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.
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.