This, as citizens, we all inherit. This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future.
And to what shabby hells of our own making do we rush? A poisoned, gutted planet, rolling through noxious air?
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.
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.
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.
Seeing Princeton’s City Lost and Found show a week before Baltimore blew up* was very interesting timing. It’s weird to be working through my reactions to a show while a real world event unfolds which essentially references everything I’m working through. But this show covers the 1960s and 1970s in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Which means it covers the Harlem riots, Chicago riots, and Watts riots—all of which are extremely relevant to the discussions we’re having today about Baltimore. We still haven’t learned the lessons from 1968.
*I’m really curious to see how that Wiki page changes since the whole riot/protest/rebellion/uprising discussion is also ongoing.
The show isn’t about the riots, but rather the way cities were evolving in the 1960s and 1970s as the demographics and industry changed. A lot of people and industry moving out. And a lot of people and infrastructure being left behind in ways that the powers that be viewed as requiring renewal or fixing or controlling. While the backstory is missing in the show, even the gist of it is enough to get started.
We get to see urban renewal plans, municipal commission documents, documentary photographs, street photographs, photojournalism, investigative art projects, performance art projects, guerrilla art projects, and more, all capturing various ways that the city was in flux and various groups were reacting to the changes, proposed changes, or lack of changes, that were going on. It shows us what the cities were like ~50 years ago and what the primary issues were then. Looking at everything, even before the Baltimore protests erupted, I was struck by how little had really changed since that time period.
*Whether they’re blacks living in formerly redlined neighborhoods or artists who need affordable housing or immigrants trying to start new lives here.
And the cities do need to be improved and renewed. While urban renewal is frequently code for gentrification or the destruction of existing communities, neglect and non-investment* are just as destructive. The plans all look glorious. Wonderful mixed-use developments. High density—affordable high density—living coupled with urban parks and communal greenspaces. Transportation** accessibility as a key feature of everything. Even a lot of balancing new developments with old architecture by incorporating the old buildings into the design. I look at these plans and wish that they’d built them since they address almost all the issues*** currently afflicting cities.
*Let alone actual theft in the form of subprime mortgages or “buying” homes on contract or the systematic destruction of property and businesses if, against all odds, these areas actually do flourish.
**One of the few things that betrays the age of these plans is how car-focused everything is. Though it is interesting to note that while New York was trying to improve access for cars, the LA plans were trying to improve walkability.
***Public transportation being the notable absence.
A new city built along these lines would be a thing of beauty. The plans still look futuristic because we just can’t do things like this. Part of me wants to tear my hair out because we’ve known that we need to do this for decades. The other part of me looks at the plans and understands why we can’t.
Because I also look at these plans and notice that the ideas for renewal all involve destroying and rebuilding entire swaths of the city. And I know that to do any of this, city government will have to eminent domain the cheapest available land occupied by the least-politically-powerful people. And that the land is cheap because of racist governmental policies and white flight. And that the new growth, even if truly affordable, will not—cannot—replace the former neighborhoods.
And this is all ~50 years ago and things are basically the same and this wasn’t a new problem even then and no wonder people are pissed and frustrated and the real wonder is why these kind of demonstrations don’t happen more often.
The reality on the ground and the promised beauty of the plans are two threads that this show is unable to reconcile. This feels like a weakness in the exhibition as much of my time in the galleries involved being frustrated by what felt like the absence of a thesis statement for the exhibition. But this absence also feels honest and when I wasn’t frustrated I was nodding my head in agreement and recognition of this. I want to see an easy answer. We wish there were an easy answer. There is no easy answer.
The only conclusions I can draw from the exhibition require me to think about what I didn’t see there. There are no plans that treat the city as something that needs retrofitting rather than being a complete teardown and rebuild. None that view anything beyond the architectural legacy of the area to be worth considering for selected salvation.* None that involve the communities and give them any agency over what they need. All of these are projects and visions that, if they exist, would live in the disconnect which is on display. I suspect though that they don’t exist, whether 50 years ago or today.
