The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.
Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.
As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.
This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.
It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.
*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.
In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.
Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.
What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.
I really liked SFMOMA’s other photography show, About Time. Maybe a good pun is all I need. But the show was literally about time and how the essence of photography is in messing with that element. It works well as both a history of photography and as a nice slice into the permanent collection.
At its most-basic level, photography is about depicting a moment of time in the photographic image. Sometimes we’re conscious of the motion because a subject is blurred—as seen in old photos where motion blurs due to the technical limitations of the media or in newer ones which blur motion on purpose—or whatever you want to say is going on in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie theaters—in order to make an artistic point about time. Similarly, John Divola’s “As Far As I Could Get” series is explicitly about having time in the frame.
Other times the photograph is clearly about stopping motions which are too fast for our eyes to see. These photos often feel more like science experiments than art but for every Doc Edgerton there’s someone like Aaron Siskind. This section also includes works by Eadward Muybridge and Paul Graham which get at the way that photography both captures and replays motion for us.
As much as photography education still focuses on the “decisive moment” it’s important to see that a “moment” can be anywhere from the thousandths of a second to many hours. And that even after that, there might be nothing decisive and instead the combined moments tell the story.
We’re also very familiar with photography as evidence that something has happened. Rather than being about the moment of time in the frame, it’s about what happened before the photograph—or what’s going to happen afterward. These photographs rely on our understanding the image’s context. These are the photos which come closest to the ways that we all use photography every day.
Everyone uses photographs to mark the passage of time. Family albums, kids growing up, parents growing old, the photographs are waypoints which we’re all familiar with. Fittingly, this show dedicates an entire gallery to The Brown Sisters* since Nicholas Nixon’s project is one of the best examples of photographs telling a story about what happens over time.
*Though I found it interesting the latest print was missing.
Similarly, there are many photographs of cities which show their change over time. While SFMOMA had no series which covered a period of change, we saw photographs marking what’s about to be lost—e.g. Zoe Leonard’s storefronts or Janet Delaney’s South of Market—or, as with Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris or Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of New York, what’s being built.
Instead of gradual change, photographs also document what just happened. This show has photos by Rineke Djjkstra and Frank Gohlke which require us to know the story about what’s being depicted. This context isn’t optional. We need to know that the bullfighters have just come from the arena or that Mt. St. Helens just erupted to really understand what we’re seeing.
There are also some wonderful George N Barnard photos which show the impact that war has on the land. These photos of the Sherman campaign are both about evidence of what’s going on—both before and after the photo was taken—but also hint at larger-scale time issues in photography. Namely that you don’t have to photograph evidence of an event immediately after the event has occurred.
Photography is wonderful for revisiting a place where something happened a long time ago. We need the same context about what happened but we’re no longer looking at the evidence of that event. What’s of interest is what’s happened in the time since that event happened and what our understanding of that history brings to our understanding of the scene in the photography. In addition to Mark Ruwedel, I enjoyed being introduced to Drex Brooks’s photographs of locations from the Indian Wars.
What I loved most about this show though is that it dealt with photographs as objects in and of themselves. It’s not just that photographs capture time in the image, they also exist as physical things which are subject to the forces of time.
Phil Chang’s unfixed photographs reminded me of Rauschenberg’s white paintings in how they’re about the concept of repeated aging despite being essentially blank. They critique how art, especially photography, is conceived of as being something which doesn’t change once it’s been hung on the wall.
Matthew Buckingham’s work takes this a step further in that it also involves how technology will age. His work isn’t just about the slide projector destroying the image which it is projecting, it’s also a race between the projector and the slide as to which will vanish first. Photography, by being so interwoven with technology, is also subject to the way technology changes over time—whether it’s the technology of the image making or the technology of the image display.
Jason Lazarus’s work is worth special comment here because of how it’s about both how we try to attach extra context to the photographs and how that content is often hidden and forgotten. Rather than focusing on the photographic image, Lazarus shows us the backs of the photos where people have written notes about who’s in the photo, when or where it was taken, notes to the intended recipient, etc. None of these things is typically art but they’re all part of the medium and how we relate to it.
