Willard Worden. The Portals of the Past (Ruins of the Towne Residence, California Street), 1906

Willard Worden

This originally posted on NJWV.

Willard Worden. Midnight in Chinatown 1903
Willard Worden. Midnight in Chinatown 1903
Willard Worden. The Portals of the Past (Ruins of the Towne Residence, California Street), 1906
Willard Worden. The Portals of the Past (Ruins of the Towne Residence, California Street), 1906
Willard Worden, The Arch of the Rising Sun at Night, 1915
Willard Worden, The Arch of the Rising Sun at Night, 1915

While I was in California for the summer, I had a chance to stick my head into a small exhibition of Willard Worden’s photographs. The show is especially interesting from a documentary point of view since many of the photos show San Francisco both immediately before and immediately after the 1906 earthquake. I particularly enjoyed the photographs of the original Chinatown.

One of the weird things about San Francisco is how, despite being a relatively old settlement in American terms, it has reinvented and rebuilt itself over and over again. Sometimes these reinventions and rebuilding are true boomtown cycles. Other times they’re by acts of god. But where Los Angeles seems to be about layering and papering over and appropriating its past, San Francisco doesn’t seem to care.

Which is why it’s wonderful to see photos that show what things were like right before they were destroyed.* The old San Francisco, and Chinatown, photos show a city that I don’t recognize at all today.

*On this note, I should have grabbed a copy of Janet Delaney’s South of Market from the gift store. But I needed to travel light since I was already all packed to travel back to New Jersey.

Worden is also a master of night photography—taking advantage of wet streets and any available-light he could find. This is most evident in his photos of the Panama-Pacific Exposition grounds. Even as low-contrast prints they’re incredibly dramatic.

In many ways offering a closing chapter on the earthquake since the expo was intended to demonstrate San Francisco’s rebirth, these photos also fall into the same category of depicting things that have been destroyed and paved over. The Exposition grounds were temporary and only the Palace of Fine Arts remains—and even that had to be torn down and completely rebuilt in order to do so.

Willard Worden. Poppies and Lupine, ca. 1915
Willard Worden. Poppies and Lupine, ca. 1915

What I ended up thinking about the most in this exhibition though is the idea of photographs as consumable objects. Worden was a working photographer who wanted to sell prints. Lots of them. In whatever size you wanted. This exhibition includes portfolios and pricebooks for selling prints as well as information about which images sold well—though even with so much documentation, I still approached the photos as I do most photographs—looking at the technique and appreciating/critiquing the image.

The colorized photos on the other hand forced me out of that approach and into one where I had to think of the image as an object—how it was intended to be used, by whom, how it was manufactured, etc. I didn’t like the colorized photos—heck, I dislike colorized photos in general—but I loved seeing them here. Worden worked at a time when photography wasn’t considered high art so his market was the middle class who couldn’t afford proper painting. The colorization operation reminded me a little of Thomas Kinkade in how precisely craftsmen had to work on the photograph to make it more paintinglike and acceptable as an object.

Though the Kinkade comparison is a bit cruel of a comparison to Worden,* it’s refreshing to see these objects in a museum displayed as both art and as consumer artifacts—where they can prompt us to think about what kinds of “art” we’re willing to display in our homes and how we judge what other people choose to display.

*Most of Worden’s work is honest about being photography rather than trying to emulate a different medium.

Fine art photos are high brow now. Being reminded of a time when they weren’t reminds us of how high brow taste changes just like any other fashion. Museums tend not to mention this side of things. Art is typically treated as art for art’s sake—even if the museum is showing an exhibition of a specific collector’s holdings. We don’t think about the market and who’s allowed to dictate what’s “good” enough to be allowed into a museum. And museums don’t like us thinking about who they’ve excluded and why.

Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

Covert Operations

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

Jenny Holzer. Phoenix yellow white (detail), 2006
Jenny Holzer. Phoenix yellow white (detail), 2006

While I was in California this summer, I visited the San José Museum of Art to see the Covert Operations exhibition. Only part of the show was on display when I went* so this post covers both what I saw in the museum and what I’ve gotten from the catalog.** I’m used to treating catalogs as reminders of an exhibition so it’s a bit weird for me to be using one as a stand-in for portions of one. Thankfully, I saw most of the videos and video games in the show and have been using the book for the photography and painting—both of which translate much better to book form.

