When I first encountered Micheal Kenna’s work I was struck by how beautiful it was. Wonderfully elegant and serene, they were photos the likes of which I could see myself aspiring to. Then I kept seeing his work come across my Tumblr dashboard and found myself getting kind of bored. The images began feeling too perfect and almost sterile. They’re still beautiful but they’re begging for a story or some context.
So I was a little wary when I went to see Princeton’s exhibition of his Rouge series and found myself pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The photos are all still very much the Kenna™ brand but rather than idealizing nature we’re seeing the elegant beauty of the man-made industrial forms.
Kenna is at his best as a photographer of atmosphere and silhouettes. He’s able to find the bare minimum of a form and abstract it in ways where it becomes two-dimensional at some points. He has a very graphic sensibility which, when applied to industrial objects, turns them into found art.
If his landscape photos are initially appealing in that they’re pretty photos of pretty things, Rouge operates in that wonderful transformative way that the best photography does. The photos are still beautiful, but the beauty is tougher to see and the photos help us recognize it.
The silhouettes of the factory buildings. The way those elements interact with each other visually whether in their repeated forms or how they overlap and intersect. How massive solid shapes disappear in the mist and how their reflected forms disappear in the moving water. The way light gleams when it reflects off well-worn patches of metal. How imposed on the land everything feels—especially when it snows—yet there’s a beauty in how the clean lines of the factory contrasts with the texture of the earth.
I just really enjoyed looking at these.
The exhibition also frames Kenna’s work as a dialog with the earlier photographs—especially Charles Sheeler—and paintings both of Ford’s Rouge plant and with respect to America’s view of industry. Technological utopia versus dystopia is a fine line. Many of Kenna’s compositions directly reference earlier works which show gleaming sunlit structures embracing the power and promise of industry. Kenna though shoots them at night or in the fog, with long exposures that create otherworldly smoke and lighting effects.
The result is a sense of foreboding. The end is coming and the promises of 90 years ago didn’t pan out the way we desired. It’s not going to blow up, it’s just going to gradually wind down and become deserted. We see the echoes of industry in the photos and can picture the ruins that’ll remain once these jobs no longer exist.
That Kenna erases the labor aspect in his photos helps our sense of seeing these as being deserted. There’s still smoke belching from the powerhouse cloud factory but we don’t see the factory workers themselves. At most we get the sense that people have worked here in the past. Machinery is worn, and surfaces are no longer shiny and new.
This is more of a human touch than I’m used to in Kenna’s landscape photos but it’s still in keeping with his standard operating procedure for landscapes. And I found myself questioning the ethics of it. Yes it helps these photos work as elegies to American industrial production but with the times being what they are, I find myself wondering how many people are working and how many of them will be out of work soon.
I also don’t usually do a comparison of the catalog with the exhibition but this shows is the first time I’ve picked up a gallery copy of the catalog and directly compared it to the prints on the wall. My initial interest was print size. Kenna’s prints are all pretty small—around eight inches square*—and I was curious if the book printed them the same size as the prints.
*I’m increasingly used to art photography being printed huge.
I was pleased to see that they are the same size in the catalog and on the wall. I was surprised however to see such a huge difference in contrast. Kenna’s prints are very high contrast with crushed shadows that emphasize the bulk of the factory and the silhouettes of the equipment. The catalog on the other hand has way more shadow detail which suggests that they either come from a different set of prints or that they’re new scans from the negatives.
Neither version looks bad. I feel like the higher contrast look helps set the mood better however.
So I was back in the Princeton Museum and found that when they changed the galleries they hung more photographs related to their Revealing Pictures show. the show itself is the same, but there are more photos in the surrounding galleries which are now part of it. The new photos are almost all by non-white or non-western photographers and completely change—on a good way—my reaction to the show.
Initially I had mixed feelings. I convinced myself to like it but still found a lot of it to emphasize trauma as being the easiest context in which to understand photographs. It’s nice to see photos from the non-western world but a main narrative of poverty or trauma or suffering indulges Western stereotypes about the rest of the world.
