Category Archives: race and privilege

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.

Por qué no los dos

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

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

This post has been sitting in the back of my mind since I saw Richard Misrach speak a month and half ago. He came to Princeton to talk about Border Cantos and I jumped at the opportunity to see him and get my book signed. I enjoyed the talk—especially Guillermo Galindo’s performance of small musical instruments from the BorderCantos collaboration—but there wasn’t enough for me to write another blog post.

Given the most-recent election results and the way we’re grappling with processing and protesting the results, the audience reaction to Misrach’s photos is now worth remembering and commenting on.

First though, a long pull-quote from a blogpost by Sean Bonner about his 6-year-old son taking an “I Love Cats” to an anti-Trump protest.

“Hi, can we talk to you for a moment about your son’s sign?”

“Sure”

“It’s very cute, but we are concerned that if someone sees it and takes a photo it will misrepresent the feeling of this event.”

“Lots of people have taken photos of it all night, everyone has been enjoying it”

“That’s the problem, it’s sending the wrong message – I Love Cats? This isn’t about cats”

“He’s 6, that’s what he wanted on his sign. I’m not going to put my politics on a sign and make him carry it.”

“He doesn’t support immigrants rights?”

“He’s 6”

“There are lots of kids here with political signs”

“Sure, that their parents wrote for them”

“But what will people think if they see this sign”

“I don’t really care”

“YOU DON’T CARE?”

“Are you really upset that a 6 year old isn’t protesting correctly?”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you weren’t a white man, maybe you should meet an immigrant and find out how they feel, you are mocking the serious people here… Racist!”

I’ve seen similar stories and reactions on Twitter or Facebook between people who are upset but still willing to have some fun and people who are upset at anything which threatens the seriousness of the situation. I’ve had that debate in my head too. Is it in poor taste to carry on posting stupid jokes and kid photos? Am I being too serious by posting a lot more political content? Is it wrong or bad to find the humor in things that, despite their ridiculousness, are incredibly dangerous?

Which takes us back to Misrach. At his talk, when this photo came up on the slideshow, the audience laughed. As they should. It’s ridiculous and stupid and captures everything about the sisyphean futility of building the wall and thinking that it will make any difference to our security. Misrach encouraged this humor with his sequencing where we saw increasingly porous border walls and then this image was the punchline.

I didn’t find out about it until later but this really upset some of the gente students. My immediate reaction upon learning how upset they were was complete surprise. I couldn’t imagine Misrach’s work being upsetting since it’s so quiet and detached. Only once I took a few moments to reflect about where the students were coming from did I realize that that was exactly the problem.

The students who were upset are not photography aficionados. They came to the project from the point of view of individuals for whom the border, and its security, is intensely personal. The wall isn’t an abstract concept or laughing matter. They have family members who have crossed. Family members who have failed to cross. Where I saw saw a useless ridiculous hilarious waste of government resources, they saw a kill zone where you’re more likely to be shot.

Of. Fucking. Course. This. Is. Triggering.

That said, that they got this triggered indicates that Princeton failed to adequately warn them about what to expect. I think this was billed as just “border photography” without any explanation about how this is a landscape photographer working within that tradition first. It’s white guy photography except that Misrach isn’t positioning himself as the expert on border issues.* He uses his whiteness to give him access and protection from the Border Patrol but that‘s about it.

*Though this is a case where the speak over a slideshow format fails since it pushes things toward the “I’m the expert, hear me lecture” side of the spectrum.

I get the sense that the students expected something more overtly political and instead got something which, to them, prettifies and trivializes a life or death situation. They are not wrong.

I on the otherhand see Misrach’s work as subverting the myth of The West, its freedom of movement, and promise for reinvention and infinite travel. This is a political statement. As is demonstrating the quixotic absurdity of the concept of s national border. I am not wrong either.

So where do we go from here?

First, both reactions are correct and valid. That something is triggering does not mean it’s bad or that anyone who likes it is bad. The same with finding it to be funny. It’s good—I’d say imperative—to laugh and keep your sense of humor about even the darkest subjects. Laughing doesn’t always mean minimizing or dismissing, it also means you’re coping and holding on to your humanity.

But if you’re laughing and someone challenges you? Taking the time to reflect on where they’re coming from is a much better reaction than telling them to “lighten up,” lecture them why they’re wrong, or get defensive about your position.* And it’s definitely better than immediately centering your feelings over the complaints of someone who’s been triggered. You might have the privilege to laugh because it’s not as life or death for you. Learn why it’s that serious to other people.

