Tag Archives: Documentary Photography

Henry Wessel

The Grain of the Present

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

LaToya Ruby Frazier
LaToya Ruby Frazier
Robert Adams
Robert Adams
Robert Adams
Robert Adams
Lee Friedlander
Lee Friedlander
Henry Wessel
Henry Wessel
Vanessa Winship
Vanessa Winship

Took my second trip to Pier 24, this time to see their Grain of the Present exhibition. Pier 24’s shows are so expansive and generous with the amount of material from each artist that I find it difficult to write about the show in general. Too many directions to go and things to think about.

That said, most of the photographs on display do reflect a sublime sense of photography as a reactive, perceptive medium. Rather than being previsualized images, we see the products of the photographer recognizing something they liked and finding a way to get the shot before the moment passed. At their best, the resulting photos both show each photographer’s unique point of view and help us learn more perceptive ways of seeing the world around us.

The highlights especially deserve to get mentioned individually. I’m just going to go in alphabetical order.

For Robert Adams they had a selection of his Prairie shots up. Adams is in this show because of his involvement in New Topographics but instead of looking at any New West of suburbs and development, we got to see effectively pre-suburban living. Same eye but a very different feel. Time’s stopped. Hope remains. There’s something elegiac because we can sense the decline coming.

Lewis Baltz meanwhile continues being arguably my favorite photographer. I’ve never seen all of Candlestick Point before and I’ve very glad I got a chance to do so here. Being able to explore the photos in a grid is a wonderful way to explore the work and feel my way around both the location and the images. There’s so much sublime subtle stuff going on with the light and the shadows and reflections.

LaToya Ruby Frazier is probably the highlight of the show. I love the mix of scales and subject matter. Her family photos are small and intimate and feel incredibly personal. Yet at the same time I’m reminded of watching my grandparents age. Her cityscapes are completely different. Large, detailed, inquisitive, showing aging buildings and disappearing industries. And they work perfectly with the family images. The big photos need to be big. The small ones need to be small. But in all cases the images are keenly seen and personal.

Lee Friedlander’s Little Screens are hilarious. They’re very much of their time in terms of the hardware, furniture, and tv shows shown. But they’re also entirely suggestive of our screen addictions today. It’s one of those simple ideas which could come off as either a trite gimmick or heavy-handed snark but instead Friedlander’s treatment reveals the humor of how we just shove the TV wherever it fits in a room yet it still becomes the focal point.

I enjoyed Ed Panar’s work and how he keeps returning to the same subjects. While many of the galleries emphasize the idea of being receptive to images when you’re out and about, much of Panar’s work can be seen as recognizing that something as imminently familiar as the view from your front porch or your daily walk is also always changing and will occasionally present itself as a photo worth taking.

Henry Wessel is also always great and I was very excited to see his photo of Richmond again. It was one of my favorite things in the new SFMOMA yet I couldn’t find an image of it anywhere online. I’m glad I got a second chance. Wessel, probably more than any other photographer in this show, fits the description of someone who’s out there just finding photographs with his camera. I know there’s more to it than that but there’s a certain casual grace in his shots that I both admire and envy.

He’s neither super-precise nor is he consciously rough. The light and tones are always this perfect combination of having a slight low-contrast glow while still popping crisply off the page. And his sense California reminds me of home—especially now that I live in New Jersey.

And Vanessa Winship. I like her very much. Her work, especially her portraits, also has a certain grace about it. It’s much more precise than Wessel but there’s a gentleness in the images where I don’t feel like I’m being prompted to gawk at anyone.

I didn’t include Diane Arbus or Stephen Shore in the highlights because, as great as their work is to see in-person, I’m already very familiar with it. While all the older photographers in the show were selected because of their association with New Topographics or New Documents, only Arbus’s and Shore’s work has a massive overlap with the images displayed in those two exhibitions.

That said, Arbus is a nice example of how being receptive to a photograph doesn’t mean grabbing a snapshot and moving on. Arbus’s portraits are keenly seen in terms of how she chooses her subject. That the resulting images are part of an impromptu portrait session doesn’t diminish their spontaneity.

What didn’t fit the Theme

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher

Each photographer draws inspiration from the ordinary moments of life, often seeing what others overlook—and showing us if you look closely, you can find beauty in the smallest aspects of your surroundings.