The additional photos are much more representative, both in terms of their subject matter and in terms of the contexts they exist within. They’re photographers photographing themselves and their own communities and, while they require us to understand what else is going on, challenge the western gaze in ways that the original set of photos did not.
I especially liked Deana Lawson and Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou here in terms of how their images feel like inside jobs where the connection between the photographer and the subject is one of being a trusted member of the community. Through this trust we’re allowed to learn about the conditions of the photo and that context is an additional educational experience.
Abbodjelou in particular stood out to me because he reminded me of color Keïta or Sibide work. I realized that I hadn’t made the Vlisco connection with Keïta’s work and, while still in awe of the beauty in his photographs, I kind of want to know what color they were now. Also, knowing the stories behind the fabrics in his backdrops makes me appreciate them even more.
A lot of the new photos also reminded me of Ragnar Kjartansson in how they’re both the evidence of performance or conceptual art pieces and photos which are their own works of art by themselves. Sheng Qi and Zhang Huan* stand out here in how their photos both document their performances and make us viscerally react to the concepts once we read about the context.
While not part of the Revealing Pictures show, the Princeton Museum was also showing off its recent acquisition of Susan Meiselas’s Life of an Image. I blogged about is a few years ago and I’m so happy I got to see it live. I don’t have much to add over my Itinerant Languages post but it is indeed very cool to see a collection which shows how a photo has basically become a meme. We live in a remix culture and the more museums and artists embrace this and bring it into the galleries the better our visual literacy will get.
I had to walk through Revealing Pictures twice. The way the Princeton Art Museum has chosen to display the photos gave me an uneasy sense of treating black bodies as a form of ruin porn where an aesthetic appeal is used to gloss over the underlying trauma in the image. This is specifically a problem with the hanging and wall text and is not at all a critique of the images themselves. The installation over-emphasises the underlying trauma and spends a lot of time trumpeting the presence of non-western, non-white subject matter.
The show however is not about this at all and is instead both much simpler and much more my kind of thing.
While there’s no catalog, the small saddlestitched handout includes a short bio of the collector* The bio saves the entire show. He’s not interested in trauma, he’s found himself interested in understated portraits and landscapes which require additional context to understand. And he’s been smart enough to recognize that instead of collecting one image per artist, collecting a handful of images from each series/artist explains the context better than any wall text.
*As well as a picklist for the show which is the kind of awesome thing every museum should hand out.
There’ve been occasional rants in photoland about the increase in conceptual photography and how photos are no longer about just the image. I find myself rolling my eyes at these rants because you can’t escape context no matter how hard you try. This small show makes the case for context in even the most straightforward images and for recognizing how much photography relies on that information for its power.*
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.
Bill Manbo’s Colors of Confinement is very different than anything I cover in my Born Free and Equal post. Where even Miyatake as an insider was taking photos as documentation of the camp itself, Manbo is just photographing his life. There’s no expected audience besides his own family and no goals beyond remembering.
The photos are a lot of fun. It’s a beautiful area and Manbo’s a technically competent photographer who’s able to work in low light with slow film* as well as frame things beyond just bulls-eying his subjects. Color is especially welcome. Given how popular colorizing old photos is it’s always nice to be reminded that color images do exist from the 1940s. Something about seeing things in color moves internment into the “color” era rather than the “black and white” era and even while I know better, I have to admit that there is something more accessible about these.
*Lots of sunrises and sunsets which, while obvious subjects, are not the easiest thing to shoot with ASA8 or ASA10 speed film.
What sets the book apart though are the essays. They’re all great but the most-interesting point is Jasmine Alinder’s assertion that the family snapshot is a human right. She reaches this point by describing why cameras were eventually allowed into the camps but the general point stands on its own. Despite the tendency of photography rights to get caught up in documentary evidence and whistleblowing, it’s vernacular photography which allows us to construct our sense of self.
This is much of the appeal of looking through old photo albums in general. There is a universality to images of kids playing and growing up; local celebrations and events; group photos just because everyone’s together. We see ourselves and recognize elements of our own lives in these photos. They aren’t art or journalism but while every family has very similar images, these are the first things to be saved in a disaster.