*Also please please please don’t use any defense about how your spouse or friend is a member of the group for which this is life and death as an excuse for why you don’t have to listen to that group’s concerns.

Border Cantos

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

Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.

Richard Misrach. Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

Guillermo Galindo. Zapatello, 2014.

Zapatello, 2014

Guillermo Galindo. Efigie. 2014.

Efigie. 2014

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

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

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

The Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*By Fujita and Matsusaburō.

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

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

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

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

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

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

**Both are admittedly difficult to find.

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

By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent

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

Steve McCurry Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

Steve McCurry
Railway between Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.

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

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

Steve McCurry Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Steve McCurry
Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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

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

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

The Basement

I never need a map

Yayoi Kusama, born 1929 Large White Net, 1958.

Japanese, Showa Period, 1926–1989, and Heisei Period, 1989–present
Yayoi Kusama, born 1929
Large White Net, 1958.

Maria Martinez, Jar decorated with Avanyu (water serpent), 1919–20

Made by Maria Montoya Martinez, Native American, 1886–1980
Painted by Julian Martinez, Native American, 1879–1943
Place made: Rio Grande, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, United States
Jar decorated with Avanyu (water serpent), 1919–20

PU Dogon

Dogon artist
Place made: Mali
Ladder, 20th century

The art created by people of color were only represented in the “ancient” and “pre-columbian” sections of the museum — as if our stories only existed a long time ago and there was nothing notable happening in our communities since then.

Sabiha Basrai

I touched on this in an earlier post but haven’t really gone off on a proper rant. I like the Princeton Museum a lot, but whenever I go I’m always steeling myself against getting too upset at how it treats art made by non-white people. I wish it were just that the Asian, African, and Pre-Columbian American galleries are in the basement. But it’s not. There’s so much more.

There’s the way that the Pre-Columbian gallery lumps everything from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego together in the same way that the African gallery (minus ancient Egypt) treats Africa as a single homogenous concept.

There’s the way that the galleries are labeled as “ancient” despite many of their contents being from the 20th century. And those modern pieces are described in craft terms whether by erasing the artist, placing the artwork in an imperial period, or just mixing it in with centuries-old pieces.

There’s the way that even artists working in, or in conversation with, the Western Art World upstairs get pigeonholed as ethnic craftsmen. Yayoi Kusama? In the basement. Toshiko Takaezu? In the basement. The art world is already extremely white. Taking the non-white artists out of the art galleries and putting them in the craft galleries makes it appear even whiter.

And I wish this were just a rant about the Princeton Museum. But it’s not. This kind of thing occurs all over the place—to the point where not needing a museum map is a joke I’ve made with fellow non-white museumgoers. We’re used to heading downstairs to see our cultural heritage. We’re used to seeing it lumped together with every other culture on the continent. We’re used to seeing it portrayed as an ancient tradition that no longer exists.

We joke about it because it comes with the price of admission and because it’s easier to laugh than to get mad.

On design

I’ve covered art and function as well as design before but never really tied together my issues about how many museums display art with how I’d love for them to treat more art as Design.

One of the wonderful things about design* is that it’s about how people interact with items. This is hugely important when discussing any art. Just looking at something is interactive—where you look, how long, how it makes you feel, what information it conveys. Understanding who the audience of a piece is and the artistic context it’s part of are also elements of the design.

*Full disclosure, as someone with a design background, I have to admit that there’s an element of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” going on too.

As much as we like to conceive of art as being about the artist only—to the point where considering an audience makes us think about “selling out”—once something gets pulled into a museum, it’s inherently in conversation with the museum audience and the other pieces in the collection. Sadly, museums only really present things this way with design-specific exhibitions.

In design exhibitions you have displays which explain the context. We need to know what the products are and what makes their particular designs interesting. Maybe they allow for use in a particularly elegant way. Maybe they’re using materials in a new and novel method. Maybe they’re moving a previously-utilitarian concept into a luxury space. Maybe they’re doing the opposite and bring a product to the masses. We have to understand what else is going on in the world which is informing the designs.

In an art setting, asking and answering the same design questions will help us better understand things. What is this piece in conversation with? How is it intended to be used? How have people actually used it? What has it influenced or changed? This allows you to call out how the West has mined the rest of the world for cultural inspiration,* point out how technologies have travelled,** and recognize that art and artists—especially in the 20th century, especially in continents that have been colonized by the West—are very much aware of the general track of western art.