*Not that I disagree with saving architecturally-significant buildings. Just that it says a lot about priorities when it’s only the architecture that’s considered worth saving.
Photography as social document
Aside from the general reactions I had to this show, it’s also very interesting from a photography point of view. While a lot of the photos on display were intended as art photos, they’re not being used as art here—despite being exhibited in an art museum. These are photos as social history, social documents, items that tell us about the place, who lived there, how it’s changing, what life is like on the ground rather than from the planning offices.
It’s not about the photos as objects: Some of them are vintage prints. Some are slides. Some are mechanical prints. Some are halftones in magazines or books. Some—as with the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition—are digital prints from scanned negatives. It’s about the photos and the stories they contain.
I still looked at the photos with an eye toward the art side of things. But even as someone who often looks at the social context around the photography* I was even more tuned into this element here. The photos—and the rest of the art in the exhibition—were telling me the stories. I didn’t have to pull them out on my own. And there are too many stories to mention so I’ll just go over the ones that caught my eye.
Danny Lyon and Aaron Rose’s photos of the destruction of lower Manhattan at first have some ruin porn vibes going on except that rather than capturing the superficial beauty of decay and abandonment, these are about change and questioning the idea that progress requires destroying the past. These photos get compared to the photos that show new buildings going up. Same metal frames, same men in hard hats, and the same dust and dirt of power tools. Just a different side of the coin.
The planning commission documents contain essentially photo essays of street photography as a way of understanding that people live in the city. Where street photography often has a bad reputation, these documents show what it does well. It’s not just about the tropes and getting that decisive moment where everything in the frame lines up perfectly. It also captures a sense of place and time in a way that no other kind of photography really can.
There’s plenty of street photography on display just by itself too. Classic black and white work by Garry Winogrand or Leonard Freed. Color work by Helen Levitt or Bruce Davidson. In a different show I’d be appreciating the photos individually. In this show, between the planning commission documents and the magazine photo essays,* I’m fitting the rest of the photos into my own imagined social documents of how the city works and what it’s like to navigate one on foot.
Street photography is a human’s-eye view of the city. Even in the age of the automobile, this perspective is necessary to keep in mind. No matter how much the cities need to be fixed, if they don’t work on the street-level human scale they don’t work at all. And while I appreciate Martha Rosler’s attempts reject the theatricality of traditional street photography, the way she added distance between herself and her subjects resulted in a point of view that felt closer to a car’s-eye view of the city. There’s something about being in the middle of things in the city that’s absolutely necessary.
This is of obvious import in a city like New York but it’s also relevant to Los Angeles. There are a series of photographs by various photographers looking at the demolished but undeveloped Bunker Hill site in downtown Los Angeles. These photos are coupled with images of different redevelopment plans that were attempted over the years. Some were not pedestrian-friendly, others were. Part of the problem with the site is that the less pedestrian-friendly plans were tried first and they just didn’t work. The resulting buildings were not a place anyone wanted to be.
This emphasis on the importance of scale comes up in a lot of the more landscape-like photography in the city too. From Thomas Struth’s super-precise photographs of New York to John Humble’s photos of LA, you can see the contrast between new developments and the way they dwarf the older, human-scale architecture. We need both types of building in the modern city and making sure they work together is the challenge.
I really liked Arthur Tress’s Open Space in the Inner City* in that it felt like one of the few instances where the photography and plans where being discussed at a local level. These were originally mechanical prints rather than fine-art prints and the goal was to discuss locally about reclaiming existing open space into real parks. I’m not sure it ever got past this stage but it’s one of the few examples which even kind of sits in the middle of the divide between planning and local input.
*Holy crap he has a Blurb presence and you can get Volumes 1and 2 there.
Art Sinsabaugh’s panoramas are also great. I’m kind of a sucker for panoramas in general but I enjoy the way these show the commitment to the automobile. One of the things missing from the New Topographics is focusing on the architecture of the highway system itself. Sinsabaugh’s work is interesting to view with that context in mind.
