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.*
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.
Every year there’s disagreement about the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year. This is to be expected given the nature of contests but in recent years the discussions have consistently trended toward issues of manipulation and honesty within the ethics of what Photojournalism™ allows. While I’ve touched on this territory in the past* the hyper-prescriptive nature of what kinds of digital manipulation are allowable is not something I’m interested in.
This year though the discussion has become one of context and how the image exists in the world—a much more interesting thread to think about. Instead of a discussion about whether the image itself is worthy—it’s as clear a case of unmanipulated professional perfection in imagemaking as I’ve ever seen—the head of the jury has suggested that we need to consider more than just the technical quality of the image in anointing it “the best.”
Unlike the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the crime had limited political consequences. Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.
I both agree and disagree with what he’s saying. I do however deeply respect that he’s pushing the discussion of imagemaking in that direction. And I think that what he’s saying is more of a discussion about how the media uses images and reports on news than it is about photography itself.
The media has fallen into the “if it bleeds it leads” trap of picking the news based on what has the most salacious details. A graphic photo definitely helps here and I totally buy the argument that this assassination wouldn’t have been news in The West if the photos weren’t any good.
At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with so-easily dismissing this event as being of “little political consequence.” Assassinating an ambassador is a big deal. It’s an attack on The State. As much as I think the Benghazi stuff has been over emphasized in the US, I also don’t think that it should’ve been swept under the rug and forgotten instead. And I’d expect Russia to take it similarly as well.
That we haven’t heard anything about the political consequences of this image isn’t a failure of the image but a failure of the press which reported on a fantastic photo rather than any of the context which allows us to understand the events surrounding the image.
It’s exactly this absence of context which makes it easy for us to worry about the photo becoming a “platform for martyrdom and publicity.” We see the viral fame of the image itself and recognize the messages which can be attached to it. That the most-compelling component of the photo is the shooter, his passion, and his eerie professionalism is especially concerning. We don’t know who he is or what he really stands for but we’re open to hearing his message now.
This is in stark contrast to the other World Press Photo of the Year winners which depict assassinations. In Eddie Adams’s photo, the victim is the most compelling figure and we find ourselves wondering who he is instead of the shooter. We know he’s Vietcong and supposedly an enemy. But seeing him at the moment of death forces us to see his humanity.
In neither case is the image so explicitly about the killer. We see and empathize with the victims and, as such, don’t offer the same kind of platform to their killers.
The power of Adams’s image is that while, as Americans, we were supposedly on the same team as the killer, it forced us to reevaluate who our teammates are and the value of what we were fighting for. That it’s part of the narrative of an unpopular war and came out in the midst of an incredible year full of social upheaval only enhanced its power. That, as an American, I totally understand the context in which this photo is working in is a key reason why it’s iconic now. But I also recognize that this is American history on display.
Nagao’s photo on the other hand, while it’s the first image I thought of when I saw Özbilici’s, is still one about which I have no understanding of the larger political context. The image, and the idea that political violence can occur at any political event, has stuck with me ever since I saw it. I’m sure it resonates more strongly in Japan but for me it remains an example of how the media has always lead with compelling images and left the context out.
Anyway, I’m totally here for this discussion and thinking about how photos work as part of the news. And I’m happy to see that there’s a willingness to discuss what our responsibility when publishing photos should be. All very good signs considering how much our media has failed us in the past year.
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.