*It’s all up now.

**Which I flipped through in the museum to determine that it was worth getting. I have since spent a lot more time looking and reading through it.

On National Security

Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010
Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

While the theme of this exhibition is covert operations, most of the work is actually about National Security and the things that government does under that aegis. A lot of work, such as Jenny Holzer’s redacted Freedom of Information Act request prints and Trevor Paglen’s Defense Department investigations offer glimpses of what’s going on when National Defense world intersects with the civilian world.

Holzer’s work takes advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and the theoretical ability of any citizen to request government records. The resulting documents are anything but transparent as they arrive covered with redactions. Holzer enlarges the documents to the point where they feel like Abstract Expressionist paintings—where text, redactions, handwritten notes, etc. all feel like they’re working together in a cohesive piece. Only instead of being abstract, these very clearly show, despite the redactions, many of the ugly details that go into providing what we think of as security.

Paglen’s photography looks almost conventionally pretty—star trails and sunsets—except that there’s one small detail which is off. Maybe it’s a Reaper Drone way off to the side. Maybe that non-star streak is actually a CIA satellite. His other work—in particular Code Names—similarly explores the small ways that the Security Apparatus intrudes into our world.

Meanwhile, other things aren’t really covert at all and just exist outside of the awareness of regular Americans. In particular, David Taylor’s Working the Line documents the security—and the security theater—on the US-Mexico border. There’s nothing especially confidential here, nor is there the sense that there’s a whole bunch of other infrastructure at the border that we’re not seeing. Still, the extent of physical security at the border and the way it’s actually implemented is quite different than the way that we think of it.

Taryn Simon’s photograph of the Alhurra studio is also something non-covert that we just aren’t aware of in the US. The entire point of this network is to be seen by Arab communities so it’s anything but a secret. Yet it’s not allowed to be broadcast in the US despite being based and funded here.

Taken together, all these pieces describe a massive amount of infrastructure and bureaucracy that we’re not aware of. Revealing only the tip of the iceberg allows us to think about how much is going on that we aren’t seeing at all. The way that much of what we do see is already horrifying should also make us really think about how much worse—whether in scale or in degree—the truly hidden stuff is.

But even the non-awful images reveal an apparatus that treats our safety as something where we don’t really want to know the details and assumes that we’ll sign off on anything in the name of security. It’s this assumption that disturbs me more since it’s carte blanche for security agencies to do whatever they want in the name of security while not informing us what it is that they’re doing. It also makes it very easy for those agencies to dismiss critiques and questions by referencing our ignorance of what’s “really” going on.

We’re assumed to not want to know, kept from knowing, and then criticized for not knowing. All in the name of our own safety and security. So I’m glad that people are calling out and highlighting what we can know. I love that many of these people are artists since it makes the glimpses much more accessible and the more of us who know, even a little bit, the better.

On Weaponizing Art and Games

Harun Farocki. Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2009
Harun Farocki. Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2009

Another extremely interesting concept in this exhibition is how it demonstrates the way art, photography, and video games—things which often get criticized as being inherently non-useful—can actually be effectively weaponized or used as diplomacy.

Photography is the most obvious example due to its interaction with surveillance, intrusiveness, and privacy issues being one of its defining characteristics since day one. That much of photography’s acceptance by the public has been a steady erosion of sensibilities regarding these issues is already scary. But even today, much of the concern is about photographs by other individuals rather than the government—we accept security cameras everywhere but freak out about a stranger with a cell phone. Yet it’s the security cameras which are more intrusive since they feed directly in to monitoring by the state. Which is why it’s important to keep in mind where security cameras get installed, who they’re actually monitoring, and whose interests they’re protecting.

