Since the National Museum of the American Indian has the best food of the Smithsonian institutions, it’s easy to find an excuse to visit it should I be museuming on The Mall. And once I’m inside it’s easy to stay and wander around. This time I checked out the Horace Poolaw show. Poolaw photographed his Oklahoma community for about five decades in the mid-20th century. While he operated a bit as a professional photographer doing weddings and funerals and other big events his photographs are all effectively insider images. They’re both of his community and for consumption by that community alone.
The community is one which most of us typically see only through the white gaze. The photos aren’t actively dealing with self-representation issues. They document and are an archive of people who society tends to ignore.
We rarely get to see Indians as regular people. This allows and encourages society to think of them as no longer existing in today’s world. A lot of this caused by the way that the concept of “authenticity” is linked with Indian regalia and appearances. Being Indian is either a very specific physical stereotype of dark skin and sharp features or it’s a costume which can be appropriated by anyone.
It’s weird and unexpected to see Indian clothing mixed with western clothing or settings. So seeing Indians dressed in regalia while driving or posing by modern cars just like any other mid-century American would pose is striking. The same goes with seeing soldiers wearing war bonnets with their military uniforms. Poolaw’s photos though are full of this kind of thing and we get used to seeing the mixing and matching. Even in what seems to be a straight photograph of two women in their regalia standing in front of a teepee we notice how the younger one has a modern haircut and makeup.
All too often museums present Indian culture* as a stagnant craft which exists outside of the influence of other cultures. In Poolaw’s photos we see how his culture is changing over the decades, especially with how opening up the Kiowa reservation to non-Kiowa settlers resulted in a ulture where everyone is blending their heritages together. There are different Indian Nations intermarrying. There’s the whole Indians serving in the US Armed Forces and celebrating homecomings and departures with traditional ceremonies. It’s a lot of fun to see and is a necessary reminder of how all of cultures are living and growing things.
Poolaw specifically covers the development of Indian autonomy with his photos of the events which eventually developed into the what we now know of as American Indian Pow Wows. These photos work as a celebration of being Indian, archive of how the growth of acceptance of celebrating that by general American culture, and an uneasy critique of how the growing acceptance of powwow events has also lead them to be commodities.
His photos of the participants are wonderful relaxed photos of people who are at ease with the photographer and trust that their image won’t be exploited. His photos of the increased acceptance of these events are similarly fun to see as the people are increasingly able to operate in a mixed culture. His photos of the crowds and photographers who are watching the events though demonstrate his unease with how, as the culture is able to express itself more, it’s also increasingly accessible for consumption.*
*As someone who attends and photographs these events these photos also serve as a warning to me about how I should respect the space and the participants.
While it’s good that these cultural events no longer have to be practiced in a small private setting, the big events risk taking them from being for the participants and centering the audience instead. Poolaw, by being both an Indian and a photographer is able to straddle those worlds.
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.
At Pier 24 for the first time. So much clever art and so cleverly presented.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Wow men don't even need to be part of the process to make money off women's bodies in art anymore, how groundbreaking http://t.co/eT9wL9mzcK
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.
Granted, outside of the particular areas of photography that I’m very into, usually that’s “or not.” ↩
As you may already know, I generally use “clever” in a derogatory sense; this is not an exception. ↩
“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. ↩
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. ↩
While Ai Weiwei wasn’t on my list of things to see at all, Pier 24 was at the top. I’ve been jonesing to go for years and just never managed to get my plans in order to get there. The current show features appropriated photos which, while something I’ve enjoyed intellectually in small doses, I was not sure I was ready for a full-on overload of.
I shouldn’t have worried. The space itself is awesome and the collection is more of a “physical version of a huge website”* in that is seems to have any photo series or print which you’d want to see from the canon.** It’s especially focused on photo series. Many of the rooms have at least one complete series of images. Since I’m used to seeing only one or two prints from each series in a museum, I loved being able to see the complete groups for a change. I can really get into what a specific photographer is doing, both from a sequence and a grouping point of view. It also assuaged a lot of my concerns as a context guy since Pier 24 is also known for its absence of context.