For a relatively new medium to already be wrestling with issues of preservation and aging and the way that the art is a physical object beyond what it depicts is a lot of fun to see. I don’t see these discussions in most museums. Preservation is performed on an artifact, but the art itself doesn’t usually concern itself with how it wants to be preserved. I’m looking forward to further explorations along this line in future shows.
The main photography show at the new SFMOMA is on California and the West and how they have had an integral role in the development of the art form. It’s good but is more of a primer, introducing the different photographic “schools” that have developed here. In other words, it’s a bit thin and I wish it had gone deeper.
The main issue is that it sort of waffles between being organized thematically versus being ordered chronologically. The wall text suggests that things are chronological but the actual photos for a supposed time period end up covering over a century. This is most obvious in the Early Landscapes room. It feels like it’s about the 19th century Watkins, Russell, Muybridge, and O’Sullivan school of mammoth plates, albumen prints, pristine spectacular western landscapes, and our early attempts at taming them. But it goes into Ansel Adams work from ~50 years later and even includes a Friedlander photo from 2004.
In many ways the exhibition would’ve been better off just making the rooms purely thematic—similar to Oakland’s Inspiration Points show a couple years ago. This is pretty much how I chose to approach the show after the first couple of rooms. By focusing on the themes and ignoring the chronology cues, I found myself thinking about how each theme could cover ~150 years of photography in the West.
Early Landscapes was intended to set up a transition to the New West.* These photographs are very much my thing. I love Baltz and Robert Adams. Henry Wessel’s photo of the Richmond garage tree is fantastic.** It’s always nice to see Shore prints.
**And I’m completely unable to find it online anywhere.
The comparison between these views of The West is one which I feel deeply in my own photography. I very much love going out into nature and hiking with my camera. I also love going out into the suburban sprawl and taking photos of—and criticizing—the cityscape that has resulted. They’re more than just a core part of my visual literacy, they’re home.
I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.
While the Old West is distinct from the New West, the New West is visible in many of the Old West photos. “Photographing the incursion of technology into nature” is one of photography’s original subjects. Watkins and Robert Adams may have had different goals with their photography, but we can see as many similarities in their work as we can see between Watkins and Ansel Adams.
I found it interesting that the conflict and chaos theme—really more about demographic change—only started with photos from the 1960s. Muybridge photographed the Modoc War 100 years prior.* Dorothea Lange has photographs from the Great Depression in the adjoining room. The history of California is a history of conflict and demographic change, it’s not something which started in the 60s.
I do however enjoy seeing how photographers address the social issues of their time. Where political comment is often absent from the rest of the modern art canon,* photography has always been on the front lines. As much as there’s disagreement about what the democratic camera means, it’s pretty clear that as an art form, photography is somewhat unique in how it’s accessible to many more people and has always had an element of not just witnessing, but being part of any conflicts.
*In the rest of the museum, it’s only visible in the Anselm Keifer and Gerhard Richter rooms. But for the rest of the art from the 1960s and 1970s? If there were politics in it it’s long been scrubbed from the wall texts.
It’s not just conflicts either. A lot of the changes are long-term gradual things which may not even depict changes but rather illustrate existing inequality. These images though, by Jim Goldberg or Carrie Mae Weems, get short shrift in this exhibition. Goldberg’s Rich and Poor is hung on both sides of a hallway—which makes no sense for a series which encourages both close inspection and zig-zagging between images. Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Criedmeanwhile is one of those photo series which needs to be seen in its entirety yet only two of the images are on display.
That economic and racial inequality are the two big issues for this year’s election, I can’t help but sort of side-eye the way both of them are minimized here.
Speaking of Lange and social justice, while I approve of featuring the “founders/ƒ.64” as being an important theme of western photography, keeping so much of their work outside of the themes in the rest of the rooms felt strange. The group wasn’t about content but rather technique. Their photos fit with all the other themes in the exhibition. There are pristine landscapes, technological changes, and demographic conflicts on display here, but the exercise in tying them into the other rooms is left to the viewer.
As an ƒ.64 room though I liked that they stayed away from most of the super-iconic photos. There’s Lange’s road. And a few of the Weston images are very familiar. But this room could have been full of just photographs I’ve seen over and over again.* I enjoy just absorbing more of their other work.
*Note, there should probably be such a room at SFMOMA because many of those ƒ.64 photos are extremely important to both photography and the idea that photography is art and all of them are inherently part of the Bay Area’s role in art history.