The use of modern art as cultural diplomacy is less obvious but is explicitly mentioned by Taryn Simon’s photograph of the CIA art gallery. The connection between art and culture and the idea that “good” art demonstrates a superior culture is shocking to see laid out—even though it’s used by many people now to malign* art which has not been accepted as “good” in the West. It also forces us to really question our understandings of our own taste and how we learned what we like. I certainly didn’t even consider that it could reflect Cold War indoctrination about what is “American” (or at least non-communist) even though thinking about it now makes complete sense.

*Or the similarly-related phenomenon of only praising “foreign” art that feels western and familiar.

Video games get a lot of play here as well. Harun Farocki shows how, instead of being entertainment, they’re now used for military training—which is pretty cool in that it allows for a safer and more varied training experience. At the same time, it’s disturbing how easy it is to go from a medium of pure entertainment to something that’s life and death and literally training people how to kill other people. There’s no noticeable difference in the form, just the use case. That many of these training videos look less realistic than what’s currently on the market is the kind of thing that makes it very easy to see the defenses of video games as being “just a game” as being somewhat hollow.*

*I’m not anti video games, but I’m increasingly critical of everything about them as mass entertainment. 

On the positive side, the way video games are also used as therapy for soldiers recovering from the stress of battle is both interesting and promising. They’re not fun here either, but seeing them used in a much more life-giving situation is nice to see. Still, it’s interesting to note the differences in quality and how there is more effort spent on training than on rehabilitation—but that’s a comment on the military’s priorities and not the medium itself.

I’ve long been used to technology’s give-and-take with the military. One of the best ways to really refine a technology is to push it to its extremes and the military is great at this. Much of what we take for granted today either started as a military project or got refined there. Art and culture are no different except that many people don’t understand how they’re useful.

Amazingly, the military does. And the way that the military uses art and culture should show us how dismissing them as a waste of time is lazy and incorrect. Art matters. It’s how we know and demonstrate who we are. It’s how we convert other people to our way of seeing the world. Entertainment matters. It’s how we interact with the world and the easiest way to introduce ourselves to new worlds. It’s a shame that for the military, new worlds have to be approached with a gun in hand, but that, again, is more about the military’s priorities rather than the medium.

Rethinking Evidence

David Taylor. Seismic Sensor, TX, 2007
David Taylor. Seismic Sensor, TX, 2007

One last thing about this exhibition is that it has me rethinking Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence. Many of the photos in Covert Operations are similarly bizarre in the way they show objects and places that exist outside of our understanding—except where in Evidence I found myself making up my own narratives and finding the humor in things, the Covert Operations photos biased me toward looking at the dark side. I have an inkling what they’re about but I’m still scratching the surface and know that there’s a lot more sinister stuff lurking underneath.

The result is that I can’t help but see Evidence now as a more innocent project* and which has made certain tradeoffs in opting for a fictional sequence rather than revealing or critiquing something real.

*Similar to how looking at Robert Adams’s later work has me rethinking the New Topographics.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like humorous work. It’s just that while I understand and enjoy the impulse to poke fun at banal government photographs, I’ve also come to realize that opting for humor—especially the “WTF this is so bizarre” humor of Evidence—is a choice that tends to rule out critiquing what government is actually doing. And so the next time I view Evidence, I’ll keep in mind how the recontextualization gives a free pass to the ways that the baby boomers were pulling up the ladder on the next generation.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935

Portraits and Other Likenesses

This originally posted in a slightly different form on NJWV.

I made it up to San Francisco last week to see SFMOMA’s Portraits and Other Likenesses show at the Museum of the African Diaspora. I always love seeing shows which include photos, paintings and sculpture all in conversation together. As a photo-leaning person it’s especially nice to see photography taken out of its own little bubble. This show mixes all media together under the umbrella of portraiture—in this case taken broadly as any artwork that represents a person or people. I’ve seen a few SFMOMA on the go shows now that have done this and I hope it bodes well for the approach the new and improved museum will take when it opens next year.

I am increasingly interested in issues involving portraiture and representation and how frequently-stereotyped communities choose to represent themselvesNavigating the tropes of how they’ve been represented and othered is both difficult and fertile territory. The individual pieces on display aren’t always directly about representation but the entire show, by consisting of representations of blackness by black artists, is.

