Posts Tagged ‘SFMOMA’

Catherine Opie at SFMOMA

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Went to see Catherine Opie last night at SFMOMA. It was delightful — she’s funny and her work is both daunting in quality and diversity.

Here are my rough notes. Opie talks pretty fast, and some of these quotes may be imprecise. I also may not have always put the breaks between which work she was talking about in the correct spot. So, reader beware.

  • Talking about 1999 on, not earlier stuff


  • “The quaint fear of Y2K” – (so, rural America is a proxy apocalypse?)
  • Bought an RV
  • In conversation with Tina Barney and Peter Galassi
  • “The American road trip” — pretty much every photographer has experienced that
  • Sequenced in relation to how Opie feels about the images, not geography
  • Rebecca Solnit on wandering
  • “What is iconic” tends to collapse into cliche
  • Backs of sunflowers is dystopic, fronts is utopic
  • “Poorly attended civil war reenactment”
  • Backs of billboards as disinformation — re: Y2K and feared loss of information
  • Switched from 4×5 to Mamiya 7 for this project
  • Referring to Winogrand and street photogrpahy, came out of “that school”
  • “I don’t live with my photographs in our house.”
  • “I’m interested in photographs that work a little harder than just being pretty.”

In and Around Home, ’04-’05 (Post 9-11, c. George Bush re-election)

  • Opie’s home and neighborhood
  • “This is a blonde news reporter. This is a brunette news reporter.”
  • Re: polaroids in the time of digital photoraphy: “The materiality of a certain type of truth” that isn’t manipulated — Opie pairs that with TV is a form of artificiality
  • Iraqi national appears in the frame relative to the “white hand of democracy.”

American Cities 1996 ->

  • Focused in grad school on master plan communities, New Topographics type stuff, etc.
  • Canham 7×17
  • Done early on Sunday mornings when it’s empty, just the architecture
  • “New York is always photographed in this idea of its verticality.” — So horizontal panorama is a departure
  • Opie talks about photographing places that are later marked by death or disaster (9/11, earthquake, Elizabeth Taylor’s death)

Estate project for AIDS/Ron Athey

  • Moby polaroid camera (giant)
  • Opie often includes a “pause” betwween figures in an installation for those we’ve lost
  • “Art history is never far away from me in terms of grabbing for it.”

Ice Houses

  • Day after a blizzard, “white on white; I couldn’t have blue skies after that.”
  • “You need a blizzard for this level of abstraction.”
  • Ice houses bring together rich people with lakefront property and satellite dishes on their ice houses and the guys who drive in to actually fish. A kind of mixed temporary/nomad community
  • 8×10 camera working on the ice. (That’s crazy.)

Surfers ’03

  • “75% of surfing is waiting.”
  • Only foggy days / matches the white on white ice houses
  • “Got very interested in the idea of waiting” — which connects to the darkroom for Opie
  • Previously had done all her own printing and was a proud printer, but stopped while trying to get pregnant — the waiting aspect of the surfer photos replaced the meditate aspect of the darkroom experience
  • Guggenheim did “dream exhibition” of ice houses and surfers (in a long, narrow space with the horizons matched and facing each other from the two walls)
  • Portraits of surfers were made right as they came out of the water

Children portraits

  • Opie bummed out by unnatural contemporary portraits of children
  • Considered being a kindergarten teacher, but “I couldn’t do the little chairs for the rest of my life.”
  • Didn’t want to impose a sexuality on children, as Opie feels is often done
  • Wanted natural photos that capture the awkwardness of being in the studio

High School Football

  • (?) titled an exhibition “American Photographer” — “American photographer? I’ll be American for you.” So, football photos.
  • Sports photography is normally zoom lens and action; she wanted the moments in between
  • Opie talks about the realization of bearing witness to something, as opposed to identifying previously as a documentary photographer
  • Football as a precursor to military service in many areas
  • First time she’d done model releases — there were some photos she loved but could not use because she didn’t receive a release from the parents
  • In two years she received two letters from parents of boys in the series who had tied in Afghanistan — that was when she realized she was bearing witness
  • “These were the kids in high school who scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.”
  • “One of the hardest things was the incredible homophobia”
  • Used a Hasselblad digital handheld

Alaska, 2007

  • These were going to be theatrical backdrops
  • “I’m really interested in displacement” of people in relation to nature