Manbo’s photos are a perfect example of this. He shows life and the good things going on just like most people’s photos do. There’s lots of fun and joy and the kind of memories everyone wants to have. The only difference here is that the setting is an internment camp.
The photos don’t deny or hide the setting. It is what it is—heck, there’s even some palpable anger present in some of the frames. But they humanize the inhabitants by showing how they live and how normal life is—despite the obvious abnormal nature of the situation—by presenting them in the same kinds of photos that we all have in our family albums.
The standard documentary approach typically involves casting the subjects as tragic figures. This is conventionally powerful and absolutely necessary, but the more I see it the more I find myself questioning our tendency to treat it as the most important point of view. It’s not exactly a trope, but it comes really close to that in how the subjects of the photos are only important in how their otherness can move the viewers emotionally.
Again, this isn’t to say that Dorothea Lange’s photos of internees are bad and that we shouldn’t see the suffering. But it’s important to be aware of the kinds of photos which are missing from most documentary photography. If you don’t see the photos of people living, kids growing up, normal everyday life, you’re not seeing the things that make them human like the rest of us. And that’s a bit of a problem.
Are the camps awful? At one level, absolutely.* At another. Not really. It’s clear looking at these photos why so many of the sansei kids who grew up in these camps don’t remember them as being bad. There was so much for them to do since the goal was to keep the kids busy.** Skating, sledding, sports, scouting, bands, etc. Kids had free reign in a safe environment and got to grow up in school and social environments where they weren’t minorities.
*Nor were they ever as great as Adams portrays them. Compared to Lange, Adams’s heroic photos are the other side of the coin in how they have very specific aims about how they want their white audience to react to what the non-white people depicted in the photos have gone through.
**And turn them into Americans.
Treating the camps as uniformly and undeniably awful does a disservice to the diversity of the experiences of the internees.* It’s weird to say you enjoyed the camps if you feel you’re supposed to have hated it and it robs you of your own agency and memory to have a forced narrative like that. Manbo’s photos directly challenge the standard narrative by showing all the fun parts of the camps in a non-PR way.
There’s also a lot to be said for the cultural developments in the camps as the internees formed distinct Japanese-American traditions like Obon which are still celebrated today. This isn’t just cultural pluralism which celebrates Japanese things alongside American ones, it’s the development of new American traditions.
*Lon Kurashige’s essay in the book thoroughly covers this territory.
Where the WRA and the Ansel Adams photos emphasize “American” activities like scouting and baseball, Manbo shows other cultural aspects which didn’t fit that narrative but are as important and recognizable to Japanese Americans today. While I like the photos which demonstrate the traditionally American activities, the incompleteness of the picture frustrates me. Each time I go to Obon I see kids participating who are a fourth, or less, Japanese. But this is their culture and it’s a highlight of summer. It’s great to see photos of the beginning of new American traditions rather than getting only the prescriptive framing about what kinds of things are, or aren’t, American.
A selection of these photos came to Princeton for display in one of the dorm galleries. It’s nice to see big prints on the walls but I think I prefer these in book form. They’re more something I’d like to flip through and take in as an album rather than browsing through in a gallery. This might be an “art or not” distinction but it’s also related to how Manbo’s photos work better as a group rather than individual images.
One thing about the big prints that did catch my eye is that they’re printed with the black edge of the slide holder visible but cut off (much like the images on this webpage are). The book puts these images on black backgrounds so the presentation looks more like what a slideshow would look like.
I also caught much of the round table discussion about these photos. Not enough to provide a summary but I really liked Joshua Chambers-Letson’s talk about race as performance both from a double consciousness point of view and with the idea that Americana itself is a performance. This made a lot of sense in the context of al the internment photos since the tensions between being American and being foreign and being “loyal” and resisting what was being done to you course through everything here.
There’s also always the sense of oversight in the internment photos. Whether it’s oversight by the WRA censors or the camp management or the watchtowers looming in the background—or just out of frame of the images themselves. It’s not much a stretch to consider the oversight in photography now as we construct our own panopticons and continue to deal with racial issues in current society.