Some of the photos on display though just didn’t fit the concept of the show for me. Some may ask us to look closely and see what other people may not see. But they’re not really ordinary moments. Others are indeed ordinary moments but do not show us anything novel. Note, this doesn’t mean that I think these photos are bad, just that, within the context of this show, I wasn’t feeling it.

First, Bernd and Hilla Becher. I love them and their typologies and can sit in a room full of those photo grids for hours. But there’s no sense of moment at all in the photos.

Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters is sort of similar. It’s a project I adore and am already steeling myself for when it devastates me—it’s guaranteed to eventually devastate me. And it does capture an ordinary moment. We all take family photos and can relate to the truths within this project. But this particular project has always been clearly much more than a mere family photo in both the repetition and the collaboration between all five people involved in its production that it feels out of place among the rest of the projects on display.

I feel a bit bad putting Awoiska van der Molen’s work here but I just never got the sense of moment at all from it. Her photos are nice enough and, in a different space with a different context,* may have moved me. But in this space, they felt like a more academic exercise amidst photographers who were working on a much more intuitive level.

*The Pier 24 no context thing may also have served her work particularly badly since her titles and descriptions are just as vague.

And Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful was the exact wrong photo series to choose. Yeesh. I’ve tried to rationalize my feelings about it in the past but I also don’t think I’ve ever been subjected to the entire set. Caille Millner is right. It’s creepy and intrusive as all hell. Yes the ice cream woman is a great photo. As is the LaGuardia bar photo. As are a few others. But the rest? Good lord. For most of those photos there are literally only two reasons why he triggered the shutter. And they’re usually braless.

To include those in an exhibition of “see what others overlook” is either hilariously tone deaf or an ironic joke doomed to fail due to Pier 24’s lack of context. Winogrand deserves better than that. I would’ve been filled with joy had it been The Animals which got selected.

On Print Sizes

Eamonn Doyle
Eamonn Doyle

The first room of this exhibition included a sample from every photographer in the show. It was immediately apparent who the new photographers were compared to the old ones. If it’s printed huge? New photographer. If it’s a nice small size? Old photographer. New photography is hug both because new art is huge and because digital technology allows for photography to be printed huge.

I don’t like this tendency and feel like it frequently gets in the way of the photos. It’s probably no surprise that the two new photographers whose work I really liked had a mix of small and larger prints which gave me the impression that they’d really considered the optimal size for each image.

Alec Soth’s Niagara is a series I’m familiar with but which I’ve never seen in person. I like it better as a book. The giant wall-size photos of the falls and the hotels work ok. Still too large but the geometry of the hotel architecture gets abstracted nicely at that scale. The portraits though are kind of monstrous. I find myself wondering if the sitters realized their nudes would be larger than life and if Soth intended for us to gawk at them. It’s not an empathetic scale.

Eamonn Doyle’s i suffers similarly in that it feels both intrusive and, rather than inviting us to look closely, enlarges everything to the point where subtlety gets lost. I was dubious as it was about whether his cleverness was enough to sustain a book. It definitely doesn’t scale to giant-size images. Sometimes a clever idea only works at a small scale. I can see these working fine arranged as small prints on a single wall the way that Winogrand, Friedlander, and Baltz were displayed.

And holy moly Women Are Beautiful would be an order of magnitude creepier if it were printed at modern sizes.

Other Comments

A few random comments and observations which don’t fit with the rest of this post—many of which refer to specific things I’ve not seen before.

While the lack of context information at Pier 24 doesn’t bother me too much, I do find myself being dismayed by the absence of any process information too. I think it’s important to know what kinds of prints we’re looking at as the distinct photographic printing processes all result in different kinds of objects.

Henry Wessel
Henry Wessel

The grid of color Wessel photos! Not something I every imagined and definitely not my mental conception of his work. I was amazed that they kind of amazingly had the same light and contrast as his black and white photos do. How does he do that?

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher

I have never seen non-typology wide Becher photos before either. I like that they still include typologies in the frame. Also, looking at their grid of spherical tanks makes me want to shoot a typology of soccer balls for all the different patch tiling.

Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus

San Francisco is full of “Summer of Love” celebrations right now. That Arbus’s Boy with Straw Hat is ALSO from 1967 is a bit of a coincidence but also felt like a wry joke at how it feels like the summer of 1967 has become a myth about peace love and happiness reigning unencumbered by war or racial inequality.

And back to Baltz’s Candlestick Point. As much as I enjoyed the entire set I also couldn’t help shaking the feeling that I must’ve parked in a few of these locations. Candlestick’s overflow lots were dirt and occupied a lot of the land that Baltz was photographing. Many of the images felt familiar to me as places which I walked through before and after Giants games with that oddly hot and direct mid-day sun or the brutal cold wind which whipped up in the afternoon.

Ernest H. Brooks II Winged Wall, Antarctica, 2010

Fragile Waters

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

There is but one Ocean though its coves have many names; a single sea of Atmosphere with no coves at all; the miracle of soil, alive and giving life, lying thin on the only Earth, for which there is no spare.

David Brower

Ansel Adams Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, WY, 1942
Ansel Adams
Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, WY, 1942
Ernest H. Brooks II Pirouette, Santa Barbara Island, 1981
Ernest H. Brooks II
Pirouette, Santa Barbara Island, 1981
Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Salt Marsh Island, Clouds, Ipswich, MA, 2005
Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Salt Marsh Island, Clouds, Ipswich, MA, 2005
Ernest H. Brooks II 1996 Year of the Coral Reef, Sombrero Island, Philippines
Ernest H. Brooks II
1996 Year of the Coral Reef, Sombrero Island, Philippines
Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Rock Crevice Pool, Acadia National Park, Maine, 2001
Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Rock Crevice Pool, Acadia National Park, Maine, 2001

I often find myself wondering whether the old style of environmental photography is still relevant. I’ve been tempted to read it as more of an epitaph than a call to action, but taking in San José’s Fragile Waters show has me realizing there’s still a place for it.

Ansel Adams is obviously the big name but it’s the combination of Ernest H. Brooks and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly and the way they expand on the Adams’s body of work which is most interesting here. There are many similar views—not the same, just similar enough to notice the familiarity in perspective—which work together to show how all water is indeed connected.

Their work hops from coast to coast and ocean to ocean yet in each location, while the photos are different, the perspectives are the same. This is a good thing. The way we value water is the same everywhere. The way we need water is the same everywhere. The way we commune with nature is the same. Everywhere. Water is so dynamic yet in all these photos it’s still and frozen in time. The photographers spent hours waiting for the right light or composition but that they also were just out in nature matters.

Where Adams is clearly focused on working the scene and creating an image and making his point, Brooks and Monnelly are much more zen about things. Specifically, there’s an underlying theme in their nature and environmental photography as being a means rather than an end. That a successful photography session is one which results in you feeling refreshed from being in the presence of nature. That the actual image itself makes no difference to whether you’ve succeeded.

It’s this change in perspective which makes their environmental photography so much more effective for me. Whereas the “see this pristine wilderness before it’s ruined” type of photography doesn’t do it for me, “this is the evidence of my time in nature” does. I can feel the mindfulness of it and the way that it emerges from the experience of just being.

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Salt Hay, First Light, Gloucester, MA, 1998
Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Salt Hay, First Light, Gloucester, MA, 1998

That the perspectives are similar and the experiences are similar suggests our shared humanity and relieves a lot of the selfish concerns I have about my own photography. A lot of the photos on display remind me of my own work. This could easily be cause for despair but it’s okay here. I’m not consciously mimicking anyone’s images, I’m just following the same process. My photos are different in that their part of my own experience just being in nature—whether it’s an isolated lake in the High Sierra or a artificial pond in an industrial park. They’re what I saw and the more important thing was that I got outside and away from everything else.

They speak to why it’s so important to preserve nature and natural spaces. Yes, conserving them for the survival of other life is important, but we need them for ourselves and our sanity too.

It’s easy to forget how important it is to get away and just take a walk. Get out in trees or along the water. Watch the wildlife. Play chicken with the waves. Touch the earth. Go for a swim. “Old topographics” nature photography like this serves as a reminder to get off the computer and get outside. Their environmental message is that reminder that we need to do this..

