Tag Archives: printing

John Malmin. Aug. 13, 1965: National Guard troops secure a stretch of 103rd Street, dubbed Charcoal Alley, in Watts to help Los Angeles authorities restore order. This image is looking east from Compton Avenue.

City Lost and Found

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

Baltimore on my mind

Paul Rudolph. Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Bird’s-eye perspective section. Rendering. 1970
Paul Rudolph. Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. 1970
John Malmin. Aug. 13, 1965: National Guard troops secure a stretch of 103rd Street, dubbed Charcoal Alley, in Watts to help Los Angeles authorities restore order. This image is looking east from Compton Avenue.
John Malmin. Watts. August 13, 1965
Helen Levitt. New York. 1972
Helen Levitt. New York. 1972
Bertrand Goldberg. River City I, Chicago, Illinois, 1972/79
Bertrand Goldberg. River City I, Chicago, Illinois, 1972/79
Wall of Respect. Ebony Magazine. December 1967.
Wall of Respect. Ebony Magazine. December 1967.

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.

The issue between balancing the need to improve aging cities with being fair to the people who still live in the cities* with addressing the injustices that have left many of those people in, or a single catastrophe removed from, poverty is not just a difficult problem we have to solve, it’s the problem we have to solve.

*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 I look at the photos of those neighborhoods and remember the Leonard Freed book in my parents’ house and see that while they look worn down and in need of upgrading, people live their entire lives there and take pride in their 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

Richard Nickel. Untitled (Construction of McCormick Place), 1958/60
Richard Nickel. Untitled (Construction of McCormick Place), 1958/60
Aaron Rose. Untitled (The demolition of Pennsylvania Station), 1964-1965
Aaron Rose. Untitled (The demolition of Pennsylvania Station), 1964-1965
New York City Planning Commission. Spread from Plan for New York City. 1969
New York City Planning Commission. Spread from Plan for New York City. 1969
Department of City Planning, Los Angeles. Spread from Concepts for Los Angeles. 1967
Department of City Planning, Los Angeles. Spread from Concepts for Los Angeles. 1967
William Reagh. Bunker Hill to soon be developed. 1971
William Reagh. Bunker Hill to soon be developed. 1971
Thomas Struth. West Broadway, New York. 1978
Thomas Struth. West Broadway, New York. 1978
John Humble. 300 Block of Broadway, Los Angeles, October 3, 1980
John Humble. 300 Block of Broadway, Los Angeles, October 3, 1980

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.

*cf. my Winogrand writeup.

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.

*Including Gordon Parks’s Harlem Family and Ebony’s Wall of Respect.

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.

Other highlights

Art Sinsabaugh. Chicago Landscape #117, 1964
Art Sinsabaugh. Chicago Landscape #117, 1964
John Divola. MGM #12 1979-80
John Divola. MGM #12 1979-80
Asco. Instant Mural. 1974
Asco. Instant Mural. 1974

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 1 and 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.

It’s always nice to see Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Especially now with more and more Google Street View projects occurring, it’s nice to examine one that predates them all.

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 think just Gordon Parks and the Ebony article. Though there’s also a collage by Romare Bearden on display. 

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.


High-contrast Pictorialism

Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm
Negative 1902. Print 1914
Gelatin silver, toned or gelatin silver bromide
Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm
Negative 1906.
Gelatin silver glass interpositive ca. 1940, reworked from earlier negative

So the same day that my post on Inspiration Points published here, the George Eastman house tumbler published a very different version of the Anne Brigman print which caught my eye at Oakland.

The Brigman print I saw in Oakland was very close to the print at the Getty. Extremely low contrast. Everything you’d want from something Pictorialist. Seeing a high-contrast 1940 print of the same image is interesting…and offputting.

And kind of comforting. With the focus on technical mastery and using all the contrast and tonal range available and trying to get things as sharp as possible, it’s nice to be reminded that those tools aren’t the only ones available to photographers. I’ve never been a huge pictorialist fan but yeah, I much much much prefer the subtlety of the older print.

Update: I did some digging around at the George Eastman House to see if there was any additonal information about these. It’s nice that they have a record of the early image and the later one. Even better, the later record states that, “Brigman reworked her earlier negatives as late as the 1940s.” So this isn’t the case of a rogue printer updating old work to current fashions. The artist herself decided to revise her previous work.

