Archive for July, 2010

New Topographics at SFMOMA

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Note: This is mostly a quick type-up of my pencil notes from earlier today, so please forgive any misspellings and feel free to skim, since I’m not going to edit a ton.

I just got back from the traveling New Topographics show that just pitched its tent at SFMOMA. I was excited to see it, because I’ve been reading Britt Salvesen’s book as well as falling head over heels for Frank Gohlke.

My first impression? Underwhelmed.

I don’t want to say the show isn’t worth seeing. It’s a very important part of the recent history of photography, and some of the photographs in it are extremely compelling as well. However, I was not particularly impressed with the way the actual show was put together.

Probably the biggest objection is that there is a mix of original prints (or at least prints that belong to the period of the show) and prints that were made in the last few years. The new prints are, in many cases, of a different size, a different quality (usually technically superior), and often show a different approach in the printing process — and choices in the printing process can and often do have a real impact on how the viewer sees the photograph. I found the mix and match approach jarring and confusing, and this is a case where some interpretive apparatus really should have been provided — particularly regarding print size, but also regarding contrast, etc.

I also found it annoying (although not surprising) that it felt like the Bechers got the most attention and care. The Bechers, while maybe my least favorite part of NT, tend to play really well with the art museum crowd. Some of the other photographers really got the short stick in terms of how wall space was divvied up. (My museum pet peeve of mounting photographs below other photographs and way below eye height was out in force, and Joe Deal particularly suffered because of it.) Some of the rooms were also surprisingly poorly lit.

There was also a relative of dearth of supporting materials regarding the historical context from which NT emerged — which is a major missed opportunity. There’s a smattering of stuff about cultural landscape studies and historical precursors, but not enough.

All that being said, I’m very glad I saw the exhibit, and I will go back and see it again. The main value I derived from the experience was being able to correct some of my impressions of the photographs, which were previously based mainly on the reproductions in Salvesen’s book, which are fine for some of the photographers, but overcorrected and/or misleading for others. Lewis Baltz, in particular, was very poorly represented in the book.

Seeing the work in person also forced me to reconsider Nicholas Nixon’s NT work, which I had previously found totally uninteresting. I’m not sure that I can say that the book does not correctly reproduce the work — with the exception of the pronounced cold tone of the prints, which is absent from the books. However, something about their presentation framed and mounted on the wall (together perhaps with that cold tone) took away something of the postery quality I found so objectionable in those photographs. They are more critical, and more clinical, than I had originally realized, and I need do some more thinking and looking to decide where I stand relative to them.

Notes

Robert Adams — Softer contrast than NT book repro. Appears unremarkable. It’s a little surprising that people were able to see how important this work is, which is not to say that I don’t think it is that important.

Shore — 2009 reprints. Very clean. And huge. Only a couple are here, and mostly not the interesting ones.

Bechers — The reprints are slightly larger and technically much superior. I actually like some of them a lot more than Becher prints I’ve seen in the past (I’m seeing and noticing detail more easily, and that gives them a reality that often seems missing from their work, sacrificed to form and type), but they don’t seem to fit very well with the original prints or with the show overall. The Loree Breaker photograph (which I cannot seem to find online) is their standout, as far as I can tell.

Nicholas Nixon — Very cold tone. I like these far better in person. On the wall, they seem less like posters — oddly. They seem to be offering the city up for scrutiny rather than eulogizing it. They appear clinical. I wonder if part of the difference is the three-dimensionality of the frame and matting — they enhance my sense of distance. The lighting in the situation is very poor, unfortunately, really abysmal.

Schott — Either printed much darker than the repros in the book, or else these have majorly faded over time. I like it — it makes them seem less comic-kitsch, and more…what? Lament-y? Not exactly. But it tweaks the comedy-tragedy balance a smidge.

Baltz — You can tell these are 35mm. Very different from the book, which was clearly oversharpened, and overcorrected for contrast. The contrast is very hard, which gives the photos a more judgmental quality. Semicoa — very hard contrast, lost blacks, and a greater separation of midtones. Much more sinister and disconcerting. Airport Loop Drive — major lost shadow detail creates a bit of perspective illusion. Stark and trippy. R-ohm (?) — lost detail. Lots of it. The white square is all the eye can look at. McGaw Laboratories — very compelling — is that a screen below the door? East Wall, West Carpet Mills is awesome. Pertec (?) — seems much funnier in person. SE corner, Semicoa — the shadow of the tree is ghostly, ethereal. The light and shadow stuff here is just perfect.