*Something that Princeton did do a wonderful job with for a brief while when they had a Japanese print paired with a Toulouse-Lautrec print and carved figure from Côte d’Ivoire paired with a Modigliani painting in the Modern Europe galleries upstairs.

**Also something Princeton did wonderfully, the Itinerant Languages of Photography show treated photography and photographic images as design elements that get constantly repurposed and reused in Latin America.

The City Lost and Found

Baltimore on my Mind

Paul Rudolph. Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Bird's-eye perspective section. Rendering. 1970

Paul Rudolph. Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. 1970

John Malmin. Aug. 13, 1965: National Guard troops secure a stretch of 103rd Street, dubbed Charcoal Alley, in Watts to help Los Angeles authorities restore order. This image is looking east from Compton Avenue.

John Malmin. Watts. August 13, 1965

Helen Levitt. New York. 1972

Helen Levitt. New York. 1972

Bertrand Goldberg. River City I, Chicago, Illinois, 1972/79

Bertrand Goldberg. River City I, Chicago, Illinois, 1972/79

Wall of Respect. Ebony Magazine. December 1967.

Wall of Respect. Ebony Magazine. December 1967.

Seeing Princeton’s City Lost and Found show a week before Baltimore blew up* was very interesting timing. It’s weird to be working through my reactions to a show while a real world event unfolds which essentially references everything I’m working through. But this show covers the 1960s and 1970s in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Which means it covers the Harlem riots, Chicago riots, and Watts riots—all of which are extremely relevant to the discussions we’re having today about Baltimore. We still haven’t learned the lessons from 1968.

*I’m really curious to see how that Wiki page changes since the whole riot/protest/rebellion/uprising discussion is also ongoing.

The show isn’t about the riots, but rather the way cities were evolving in the 1960s and 1970s as the demographics and industry changed. A lot of people and industry moving out. And a lot of people and infrastructure being left behind in ways that the powers that be viewed as requiring renewal or fixing or controlling.  While the backstory is missing in the show, even the gist of it is enough to get started.

We get to see urban renewal plans, municipal commission documents, documentary photographs, street photographs, photojournalism, investigative art projects, performance art projects, guerrilla art projects, and more, all capturing various ways that the city was in flux and various groups were reacting to the changes, proposed changes, or lack of changes, that were going on. It shows us what the cities were like ~50 years ago and what the primary issues were then. Looking at everything, even before the Baltimore protests erupted, I was struck by how little had really changed since that time period.

The issue between balancing the need to improve aging cities with being fair to the people who still live in the cities* with addressing the injustices that have left many of those people in, or a single catastrophe removed from, poverty is not just a difficult problem we have to solve, it’s the problem we have to solve.

*Whether they’re blacks living in formerly redlined neighborhoods or artists who need affordable housing or immigrants trying to start new lives here.

And the cities do need to be improved and renewed. While urban renewal is frequently code for gentrification or the destruction of existing communities, neglect and non-investment* are just as destructive. The plans all look glorious. Wonderful mixed-use developments. High density—affordable high density—living coupled with urban parks and communal greenspaces. Transportation** accessibility as a key feature of everything. Even a lot of balancing new developments with old architecture by incorporating the old buildings into the design. I look at these plans and wish that they’d built them since they address almost all the issues*** currently afflicting cities.

*Let alone actual theft in the form of subprime mortgages or “buying” homes on contract or the systematic destruction of property and businesses if, against all odds, these areas actually do flourish.

**One of the few things that betrays the age of these plans is how car-focused everything is. Though it is interesting to note that while New York was trying to improve access for cars, the LA plans were trying to improve walkability.

***Public transportation being the notable absence.

A new city built along these lines would be a thing of beauty. The plans still look futuristic because we just can’t do things like this. Part of me wants to tear my hair out because we’ve known that we need to do this for decades. The other part of me looks at the plans and understands why we can’t.

Because I also look at these plans and notice that the ideas for renewal all involve destroying and rebuilding entire swaths of the city. And I know that to do any of this, city government will have to eminent domain the cheapest available land occupied by the least-politically-powerful people. And that the land is cheap because of racist governmental policies and white flight. And that the new growth, even if truly affordable, will not—cannot—replace the former neighborhoods.

And I look at the photos of those neighborhoods and remember the Leonard Freed book in my parents’ house and see that while they look worn down and in need of upgrading, people live their entire lives there and take pride in their neighborhoods.