Vivian Maier, via WBEZ.org

Performance and Circulation

Note: This post was started way back in May. Welcome to @kukkurovaca time.

Vivian Maier, via WBEZ.org

Vivian maier, via WBEZ.org

In one of those entertaining instances of RSS synchronicity, two items hit my feed reader at practically the same time: one pointing to a Wall Street Journal meditation by Richard B. Woodward on why Vivian Maier’s own prints aren’t valuable, the other a post at the ICP blog by Chilean photographer Luis Weinstein on the historical and contemporary context for photography in South America.

Both posts take as their stepping off point the relationship between the negative and the print and when, in the life cycle of the image, it transitions from a potential to an actual work. But from that point, they proceed in pretty different directions.


Ansel Adams, a piano prodigy before he picked up a camera, once declared that the photographic negative was like a musical “score,” while the final print was akin to the concert “performance.”….

To extend the Adams analogy, [photographers who had others print their negatives] composed songs or symphonies they did not always play themselves….All of these artists, though, if they delegated one step of the process to others, supervised the final results. And after death, if their estates authorized posthumous work, posterity was able to gauge how a print should look because identical or similar examples had been made when these artists were alive.1

But what if they had died and left behind rolls of film that no one ever developed, even as negatives? Do exposed frames even qualify as photographs or only as potential ones? How is someone supposed to know how to perform a “score” that the artist never finished?


The first reductionist trap we tend to fall into is to think that a “photograph” as such exists once we click the camera shutter, but if we consider that the photograph, in addition to being an object, is also a form of communication (perhaps even a new form of language), then in order for it to come into being, the shutter-click is necessary, of course, but so is processing, and, fundamentally, this technological object, loaded with symbolism, must circulate. Stashed away in the bottom of a box, a valley, or an isolated continent, it does not develop its full potential.

Woodward is concerned with authorship and salability, and ultimately questions whether a photographer who did not produce good prints “judged by Mr. Maloof or U.S. art dealers to be worthy of exhibition or sale” has knowable “artistic intent.” He groups Maier2 with Disfarmer and Bellocq, and contrasts all of these with Atget, whom he groups with Bresson, as a photographer who either made some of his own prints or signed his name to prints made by others. This dichotomy seems pretty arbitrary to me, especially in the case of Disfarmer.

It’s all quite odd, really, unless you are very concerned that the photographer be the compleat author of his or her work. Or, I guess, if you are concerned that the invisible hand of the market is so concerned? Why get so caught up with print authorship as compared to the much more interesting question of editing, particularly as regards the “discovery” of prolific previously-unknowns like Maier or Cushman?

Weinstein, on the other hand, pursues the reality of the photograph away from individual authorship and toward communal use, on both regional and global scales. He points to the need of a photograph to circulate in a community in order to have meaning, and to the way in which political and economic contexts drive South American photography toward both a politically aware content aimed at the public good, and also to collective/collaborative production and distribution.

It’s an illuminating counterpoint to hand-wringing over whether or not Maier had authorial intent, whether her “score” can be “performed.” The artist cannot be treated as a black box which spits out photography, any more than the camera can. Artistic intent has to be placed in a context of communally constructed meaning.3

On the global scale, Weinstein calls attention to the way photography produced within South American countries is positioned at the periphery of photography as a global medium hegemonically centered in the US and Europe — such that it can only act as a “passive choir” or else as an “exporter” of “exoticism as an image of our reality.”

Weinstein raises the case of Hercules Florence, which I had been completely unaware of. Apparently he independently invented in Brazil some variant(s) of photography at about the same time as Fox-Talbot (So, after Niépce but before Daguerre):

The existence of Hercules Florence and his independent invention of a photographic process in Brazil in 1832, investigated by Boris Kossoy in the 1970s, does not substantially change the official story; on the contrary, it confirms that both a physical object (the image on paper, glass, or metal that Florence did develop) and its circulation (which Florence never achieved on a sufficiently large scale) are necessary for us to be able to speak of “photography” in the sense of an archive of images, given social meaning and recognition and representative of a regional practice.

