After seeing Alec Soth’s photos of Silicon Valley, I wanted to see them in his Three Valleys series to see how my perception of them changed. My reaction to the Silicon Valley photos was very personal and while I appreciated what Soth was doing, I felt that it was an inadequate portrait of my home. I like them immensely more in their Three Valleys context.
My main issue with the Silicon Valley photos involved the lack of area history in the photos.
I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.
I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing.
This is no longer an issue when the San Joaquin Valley and Death Valley photos are included. What was a portrait of Silicon Valley has become more about California and its mythos as the promised land and how closely together success & failure and new & old and nature & technology live together. Instead of being about the details of one industry, it’s become about the ways different industries come and go and how people are left behind when the industry moves on.
As someone who visits the Central Valley regularly from the Bay Area, I’m very familiar with the time-warp nature of traveling from Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley. Everything is different. Life moves at a different pace. Driving huge distances becomes normal. Technology even seems somewhat marooned in the past and any cutting edge technology is like magic.*
*For the first few years when Priuses were backordered in the Bay Area, you could drive them off the lots in Fresno.
Comparing the two valleys really shows the two sides of the California dream and does a better job at suggesting the boom/bust nature of things than anything I’d hope to see in just the Silicon Valley series. Soth’s photos also consistently show how isolating the California myth is. The myth is to go out and strike it rich on your own. On. Your. Own. There’s no sense of community in any of the photos. Instead Soth shows people working on individual projects or isolated by their technology or soldiering on as the last of their kind. Kids are left to their own devices—albeit safely tethered. For such a supposedly free place we’ve erected a lot of walls for ourselves.
The people all feel familiar to me too. I know them. I’ve been them. I’ve talked to them. I’ve listened to them. They’re portraits of both people and archetypes
Bringing Death Valley into the mix adds another aspect of the California experience—namely how close the state is to getting wiped out by nature. Throughout the Silicon and San Joaquin sequences, Soth has included photos of nature butting up with industry. In the Bay Area we love that nature—whether the foothills or the bay— are right there. At the same time, both threaten to wipe us out. Faultlines go through the foothills on both sides of the bay. Global warming meanwhile promises higher sea levels in the future. In the Central Valley, it’s more about resource usage and how everything dies without water.
Nature is always there, lurking, as something to be respected. Especially with regard to water availability. Everything in California relies on water at some level. Death Valley is the ultimate warning of what we risk becoming, or returning to, should we screw up our resource management.
Death Valley also serves as an example of land which we haven’t managed to tame despite all out technological advances. For all our glittering promise and talk about being able to do anything, there are parts of the state which are inhospitable and lack mobile phone coverage and won’t be getting any of that any time soon.
Deep in East Oakland they’d meet in empty parking lots and spin circles until the police came. The Sideshow, they called it. Elaborate and boisterous stunt driving. Back then it was about the cars more than the skill of the drivers but the goal was still the same. It was about making a statement. A loud and smokey announcement to the status quo. And the message was simple: ‘All eyes on me!’
I’m always sort of a sucker for photography crossed with car culture. I think it’s because both are sort of gearhead hobbies. And the way that one is “look at me” and the other is “I like to watch” results in a good mix.
Also, this is in kukkurovaca’s back yard and makes me (as a South Bay kid) sort of homesick for California.
This is one Carleton Watkins picture printed four different times. It’s The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite (1865-66). Different prints of the picture are in about a dozen different collections around the world.
This post also whets my appetite for the giant Watkins show at Stanford. It’s one of the most must-see things on my summer itinerary. Heck, I’ve already acquired the catalog since I know I’ll love this show.
One of the things we’re planning for Hairy Beast is sporadic reposts from 1/125. This isn’t just because I’m so hard up for material I have to cannibalize our past—well, it’s not just that. I also want to make sure that stuff exists outside of the Tumblr ecosystem. First up is this post on Suburban Dreams by Beth Yarnelle Edwards, which recently came up in conversation on twitter. This post was originally published on January 23, 2013.
No one appears to be impoverished…these are not the ‘cool’ photos of down and out drug users, strippers and hookers. These are our own neighbors. We immediately recognize ourselves and our friends.
This weekend I stopped by the Oakland Museum to see “Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Suburban Dreams,” an exhibition drawn from the California portion of Edwards’s Suburban Dreams series. (See here and here) The exhibit includes around a couple dozen photographs, as well as a handy binder containing reproductions of ephemera — samples of Edwards’s working notes, correspondence with subjects, etc. I went on the 19th for the talk by Edwards and curator Drew Johnson, which proved quite interesting.
Pictures authentic to the people
Edwards photographs subjects in their homes, in scenes that are staged but also intended to be “authentic” depictions of the family’s life. She follows a set protocol which includes showing subjects examples of her work, and asking if they are comfortable looking like the people in those pictures and interviewing them with intentionally vague, non-leading questions (e.g., “tell me something about your lives,” “what are your favorite things?”) Based on the interview, semi-improvised scenes are staged in which subjects act out some aspect of their daily lives. Specific poses are held for moderately long exposures.
It’s an interesting approach. Johnson contrasted it with the model of the “invisible documentarian,” and asserted that Edwards’s results can be “more real than a candid, unstaged photograph.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that, quite, but I find the approach appealing, especially in the context of my recent discussion of my hangup about portraiture. (I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means.)
Edwards’s very interactive way of working strikes a good balance: she’s producing images that have a great thematic and stylistic consistency and strong authorship, but her subjects are active in determining how they will appear. Her intention is to “make the pictures authentic to the people, not just use the people to illustrate my ideas.”
