography, I do kind of miss the wild-west nature of things which came before.

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The big fashion show this year was Rei Kawakubo. I liked it, but for all of its cleverness in blurring categories and dualities in fashion, it all felt a little too similar to me. Still, it’s always good to be reminded at how the entire point of fashion is to mess with the human silhouette. And recognizing the dualities in how we approach any art form is a great exercise in questioning and being aware of what our assumptions are.

The standout items for me were the clothes which were intended to be worn by multiple people at once and her approach to the male/female duality. I don’t have much to say or add to the multiple-person clothing except that I wish there were a video of it on the runway.

The male/female clothes though were very interesting—especially in how they were displayed. Kawakubo’s male clothing for women includes extremely wide-legged trousers. Looking at the catalog it’s apparent that these were intended to be worn as shorts* but in the exhibition, the dress forms suggest that they could also be worn as a miniskirt with the other leg kind of behaving like the front panel of a kilt.

*the last photo on The Met’s image page.

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The Early Photography in Italy exhibition, while small, was also a lot of fun. I’ve not see so many salt prints in one place before and this show was fascinating in the mix of different photography techniques. Paper negatives, glass negatives, salt prints, albumen prints in all possible combinations. And that’s not even getting into the daguerrotypes and colorized cartes de visite. I wish there was more about the processes in this show because I really wanted to note and compare the differences.

As much fun as albumen printing is, there’s something even more evocative in salt printing which feels less like a photograph and more like an illustration in terms of how certain details and contrasts get fuzzed out. This also holds with the negatives as the glass collodion negatives hold a lot more sharpness and detail (at the cost of being a lot more work to travel with).

But the photos themselves also represent a very important moment in history. It’s tempting to view these as being tourist prints and imagery from the early days of casual tourism. And they are. But the fact that tourist imagery is inherently tied up with national identity is important to remember. Where tourists travel and how a country markets itself are intimately connected and feed off of each other. That Italy at this point is uniting as a single country means that many of these images—especially the Gustave Le Gray photos of Garibaldi and the “new ruins” resulting from his campaigns—in addition to selling “Italy” to the world are also selling it to Italians themselves.

Irving Penn

After viewing the Met’s Irving Penn Centennial, I can’t remember ever having had to reevaluate my understanding of an artist to this degree. This is different than recognizing that someone who I hadn’t paid attention to is actually a legit talent;* I knew and respected Irving Penn’s work as a portraitist and the Met’s show made me completely reconsider whether that was what he was.

*e.g. Ai Weiwei

Irving Penn. Joe Louis, New York.

Joe Louis, New York

Irving Penn. Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes.

Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes

Don’t get me wrong, Penn’s portraits are great and there’s a reason I conceived of him as a portraitist first. I especially love the corner portraits in how the constraint of the set gives the sitters things to do—suggesting certain poses and postures, offering places to put their arms—which don’t involve props but allow people who may not be used to posing ways of finding their angles. It’s a fantastically simple idea which more people should steal.

His later portraits are also wonderful in that they’re very clearly collaborations with the sitters and as such are often beautifully tight and intimate*—often just a face and a hand being constrained by the edges of Penn’s viewfinder in the same way he used the tight corner to constrain his sitters a decade earlier.

*I also love that the Met has his backdrop on display—even if it’s being used as selfie-bait.

Irving Penn. Salad Ingredients, New York.

Salad Ingredients, New York

But at heart he’s clearly a still life photographer. The Met makes this point by both starting and ending the exhibition with his still lifes—the implication being that they’re both his first love and the thing which has kept him sane through decades of commercial photography.

I’m not usually a still life guy* but these are wonderful in their restraint and attention to detail. Every small thing matters. Every detail is considered. If a still life is an opportunity to essentially brag about how good you are at your craft, Penn is indeed a master.

*It doesn’t matter what genre or medium we’re talking about. I very rarely find myself interested in still lifes.

But there’s more to it than that. Penn, as a photographer, is extremely interested in doing the most with the least and making sure that the few details we can see not only adequately describe everything which we don’t see but also overwhelm us with their textures and tones so we feel like we don’t even need to see anything else.

Irving Penn. Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris.

Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris

It’s this sensibility which makes Penn such a fantastic fashion photographer. We don’t need to see the full garment—let alone the entire look. Just a sleeve will suffice. Or a hat. Or the ruffle of a collar.

He understands how fashion works—how clothing works. It’s not about looking pretty, it’s about the structure and construction and the little details and textures which distinguish one garment from another—not only giving them character but also suggesting what events or occasions they could be used for.

Clothing, even at it’s most impractical extreme, is functional. It’s always doing something whether it’s merely protecting the body or making a statement about the wearer.

Irving Penn. Marchande de Ballons, Paris.

Marchande de Ballons, Paris

Irving Penn. Garçon de Café.