Hans Haake’s real estate holdings piece isn’t photography per se but does rely on photographs of each location to really make concrete the point about the way so few people control so much of the land. And how labyrinthine the holding companies are so as to obscure who’s actually in charge.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto was a nice discovery for me. His quieter Chicago cityscapes feel a lot closer to the kinds of photographs I enjoy making and I’ll be looking more into his work in the future.
John Divola’s MGM lots are a brilliant addition to the show in that they blur the lines between fictitious and real urban decay and the way it’s presented in the media.The lots are fake creations meant to look like New York or Chicago or anywhere else, but they’re also open space that will eventually be developed into self-contained modern cities with Los Angeles.
Bruce Nauman’s LA Air meanwhile is one of two references in the show to explicit environmental issues in the city.* It’s funny and snarky but also points out one of the things that is an issue now but which wasn’t under consideration ~50 years ago. The environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s is barely mentioned in this exhibition despite all the grand plans involve improving automobile circulation in the city. While a lot of the race issues would remain the same in a similar exhibit of today’s cities, I’d expect a lot more LEED-certified or Cradle to Cradle ideas in the aspirational city plans.
*The other is Documerica which, while environmental, also feels like a slice of everyday like in the 1970s.
Another blind spot involves non-black ethnic groups in the cities. I understand why the exhibition is so black-focused but other non-white communities are also an important part of the New York, Chicago, and LA experience. I only noticed mentions of these other groups in a few photos by Jonas Dovydenas documenting ethnic enclaves in Chicago, Luis Medina’s photos of Latino gang members in the 1980s, and Asco’s Chicano activist work.
Of those, Asco caught my attention since they combined Latino traditions like mural painting with Chicano activism about how Latinos are mistreated in the city. Asco’s work, by being self-representational, also pointed out how little non-white self-representation was present in the rest of the exhibition.* As with the environmental stuff I’d expect a lot more self-representational work in a modern version of this exhibition.
I would also expect a lot more Asians—both traditional Asian communities under pressure to gentrification and the rich Asian gentrifiers who are displacing a lot of the old-time residents. But that’s for the modern show which also has to include the rush back to the city by booming businesses and young professionals alike.
I love seeing museum exhibitions where photography, paintings, sculpture, etc. are in the same room, in conversation with each other. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually seen this. Which means I’m always on the lookout to post anything which can do this.
My last museum trip of the summer was to the Oakland Museum. This was partly to get my Fenton’s fix but I was also interested in the Inspiration Points exhibition since it promised to mix photography, painting, and drawing in the galleries. One of my continuing interests with photography is how it can get out of the photography wing and be exhibited alongside, and in conversation with, other artworks. This doesn’t happen often* so I like to keep an eye out for those cases where it does and go see the show with an eye for how the show itself guides the conversation.
The Oakland museum show is a little bit of a mixed bag here. It breaks the concept of California Landscape Art into distinct views and themes, some of which end up being heavily biased toward specific media. So no conversations in those room although there is food for thought about why some themes may be tougher for certain media to handle.
Since each theme ends up being somewhat distinct in character, it makes sense to go through the themes. First, the themes which resulted in galleries which were mixed media.
While being mixed between paintings and photography, a lot of the works in this gallery were heavily biased toward pictorialism—or the paintings that those photos were trying to evoke. This isn’t a complaint as it’s quite nice to see those two concepts mixed together so we can actually see how they inform each other.
At the same time, it feels like a somewhat limited take on what mysticism can mean as it biases more toward early-20th-century concepts of myths and the “unspoiled” land in the west rather than looking at the different ways people have developed the landscape for spiritual reasons over the past century.
This theme is of course the flip side of the mystic landscapes. How California is full of natural resources for us to use or conquer is the real state mythology. Documenting the land as we impose out will on it is something everyone—from artists to corporations*— does here. In this case, the method of documentation doesn’t really matter. I don’t get the sense that these works are in conversation although it is interesting to see how commercial both photography and painting can go in terms of serving corporate needs.
