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About a week ago, I went to see Fertile Ground at the Oakland Museum. It’s an interesting show, although one largely outside my wheelhouse.
There’s some neat f/64 material, and a small but spot-on section about CSFA and the boom in post-war, GI Bill-fueled college enrollment. This includes material on Ansel Adams and Minor White at CSFA, an important inroad of photography into academic art instruction. My favorite part was this magazine article by White:
I can’t help reading it in the style of the Berkeley Farms “Farms….in Berkeley? (mooooooo)” slogan.
While I’m not particularly fluent in media other than photography, there was some stuff there I loved1. My favorite thing, though, is that around the corner from this gigantic map of the relationships in the “Mission Scene”:
Map of Relationships in the Mission Scene room
…tucked away in a fire exit, nearly out of sight, was a handful of printed ephemera decrying yuppie incursion into the Mission.
Mission Yuppie Eradication Project
This utterly charming but carefully peripheral display was more or less the only nod to the existence of gentrification in a room about artists working in a neighborhood which is practically synonymous with the problem of gentrification and class resentment. Note also that by using dated, anonymous ephemera, the curators are framing the issue as one that is implicitly quaint and not relevant to the intentions of any particular artist.
This is in contrast to the substantial engagement with social issues in the room devoted to work of the 30’s, which deals both with the important issues of the day, and the ways in which artists’ political views influenced their relationships, their work, and their visibility.
This attention to the sociopolitical diminishes in the CSFA room, and is almost absent in the UC Davis and Mission Scene2 rooms. The message seems to be that engagement with political realities is part of the past of California art—albeit a treasured part—and that while art continues to brave and challenging, the challenge it presents is no longer to the world, but just to itself.
My favorite bits: Rivera, Edith Hamlin, Bernard Zakheim’s Tractored Out, Sargeant Johnson, Clyfford Still (“painting that instructed even as it destroyed” — Kenneth Sawyer), Margaret Kilgallen, Richard Shaw, Roy De Forest. ↩
There’s definitely love for street art in the Mission Scene room, and I don’t want to say none of the art there is political, but the thing about a street aesthetic (or any aesthetic, really) is that it is easily decontextualized. The point isn’t whether the art is political, but that the show is assiduous about placing some works in a political context and others not. ↩
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.
One of the things we’re planning for Hairy Beast is sporadic reposts from 1/125. This isn’t just because I’m so hard up for material I have to cannibalize our past—well, it’s not just that. I also want to make sure that stuff exists outside of the Tumblr ecosystem. First up is this post on Suburban Dreams by Beth Yarnelle Edwards, which recently came up in conversation on twitter. This post was originally published on January 23, 2013.
No one appears to be impoverished…these are not the ‘cool’ photos of down and out drug users, strippers and hookers. These are our own neighbors. We immediately recognize ourselves and our friends.
This weekend I stopped by the Oakland Museum to see “Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Suburban Dreams,” an exhibition drawn from the California portion of Edwards’s Suburban Dreams series. (See here and here) The exhibit includes around a couple dozen photographs, as well as a handy binder containing reproductions of ephemera — samples of Edwards’s working notes, correspondence with subjects, etc. I went on the 19th for the talk by Edwards and curator Drew Johnson, which proved quite interesting.
Pictures authentic to the people
Edwards photographs subjects in their homes, in scenes that are staged but also intended to be “authentic” depictions of the family’s life. She follows a set protocol which includes showing subjects examples of her work, and asking if they are comfortable looking like the people in those pictures and interviewing them with intentionally vague, non-leading questions (e.g., “tell me something about your lives,” “what are your favorite things?”) Based on the interview, semi-improvised scenes are staged in which subjects act out some aspect of their daily lives. Specific poses are held for moderately long exposures.
It’s an interesting approach. Johnson contrasted it with the model of the “invisible documentarian,” and asserted that Edwards’s results can be “more real than a candid, unstaged photograph.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that, quite, but I find the approach appealing, especially in the context of my recent discussion of my hangup about portraiture. (I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means.)
Edwards’s very interactive way of working strikes a good balance: she’s producing images that have a great thematic and stylistic consistency and strong authorship, but her subjects are active in determining how they will appear. Her intention is to “make the pictures authentic to the people, not just use the people to illustrate my ideas.”
All of which is very appealing to me. But I find myself rather ambivalent about the actual photos.
Everyone can recognize
Part of my difficulty has to do with the type of photograph Edwards is making. My natural inclination is to read them as documentary, even ethnography, but that’s not really what they’re for. Edwards is actually emulating genre painting rather than making photographic documents. Her repeatedly declared intention is to portray her subjects as universal archetypes, which “everyone” can recognize. And that’s the second, larger part of my difficulty: the presumption of universality.