The last theme involves photographers playing with the medium itself. I’ve been on record saying that I consider Weston to be part of this group but most of these photos are much more recent. As such, many of them don’t quite do it for me.* The ones that do though I really like. In particular, Larry Sultan using day laborers as models and the weird ethical questions they create in the resulting photos. Did they know what they were getting in to? What does it mean to stage photos of gente day laborers using those day laborers as models? I don’t have good answers here either but I enjoy thinking about the questions.
I also loved Klea McKenna’s photograms. And it’s always nice to see Trevor Paglen on display although putting him in the playing-with-the-medium room risks reducing a lot of his work to being about technique rather than interrogating the inherent nature of photography as being surveillance.
Looking at the recent photos though provides a clear example of how art photography has embraced the “make it fucking large” ethos of the collector-driven market. So many of the prints are not just huge, but possibly too big to the point that they feel like they’re only trying to be appreciated for their size rather than as images to be looked at. I understand why this is the case* but I don’t have to like the results.
So yeah. I like many of the individual photos but was kind of unsold on the larger theme of the exhibition. As with the opening shows in the rest of the museum, this felt very much like a for-the-masses sketch of possibilities for future shows while staking a claim on a lot of territory.
In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.
I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.
That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.
This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.
The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.
*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.
The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.
It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.
*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.
What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.
This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.
The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.
There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on bordercantos.com but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.
The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.
The one small photo exhibition I saw during my trip to The Met was about Crime Stories. I enjoyed it, especially since when I saw it I was still thinking about warphotography. Crime and crime-related photographs operate in a very similar category of allowing us to see and really look at events which we don’t usually get to experience. Rather than war, we’re talking about crime. But in both cases it’s the proximity to death and danger which is compelling.
Photography has always had an intimate relationship with death and danger. Its voyeuristic aspects allow us to see things we’ve been culturally conditioned to think of as of limits and its documentary aspect lends itself to evidence and observation. We don’t want to look but not only is it hard to turn away, we often look closer and try and discern some level of truth out of the photo.
The danger is seductive. Executions have a long history of being public spectacles. As much as we now decry executions and the publishing of images which show death, there is still part of us deep inside which wants to see that evidence. Confronting that violence inside ourselves is how photos like William Klein’s, which don’t actually depict violence, draw their power. It’s all imagery we grow up with in stories, act out as kids, and then act all shocked about when it’s used to attract clicks.*
*I almost wrote “sell tabloids/newspapers” but this is the world we now live in.
Looking at crime photos—whether by Weegee or an unmanned surveillance camera—lets us play amateur detective as we try and spot details and get a sense about what happened. The same thing with looking at mugshots and other typographies of “criminal types.” As much as we know that we can’t really know what criminals look like, I don’t think we fully believe it in our guts. So we look at the photos and try and reach any sort of conclusion.
As much as I liked the show though, I wanted more. I’d love to see these taken to the present day where cell phone cameras and the autopanopticon of citizen photography have taken surveillance to a whole new level. I can’t look at the history of crime photos without thinking about the events of the past couple years. I’m not just thinking about how it’s the police which are committing the crimes either.
It’s been increasingly obvious that we, as a culture, object to crime images a lot more with certain kinds of victims while others are still seen and sold as entertainment. It’s no longer just about the fascination we have with viewing and consuming crime images that we need to discuss, we also have to confront our biases about whose images are still commodities and who we see as human.
The mug shot–like portrait captures Hickock’s sullen, lopsided face with mesmerizing clarity, as if searching for physiognomic clues to his criminal pathology.
The minimal, straightforward style of the photograph highlights the idiosyncrasies of the killer’s face and suggests that the photographer is looking for evidence, should it exist, of a homicidal pathology.
Sometimes museum texts make me smile. I’ve long been amused by SFMOMA’s description of Avedon’s Dick Hickock photo. Seeing essentially the exact same description at The Met made me laugh in the gallery. Yes, while this is what we do when viewing this photo when it’s presented in the context of Crime Stories or some other salacious setting, it seems weird to describe an Avedon this way. As Kukkurovaca points out, this is pretty much the Avedon modus operandi.
All that said, if someone wants to use The Met and SFMOMA’s text as a way of describing The Family I’m totally for it.