*A description someone much smarter than me came up with but which really captures the scope of the place.
**Comments about the demographics of the canon are best left for a different post.
Pier 24 doesn’t have wall text so you have to open up the exhibition guide to figure out what you’re actually looking at. The guide meanwhile only has super basic information—artist identification and a single project statement. As a result, a lot of people hold up Pier 24 to demonstrate how “only the image matters” or “context is irrelevant.” Inside Pier 24, I can see how that argument holds water. But that’s only because the space provides the context. Displaying the full series all together eliminates a lot of the descriptions that have to accompany a single image displayed by itself. Similarly, the way the different series on display interact with each other provides additional context.
Much of the appeal photography holds for me is in how it’s basically an exercise in recontextualization. As soon as you take a photo, you’ve taken it out of context by choosing what’s in, and out, of the frame. The way you choose to display or share the image after taking it is a new context.* There can be no true absence of context—although I would completely agree that context can be meaningless or unhelpful. In the case of this exhibition, since it’s about appropriated photos and recontextualization, the initial decontextualization serves the general theme.
The most interesting room in Pier 24 for this is the series of rooms of the Archive of Modern Conflict. These rooms are pretty dense with salon-style hangings of all kinds of photographs. Vernacular photos are mixed with art photos are mixed with functional photos resulting in all kind of new connections between images despite there being no context about the origins of each specific image.
At the same time, something about these rooms doesn’t hold up for me. Without any information, I found myself looking at the images with the half-awake, short-attention-span mindset I look at things on the web. If it doesn’t grab me right now, why bother looking? I wasn’t just missing the original context of the images, I wasn’t finding much compelling in the new context.
Which gets at the dangerous thing about buying into the no-context-needed mindset. Poorly-thought-out context invites short-attention-span consumption. This is easy enough to default to without any additional encouragement and, while a legitimate way of approaching a lot of media, is not something I like museums and other places that typically intend to encourage more thoughtful looking (or, at least, that’s why I go to them) to engage in.
Reappropriating vs Mining
Pier 24’s Secondhand was an interesting double bill with San José’s Postdate. Both shows used repurposed photos but where San José involved reclaiming images from a colonial past—demonstrating a very activist way of appropriating—Pier 24 is almost all within the same sort of western tradition and feels more concerned with the surface of images rather than what’s underneath them.
A lot of the work,* focuses on mining archives and extracting keepers—whether sequences, groups, or individual images—that look interesting to us today. It’s tempting to call this kind of thing “curation” only there’s no illumination provided.** They’re generally not about what the photo means and are instead going for the “oh this looks interesting” reaction. Other work*** involves doing clever things to photos to create new, interesting things to look at but which don’t didn’t make me rethink the actual photos themselves.
*Such as with The Archive of Modern Conflict and Erik Kessels (more on him later).
**One of my pet peeves is the way “curation” has become used on the web as a way of describing collections which, while often very tastefully selected, provide no information or educational information about what the point is.
In both cases, the results can look pretty fun without really saying much. This isn’t a knock on what was on display, just that after having seen another exhibit which really investigated how powerful appropriation could be—especially in the context of colonialism and the representation of the powerless—I found myself wanting to see more work which explicitly examines the cultural context of the images, presents other meanings, and brings the appropriated images from the past into the present.
The only artist on the show who really did this was Hank Willis Thomas. His work in Pier 24—as well as his recent Unbranded work—looks at more than just how the photos look and instead focuses on the content of the photos and how our understanding of that content has changed over time. His work in the show was also particularly relevant given how Black Lives Matter has been constant over the past couple years. Viewing a lot of the older, recognizable but still-charged images through the flag frames suggests how these are commemorated and remembered as accomplishments rather than as part of an ongoing fight.
Erik Kessels & Vernacular Archives
Erik Kessels deserves specific comment since, not only does he appear to be the main attraction in the exhibition, much of his work critiques our concepts of vernacular photography and makes us think about how we use images.
