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.
I saw tweets about ICP’s Han Youngsoo show at Mana Contemporary and the photos looked good enough to pique my interest. So I made my way up to Jersey City just to visit ICP and had my fingers crossed that the show would be worth the trip.
It totally was.
It’s not a huge show but what’s on display are examples of how fantastic good street photography can be.* The photos are strongly composed and beautifully seen. The prints blow away all the digital images on the web. Most of the images are strong on their own accord but, when seen as a collective they have a distinct point of view and narrative.
*I have a mixed relationship with street photography. On the web it’s become a bit of a bad brand where—typically—men have chosen to emulate the alpha-male “I have a right to photograph anything in public” mentality and much of what’s presented is a reflection of the photographer’s “daring.” At the same time, street photos are one of the hardest things to do well because of the ever-changing unexpected dynamic on the street and I can’t help but admire people’s ability to get wonderful spontaneous images and capture strangers in what appear to be completely-honest expressive portraits.
They’re beautiful and clever. I love the way that the overhead street car wires end up looking like birds. I love the way the men in the shadows inside the butcher shop mirror the expressions on the pig heads outside. I love the perfect timing in capturing gestures and posture as people walk down the street or gaze at shop windows. I love the textures in the snow that the footprints on the frozen river leave.*
I love how beautiful Seoul ends up looking despite the ruins and overcrowdedness. At their most-basic level these photos are about a place rather than the people in it. It’s clear that, rather than being photos of people, the actual subject in each photo is Seoul. There’s a palpable sense of love and romance. Seoul is home and Han Youngsoo is sharing how he sees it—what he feels about it—with us.
And it’s a Seoul in transition. The Korean War ended in 1953. These photos cover the period between 1956 and 1963. The city is in the midst of rebuilding as well as westernizing and modernizing. There are still some ruins visible—a shattered roofline here or there but never as the focus of the image. There are english-language signs all over the place. Infrastructure is in a state of flux where streets—when they’re paved—are shared between handcarts and electric trollies. The trajectory is clear.
It’s with the women though—especially their clothing—where the photos tell their most interesting history. These aren’t Winogrand-like photos of women, they’re just conscious of how the changing nature of the city is impacting women in particular. They wear clothing which ranges from hanbok to cutting-edge 1960s fashion. The advertisements and street displays and magazines are all peddling western fashions. Only in one crowded street market is traditional clothing still available.
It’s clear that with the changing fashions that the women’s roles are also changing toward a more middle class direction. And that the city itself is becoming a consumer-based city* of shops and merchants.
*The men don’t show this narrative at all. They all wear western clothing and none of the shops or new consumer goods are marketed for men’s consumption.
I love a great photo as much as anyone but with street photography much of the appeal is how it can document a specific time and place—whether it captures a city and its population in a specific window of time or manages to document how they change. Han Youngsoo’s photos are beautiful but the history and changes he documents is even better
This, as citizens, we all inherit. This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future.
And to what shabby hells of our own making do we rush? A poisoned, gutted planet, rolling through noxious air?
I’ll probably write this in every post of this series but one of the best parts of revisiting the photobooks I grew up with is finally reading the text. When I was a kid, photobooks were for looking at the photos and, maybe, reading the captions. Longer text that goes with the photos? No way. Which is a shame since all of the photobooks I grew up with were inherently political and had things to say beyond just the photos.
This is the American Earth is distinct among my parents’ photobooks because it’s the only one which I remember looking at for PHOTOGRAPHY™ reasons. Ansel Adams was definitely the first brand name photographer I learned of* and I seem to recall not only ignoring the text but also all the non-Adams photos in the book.
This meant that I missed out on a much of the best parts of the book. Adams, for being the “featured” photographer cedes a lot of space to other artists in order to flesh out the argument for conservation and demonstrate the different ways we use and experience the land.* And Newhall’s text is a wonderful short history of human civilization as explained by ruins and despoiling.
*While I skipped the text I apparently couldn’t fully-ignore the photos. I may not have studied them like I did the Adams images yet many of them (e.g. Eliot Porter’s Terns or Margaret Bourke White’s Contour Plowing) are deeply familiar to me in and “oh THAT’S where I saw that” kind of way.
Reading that text one month into the Trump administration is still a shock even though I know and agree with what it’s saying. This book is almost sixty years old. 60. Yet its warning and advocacy are as important and relevant as ever. Our history of ruins. Our history of despoiling. The idea that we only know what we’re losing now that it’s almost gone. The call to action.
Part of it feels as inspiring as it must’ve felt in 1960. The idea that we can do something. The idea that we were smart enough to create National Parks. That we can obviously do more. And I know that we did make a lot of progress in these areas. When I was a kid, acid rain was a thing, air quality was awful, we were dumping trash in the ocean, and everyone was worried we’d run out of landfill space. None of those are issues my kids have to learn about because we’ve made changes in how we live.
Despite everything though, we never made a dent in the climate change disaster we’re about to endure. Plus we’re in the midst of trying to roll back the past six decades of advances. While I know that it’s short-term “pro-business” thinking doing the pushing, but there’s more to it that that. Like much of the backlash against the social progress we’ve made since the 1960s, I think that we’ve been almost too successful in making the changes and so we’ve forgotten what the alternatives are.
We’re now used to beautiful unspoiled landscapes. We live with them as our computer wallpapers. We see friends post them on social media. Meanwhile we’ve now forgotten that the images in This is the American Earth images existed effectively in parallel with Documerica. And yes, we have photos of ruined and wasted landscapes now too, but they don’t have the same sense of next door that Documerica does. We no longer see the pollution and, after a cold winter, even a disturbingly early spring feels like a blessing instead of a portent.
So the other, stronger reaction I have to the book now is reading it as an epitaph for America—if not humanity. A last hurrah of hope and change before everything melted away. I thought of Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures and how its point of view involved both contemplation of humanity’s impact on the Earth with the hope and promise of new experiences and new generations.
Except where Paglen is looking into the future and designed an object to outlast us all, Adams and Newhall have given us a book which will remind us of what could’ve been had we been less selfish and afraid.
There’s still hope in here, but it’s less in the beautiful photos of unspoiled wilderness and more in the photos which show how we’re using the land. As long as we’re invested in use—farming, housing, water, etc.—there’s an incentive to keep the land sustainable. These photos depict infrastructure that we’re still familiar with and understand the necessity of. They explicitly remind us how humans and the Earth are intertwined.
Meanwhile, the wilderness photos—especially the number which depict regrowth or new growth—suggest that no matter what humans do, Earth will survive. Many beautiful things and places will be lost but nature’s capacity to reclaim what we’ve despoiled is much stronger than we give it credit.
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.*