  • Play on Richard Prince’s Girlfriends — but her ideal is butch dykes
  • “Some of them are girlfriends I actually had, some aren’t, but all are about desire for me.”
  • When she’s preparing an exhibition, she’s very aware of how she wants to place it relative to the history of either photography or painting
  • (She was really cute when geeking out about k.d. lang in the middle of presenting this series)

Hanjin shipping – commissioned – Sunrises and Sunsets

  • Restraint of time; conceptually how do you deal with the cliche of a sunrise or sunset”

Empty and Full

  • Marches, protests, rallies, etc.
  • “How do we gather? Why do we gather?”
  • Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival juxtaposed w/ national Boy Scout Jamboree

Somewhere in the Middle

  • Seasons of Lake Erie — Opie grew up on the lake
  • Displayed in a hospital, past the chapel / a place to gather oneself

New work – Regen Projects

  • “Wanted to talk about a more internal place”
  • The idea of the sublime, 17th c painting, portraits emerging out of black
  • Everybody’s doing abstract photography; what does it mean?
  • Opie describes seeing people drive to an attraction, getting out, snapping a photo with their phone, and getting back in the cars and driving away.
  • So, re: her OOF landscapes “By racking the focus, by abstracting it, I’m hoping to get people to spend more time with it.”
  • The only color here is red — b/c of blood and b/c Opie is menopausal
  • Portraits as oversized cameos
  • Always uses models when preparing exhibitions


  • Q re lack of snark/aggression/sarcasm/mockery of conservative, homophobic, etc. subjects
  • Opie implies that there’s some sarcasm that can be read in a lot of the photos, but “I never approach anything w/malice”

  • Reference to prior observation by (?) of a connection between Opie’s interest in horizons and the idea of equality

  • Q re: upcoming work

  • Elizabeth Taylor — Opie photographed in Taylor’s house for around six months, in the middle of which Taylor died
  • Trying to make a portrait through still life of Taylor’s home/belongings
  • She and Taylor share an accountant
  • Eggleston’s Graceland
  • “The book will not be the experience that I had,” it will be trying to make a portrait of Elizabeth, but also the history of tha tmoment
  • 5,000 images
  • Opie’s partner would say, “You were in the vortex again today” when Opie got back from working on this
  • Q re: diff. btw. students today and in Opie’s time
  • A: Yes. Hards to be an image-maker now. Hard to get students to think about the formal aspect. Trying to educate them about the history of image making and their place in it
  • Built her own dark room when she was 14
  • Curator Corey Keller: “At this point in time, to identify as a photographer is so unfashionable”
  • Right, they’re artists…
  • Q re: other media
  • I have a very secret sculpture practice of making ceramic stumps.”

Rough draft of my notes from the Winogrand exhibit and Tod Papageorge’s talk

Saturday, March 9th, 2013


Before Winogrand started using mainly WA lenses, he still tended to get quite close with his normals. This suggests that close perspective is primary for Winogrand, and that the wide AOV is a secondary adaptation.

It seems like Winogrand places heavy emphasis on facial expression, over composition or body language. Everyone always seems to be right in the middle of a grimace, a frown, a laugh, etc. this is true with babies as much as with adults, and often with animals as well.

Even with the positive expressions — smiles, laughter — there is a harshness or extremity that can be quite unsettling. Given the usually everyday context, one gets the feeling that Winogrand is catching people just as they are revealing something real about themselves that most people would not notice.

Reactions are frequently — perhaps in the vast majority of cases — to action outside the frame.

Almost 7,000 of Winogrand’s images he never saw — these represent most of his production in the lsat 6 years of his life.

W: “There is nothing so mysterious as a fact clearly described.”

Is it safe to say Winogrand is more existential, less structuralist than Frank?

The “girls gone wild” photo is fantastic.

Winogrand’s magazine photography seems to have been (comparatively) awful.

Some of the photos of women, the homeless, etc. I would definitely judge to be ethically out of bounds.

Is it just me or does the guy in this Dallas, 1964 photo like the killer Avedon photographed?

Adrienne Lubeau diary, 1/1/1960: “We have so many friends who love us.” (AL was Winorand’s first of three wives)

Winogrand, in Gugenheim application:

I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper.

Winogrand emphasizes his readership of the news — this reminds of that by…Mike Rose? In which he mentions the role of the newspaper in the intellectual life of the working class.

The tossed fish in Long Island 1968 is awesome.

“That clown is me.” re: his photo of a rodeo clown fleeing a bull.

The 80’s stuff is harsh as fuck.