One of the things that bugs me about a lot of current photography writing is its tendency to state that people did a good job organizing their photos in the past. From what I’ve seen looking at my friends’s and family’s photos is that staying on top of the photo albums was as rare and difficult to do then as keeping digital images organized now is. Even most people who did do a good job making albums have boxes of decades-old images that they haven’t gone through yet.
Managing and mining this archive—whether digital or physical—is a daunting task. What I like about Kessels is how he suggests other ways of using images than the pure documentary mindset that governs most archives of vernacular photos. In Almost Every Picture has a number of series that pull a common theme—a spouse, a pet, fingers covering the lens, carnival prizes—out of a larger cache of images. The archive doesn’t have to tell a story chronologically, it can have a completely different theme and the chronology will still be accessible. People age, fashions change, we can sense the passage of time despite the focus being something else.
As someone who’s still working through doing something with my photos, seeing alternative ways to approach my own archive is great to see.
Album Beauty meanwhile made me start thinking more about vernacular photos as common memory. While extracting specific series or groups of interest out of a vernacular archive is a nice skill to create fun sequences which tell small quirky stories, much of the appeal of vernacular photos is in their entire corpus and how they show us images that remind us of moments in our own lives.
This is something that Colors of Confinement touched on as well. Because so many Japanese internees have a gap in their family photos from the internment years, the photos that do exist from the camps work to remind them of their own experiences. It’s easy to say how photos erode memories by replacing them with whatever’s in the photograph, looking at other albums demonstrates how photos trigger memories as well.
Vernacular photographs,* describe a sense of place and time in a way that allows for our own memories of that period to be part of the experience. We flip through the contents of an album and pause when we see something that reminds us of our own experiences—a location we also visited, clothing or hairstyles that made us look awful, toys we played with or coveted. Ideally we’re looking through the album with someone else so the pause can become conversation as we share stories. But even if we’re on our own, the pause and remembering and slight smile in recognition will occur before we go back to looking.
And it doesn’t have to be an album. It could be a shoebox of prints or a carousel full of slides. Those are just as much fun to look through and, in some ways are a better shared experiences than an album is since it’s easier to pass individual prints or slides around.
Which brings me to 24 hours of Flickr. This room gets mentioned in every writeup I’ve seen on this show. It didn’t do much for me. It kind of feels like a physical statement about how awful the current deluge of photos is compared to how great the nicely-organized albums of the past were. Yes, people upload way more photos than they’d have printed in the past. And yes, 90% of those photos are crap. But there’s nothing gained by seeing how many 4″×6″ prints a days worth of uploads translates to.
What I took away from that room was how respectfully I treat photographic prints. In a room full of prints, all of which were treated as basically disposable trash, I still found myself trying not to step on any of them—even the brick-wall test shots half-covered in a low-resolution watermark.
Photographs as Byproduct
The rooms I liked best though contained photographs which were, essentially, byproducts of other ventures. Rather than being vernacular photos that people took to document their lives, these are things produced by government, big business, or a media company as part of an offered product or service. Some are intended as communication and illustration to accompany other information; some are merely an intermediate step of a production process; and others are artifacts that happen to feature photography but aren’t photos themselves.
The highlight is Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence. It’s one of the granddaddies of the field of appropriated photography and it’s awesome. Is it a bit superficial? Absolutely. But it’s funny and bizarre and simply a very well-selected sequence. I find it hard to believe it’s as old as it is since it still sets the bar for this kind of thing as an example for how decontextualization and recontextualization can work.
The photos in Evidence come from all sorts of governmental and industry archives. By themselves, in their original context, they would have been pretty boring, of interest to a small, specific audience—quite possibly boring to even that audience. Out of context and grouped together though makes these technically-competent photos anything but boring. Rather than wanting to know what’s going on, I found myself making up my own narratives and noticing things in the images that weren’t originally the main point—like the interactions between people in a group shot or the way a headless person is holding the intended subject of the image.
I also really liked Viktoria Binschtok’s work investigating the locations of Google Street View (GSV)photos. There have been a lot of GSV projects but I really like the idea of not just rephotographing the street view image but going inside and making the automated, corporate image into a real place. GSV in many ways demonstrates everything that makes for bad photography. It’s automated and distant and unedited and presents an unnatural point of view. But these are also what make it so compelling to play with. There is no existing editorial voice to contend with and you can sit down, dig though as much of the archive as you can handle, and do whatever you want with the results.