Edwards identifies as a cultural insider relative to the subjects she’s working with. In the California photos, the families are, while not necessarily her friends, within her extended social network — people who know people she knows, etc. In discussing her work, she used “we” and “our” often, apparently referring to a category inclusive of her subjects, herself, and those in attendance(?). (Although she also referred to the suburbs as an “aspirational” world, as seen on TV, and part of her motivation for the project is that she became “interested in the aspiration and what it meant.”)
I asked, given that she produced the work as a cultural insider, whether the photographs were intended for an insider audience as well, or whether they are intended for a different or broader audience — in short, who she thought the viewer of these photographs was. For whom are these archetypes “universal”?
Her response was that while the “stuff” is not universal, posture, gesture, etc. is. For example, a boy about to become a man will stand a certain way whether here or “two thousand miles away,” whether now or in a painting made hundreds of years ago. (The association of universality with the tradition of painting was a recurring and prominent theme.)
This jibes with her take on Europe. (The project includes several European countries, although what’s exhibited at OMCA is just from California.) She said that “increasingly, with globalization, a lot of European homes look like our suburban homes,” and in discussing distinctions between homes in Europe and homes here, she was careful to explain how what differences she did observe were in comparisons between homes of people in the same social class and professional status. And tellingly, when asked about the impact of economic recession on the people in her photographs, she pointed out that people who were doing poorly thanks to economic downturns would not be in the houses she was photographing — they would have left and been replaced by others.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a specific social class — but I say it is telling because class is the parameter she did not use in talking about the trans-historical, trans-cultural range of viewers who are intended to be able to recognize the “universal” in her work.
(For examples of different relationships between a subject group, an insider or semi-insider photographer, and a viewership, consider Gordon Parks as “Mr. Negro”, which is a case of the photographer overtly acting as a bridge between one group and another, or Daniela Rossell, from whose Ricas y Famosas I think Suburban Dreams differs more in degree than in kind, except that Ricas y Famosas is perceived/used as indicting evidence against the subculture it represents.)
Family of (Upper Middle Class) Man
Jumping back a bit: part of the function of documentary and especially ethnographic photography is to explain a culture to an audience which is not presumed to have extensive prior knowledge of it. This is a function I know how to read in photographs (more or less). It orients the viewer toward the specific, toward information, toward the cultural context of the photograph. It helps the viewer to account for what they are seeing. And it does not presume that the viewer is an insider.
Now, that’s not the function Suburban Dreams is meant to serve, so not doing it is not an intrinsic deficit. But to the extent that the series presumes a relatively “insider” audience alongside its insider author, it is rendered less accessible and less useful to those who are not insiders. I believe Edwards that Suburban Dreams is about showing people as types that transcend place and time, but I think there is a real hiccup when it comes to class. As much as I like Edwards’s protocol and methodology, I think to some extent the photographs that result from them serve as family photographs of the upper middle class en masse: an internally directed self-depiction of people as they are willing to see themselves and be seen.
There’s nothing wrong with family photographs, and there’s nothing wrong with an insider producing something that is implicitly intended for the appreciation of other insiders. But there’s a potentially sharp discontinuity between that appreciation and the appreciation of outsiders. In the case of depictions of “universal” archetypes, the predictable outcome of crossing this discontinuity is that the archetype devolves to stereotype. The result is not an incomprehensible image, but an all-too-comprehensible one — stereotypes being always the easiest type to judge, read, and dismiss.
Our Own Neighbors
This aspect stands out to me particularly in the context of the Oakland Museum, which is located — well, here. If you don’t know what I mean, stop by some time, and walk a couple of miles in a couple of directions from the museum, and see what you see, including but not limited to, abject poverty, notable affluence, everything in between, and both urban decay and gentrification. There are few areas in California where class is more in need of socially critical interpretive context. And the rest of the museum — particularly the California history exhibits, but also plenty of the art — has that in spades.
Still, as I left Suburban Dreams, I wondered if maybe it was really just me — whether I was just personally/idiosyncratically insensitive to the universal in Edwards’s photographs. Would I find the same gazes, the same gestures, the same types, in, say, the photographs William Gedney made in Kentucky? Probably yes, at least in some cases. It’s likely that to some extent, maybe a great extent, my ambivalence toward Edwards’s photographs stems directly from my very real bias against the universal and toward the specific.
Then I went around the corner from Suburban Dreams, and I looked at photographs of Black Panthers and Diggers, and Dorothea Lange’s Richmond welders and Manzanar detainees. And I thought: images of well-off people at leisure, no matter in what posture or gesture, simply cannot be meaningfully regarded as universal representations of humanity, except insofar as rich people all look alike.
PS: To be clear, I am not presenting this as an comprehensive review — there is a great deal that one can get out of these photographs, although I think many of the best uses would go against their grain. (E.g., as records of a specific culture isolated in time and place.) What I am saying is that photographs like these do not get to casually or by default be for everyone, and if it is not clear whom they are for, it is questionable how much light they can shed on the suburban lifestyle, either as actual culture or as aspirational ideal.