Talk / Leo Rubinfein (sp?) intro:

I found LR’s intro pretty off-putting.

LR highlights TP as an intellectual vs. Winogrand as a “tradesman.” He also asserts that TP showed GW the “gravity” of “what he himself was doing.”

Talk / Tod Papageorge

TP opened with an anecdote about GW in therapy — that he was told to hit a pillow and then asked, “What are you thinking about.” GW answered, “I’m trying to hit as squarely, precisely, and with as much force as I can.” The therapist said, “You mean you’re not thinking about your mother?”

He follows up with a passage from Kafka comparing the process of hammering table to Kafka’s writing process.

“Could anything in photography be bolder, could it be surer…and could it be more senseless?”

“The presence of the author becomes invisible…” / “Senseless in a sense.”

“Only if the self is more and more in the background can a body of work like this be profound.”

“Almost Buddhist sense of vocation”

“…Polio survivor and dropout transformed himself into a man for the ages.”

“…apparent inability to deal with things except through facts and more facts.”

“A man whose habit was to trust his fascinations.”

“Would have preferred being an opera singer, the only occupation he mentioned that way.” (cf. Journey to the End of Taste?)

“Although great photographers are few, women…” I didn’t catch the phrasing, but he thought that women were disproportionately represented among great photographers.

GW on Atget: “He knew where to stand.”

GW on Walker Evans: “It was the first time I was aware that photographs themselves could describe intelligence.”

TP: “He always said that photography saved him, that without it he would have ended up in jail or worse.”

GW practiced photography “with the physical flair of the athletes he admired.”

Lovely anecdote about a woman seeing GW and co. with their cameras and exclaiming, “Oh, shutterbugs” to which GW replied, “and what are you, the DDT?”

GW: “If I had any gift, it was for dealing with what photographs look like.” (Note: not sure I got the phrasing right on that.)

TP compares GW’s photographs of animals to the “zoo photographs” of the day — i.e., proto-lolcats/advice animals. TP basically says that Winogrand was transforming that genre of photo.

TP describe the Winogrand cant as “a sign that something is becoming” and “a kind of visual carbonation.”

…”a profound difference between the moment (and what it stirs in the camera) and…” what is recorded in the printed photograph.

“Have I already mentioned Buddhism tonight? I think that walrus is our Buddhist master.”

“One has to say that it is the product of some kind of luck, although luck seems to come more often to some photographers…”

“I know I could die, I didn’t die, I know I’m nothing, therefore I’m free.” – TP summarizing GW’s attitude to the Cuban missile crisis. Referencing Auden essay “I without a Self”? Or, in photographic terms, “Eye without a self.”

GW, of dogs in the street outside a gallery: “They’re the best people here.”

TP describes GW’s “commitment to the experience of life as being an animal.”

TP thinks GW saw jailed animals as a reflection of himself.

“Don’t drop your camera. That’s my first rule of photography. In fact, that’s my only rule of photography.”

GW on food: “No one murders eggs, and almost no one will murder fried chicken.”

GW resp. to a question re: how many pictures it takes to get a great one: “Art is not a matter of industrial efficiency.”

How much of GW’s work “resides in the power of the physical gesture.”

In Bresson, “the form is always working on being canonical,” while GW’s gestures break away from the canonical.

GW: “All great work is the result of great labor.”

TP compares GW’s teaching style to Socrates

“A faultless unity of mind and feeling.”

TP: “Forced to ask almost word by word, ‘what do you mean by that.'”

Re: chimps: Winogrand shoved TP out of the way because he was “ravenous” for that photo.

GW’s writer hero was Norman Mailer

TP describing GW’s Times Square photo: “It’s hard to believe it, and the thing about photography is that we must believe it.”

“One is venturing into very treacherous territory to look at a contact sheet of [GW’s] and imagine that he missed a picture.” Talking about prints for the exhibition made from negatives which GW contacted but did not mark as worth printing. TP mentions that GW would not print photos that reminded him too much of photos someone else had made or of other photos he had made.

GW tested developer temp with his finger instead of a thermometer. TP describes this as “loony.”

GW developed partly by inspection.

To GW, mere puns were as “dangerous as lethal weapons,” because language is life.

“‘Too much is enough’ proved adequate, or in Winolinguo, ‘aqueduct.'”

GW: “I’m not talking about suicide, but I’d just as soon not exist.”