All of which is very appealing to me. But I find myself rather ambivalent about the actual photos.
Everyone can recognize
Part of my difficulty has to do with the type of photograph Edwards is making. My natural inclination is to read them as documentary, even ethnography, but that’s not really what they’re for. Edwards is actually emulating genre painting rather than making photographic documents. Her repeatedly declared intention is to portray her subjects as universal archetypes, which “everyone” can recognize. And that’s the second, larger part of my difficulty: the presumption of universality.
Edwards identifies as a cultural insider relative to the subjects she’s working with. In the California photos, the families are, while not necessarily her friends, within her extended social network — people who know people she knows, etc. In discussing her work, she used “we” and “our” often, apparently referring to a category inclusive of her subjects, herself, and those in attendance(?). (Although she also referred to the suburbs as an “aspirational” world, as seen on TV, and part of her motivation for the project is that she became “interested in the aspiration and what it meant.”)
I asked, given that she produced the work as a cultural insider, whether the photographs were intended for an insider audience as well, or whether they are intended for a different or broader audience — in short, who she thought the viewer of these photographs was. For whom are these archetypes “universal”?
Her response was that while the “stuff” is not universal, posture, gesture, etc. is. For example, a boy about to become a man will stand a certain way whether here or “two thousand miles away,” whether now or in a painting made hundreds of years ago. (The association of universality with the tradition of painting was a recurring and prominent theme.)
This jibes with her take on Europe. (The project includes several European countries, although what’s exhibited at OMCA is just from California.) She said that “increasingly, with globalization, a lot of European homes look like our suburban homes,” and in discussing distinctions between homes in Europe and homes here, she was careful to explain how what differences she did observe were in comparisons between homes of people in the same social class and professional status. And tellingly, when asked about the impact of economic recession on the people in her photographs, she pointed out that people who were doing poorly thanks to economic downturns would not be in the houses she was photographing — they would have left and been replaced by others.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a specific social class — but I say it is telling because class is the parameter she did not use in talking about the trans-historical, trans-cultural range of viewers who are intended to be able to recognize the “universal” in her work.
(For examples of different relationships between a subject group, an insider or semi-insider photographer, and a viewership, consider Gordon Parks as “Mr. Negro”, which is a case of the photographer overtly acting as a bridge between one group and another, or Daniela Rossell, from whose Ricas y Famosas I think Suburban Dreams differs more in degree than in kind, except that Ricas y Famosas is perceived/used as indicting evidence against the subculture it represents.)
Family of (Upper Middle Class) Man
Jumping back a bit: part of the function of documentary and especially ethnographic photography is to explain a culture to an audience which is not presumed to have extensive prior knowledge of it. This is a function I know how to read in photographs (more or less). It orients the viewer toward the specific, toward information, toward the cultural context of the photograph. It helps the viewer to account for what they are seeing. And it does not presume that the viewer is an insider.
Now, that’s not the function Suburban Dreams is meant to serve, so not doing it is not an intrinsic deficit. But to the extent that the series presumes a relatively “insider” audience alongside its insider author, it is rendered less accessible and less useful to those who are not insiders. I believe Edwards that Suburban Dreams is about showing people as types that transcend place and time, but I think there is a real hiccup when it comes to class. As much as I like Edwards’s protocol and methodology, I think to some extent the photographs that result from them serve as family photographs of the upper middle class en masse: an internally directed self-depiction of people as they are willing to see themselves and be seen.
There’s nothing wrong with family photographs, and there’s nothing wrong with an insider producing something that is implicitly intended for the appreciation of other insiders. But there’s a potentially sharp discontinuity between that appreciation and the appreciation of outsiders. In the case of depictions of “universal” archetypes, the predictable outcome of crossing this discontinuity is that the archetype devolves to stereotype. The result is not an incomprehensible image, but an all-too-comprehensible one — stereotypes being always the easiest type to judge, read, and dismiss.
Our Own Neighbors
This aspect stands out to me particularly in the context of the Oakland Museum, which is located — well, here. If you don’t know what I mean, stop by some time, and walk a couple of miles in a couple of directions from the museum, and see what you see, including but not limited to, abject poverty, notable affluence, everything in between, and both urban decay and gentrification. There are few areas in California where class is more in need of socially critical interpretive context. And the rest of the museum — particularly the California history exhibits, but also plenty of the art — has that in spades.
Still, as I left Suburban Dreams, I wondered if maybe it was really just me — whether I was just personally/idiosyncratically insensitive to the universal in Edwards’s photographs. Would I find the same gazes, the same gestures, the same types, in, say, the photographs William Gedney made in Kentucky? Probably yes, at least in some cases. It’s likely that to some extent, maybe a great extent, my ambivalence toward Edwards’s photographs stems directly from my very real bias against the universal and toward the specific.
Then I went around the corner from Suburban Dreams, and I looked at photographs of Black Panthers and Diggers, and Dorothea Lange’s Richmond welders and Manzanar detainees. And I thought: images of well-off people at leisure, no matter in what posture or gesture, simply cannot be meaningfully regarded as universal representations of humanity, except insofar as rich people all look alike.
PS: To be clear, I am not presenting this as an comprehensive review — there is a great deal that one can get out of these photographs, although I think many of the best uses would go against their grain. (E.g., as records of a specific culture isolated in time and place.) What I am saying is that photographs like these do not get to casually or by default be for everyone, and if it is not clear whom they are for, it is questionable how much light they can shed on the suburban lifestyle, either as actual culture or as aspirational ideal.