And this is all ~50 years ago and things are basically the same and this wasn’t a new problem even then and no wonder people are pissed and frustrated and the real wonder is why these kind of demonstrations don’t happen more often.

The reality on the ground and the promised beauty of the plans are two threads that this show is unable to reconcile. This feels like a weakness in the exhibition as much of my time in the galleries involved being frustrated by what felt like the absence of a thesis statement for the exhibition. But this absence also feels honest and when I wasn’t frustrated I was nodding my head in agreement and recognition of this. I want to see an easy answer. We wish there were an easy answer. There is no easy answer.

The only conclusions I can draw from the exhibition require me to think about what I didn’t see there. There are no plans that treat the city as something that needs retrofitting rather than being a complete teardown and rebuild. None that view anything beyond the architectural legacy of the area to be worth considering for selected salvation.* None that involve the communities and give them any agency over what they need. All of these are projects and visions that, if they exist, would live in the disconnect which is on display. I suspect though that they don’t exist, whether 50 years ago or today.

*Not that I disagree with saving architecturally-significant buildings. Just that it says a lot about priorities when it’s only the architecture that’s considered worth saving.

Photography as social document

Richard Nickel. Untitled (Construction of McCormick Place), 1958/60

Richard Nickel. Untitled (Construction of McCormick Place), 1958/60

Aaron Rose. Untitled (The demolition of Pennsylvania Station), 1964-1965

Aaron Rose. Untitled (The demolition of Pennsylvania Station), 1964-1965

New York City Planning Commission. Spread from Plan for New York City. 1969

New York City Planning Commission. Spread from Plan for New York City. 1969

Department of City Planning, Los Angeles. Spread from Concepts for Los Angeles. 1967

Department of City Planning, Los Angeles. Spread from Concepts for Los Angeles. 1967

William Reagh. Bunker Hill to soon be developed. 1971

William Reagh. Bunker Hill to soon be developed. 1971

Thomas Struth. West Broadway, New York. 1978

Thomas Struth. West Broadway, New York. 1978

John Humble.  300 Block of Broadway, Los Angeles, October 3, 1980

John Humble. 300 Block of Broadway, Los Angeles, October 3, 1980

Aside from the general reactions I had to this show, it’s also very interesting from a photography point of view. While a lot of the photos on display were intended as art photos, they’re not being used as art here—despite being exhibited in an art museum. These are photos as social history, social documents, items that tell us about the place, who lived there, how it’s changing, what life is like on the ground rather than from the planning offices.

It’s not about the photos as objects: Some of them are vintage prints. Some are slides. Some are mechanical prints. Some are halftones in magazines or books. Some—as with the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition—are digital prints from scanned negatives. It’s about the photos and the stories they contain.

I still looked at the photos with an eye toward the art side of things. But even as someone who often looks at the social context around the photography* I was even more tuned into this element here. The photos—and the rest of the art in the exhibition—were telling me the stories. I didn’t have to pull them out on my own. And there are too many stories to mention so I’ll just go over the ones that caught my eye.

*cf. my Winogrand writeup.

Danny Lyon and Aaron Rose’s photos of the destruction of lower Manhattan at first have some ruin porn vibes going on except that rather than capturing the superficial beauty of decay and abandonment, these are about change and questioning the idea that progress requires destroying the past. These photos get compared to the photos that show new buildings going up. Same metal frames, same men in hard hats, and the same dust and dirt of power tools. Just a different side of the coin.

The planning commission documents contain essentially photo essays of street photography as a way of understanding that people live in the city. Where street photography often has a bad reputation, these documents show what it does well. It’s not just about the tropes and getting that decisive moment where everything in the frame lines up perfectly. It also captures a sense of place and time in a way that no other kind of photography really can.

There’s plenty of street photography on display just by itself too. Classic black and white work by Garry Winogrand or Leonard Freed. Color work by Helen Levitt or Bruce Davidson. In a different show I’d be appreciating the photos individually. In this show, between the planning commission documents and the magazine photo essays,* I’m fitting the rest of the photos into my own imagined social documents of how the city works and what it’s like to navigate one on foot.

*Including Gordon Parks’s Harlem Family and Ebony’s Wall of Respect.