Most of the projects though have been either commentaries of GSV itself or attempted to find street view images that looked like “real”* photographs. Binschtok though uses GSV as just the jumping off point to play with the concept of intent. Her photographs paired with the GSV imagery produce a result that makes both much more interesting. It reminds me a little of rephotographing Stephen Shore with GSV but rather than starting with the interesting, fully-intended image and showing how bland the location looks on Google, these start with the bland GSV images and force us to see how they can be transformed by looking with intent instead.
*Read, images that look like the accepted canon of “good” photography. This is also an idea that deserves a post all of its own.
The collections of photos that have been prepared for halftoning and printing are fascinating.* These are byproducts of the printing process. They’re not the original negatives nor are they the final halftoned prints. Instead they’re photographs which have been painted and marked up to improve the contrast and eliminated unwanted details so that they will reproduce well after offset printing.
*Especially given my background in printing. I’ve worked as a prepress operator at an offset printing shop as well as an OEM support lead for digital printing and so have lived the “how to go from paste-up (or digital file) to printed page” life for over a decade.
This is the kind of thing that would be called cheating today so it’s instructive to see how much manipulation was required in order to get a usable final image. None of these photos are lying even though they’re all faked. It’s also a reminder of how much image processing is always needed behind the scenes in order to make a decent photographic print.
Outside of being a reminder of how photographs end up on paper, these objects are also wonderful commentaries on photography as an exercise in recontextualization. They’re not just extracting what’s in the photo from what’s outside it, they’re also painting out details and reframing what’s in the photo as well—in-game action photos become posed studio images, group photos become headshots. And then they’re put on the wall of a museum where we no longer know who the players are you see what an editor selected decades ago as the most-important part of these images.
Finally, there are photos which are used as the substrate for other products. The embroidered postcards are beautiful objects and the ID badges are great fun to look at. In neither case am I really looking at the photos though. I’m seeing them as objects and remnants of a specific period of time. I appreciate seeing multiple specimens—Pier 24’s scale does most of the heavy lifting here—as I can get a better sense of the craft and usage of the pieces.
It’s no surprise that my favorite pieces at Pier 24 were these byproduct photos. They were useful objects which we can relate to—even after their previous functions are no longer needed or remembered, we recognize enough about how they were used. Recontextualizing them into a museum allows us to relate to them as useful objects and appreciate the new context along with the original craft. Looking at photography—or really anything else in a museum—needs to be more than just an academic surface-level exercise for me. I need to see what the photos are doing, how they’re being used, or what statement they’re making.
As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.
Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.
Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*
Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.
Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.
I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?
*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.
I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.
Duchamp was about changing the way we think of art, and how we look at the world. In using pictures taken by robots, other photographers might think of me as a joke, but Duchamp faced that all his life—it makes me think I am doing something right.
I really liked what Ed Ruscha said once, that all he wanted to do was photograph the facts. He just wanted to see if it was possible, with his gasoline stations and parking lots and all the rest of it.
I’ve found that quite a few of my projects have revealed a lot of the assumptions and judgements that a section of the photo community continues to take for granted about documentary. It really doesn’t have to be like that. There’s so much more scope for pushing the boundaries of what documentary can be.
Because I’ve been pumping my fist a little too much with each successive interview with Mishka Henner recently. I really like what he’s doing—both in his methods of approaching the overwhelming amount of robot photography out there as well as what he’s chosen to say with it. He’s going directly at the “what is art” question in a way which forces everyone to question their assumptions about the medium. Why do we think what’s “good” is good? What do we expect from certain genres? Are our sacred cows truly sacrosanct? We need voices and visions like his.
That these photos are indeed illegal to take despite being freely available via satellite* adds that extra level of trickster fun which takes these from being just about the story of consumption to also including how these are big business—with tentacles into the government and a vested interest in our remaining ignorant of what they show.