In a sense, both posts are partly about the specter of a counterfactual. Maier’s posthumous printers labor beside the ghost of the notional Maier who might have made or directed authoritative prints of her work. In Weinstein’s post there is the tantalizing alternate history in which South American photography might have been at the center instead of the periphery of a global medium.

To continue arbitrarily seeking parallels in posts that are really connected solely by my having read them at the same time — compare the US art market as requiring a level of quality in Maier’s prints that Maier herself apparently never met, with Weinstein’s explanation for low-fi production and distribution of photographs in South America:

It is not easy to divert money to the capture, printing, circulation, and exhibition of photographs when scarce resources compete with the daily necessities of food, housing, and shelter.

The solution often involves low-cost printing and circulating the images by hand, so that not only the content, but also the form of the photographs are modified by the conditions of production and the reality from which they emerge.

Note this is framed as the influence of socio-economic conditions upon form and content rather than merely as a limitation. Weinstein is describing neutrally a characteristic trait and its origins, rather than excusing a deficiency. But I wonder, is it also a factor (whether real or supposed) in maintaining the peripheral status of those photographs relative to, say, the US art market? (That is, the same one in which Maier’s prints might not be considered to have value.)

Of course, much art in the US deploys low-fi esthetics, but is that only acceptable if it is avoidable? Perhaps constraint must be filtered through luxury in order to be perceived to show artistic intent.4

Later reproductions of photographs are often made very differently from early ones — better, it is understood, but really just larger, contrastier, sharper, cleaner. These reproductions are often actually vastly different from the originals. I think this has been true almost any time I’ve seen exhibitions of modern reprints of historical photographs. We are not supposed to feel there is anything wrong with this, because the reproductions are either produced by the artists or authorized by them or by someone, whereas with Maier we are perhaps supposed to feel some concern, because she and her heirs are not here to serve that legitimating function.

But I think it is equally problematic in all cases, no matter the consent of the photographer or rightsholder, for historical photographs to be remastered in a way that breaks the integrity of their connection to the conditions under which they were originally made made and circulated. At least, if there remains any intention to trade upon authenticity, either in a scholarly or a commercial context. (And yes, really the problem is with the idea of authenticity, rather than with the practice of alteration.)

Of course, the more important question I should be posing after reading these two posts is: Why are we so interested in scrutinizing, interpreting, and cyclically (re)blogging Maier, as opposed to entire living, practicing communities of photographers who are operating in communities outside the mainstream, US-dominated art discourse?

I sometimes wonder if photographers like Maier — the prolific ones who cannot stand up for themselves against the weight of retrospective curation — are perhaps desirable and valuable precisely because they represent a kind of mirror for the art world, reflecting interpretation and ideas back with perfect clarity and adding nothing of themselves to mar the face of contemporary narratives and values. Much more appealing, perhaps, to spend time with such surfaces than to look upon the faces of other people.

  1. This is maybe something of an oversimplification. One of the most interesting things about the traveling Bresson exhibit from a few years ago was seeing prints from different decades, sometimes of the same negative, reflecting, in part, changing standards of “good” contrast in photographic printing. 
  2. Yep, it’s Vivian Maier O’Clock. Sorry. 
  3. In the case of Maier, a vibrant community (practically a Maier-Industrial Complex) certainly exists, but does not include the artist, since she is deceased. 
  4. I hope it is possible to resist the ascendency of image quality, which I am increasingly suspicious of, without having to issue disclaimers or pass class checks. 
Stanford University Libraries. Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.

1 Watkins photo, 4 different prints

Stanford University Libraries. Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.
Stanford University Libraries.
Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.
The Bancroft Library. Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.
The Bancroft Library.
Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.
J. Paul Getty Museum. Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.
J. Paul Getty Museum.
Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Carleton Watkins. The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite.


This is one Carleton Watkins picture printed four different times. It’s The Domes from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite (1865-66). Different prints of the picture are in about a dozen different collections around the world.

A nice post from Tyler Green showing how different photographic prints from the same negative can look. It’s always important to keep this kind of thing in when viewing allegations of digital manipulation. And it’s why I’m happy to see indications that photojournalism world is rethinking its strategy for dealing with photoshop.

This post also whets my appetite for the giant Watkins show at Stanford. It’s one of the most must-see things on my summer itinerary. Heck, I’ve already acquired the catalog since I know I’ll love this show.