Garçon de Café

There’s no reason why this approach should be limited to high fashion and indeed, Penn does not limit himself to that world either. His small trades series is fantastic as an August Sanderesque approach to functional clothing.

I love his Small Trades series so much. We’re invited to look—really look—at the different ways that tradesmen dress in order to do their jobs. How they need to present or protect themselves. Where their clothing gets worn out or reinforced. Every photo is a reminder of how clothing works and is intimately connected to what the person wearing it is doing.

That so many of these trades are blue-collar jobs which we—or at least the people who visit the Met—are no longer familiar with adds an extra layer of interest to these photos. I overheard a number of people trying to figure out what jobs like “blast furnace tender” were before settling on things like “the guy who takes care of the heating in your apartment building.”

Most of the jobs still exist somewhere in the world but to us these photos also serve as a memorial to a more physical world as seen through the clothing of the people who worked in it.

Irving Penn. Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs.

Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs

Which brings us to Penn’s ethnographic work. In another setting this would’ve deserved a massive amount of side-eye but here, it’s not only enjoying the context of the fashion and trades photography, it’s a continuation of that photography.

The Met does a great job at flagging how the idea of documenting indigenous cultures before they disappear is a dated concept.* But it’s not really necessary here. Penn isn’t really doing ethnographic work. He’s making the same photos he always does—treating the Peruvian clothing with the same respect and reverence he treats all clothing whether it’s a Balenciaga gown or a dirty apron.

*Sadly not as dated as it should be but at least new projects which continue to reduce cultures to an artificially-imposed appearance of “authenticity” receive the criticism they deserve.

For Penn everything is Balenciaga.

So we get to see the clothing in whatever view best presents the clothing. Maybe it’s a typical model shot which also works as a portrait of the villagers. Or maybe it’s a pose where the villager’s is looking at the ground so we can appreciate the full glory of her hat.

Irving Penn. Two Women in Black with Bread, Morocco.

Two Women in Black with Bread, Morocco

He skirts very close to reducing culture to appearance but, for me, he steers clear of that pitfall and winds up in a much more interesting place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his photographs of the Moroccan women still wearing their veils.

Again, Penn approaches the veils like he approaches all clothing. But because of the austere nature of these garments and the way that the women wearing them are posing, instead of looking at the fabric and construction details, we see how the garments themselves are worn. How they’re tucked and folded. Where they hit on the body and where they drape.

We get a sense of character through the different ways each women carries herself in the photo. There’s a wonderful video showing how Penn took these photos in a mobile tent with wind swirling all over the place. The degree of cooperation and trust between him and the veiled women is also readily apparent.

Irving Penn. Cigarette No. 98, New York.

Cigarette No. 98, New York

Irving Penn. Nude No. 105.

Nude No. 105

I also enjoy the sense that Penn grappled with the morality of his work as a fashion photographer. In addition to being a still-life photographer at heart, the way his personal work serves as a way for him to sort of rebel against his commercial work is very interesting. That he chose decidedly non-fashion-figure women for his nude photography is great. And I love his cigarette photography and the way it reflects his pathos over glamorizing it.

The photos are beautiful but ugly with strong recognizable branding that’s burned and trash. 40 years later I’m amazed at how I recognize the brands even though I don’t think Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield even existed while I was alive.

This was a good show as it was just based on the content on display. Lots of good photos and every period covered well. But the way it balanced Penn’s personal work with his commercial work in terms of both who he is as a photographer and what he felt about the photos he was paid to make makes it a great show.

On Process

Irving Penn. Man with Pink Face, New Guinea. Irving Penn. Man with Pink Face, New Guinea.

There’s not a lot of information on Penn’s process but what there is is fascinating. One of the long-running jokes we have online is the color vs black and white debate and how a number of people on the web trot out the axiom that photographing in color is photographing clothes. That much of Penn’s work involves shooting on color slide film then printing in black and white repeatedly made me chuckle since Penn essentially specialized in taking pictures of clothes.

I found myself wondering a lot about how Penn converted his slide film to black and white prints. There’s a lot of information about Penn’s Platinum printing but  precious little about everything leading up to the printmaking itself. Is the internegative an enlargement made in the darkroom? Did he do any color filtering while making the enlargement?

The Platinum Printing information on the other hand is very interesting in how Penn created registration pins and repeatedly coated and exposed the paper so as to have more control over the final print. It’s a pretty interesting refinement on standard contact printing which definitely appeals to my background working in a printshop.

"Christmas at Cuzco," Vogue

“Christmas at Cuzco,” Vogue

"America, Inc.," Vogue

“America, Inc.,” Vogue

At the same time, I didn’t like a lot of his Platinum prints and—I readily admit how blasphemous this is—often preferred the halftoned prints in Vogue. I felt like Penn may have been a bit too seduced by what he could do with his fancy pin-registration contact-printing rig and, while I like the photos, found a lot of the details to be unnecessarily muddy.

