Posts Tagged ‘Ansel Adams’

Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O’Keefe at SFMOMA

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

So, today I went to SF to go see the Robert Frank and Adams/O’Keefe exhibitions at SFMOMA. I had a blast. Here’s the shorthand:

  • I didn’t take pictures of the exhibitions. I didn’t feel like getting into a Thomas Hawk situation. I considered not going because of their history of stupidity regarding cameras, but I decided the opportunity to see these prints overrode my qualms about that.
  • This is more or less the first time I’ve seen real photographic prints outside of a classroom setting. I feel sort of bad about admitting that.
  • I was not as blown away by most of the Adams prints as I thought I might be. Turns out that the reproductions I’ve seen in books have been pretty damn good. The real prints were certainly better, and in a few cases substantially better, but my mind was not blown.
  • However, under the heading of other influences and related artists, they had Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30. OMFG. That was mind blowing. I went back a couple of times to look at it some more. The temptation to snatch it off the wall, tuck it under my arm, and run was high, but, thankfully, resistable.
  • They also had some stuff by Paul Strand, which was excellent.
  • I was not impressed with the curating of this exhibit, or any of the exhibits, really. In this case, the lighting was not great, and some of the frames cast significant shadows across important areas of the O’Keefe paintings in particular. Some of the matting was off, too. I was surprised; I’m assuming several highly paid professionals were involved in this process; they couldn’t catch this stuff?
  • Also, their premise — that there are connections between how Adams and O’Keefe depict the human and natural worlds — was, while not at all implausible, not really borne out by most of the images presented. A much smaller exhibition focusing on a few really good, and really congruent, images, would have been a great deal stronger.
  • The Frank exhibition was better lit, or at least the lighting was not as noticeably bad. There were also a ton of great supporting materials, like work prints with crop lines on them, correspondence, the first draft of Kerouac’s introduction, etc.
  • I still don’t entirely like Frank’s work. In describing it before I’ve said it reminds me something Fanon wrote about a European sociologist’s approach to race. Fanon said that he did not believe it was impossible for a white person to understand things from a black perspective, but that this particular white person did not seem to have made the necessary effort. I feel very much that way about Frank’s depictions of America, particularly where race or class are involved. And generally, it seems to me that Frank’s perspective is basically that of a tourist — and I mean that in the most pejorative way possible. It’s not that he’s not a gifted photographer; he clearly was, and some of his photographs are absolutely stunning. But his method and the way he chose to see seem to me to keep him from getting below the surface. Yes, he attacks these American myths, but does he actually what’s underneath those myths? I don’t think so. Compare his work with that of someone like Roy DeCarava, and you’ll see what I mean. With DeCarava’s body of work available — which gets at not just the surface but at the depths, and which is both heartbreaking and uplifting to view — why are we still talking about this Swiss douchebag’s road trip?
  • More interesting in many ways was the small room with photographs from other related/influencing photographers. The stuff from Walker Evans, Bill Brandt, and Gary Winogrand was all very striking. I was particularly impressed with the Winogrand image, which I had previously seen online in a low-quality scan. The print was extraordinary.
  • Amusingly, there were very large reproductions of the Frank images — much larger than almost all of the prints by Adams and the others in that exhibition, despite the fact that Frank’s images were shot on 35mm, while the others were shot on 4×5 or larger view cameras. Of course the Frank enlargements show the limitations of 35mm film — plenty of grain, etc. But of course the subject matter does not demand grainless, Group f/64 style prints; quite the contrary.
  • From what I could see, not that many people who went to the Adams/O’Keefe exhibition went to the Frank exhibition and vice versa. I could be wrong — maybe everybody had already been to the other one, or went after, or whatever. But I don’t so; the people at the Frank exhibition were also about twenty years younger average.
  • The Frank folks also seemed for the most part to have absolutely no idea what they were looking at. I think there were a lot of folks who were dragged there by their boyfriends/girlfriends/husbands/wives, and a lot of folks who were there because someone else told them they ought to be there.
  • Regarding the painters and sculptors and whatnot in the rest of the museum, some extremely compelling (a couple of gorgeous Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings, for example), some not even remotely compelling. Not surprising. The captions and supporting text for these items varied from the banal and uninformative to the laugh-inducingly pretentious and uninformative.
  • Blue Bottle coffee is really good. And I don’t even like coffee.
  • Had my Koni-Omega and Olympus XA out while drinking said coffee, and as a result I met a nice couple who were shooting with a Mamiya 645 (which is lovely and very light and compact) and a Rolleicord. The Koni-Omega makes a great conversation piece; I get asked/complimented about it almost every time I take it out. It’s also a great camera to use, of course, and I did that, too. : )

Photos to follow after I get them developed/scanned.