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.
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.
I’ve had a copy of Born Free and Equal* on my shelf for a while. I’ve flipped through it a few times but never really looked that closely, or read the essays, in it until recently. It took receiving a copy of Colors of Confinement** for Christmas to give me the push to actually look at Adams’s work and realize how distinct—in both weird and great ways—it is.
*I have this version of it which is very clear about not being associated with anything officially Ansel Adams branded. Given how the photos are in the public domain there’s probably some interest in comparing different printings too. It’s also interesting to see how the Library of Congress has digitized the collection by scanning both Adams’s prints and his negatives and presenting both versions as high-resolution downloads.
**Yes I’ll have a post on this coming eventually to.
Adams’s work was not part of the WRA and so isn’t government propaganda. At the same time, with its heroic headshots and optimistic assimilated future it feels incredibly propagandalike. There’s nothing here about hardship or injustice. None of the camp watchtowers or fences are pictured.* Everyone is identified as American. And all the activities depicted—baseball, scouting, marching band, home decor, toys, clothing, etc.—are “American.” The rare “unamerican” things—tofu preparation and buddhist rituals—are part of larger lists rather than highlighted images in their own right.
*While the texts says that Adams was not allowed to shoot the fences or watch towers, his photographs are not about confinement at all.
The portraits in particular are indeed heroic: full sun, tightly cropped, no context besides occupation. While we know that the subjects suffered hardships, they’re unbowed, optimistic, and looking forward to bigger and better things. The other photos are similar in tone and emphasize the working settlement and community which they have built in a tough landscape. The text accompanying the images expands on these themes by emphasizing loyalty, their post-internment relocation plans, and how they’ll become productive Americans.
I fully understand why this point of view was needed at the time. And why it got Adams into a bit of trouble when he exhibited these photographs in 1944. Still, the assimilationist view bugs me. Both in how it defines what it means to be an American and by extension, what it implies is non-American. While these photos aren’t about confinement, they are about a loss of culture.* To present as American, most of the Japaneseness has been scrubbed out of the photos.
*Which, given how big a deal Obon and other Nikkei Matsuri are still today, is distinctly not what happened.
At the same time, I can’t hate on these photos. Despite my issues with them, a large part of me is overjoyed to see Asian-Americans presented as simply, American. What makes these photos distinctly great is that it’s sadly jarring to see this view even today. Many people still do not expect “regular Americans” to be Asian. We need to see this representation more often.
Looking through the photos with today’s eyes and I also see some weirdness going on. Despite not being about confinement at all, because Adams published them at a larger scale under his name, they sort of became the most-likely collection of internment images for people to have seen. Internment is correctly remembered as one of the United States’ major mistakes in civil rights yet the images associated with it are these heroic ones which gloss over most of the abuses. I found myself wanting to look at some of the more critical photos as well. Thankfully, the book has essays which point in the correct direction.
Archie Miyatake’s essay about his father, Toyo, is especially informative. Toyo Miyatake became the official Manzanar camp photographer after smuggling in a lens and ground glass. At first he photographed on the sly with his home-made camera* and smuggled film and chemicals but eventually gained the acceptance of the camp director and photographed officially.
I went looking for more of Miyatake’s photos of the camp. There are precious few of them online* but I was able to find copies of Two Views of Manzanar—a catalog from a 1978 show of Miyatake’s and Adams’s Manzanar photographs—and Elusive Truth: Four Photographers at Manzanar—a 2002 book** which features Miyatake, Adams, Clem Albers, and Dorothea Lange and frames the internment as something we need to remember in a post-September 11 world.*** There’s also a good, but long, series of posts by Nancy Matsumoto which covers all this ground and then some.
*Which is why there are none in this post.
**I can’t recommend it since some of the photos are printed horribly. Thankfully JARDA exists instead so I can find higher resolution versions of what’s in the book.
***There’s no need to discuss Adams’s photos again but it is worth noting that the subjects are identified by name instead of occupation in these two books.
Miyatake’s photos are interesting. Lots of posed documentary shots since that’s what he was supposed to be doing in the camp. But also a lot of images that Adams didn’t, or couldn’t show. The watchtowers. Posing by the barbed wire fences. Kids lined up at the toy loan center. It’s very clear how this is strange confined world which is not acceptable.
There’s also a lot of the flip side to what Adams’s photos show. Where Adams photographed members of the 442nd as American heroes, Miyatake photographed their departure and their funerals and the way this impacted the community left behind—especially the Issei who Adams didn’t depict and who can’t be described as Americans because they weren’t allowed to become citizens.
The photos aren’t all negative though. Miyatake’s aims were more about capturing and remembering what happened rather than publishing and achieving social change. He wanted to be in Manzanar for the duration and have images which showed the entirety of the camp to future generations. There are photos of graduations and Christmases and other events showing how life went on and people had fun and things weren’t horrible even though nothing depicted should be considered normal. Ever.
Sort of ironically, it’s the official WRA photographs which end up hammering the social justice angle of the camps. Clem Albers and Dorothea Lange have different axes to grind—Albers is skeptical of the government and Lange is all about social change—but together their photos capture a much different Manzanar. Instead of the self-sufficient settlement that Adams shows, the WRA photos show the camp at its worst—needing to be cleared and built by the same people who were to be confined there.
Albers in particular is very smart about trying to show confinement while following the guidelines of not showing actual confinement. He frames subjects behind glass or in tight rooms or somehow otherwise confined. And if he can’t do that he includes a caucasian authority figure who, while not being depicted negatively, implies that there is more going on in the image. Why does the military police need to be involved with getting children or the elderly off of a train?
Lange meanwhile sees the internees as tragic figures who are being horribly wronged by their government. Her photos emphasize the existing context of what has been done to the internees. If you include her work of the evacuation before the camps were set up,* this point of view becomes even stronger. They’ve lost so much and are now working extremely hard in an inhospitable place to eek out their living. There’s no future in mind, only our complicity in what’s been done to them already.
Lange and Albers’s photos look more like what I’d expect images of the internment to look like. Harsh, brutal, unjust images of an unjust event. Looking at them solidified my takeaway from Adams’s work about how weirdly great it is. Despite its assimilationist tones, there is something wonderful about presenting an oppressed group not only as humans but as peers who have persevered despite the oppression. All too often we only see the oppression and suffering which, while important to witness, risks making someone else’s pain into a spectacle.