What’s more interesting is how all these works can be read in multiple ways now. Many of the exploitation artworks originally glorify the men or companies which were taming nature. While this reading is still valid, that they’re now displayed under the heading “Exploitation” means we’re looking at them differently. What was originally optimistic is instead something we’re supposed to reflect on and think about how to change—both our actions with the landscape and our readings of corporate propaganda—moving forward.
Recreation and Tourism
It’s interesting that Recreation and Tourism is a distinct theme outside of exploitation. Not all of the exploitation of California’s resources is through using them up. Recreation and tourism is just as important a part of land management and just as important an industry to the state. Big trees. Big water. Big mountains. These are the landscapes which sell the California image as tourist destination for seeing and taking in and exploring nature.
These are also the landscapes that photographers and painters tend to consume and emulate the most. Where the exploitation artworks are clear what industry they’re depicting, many of the recreation ones end up pointing the finger back at the viewer and the artist and make me think about the fine line between how our desire to see and use these places both allows for their preservation as open space and risks degrading them through overuse.
There’s also a gallery dedicated to East Bay landscapes. This is nice to see because it’s local—both the views and the artists—and while the exhibition is about California, it’s also always nice to see items of specific local interest included too. There are a lot of stereotypical nice landscapes on the East Bay but I prefer seeing the depictions of things we typically don’t think of as being picturesque.
Locals have a tendency to undervalue what’s interesting about where they live even while being triggered with intense senses of home from things that non-locals won’t ever understand. It’s those local-specific details which I enjoy seeing the most.
Now, on to the themes which were heavily biased in favor of a specific medium.
This section was all paintings* and pretty much all a nostalgic** view of California as an agricultural paradise. Not really a style of painting I like though it is interesting that there weren’t any photographs present. It’s not like photography can’t do the nostalgia thing.***
*Except for one Edward Weston photo. Oddly enough.
Between how we also react to old photos as inherently historic and nostalgic documents and how so much of the current trends in photography have been centered around faking and mimicking nostalgia as a reaction to the ubiquity of images and our loss of our lazy-man’s editor, there’s plenty of opportunity for photographs here.
All that said, I think there’s an element of nostalgia which requires things to be kind of made up. Photography, while not real, trades on reality in a way that paintings do not. Looking at nostalgic paintings comes with the understanding that things don’t actually look like that in real life. Looking at photos, especially landscape photos, still comes from a place where we expect the photo to be real.
Meanwhile this theme was all photos, many of which were New Topographics type work. And while this made some sense to me since one of photography’s specialties is highlighting incongruent elements such as this urban vs wild theme, it’s not like people stopped painting or drawing the California suburbs.
And the urban vs. wild theme is in many ways about “California style” developments* which are meant to bring the outside in or incorporate controlled wilderness in the midst of suburbia. This isn’t an exclusive to photography thing at all.**
*Something that I wasn’t fully aware of until I moved East and saw homes listed as “California style” which look nothing like anything I’ve seen in California but instead feature more open floor plans and bigger windows and try to seem like they’re closer to nature.
**A lot of Hockney paintings (one of his joiners was in this gallery) seem to fit here. As does a lot of Bechtle.
Still, as with the nostalgia images, the difference in how we approach paintings compared to photos I think is a major reason why this gallery is photo-biased. The fact that the photos are “real” makes the incongruity more believable here.
This was also all photos. Which, didn’t surprise me at all. The dystopia photos, more than anything else here, are treated as evidence of landscapes taken to illogical extremes. You could create images like these in paintings but something about finding these in the wild makes the point better.* These photos are often wry and funny just as often as they’re sad. They’re also the images I liked the most in the exhibition.
*Sandow Birk’s drawings are pretty dystopian but even when referencing specific things, they’re pretty clearly made up.
Many of the dystopian photos revolve around land use and the weird juxtapositions between private and public. Looking through the rest of the galleries in this show, it’s clear how this idea is a constant issue in all the different themes and as such is really the dominant concept in the California landscape.
So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.