Ernest H. Brooks II Winged Wall, Antarctica, 2010
Ernest H. Brooks II
Winged Wall, Antarctica, 2010

The epitaph and elegy reading is still strong though. Monnelly has a number of beautiful photographs of winter ice captioned with the sentiment about how melting ice represents the return of life. This is indeed the traditional reading. However since Brooks’s photographs of Antarctica are in the same gallery, I was struck by the irony that melting ice also represents the beginning of the end.

It’s one thing to see and be reminded of how we all see and react to water in similar ways. Ice though is much more divisive. Many of us dislike it and celebrate its annual disappearance. At the same time, we need it. It’s what California depends on for its water and it’s a ticking time bomb as it melts in the North and South poles.

On Ernest H. Brooks

As an underwater photographer Brooks is very interesting to look at from a technical point of view. His equipment is incredibly important to his work and it’s very obvious in looking at how his prints go from traditional to digital that we’re watching him make the transition from film to digital too. I love that he’s committed to shooting in black and white even with a digital camera.

I also like how mixed his subject matter is. Animal portraits. Abstracts. People and their presence in the water. Underwater requires both more awareness as to what can make a good photo and the ability to react when it occurs. His switch to digital also appears to have opened up some above-water subject matter to him. His ultra wide clouds and Infrared Antarctica images are also good and with their emphasis on the sky, are very much in keeping with the way that many of his underwater photos treat the surface of the water.

I also especially enjoy the way the infrared shots interact with Ansel Adams’s red-fltered skies.

On Dorothy Kerper Monnelly

Unlike Brooks she very clearly has her equipment settled. Like Brooks she spends her time just in nature, revisits similar subjects and lets the photos come to her. I like her work a lot. Despite much of it being East Coast instead of West Coast her approach just speaks to me.

Her photos of marshes and shores feel like she’s making the same walks every day and really knows the lay of the land now. What to expect. Where the best location are. And as mentioned before, her photos of ice and snow are beautiful in how they capture how dynamic and sculptural their formations are.

I also love how frequently her work is gloriously low contrast. Brooks and Adams tend toward using the full range of tones—often with extreme black skies or backgrounds due to filtering in camera of because of fall-off due to the water. Monnelly though thrives on the fog and mist of early mornings and is smart enough to embrace all the wonderful midtones that result.

On Adams

Ansel Adams Point Sur, Storm, Big Sur, CA, 1946
Ansel Adams
Point Sur, Storm, Big Sur, CA, 1946

There’s not much to say about Adams. I know his work. We all know his work. I did find it odd though that there were two different prints of his Point Sur Storm photos yet the museum didn’t flag that they were from the same negative or comment on why both were on display. One was labeled 1946 and the other 1948 but nothing indicated that this was a printing date.

The 1948 print is larger and has had its contrasts reworked a bit. Slightly higher contrast overall and some of the shadow details are gone due to no longer being held back. The digital image here of the 1946 print is also higher contrast than what’s actually on display but you can see details in the lower lefthand corner which aren’t there at all in the 1948 print.

I’m used to Adams revisiting negatives decades later but in this case it feels more like he’s working through how he sees this negative. Given the way that this show  leans in to the Adams name—there’s also a display of his camera—I found myself wanting to know more about his process. At least we got to read a wonderful letter about juvenilia photo (also on display) which gets into how much work Adams put into his photography. It’s very different from the mindful experiential process that Brooks and Donnelly practiced but it’s great to see how considered everything is.

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

Han Youngsoo

This previously posted on NJWV.

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

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 couldn’t help but think of Max Desfor’s Pulitzer-winning photo here though.

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

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

This is the American Earth

Originally posted on NJWV as part of an occasional series of posts where Nick revisits books which he grew up with.

This, as citizens, we all inherit. This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future.

—Nancy Newhall

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.
Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.
Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.
Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.
Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.
Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.
Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.
Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.
Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.
Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.
Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

And to what shabby hells of our own making do we rush? A poisoned, gutted planet, rolling through noxious air?

—Nancy Newhall

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.

*One of the reasons I suspect that so many photographers profess to no longer like Ansel’s work is due to how he’s typically the first famous photographer people learn of and so is a distinctly obvious choice.

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.

Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

Revealing Pictures

This previously posted in a slightly different format on NJWV.

Edmund Clarke Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012
Edmund Clarke
Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012
Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16
Pieter Hugo
Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

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.*

*Two things I’ve thought about before on my blog in a general sense and here in terms of a specific exhibition on context.