This is difficult territory. There are so many representations on display— costumespersonalstereotypes, etc. And there are multiple levels of thought behind all of them. This show invites me to look and stare without flinching. As a non-black person of color I ended up both confronting a lot of my socialization as to what my instincts are when viewing black people while simultaneously sympathizing with the amount of effort it takes to present yourself to the white world.

Stereotypes suck. Especially in how they make you second guess and overthink everything in your self-presentation.* Do you avoid the stereotypes even if you happen to enjoy some of them? Do you have to dress extra nice whenever you go out? Is your presentation of beauty based on white beauty standards?

*Man do I wish SFMOMA had a copy of Carrie Mae Weems’s Ain’t Jokin in addition to Boneyard. Also, I wish there was more by Fred Wilson than Me and It. Sadly, SFMOMA appears to be thin on both of their work.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935
Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935

And at a certain level almost everything on display is intended for white consumption. Who else buys art? So while there may be important statements in a piece, the way the art market chooses to frame it ends up being out of the control of the artist—no matter how intelligently-considered the representation is, at the end of things it’s still warped by being put in a museum. I wish I could remember the full details of Annie Mae Meriweather’s* story but the story of Consuelo Kanaga’s portrait of her being reduced to just its beauty demonstrates how cruel the market is.

*Google does turn up a Woody Guthrie story related to her but nothing about the photo.

I have similar feelings of guilt by how much I love Seydou Keïta’s work. I’m reacting to the image because of its almost-effortless grace and beauty* while at the same time not knowing, or even really caring, about the subject—who he is, why he might be having his portrait taken, what was going on in Mali at the time.  Yes, there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for the erasure of much of the contextual information, but at the same time I’m still consuming his image** in a way that embodies a lot of the things I dislike about photography. I don’t like erasing the humanity of the subject and while I try not to do it here, I find myself slipping each time I view it and swoon at its beauty.

*There are days when this is my favorite photograph ever taken.

**I’ve seen this image described on occasion as a self-portrait. I’ve never seen this description though in an actual museum. And I’m not sure if his official website is treating it as a headshot or just the best example of his work. If it is indeed a self-portrait I’ll feel a lot better about liking it.

This is potentially bad behavior with many subjects but with black subjects it’s especially awful. The spectre of Black Lives Matter and all the police violence in the news over the past few years is unavoidable. Pieces here touch on issues of presenting and demonstrating and claiming humanity in the white world—actions that shouldn’t be necessary but frustratingly are. And despite all that it’s still frightening easy to erase their humanity and see just surfaces and tropes. This is deadly and violent behavior.

Which is why Glenn Ligon’s Narratives is my favorite piece in the show. They don’t just reference slave narratives and how humanity gets mediated by whiteness. They also, through their size, suggest fugitive slave posters and the erasure of humanity by whiteness. Yet they’re written fully by Ligon so it’s clear that he’s in control and crafting his own story—explicitly bringing together many different threads of the performative aspects of race, americana, assimilation, and authenticity.

The entire content of the pieces are details about Ligon’s humanity—details you’re invited and encouraged to look closely and really observe. It’s a presentation, and representation, that is difficult to erase. That it’s often wickedly funny is the icing on the cake.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013

Caille Millner

I timed my visit to correspond to Caille Millner’s short talk on the exhibition. I’ve been following her on Twitter and Tumblr for a few years now and I was interested in her observations. I was not disappointed. She discussed two of my favorite pieces (Keïta and Ligon) and I especially loved her comments on Keïta where she placed the image as exemplifying, for her, Mali’s belle epoque and the brief joyous period when independence from France was coming but the the realities of being an independent country and undergoing a military coup hadn’t blotted the horizon.* Comparing Keïta and James Van Der Zee by contrasting the societal context and internal migrations going on when each photograph was taken is a great way to think about them

*It helped that I was standing in front of a case of 1960s Malick Sidibé photos while she was making these comments.

