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.
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.