Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Revealing Pictures 2.0

Note: this previously posted on NJWV.

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.

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

John Chamberlain

This previously posted in a slightly different form on NJWV.

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series
John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

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I’m familiar with John Chamberlain’s sculptures of twisted metal. I had no idea about his photography. He’s a Widelux junkie* and his photos are just a ton of fun. A lot of them are playing with the distortion capabilities of the swing lens. While this is the kind of thing which could easily become a trite gimmick, in Chamberlain’s hands the resulting images look a lot like his sculptures.

*The most famous of which may be Jeff Bridges. God damn do I want a book of his photos.

His series of vertical selfies meanwhile is goofy and a good reminder that panoramas don’t have to be horizontal. They suggest a more casual project and are a nice reminder that not everything an artist works on has to be high-concept.

The worst part of this room is that now I want a Widelux—or at least a Horizon—more than ever.

Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

Revealing Pictures

This previously posted in a slightly different format on NJWV.

Edmund Clarke Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012
Edmund Clarke
Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012
Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16
Pieter Hugo
Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

I had to walk through Revealing Pictures twice. The way the Princeton Art Museum has chosen to display the photos gave me an uneasy sense of treating black bodies as a form of ruin porn where an aesthetic appeal is used to gloss over the underlying trauma in the image. This is specifically a problem with the hanging and wall text and is not at all a critique of the images themselves. The installation over-emphasises the underlying trauma and spends a lot of time trumpeting the presence of non-western, non-white subject matter.

The show however is not about this at all and is instead both much simpler and much more my kind of thing.

While there’s no catalog, the small saddlestitched handout includes a short bio of the collector* The bio saves the entire show. He’s not interested in trauma, he’s found himself interested in understated portraits and landscapes which require additional context to understand. And he’s been smart enough to recognize that instead of collecting one image per artist, collecting a handful of images from each series/artist explains the context better than any wall text.

*As well as a picklist for the show which is the kind of awesome thing every museum should hand out.

There’ve been occasional rants in photoland about the increase in conceptual photography and how photos are no longer about just the image. I find myself rolling my eyes at these rants because you can’t escape context no matter how hard you try. This small show makes the case for context in even the most straightforward images and for recognizing how much photography relies on that information for its power.*

*Two things I’ve thought about before on my blog in a general sense and here in terms of a specific exhibition on context.

Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.

California: The Art of Water

This originally posted on NJWV.

Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.
Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.
William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.
William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.
Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, Cal., ca. 1871.
Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, Cal., ca. 1871.
Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.
Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.
Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.
Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.
Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.
Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.
Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.
Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.
Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1California, USA, 2009.
Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1, California, USA, 2009.
David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.
David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.

The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.

Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.

As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.

*As with war photography, it’s always worth remembering that perspective is a disease of the eye

This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.

It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.

*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.

In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.

Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.

What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.

Entire, Indivisible