Millner also had some nice comments on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the idea of portraits of non-existent people. Yiadom-Boakye’s work is also complicated—in a very good way. I share Millner’s concern about how making people up as a way to address a lack of representation may not be the best way to address an erasure. At the same time, there is something to appropriating classic western/white techniques and making them your own. I also thought of Medieval People of Color’s ongoing work in highlighting the black servants in these classic paintings and how those servants are often crushed into unrecognizable shadows in photo reproductions of those works. There’s an aspect of this piece that I see as being the painting equivalent of fighting against Shirley and learning to depict black skin.

The audience discussion about Yiadom-Boakye and Van Der Zee though had me shaking my head and thinking about white comfort. Van Der Zee is a name. When The Met digitized all of its photography holdings, a number of us started counting and confirmed that he was the exception to all their non-white photographers. He’s someone you’re supposed to know and boy did the white audience know him. Lots of comments, most of which seemed intended to demonstrate that they’d heard of him and accepted him as a master. Similarly, Yiadom-Boakye seemed to relax those people because it looked familiar and like other things they’d learned to think of as good.* It was safe and comfortable to appreciate it.

*Reminding me a bit of watching Death and the King’s Horseman at Ashland and how the audience was super-uncomfortable for most of it until the white characters came on stage.

Which frustrates me because this was a museum of black artists. As a visitor, you’d expect and want to be introduced to people you’ve never heard of in the general museum circuit and to gravitate toward the names and styles you recognize misses the point.

Pier 24 / Erik Kessels

Pier 24: (Sloppy) Second(s)hand

Purely coincidentally, I also recently went to see Secondhand at Pier 24. My thoughts about it are fewer and less interesting than @vossbrink’s, so I’ll try to express them with some brevity.

Pier 24

Pier 24 is weird. I’m not big on museums and galleries generally, and this was perhaps my least favorite experience in one, because it is one of the least accessible contexts I’ve encountered for viewing art.

To start with, it is only open during weekday working hours, and by appointment. It’s free, which is nice, but it is essentially never accessible to someone with a regular work week. That speaks volumes to who it (isn’t) for, and is one of the major reasons why I hadn’t visited previously.

The “no text on the walls” gimmick is ::shrug:: for me. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for letting work speak for itself, but I’m not the one to make it. (And if you make it to me, it’ll probably sound like the voices of the adults in Charlie Brown.) Public-facing displays of art should include as much useful context as is feasible. This is my stance regardless of whether the work in question is something I happen to know a decent bit about or not.1

That said, the information in the book is adequate. I don’t think I gained anything from reading it in a book rather than looking at it on the wall. Mainly it just induced unnecessary cognitive dissonance to navigate a relatively non-linear space while flipping through an extremely linear book.


Erik Kessels seemed to be What It Was About, with other artists rounding things out a bit, and in some cases (the Richard Prince cowboy) seeming actually a bit out of place and gratuitous.

The Kessels stuff seemed to be largely about playing with scale. Expanding and exploding. Or reducing and inundating. The result is very clever.2 I was repeatedly put in mind of those Stephen Biesty cross-section books, not because Kessel’s explosions are illustrative, but because they look like something that has been chopped up into pieces.

That being said, I did think the big Photo Cubes were pretty funny.

Pier 24: Secondhand

The Big Fucking Roomful of 4×6 Prints3 was also entertaining, mostly just because it was fun to watch people get down into the piles and investigate them under the supervision of a bored-looking docent. I also found myself for the first time actually appreciating watermarks on photos, because they provided a layer of information about the image’s source that was otherwise missing.4

Pier 24: Secondhand

I wasn’t taken with Kessels’s provided explanation of the room’s purpose:

I visualize the feeling of drowning in representations of other peoples’ experiences.

Not to rehash The 1978 Test, but what is the mindset of the artist for whom an image glut is a problem or source of fear and anxiety? Why does or should an abundance of imagery induce a feeling of drowning?

A whole world full of other people and their experiences was always there before. And unless artists are all thoroughgoing solipsists, they must know that. So why is the representation of those experiences perceived as overwhelming? Why does the artist (and why is the viewer expected to) “drown” in it? Why can I not escape the feeling that the so-called vernacular image can only manifest to artists and curators as a problem to be solved or an opportunity to exploited? Is the place of an artist in the world dependent on the anonymity and invisibility of everyone else in it?