Joe Deal — I didn’t know his stuff was 2 1/4; figured he was view camera. Don’t know why. A bunch of these are mounted below others, stupidly. I had to kneel down to get a reasonable perspective on them. In person, the sense of flatness is profound — the two dimensionality of the photographic medium is underscored.

Wessel — Almost exactly as in the book. Charmingly funny, etc., etc.

Gohlke — The contrast is softer in person; the overall feel is less judgmental, more…delicate? Less certain? Not the right words. Some are darker, more somber.

Companion Exhibit

SFMOMA paired the NT show with a companion exhibit from its collection, which is a major value add. It’s a somewhat mixed bag, but there’s some really great stuff in here. Much better overall, really.

Evans — some very interesting color polaroids. Heavy on the irony and detail, tiny. These would really kill in flickr if Evans were making them today.

Mark Ruwedel — this definitely bears further investigation. “Westward the Course of Empire” — railroads as American ruins (like, stonehenge-style) — very interesting, and almost like a cross between a New Topographer (Gohlke or Adams) and O’Sullivan, with maybe a hint of Atget.

Thomas Barrow — “Cancellations” — “…gouging directly into the negative, producing seamless prints from the defaced film.” This shit calls for an industrial strength eyeroll.

William Gedney — “Kentucky” — This is astonishingly compelling work. Made during two visits to a poor family decades apart. Really lovely, strong sense of…I don’t want to say compassion. Empathy? No. It feels like he was a guest in their house, rather than a social worker. So, I guess the word I was reaching for is respect. That’s part of what is so markedly missing in that Maisie Crow series that bugged me.

Joel Sternfeld — Refer this guy to Karl.

Berenice Abbott — I think the best way to describe the style of these photographs is that it’s like Atget took a step back and didn’t pause to regain his balance before releasing the shutter. (Yes, I know that metaphor is irrelevant with view cameras.)

Wright Morris — “Time Pieces…” WOW. How utterly rich in description these are…”Reflection in Oval Mirror…” — Best reflection in photography, ever. “Photograph of Morris Family homestead…” — Best re-photograph in photography, ever. “A crack in time had been made by the click of a shutter through which I could peer into a world that had vnished. This fact exceeded my grasp, but it excited my emotions…A simpler ritual of survival would be hard to imagine. By stopping time I hoped to suspend mortality.”

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

I sincerely believe that a subjective experience can be understood by others; and it would give me no pleasure to announce that the black problem is mine alone and that it is up to me to study it. But it does seem to me that M. Mannoni has not tried to feel himself into the despair of the man of color confronting the white man. In this work I have made it a point to convey the misery of the black man. Physically and affectively. I have not wished to be objective. Besides, that would be dishonest: It is not possible for me to be objective.

— Frantz Fanon, _Black Skin, White Masks_, p. 86 (My emphasis)

I think that everyone who does documentary photography (or its cousins), and anyone who views such photography, should be familiar with this passage.

Set aside the specific context (racism and colonialism) and consider the principle: _I sincerely believe that a subjective experience can be understood by others…But it does seem to me that M. Mannoni has not tried to feel himself into the despair…_

When dealing with any attempt, in any medium, of one person to authoritatively represent another person’s experience to a third party, there are always two temptations: on the one hand, to despair of the possibility of anyone having insight into experiences they do not share, and privileging primary experience and group membership above all else, and on the other hand, to avoid ever acknowledging that there may be a problem with allowing someone who is outside a problem to form our understanding of it. There is also a third temptation that should be mentioned: the temptation to retreat away from experience into the realm of “objective” facts.

These three temptations are major barriers to useful communication on subjects like race, class, gender, and sexuality, but they also rear their heads in many other areas.

The reason these temptations exist is that all of them free us from the burden of having to exercise personal judgment in evaluating the reliability of another person’s account of a given situation. Judgment is not a problem that can be referred to the realm of facts, or to automatic principles of exclusion or inclusion, and it is also not something that can be replaced with an appeal to credentials granted by some authorizing institution.

We have to actually decide whether _we_ believe in someone’s sincerity, their insight, and their eloquence — or whether we think they fall short in some or all of those areas. That judgment is inescapably subjective, but it is _not_ merely a matter of opinion, and it cannot be ignored or set aside without crippling our ability to deal with realities.

This is a terrifying realization for a lot of folks — myself included. It frightens us because we know that our judgment is not 100% reliable, _especially_ when operating on limited information, as is usually the case when we’re applying it to, say, a photo essay or a book. And given that fact, we can be absolutely certain that some of the time, we are going to be _seriously_ wrong. However, that fact is by no means adequate justification for giving in to one of the three temptations enumerated above.