And I say unnecessarily because the magazines were on display and the details were clearer there—as if someone in Vogue’s prepress recognized that shadows would block up on press and opened everything up so that would print nicely.

The magazines on display also included many more color prints of photos which were only black and white on the walls. It’s great to see both and see how Penn reimagined the scene in black and white.

3D

Baseball team, White Oak Cotton Mills. Greensboro, N. C. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-9912-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 Players of the "Cubs" in dugout before calling of a game of World Series, October, 1929, at Chicago, Ill. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/stereo/item/92508756/

In looking at early photographic baseball cards I found myself wondering whether stereographs should also count as trading cards. I never see them mentioned in baseball card discussions but they fit the bill in terms of being photographs which were intended for mass consumption and trading.

The only difference is that stereograms tend to be about locations or events rather than people. Doing a quick search of large online repositories doesn’t turn up a lot of baseball, just some team photos—such as the one above from 1909—or special events such as the 1929 World Series. And while these are both subjects which come up time and again on baseball cards, they’re always supplements to the set of individual player photos.

Viewmaster

Still, this got me thinking both about 3D photography and 3D baseball cards. If stereograms don’t feel like cards, what about Viewmaster? I didn’t remember any Viewmaster baseball sets but I figured they had to exist. They do. As with the stereograms, this doesn’t feel like a baseball card to me. But it’s closer in how it’s about individual players and, if these were sold cheaply in packs and were a collectible set, could very well have become part of the baseball card collecting world.

Viewmaster rubs a lot of the same nostalgia feels that baseball cards do. It’s a simple concept we all loved as kids—my kids still love it. The only problem is that you need the gadget to see the photos. At least with stereograms you could view the photos in 2D without needing a device. But requiring the 3D viewer and having that viewer limit the experience to a single person viewing a single image at a time means that it’s hard to share and display your collection.

I did some searching for anaglyph baseball cards but found nothing. This surprised me since, even if the cards would look awful, anaglyph 3D and its red/blue glasses is the iconic 3D look even today.

Kelloggs 3-D Super Stars

Instead what we have is lenticular 3D cards. It seems like the first versions were the super-limited-release Topps 3D set in 1968. I’ve not seen these but I have seen the more-common Kellogg’s 3-D Super Stars from the 1970s and 80s. These were always cool even with the cracking and bending issues.

The lenticular effect is less 3D and more more of just a layer of depth in the card. But it’s still a fun technology* which was much more accessible than stereograms or Viewmasters. A whole batch of these cards could be viewed at once by many people and, if in a binder sheet, the entire sheet would have depth rather than each one needing to be looked at individually.**

*As a 1980s kid I grew up with Sportsflics which used lenticular printing as a way to show motion. These were also super cool but belong in their own discussion.

**I also need to flag 1985’s Topps 3-D which are actual textured card surfaces rather than an optical effect and so in my view belong with the various die-cut cards as something distinct from 3D photography.

1992 Upper Deck Denny’s Hologram

By the 1990s hologram technology was no longer the parlor trick it was when that first National Geographic came out with the eagle on the cover.* Where it was initially part of how Upper Deck branded its logo, their Denny’s sets in the early 1990s were entirely holographic cards.

*March 1984. I still remember it blowing my mind and expecting to find something, anything, hidden in the magazine because it couldn’t just be on the cover.

I haven’t looked at mine in two and a half decades but I remember them as being similar to the lenticular cards—not true 3D but rather multiple flat layers which still gave the card depth. I suspect that this is because they couldn’t take a proper holographic image of the player and instead had to use an existing photograph and layer it with other images.

They weren’t as easy to look at as the lenticular cards. There was no real color and your viewing angles were kind of limited. But I still remember them fondly and kind of want to acquire more of these. They’re cheaper on eBay than buying a Grand Slam was 25 years ago.

I also googled around to see if there were any Magic Eye baseball cards but, as opposed to my dissappointment in finding no anaglyphs, I was relieved to find no autostereograms.

Looking at Baseball Cards

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

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

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

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

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

George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400151 Goodwin & Company Michael Joseph Buck Ewing, New York, from the series Old Judge Cigarettes http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400227

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*My guess is 4×5 inch sheet film.

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

*I love this photo from 1911.

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

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

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

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

*More info in the Pier 24 Secondhand post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topps 1950s-1960s

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

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

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

1970 Topps

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

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

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

*36 exposures per roll instead of 10 or 12.

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

1972 Topps

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

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

**As per Doug McWilliams.

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

Topps 1980s Action

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

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

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

Topps 1980s Portraits

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

*Doug McWilliams again.

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

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

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

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

2016 Topps Heritage

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

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

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

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

Revealing Pictures

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Sheng Qi

Sheng Qi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at the Princeton Museum

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