TP compares the difficult aspect of GW’s photography to TS Eliot on the “unpleasantness of great poetry” (i.e., Aeschylus/Dante) – “a provocative and difficult kind of content” — and this particularly characterizes GW’s “Stock Photographs” (photos made it livestock auctions?)”

TP has “mixed feelings about the photographs being edited by someone other than Garry.”

“The impersonality of the camera becomes the meaning of the pictures” — thus their unpleasantness.

“Haunting these photographs is the ghost of a great theory” — this is a lovely passage, but unfortunately I couldn’t manage to transcribe the rest.

GW is “a great poet of the Actual.”

GW: “A photograph is the illusion of a literal description.”

TP: GW considered NY his “mother nature.”

TP made an interesting slip: “teaching cancer,” for “treating.”

GW on traveling to Mexico for experimental (and ultimately unsuccesful) cancer treatment: “I’m going to Mexico to fight the bull.”

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.


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.”

SFMOMA — 75th Anniversary

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Silhouette (Tri-X 120 003-05)

SFMOMA has put together some fantastic photography for the exhibitions celebrating its 75th birthday. I wrote a short piece on one of works by Henry Wessel over at 1/125, but really, there are too many fantastic photographs to list.

Best of all, a lot of the photographers I was most impressed by are folks I had never heard of before. The one that struck me most was a street photograph by John Harding which is the most compelling photographic depiction of race I’ve ever seen. (That wasn’t made by De Carava, anyway.) But there are also fantastic images by Max Yavno, Leon Borensztein, Nata Piaskowski, and John Gutmann. (Apologies if I misspelled any of those.)

I also got to check some things off the big list of stuff I felt dumb for not having seen before. First time seeing Minor White’s photographs in print form. (Not as blown away as I thought I would be — the reproductions in Bunnell’s book are very good) First time seeing Atget’s photoraphs in print form — including a portrait of a prostitute which rather disrupted my notion of what Atget is all about. (Also: have I mentioned how much I love albumen prints? I really love albumen prints.) First time seeing daguerreotypes and tintypes.

I had the Koni-Omega with me (see above). I was shooting with Tri-X at 1600 — a good combination of camera and film, with the strengths of each covering the weaknesses of the other. (The weaknesses being Tri-X’s outrageous grain when pushed and the shallow DOF of 6×7, respectively.) And, of course — as usual — the Koni-O drew interested glances and outright interrogations from the other patrons.

Provoke Era

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I just got back from SFMOMA’s Provoke Era exhibition. It’s my second trip, and I feel like I ought to make some note of my thoughts on it, although my total lack of background when it comes to Japanese photography has made me somewhat reluctant to do so. I don’t even know enough to clearly identify what the scope of my ignorance is, in this area, or how it (and/or prejudice) might be leading me astray in terms of how and what I see…

So, what I’m going to do is simply post a few thoughts that crossed my mind while I was looking at these photographs. Obviously you should be slow to draw conclusions about Japanese photography, or even the work of the specific photographers in question, even if I appear to be doing so.

Hopefully at some point I’ll be less ignorant. I did recently buy a copy of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s, so that might help a bit, if and when I ever get a chance to open the thing.

Please forgive any misspellings and my total disregard of any diacritic marks — my notes are, as usual, illegible.

While viewing Hosoe

I can’t help wondering if some of the characteristic techniques of this period of Japanese photography are influenced (or at least enabled) by the rise of the small-format SLR camera. Previously, man-portable cameras tended to be press cameras, rangefinders, etc., which are generally not optimal to use from strange angles or for close-focus work. The sort of (apparently) extemporaneous, awkward camera positions, and the very particular deformations of the perspective, focus, etc. are all things that would be substantially more difficult to control with non-SLR cameras.

Contrast perspective here with the (mostly earlier) Western photographers I’ve been looking at a lot lately — Bresson, Atget, Weston, Frank, even Winogrand — in those cases, the perspective is that of a person standing in the space. A pedestrian perspective — not in any derogatory sense, as such, but in the sense that it is the perspective of a person who might happen to be walking by. They seem natural. Here, the play with unnatural perspective is used to dislocate the viewer, and to create a studiously unnatural viewpoint. It is practically a vice, although an excessively “natural” perspective can be a vice as well, I suppose.

While viewing Tomatsu

The are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out of focus) aesthetic implies a willingness to discard information. Huge areas of a given print may contain no information whatsoever, or very limited information — a rough tonal gradient, say — these images come close to being purely graphic.