Street photography is a human’s-eye view of the city. Even in the age of the automobile, this perspective is necessary to keep in mind. No matter how much the cities need to be fixed, if they don’t work on the street-level human scale they don’t work at all. And while I appreciate Martha Rosler’s attempts reject the theatricality of traditional street photography, the way she added distance between herself and her subjects resulted in a point of view that felt closer to a car’s-eye view of the city. There’s something about being in the middle of things in the city that’s absolutely necessary.

This is of obvious import in a city like New York but it’s also relevant to Los Angeles. There are a series of photographs by various photographers looking at the demolished but undeveloped Bunker Hill site in downtown Los Angeles. These photos are coupled with images of different redevelopment plans that were attempted over the years. Some were not pedestrian-friendly, others were. Part of the problem with the site is that the less pedestrian-friendly plans were tried first and they just didn’t work. The resulting buildings were not a place anyone wanted to be.

This emphasis on the importance of scale comes up in a lot of the more landscape-like photography in the city too. From Thomas Struth’s super-precise photographs of New York to John Humble’s photos of LA, you can see the contrast between new developments and the way they dwarf the older, human-scale architecture. We need both types of building in the modern city and making sure they work together is the challenge.

Other highlights

Art Sinsabaugh. Chicago Landscape #117, 1964

Art Sinsabaugh. Chicago Landscape #117, 1964

John Divola. MGM #12 1979-80

John Divola. MGM #12 1979-80

ASCO. Instant Mural. 1974

Asco. Instant Mural. 1974

I really liked Arthur Tress’s Open Space in the Inner City* in that it felt like one of the few instances where the photography and plans where being discussed at a local level. These were originally mechanical prints rather than fine-art prints and the goal was to discuss locally about reclaiming existing open space into real parks. I’m not sure it ever got past this stage but it’s one of the few examples which even kind of sits in the middle of the divide between planning and local input.

*Holy crap he has a Blurb presence and you can get Volumes 1 and 2 there.

Art Sinsabaugh’s panoramas are also great. I’m kind of a sucker for panoramas in general but I enjoy the way these show the commitment to the automobile. One of the things missing from the New Topographics is focusing on the architecture of the highway system itself. Sinsabaugh’s work is interesting to view with that context in mind.

Hans Haake’s real estate holdings piece isn’t photography per se but does rely on photographs of each location to really make concrete the point about the way so few people control so much of the land. And how labyrinthine the holding companies are so as to obscure who’s actually in charge.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto was a nice discovery for me. His quieter Chicago cityscapes feel a lot closer to the kinds of photographs I enjoy making and I’ll be looking more into his work in the future.

John Divola’s MGM lots are a brilliant addition to the show in that they blur the lines between fictitious and real urban decay and the way it’s presented in the media.The lots are fake creations meant to look like New York or Chicago or anywhere else, but they’re also open space that will eventually be developed into self-contained modern cities with Los Angeles.

It’s always nice to see Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Especially now with more and more Google Street View projects occurring, it’s nice to examine one that predates them all.

Bruce Nauman’s LA Air meanwhile is one of two references in the show to explicit environmental issues in the city.* It’s funny and snarky but also points out one of the things that is an issue now but which wasn’t under consideration ~50 years ago. The environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s is barely mentioned in this exhibition despite all the grand plans involve improving automobile circulation in the city. While a lot of the race issues would remain the same in a similar exhibit of today’s cities, I’d expect a lot more LEED-certified or Cradle to Cradle ideas in the aspirational city plans.

*The other is Documerica which, while environmental, also feels like a slice of everyday like in the 1970s.

Another blind spot involves non-black ethnic groups in the cities. I understand why the exhibition is so black-focused but other non-white communities are also an important part of the New York, Chicago, and LA experience. I only noticed mentions of these other groups in a few photos by Jonas Dovydenas documenting ethnic enclaves in Chicago, Luis Medina’s photos of Latino gang members in the 1980s, and Asco’s Chicano activist work.

Of those, Asco caught my attention since they combined Latino traditions like mural painting with Chicano activism about how Latinos are mistreated in the city. Asco’s work, by being self-representational, also pointed out how little non-white self-representation was present in the rest of the exhibition.* As with the environmental stuff I’d expect a lot more self-representational work in a modern version of this exhibition.

*I think just Gordon Parks and the Ebony article. Though there’s also a collage by Romare Bearden on display. 

I would also expect a lot more Asians—both traditional Asian communities under pressure to gentrification and the rich Asian gentrifiers who are displacing a lot of the old-time residents. But that’s for the modern show which also has to include the rush back to the city by booming businesses and young professionals alike.