I sometimes think that at heart, the “serious” photographer has never really evolved past the original form of the camera operator: a person whose vocation is defined primarily by access to a novel technology which for their audience is still unavailable or mysterious. The photographer as gadgeteer has generally been scorned by those who pursued the medium as an art, but maybe that was always just a case of Protesting Too Much. And maybe, deep down, this secret shame has been driving art photography all along.

Or maybe not. But it’s one way to account for the persistent down-the-decades anxiety of the photographic artist confronted with a world of vernacular images.

Archive of Modern Conflict

Pier 24: Secondhand

Some of my favorite photographs were from the Archive of Modern Conflict—but as a series, it was not so great. Although I cannot find the tweet at the moment, I think @vossbrink put it as the whole being less than the sum of its parts. This, and a few of the other rooms as well, put me in mind of Szarkowski’s statement that

It is important to remember that an anonymous photographer is simply a photographer whose name we have lost, perhaps temporarily. When we recover it, and find out the name of his town and his wife (or her husband), we can begin writing dissertations about him or her, but the work has not changed.

This is, I suppose, a rather old-fashioned way to look at vernacular photographs. But more often than not, what I feel when I am looking at some photograph that has been appropriated into a sequence or other larger work is that really, I would rather know more about the person who made the photograph and less about the what the appropriating artist has decided it should now come to mean.

Hank Willis Thomas

Pier 24: Secondhand

One part of the whole experience that I really, really liked were Hank Willis Thomas’s flag presentation case…I’m not sure how to describe them except as photo tangrams, really. I don’t have anything illuminating to say about them, but they’re great.

And no, I didn’t just like them because I have a thing for flags. Although man, did I kick myself for not bringing my IR camera that day.

Appropriating Down

Something that @vossbrink and I have been talking about lately has been the difference between “appropriating up” and “appropriating down,” in the sense of “punching up” versus “punching down” in comedy.

This useful distinction has seen a lot of action over the last few years in discussions of comedy, and specifically who is or should be fair game as the butt of a joke. Basically, “punching up” means comedy that cuts at someone with more power than you, and “punching down” means comedy that cuts at someone with less power than you. Most non-assholes would agree that it makes more sense to look at edgy comedy this way than according to the rubric that everybody is fair game or that a comedian can be an “equal opportunity offender,” because of course the world is not a fair or equal one. Punching down is the comedic equivalent of bullying.5

Recently, and particularly in the context of discussion of Prince’s Instagram stuff, where—ethics & legality of re-use/copyright stuff notwithstanding—we’ve been thinking about appropriation in those “punch up”/”punch down” terms.

There’s a pretty big difference between the kind and quality of commentary and criticism we find in Prince’s use of Marlboro ad images and what we find in his use of images from Instagram. And thus a difference in the worth of those bodies of work.

I mentioned above that Prince’s cowboy is out of place in Secondhand; it’s because the majority of the show consists of work that appropriates down. I think there is no question that it is exploitive of photography produced by regular human beings—the most charitable question I can think to pose is whether it is merely exploitive in the sense of the exploitation of a natural resource. Conversely, many of the best works in Secondhand are the exceptions to this rule, the images that appropriate up by drawing on iconic historical images or imagery produced by governments or institutions.

  1. Granted, outside of the particular areas of photography that I’m very into, usually that’s “or not.” 
  2. As you may already know, I generally use “clever” in a derogatory sense; this is not an exception. 
  3. Not the actual title. 
  4. “A work of art so bad it made me reconsider my feelings about watermarks on digital photos” is a very mean sentence that I decided to put in a footnote instead of the body of the post. 
  5. Note: The meaning of the word “bullying” has been muddled somewhat recently, especially as regards online debates, especially by being used as a slur against legitimate criticism from women of color. I mean actual bullying as such, in which someone uses their size/power/money/etc. to go after someone with less size/power/money/etc. 

Entire, Indivisible