This is also in stark contrast to what I’ve been mostly looking at lately, where compositions and (with some exceptions) film, paper, and chemistry are being used with great care and skill to capture the most detail possible, and as much in the way of relationships (“relatedness”?) between elements in the frame as possible.
This discarding of information displaces us…

While viewing Tomatsu and Kawada

There seems to be a pull toward iconography when it comes to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the war.

If it were me trying to represent these things, I would probably go the same way, simply because icons and symbols are more…manageable. Less frightening. Of course, I have no idea whether that has any bearing on what these folks were doing.

While viewing Moriyama

It seems like the areas of the photograph (dominated by large, irregular patches of pure white or black containing no detail, amid which a person or object may be sandwiched), come together with an almost-audible report, a clap or a clack. Noise. I’m not normally prone to synesthesia, even the merely metaphorical kind…

While viewing Nakahira

Lost detail — defocus, blocked shadows, muddy contrasts, motion blur — these things frustrate the eye, but do they maybe also trick us to project imagined detail (or meaning) where there is none?

Is this why the Moriyama photograph made me see (to borrow from DeCarava) a sound? Or is it merely the vaguely cinematic quality of these choices that makes me think I should be hearing something as I watch?

While viewing Watanabe and Tsuchida

These guys seem to want to be perceived as snapshooters. I find this annoying. Is it also a kind of discarding of information? Not that detail is not faithfully recorded across the frame, but the utterly banal composition or lack of composition deprives the detail of significance.

These do not make a sound. I am probably missing something…

Other thoughts

I don’t know what to say about Fukase’s Ravens,, except that it’s totally heartbreaking.

Also, while I’m not sure this was part of the “Provoke” exhibition, they’ve got an absolutely stunning photograph by Toshio Shibata. You can see a crappy scan here. A really, really fantastic print…

Of course, I would have enjoyed it and the entire museum-going experience a lot more if one of the staff hadn’t forced me to stop making notes with my pen and instead use an f-stopping golf pencil…of all the cockamamy policies…it’s not like I’m pressing my notebook against the photographs to write; I’m several feet away. And on the off-chance that I got it into my mind to go crazy and attack one of these prints, it’s not like issuing me a golf pencil is going to prevent me from doing harm. Honestly, is this what my membership dollars are going to pay for? Because if so, I’d rather they put them toward something else, like the mildewy smell in the vicinity of the staircase on the second floor.

Also, trivial quibble: Why is it that the nomenclature is “silver gelatin print” vs. “platinum print,” vs. “albumen print,” vs. “chromogenic print,” vs. “dye transfer print”? Why not “silver albumen print,” for example. Also, would it kill them to call a polaroid a polaroid? Perhaps there’s a legal issue…

SFMOMA’s Rooftop Garden

Friday, July 17th, 2009

I’m working on an actual post with, you know, words and stuff. But in the mean time, let me throw some photographs at your from last week, when I went to see the Avedon exhibit.

Camera Position (View Large)


I find it hard not to photograph photographers. I don’t know whether it’s some stupid “meta” thing or whether people just tend to look hilarious and endearing when they’re looking at the back of a camera and trying to figure out why their pictures are backlit.

I don’t mean to dismiss snapshots or point and shoots, mind you. The photographer here, for example, at the SFMOMA rooftop garden, was assiduous about exploring changes in camera position and angle, and had no qualms about kneeling on the ground to get a shot. Better a P&S and a sense of perspective than a pricey camera and no notion of composition…

By the way, do click through and look at the large images. In fact, that applies to all of these — I’ve been finding, as I shoot more street photography, that I’m using broader compositions, including more context, and as a result I’m getting photographs which don’t really lend themselves to being viewed as flickr medium images the way my close-up work and bird photography usually do. : )

The rooftop garden is a nice place to photograph, although quite small. A lot of people take pictures there, I think perhaps because they’re getting it out of their system, after spending time in the exhibits were photography is often forbidden. It’s interesting to see the range of reactions people have to art generally, and to the art that’s currently in the rooftop garden in particular — it’s sculpture there, and modern sculpture tends to be more inscrutable than other art forms, I think.

Some folks seem to have a genuine aesthetic appreciation for the stuff, either naive (simple joy in the thing itself) or informed (intellectual pleasure based on an understanding of the work’s place in the history of art). For the record, I have neither for most of them…

Woman behind glass

There are other folks who are manifestly trying to pretend that they understand or care about what they’re seeing, and others still who are perfectly up front about not caring, having been dragged there by their parents or their kids or their significant others. I sympathize with them. There are folks — more admirable, I admit — who greet art with a mixture of curiosity and indignation, and who very much want an explanation for what they are being asked to look at.

