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.*
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.
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 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.
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 one small photo exhibition I saw during my trip to The Met was about Crime Stories. I enjoyed it, especially since when I saw it I was still thinking about warphotography. Crime and crime-related photographs operate in a very similar category of allowing us to see and really look at events which we don’t usually get to experience. Rather than war, we’re talking about crime. But in both cases it’s the proximity to death and danger which is compelling.
Photography has always had an intimate relationship with death and danger. Its voyeuristic aspects allow us to see things we’ve been culturally conditioned to think of as of limits and its documentary aspect lends itself to evidence and observation. We don’t want to look but not only is it hard to turn away, we often look closer and try and discern some level of truth out of the photo.
The danger is seductive. Executions have a long history of being public spectacles. As much as we now decry executions and the publishing of images which show death, there is still part of us deep inside which wants to see that evidence. Confronting that violence inside ourselves is how photos like William Klein’s, which don’t actually depict violence, draw their power. It’s all imagery we grow up with in stories, act out as kids, and then act all shocked about when it’s used to attract clicks.*
*I almost wrote “sell tabloids/newspapers” but this is the world we now live in.
Looking at crime photos—whether by Weegee or an unmanned surveillance camera—lets us play amateur detective as we try and spot details and get a sense about what happened. The same thing with looking at mugshots and other typographies of “criminal types.” As much as we know that we can’t really know what criminals look like, I don’t think we fully believe it in our guts. So we look at the photos and try and reach any sort of conclusion.
As much as I liked the show though, I wanted more. I’d love to see these taken to the present day where cell phone cameras and the autopanopticon of citizen photography have taken surveillance to a whole new level. I can’t look at the history of crime photos without thinking about the events of the past couple years. I’m not just thinking about how it’s the police which are committing the crimes either.
It’s been increasingly obvious that we, as a culture, object to crime images a lot more with certain kinds of victims while others are still seen and sold as entertainment. It’s no longer just about the fascination we have with viewing and consuming crime images that we need to discuss, we also have to confront our biases about whose images are still commodities and who we see as human.
The mug shot–like portrait captures Hickock’s sullen, lopsided face with mesmerizing clarity, as if searching for physiognomic clues to his criminal pathology.
The minimal, straightforward style of the photograph highlights the idiosyncrasies of the killer’s face and suggests that the photographer is looking for evidence, should it exist, of a homicidal pathology.
Sometimes museum texts make me smile. I’ve long been amused by SFMOMA’s description of Avedon’s Dick Hickock photo. Seeing essentially the exact same description at The Met made me laugh in the gallery. Yes, while this is what we do when viewing this photo when it’s presented in the context of Crime Stories or some other salacious setting, it seems weird to describe an Avedon this way. As Kukkurovaca points out, this is pretty much the Avedon modus operandi.
All that said, if someone wants to use The Met and SFMOMA’s text as a way of describing The Family I’m totally for it.
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.**
**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.
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.
They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.
While I was looking at War is Beautiful I couldn’t help but think about the iconic, well-known photos from Vietnam or World War 2. Those images are the beginning of what has become the cinematic language of war photography. They’re what the movies reference and are part of our common understanding of what war photography is supposed to look like.
Instead of looking at those images though, I got Jennifer Watts’s A Strange and Fearful Interest off the shelf and decided to look at Civil War photographs. Looking at the Civil War photography shows the beginnings of our current visual culture. We can see the beginnings of personal image sharing as well as the ability for images of “real life” to become larger than life. At the same time, we’re seeing other directions or standards that could’ve been taken.
The Civil War reflects photography’s first big maturation in terms of both how we understand what we’re looking at and in terms of figuring out what practices actually work for documenting and disseminating images. There were no set rules or perspectives to copy, the field photographers had to figure things out on their own. Nor were there guidelines about what’s ethically acceptable with regards to subject matter or staging a scene. The photos of dead soldiers*—and the way those bodies were often moved by the photographers—are so wrong in terms of the current rules of photography.
*Specifically noted in the book with the Antietam photos but applicable to Gettysburg and many other battlefields too.
Where the Vietnam and World War 2 images are still familiar to us, the Civil War photographs are more abstract. Their look—the staging, motion blur, toning, edge effects, etc.—reads as romance and nostalgia rather than documentation. They don’t look real to us anymore even though their existence fundamentally changed our understanding of both warfare and death.
But the photos themselves did say a lot about the war and the nature of violent death which, while people obviously knew,* were not images which were disseminated. There’s something about seeing the images of the bodies in the battlefields which drives home the cost of it all. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that we created National Cemeteries as a response to the Civil War. Our collective sense of war and its outcomes changed during the Civil War—in large part due to having a new medium with which to share and remember these things.
*Warfare, and in particular the Civil War, being something which touched a much larger percentage of the population then than it does now.
It was not just images of war which were suddenly being disseminated across the US. Tintypes and ambrotypes allowed for soldiers to both send images back home and keep images of home with them on the front. While still very much a portrait/sitter arrangement, this was a much more democratic* product in how it opened up the ability for this kind of personal connection to many more people.
*Reminding me of the creation vs consumption debate a few years ago. While I still agree that the Brownie opened up the true democratic floodgates, tintypes, ambrotypes, and cartes de visite did create a massive change in how we treated and understood images too.
Since Confederate photographers all but disappeared after—if not during—the war, J.D. Edwards is the only Confederate photographer featured in the book. This explicitly calls attention to how our visual understanding of the Civil War is almost exclusively the Union point of view. And as much as I hadn’t realized this before, it reminded me how most of my conception of war photography is aligned with the point of view of the US or the west.
I really like George N. Barnard’s landscapes of Sherman in Georgia. Barnard kept taking landscape photographs—very much in the style of O’Sullivan or Watkins—where the view is what’s important. In Barnard’s case though, rather than the promise of taming unspoiled nature, we see the architecture and landscapes of war.
The book also goes into the Lincoln assassination and how Alexander Gardner’s mugshots—well, proto-mugshots since the mugshot hadn’t been invented yet—as well as his photographs of the hangings get right at the intimate relationship that photography has with death. And then there’s his Lewis Powell image which, among all the retro-nostalgic photographs in the book, leaps off the page as being, still, strikingly modern.