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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. ↩
And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.
Ortiz’s website suggests that he’s more into social justice photojournalism—lots of people and getting into the thick of things in proper Robert Capa fashion—but these aren’t that kind of photo. Nor are they mining the textures of poverty and decay for superficial appeal and authenticity.
A photo campaign highlighting the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College. Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned—this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.
Our project was inspired by the recent ‘I, too, am Harvard’ initiative. The Harvard project resonated with a sense of communal disaffection that students of colour at Oxford have with the University. The sharing of the Buzzfeed article ‘I, too, am Harvard’ on the online Oxford based race forum, ‘Skin Deep’ led to students quickly self organising a photoshoot within the same week. A message that was consistently reaffirmed throughout the day was that students in their daily encounters at Oxford are made to feel different and Othered from the Oxford community.
We hope to offer the opportunity to build a stage on which men and women of color can be included in the atmosphere of this campus. Most of all, we want to continue the momentum pushed forth by other I Am movements across the nation and the world.
So this has become a proper meme on college campuses now. I’ve also seen a Johns Hopkins version on Twitter. I’m sure there are others going on as well. Part of me is resistant to this type of “me too” project in that it risks becoming Yet-Another-I-Too-Am project—where the perceived lack of creativity makes it easier to dismiss the concerns the project raises.
Part of me though sees it as being absolutely necessary since an all-too-easy response to seeing I, Too, Am Harvard is to think “that would never happen here.” It’s very easy to dismiss these as someone else’s problem until one shows up on your campus or alma mater.
This assumes that people, say at Princeton, even saw the Harvard or Oxford projects. I’m totally okay with doing a me too project because you think your audience is ignorant of the other projects. A lot of the point of privilege is being completely unaware of this sort of thing until it gets held up in your face.
I also like looking at these as listing microaggressions rather than completely eggregious racism since it’s very easy for us to dismiss and distance ourselves from the obviously-racist stuff and very difficult for us to even be aware of how we’re all committing microaggressions. The more we’re aware of how these little comments hurt—even the intended-compliments about “good english”—and how we all use them, the better off we’ll all be.
And yes, I’m saying “we all” because I fully subscribe to the idea that we’re all a little bit racist and that acknowledging as much is the most-important step to dealing with it.
About the form
The other thing about these projects that interests me is the form itself. This kind of portrait where the subject is holding a sign isn’t anything new. But it’s become an increasingly popular form on the web. I think a lot of this is because of how popular image macros have become; holding your own sign is a very easy way to make your own in-camera image macro.
It’s also representative of how much photography has become the medium of communication these days. It’s no longer text or images. It’s both. And fluency in both is what all the kids are doing now.
Over the course of the book, the stronger work moves beyond this premise of straight portraits and opens the question of the suburban world as an unsettled psychological space. What seems initially like a book of solid, but conceptually modest portraits begins to play with the word “dream” – the suburban ideal blends and overlaps with the surreal space imagined while sleeping or daydreaming.
The images that open this second sense of “dream” suburban space in the book – such as a woman in a blue-green dress seen from behind staring at a backyard bbq in a disquieting way or the woman in front of a bureau with a key hiding in her hand [see the three images below] – multiply the possible understandings of Edwards’ work. This development of a multi-layered look at the suburbs and dreams, however, remains latent and appears to be more of a presence consequential of the work process rather than being cultivated actively based on Edwards’ comments on Suburban Dreams in interviews. Regardless, these photographs open intriguing possibilities for the body of work and it is these images that begin to push the stakes of the project.
It’s very interesting to read this review with @kukkurovaca’s review in mind. I’m digging the choice to reframe the suburbs as “unsettled psychological space” rather than an aspirational middle class goal. Especially given how the housing crisis shook down and who in particular got hit the worst by the subprime mortgage bubble.
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.