Explain this to me

I can’t say for certainty into which category this gentleman falls, but I suspect it is the last, and probably the best, category. Me, I fall into the category who is more likely to dismiss the art and scrutinize the viewers, which makes me the douchebag in this tableau.

Avedon at SFMOMA

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Went to see the Avedon exhibition last week. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since then, and I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on the work I saw there.

Technically, he succeeds perfectly within the narrow range of techniques he employs — a bit like Atget, in that respect, a sort of single-minded thoroughness in taking those few techniques to their very limit. And I can’t really fault him as an artist, either — he obviously succeeds perfectly well in achieving his vision.

I just, well, don’t fucking like it. (Note: I’m not saying it’s bad.) I find it disturbing and off-putting. And also beautiful and sometimes very moving. And I haven’t really pinned down the source of that disturbance for me, but here’s my best guess at the moment:

Avedon is basically taking people and turning them into gods, or monsters, or monstrous gods. (Part of what I feel when I look at them is almost Lovecraftian, a mingled awe-disgust-fear.)

Why should this disturb me so? The deification of celebrities is nothing new, and should at worst be a matter of banality. The deification of ordinary people (which Avedon executes with the exact same techniques) should be a reversal of the hierarchy, and as such should appeal to the kind of simplistic leftism that is bred in my bones. But it does not.

I think it is something about the deification itself, regardless of subject, which is the source of the wrongness.

Avedon’s process is not like that of, say, Minor White, who can see in the flesh of a person an equivalent, a symbolic link to the numinous. There is nothing spiritual about what Avedon is doing. Avedon is crafting a totem or fetish out of the person. He is converting them into an idol.

This is a rather intense form of objectification — and when I say objectification, I am thinking of what Simone Weil said in her essay on The Iliad, about objectification as a form of violence or force. (Of which the most literal and extreme sort is death — that which transforms a human being completely and finally into a mere thing, that is, a corpse.)

In writing this, something suddenly clicked for me about Avedon’s photography. (God help me, I actually said, “Aha!”)

What clicked had to do with what I was supposed to be seeing in this exhibition. The curators and the reviewer in the Chronicle both placed great stress on the role of motion in Avedon’s photography, and both when I was looking at them in person, and as I mulled them over after the fact, this admonition (to see motion, to see these photographs as being about motion) persistently rang false to me. Or, rather, it rang half-true, and now I see why.

It is not motion which is present in these photographs, but…the false, the unfulfillable promise of motion, as if the subject were threatening (impotently, of course) at any moment to come to life.

This false promise is normally denoted by the term “lifelike,” and it is properly the province not of the photographer, but of the taxidermist…

SFMOMA, Take 2

Monday, June 15th, 2009

So, I went back to see the Frank and Adams-O’keefe exhibitions again. By which I mean, I went back to see Pepper No. 30 again. (I took my sister, and we also went to the farmer’s market and were otherwise productive.) Obviously these were the same exhibitions, so I don’t have any fundamentally new material…although I’m feeling more definite about my sense that there’s something off about Frank’s photographs of black people.

For example, compare the photographs he made of a Spanish funeral to those he made of a black funeral in the American south, and think about his position in those situations. In the Spanish photographs, he’s at a distance that seems appropriate; at the black funeral, he appears to have no qualms about invading personal space, as my sister put it. Which says a lot about how he felt about those people. Reminds me somewhat of a recent thread on flickr which touched on how a lot of photographers seem to have no problem photographing homeless people when they would think twice about photographing others. It seems to have something to do with different perceptions of people’s reality as human beings.

The captions, as usual, don’t help at all. There’s a photograph (google it) of a black nurse holding a white baby, and the baby is described in the caption as looking determined, which is accurate, but the nurse is described as appearing stoic, when in fact, her main expression is actually a small smile. I don’t know whether this suggests that the captioner has a problem “reading” black faces, or whether the difficulty is that he or she presumed the nurse must be a stoic person, (and in all likelihood she was a stoic person), and stopped there, before looking to see if the actual woman as photographed matched this expectation? Whatever the case, there was a distinct failure to see.

Which is pretty significant when you consider that the person who captioned that photograph is responsible for helping thousands or hundreds of thousands of people in at least three cities understand what that photograph means.

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.