Winogrand at SFMOMA

Note: This took a long time. I trust no one is surprised by that. I may do a follow up post later — there’s a lot to this, and I feel like I may just be scratching the surface. Also, while I do have a copy of the catalog, I haven’t actually opened it yet (because I didn’t want this post to take another month). So, once I’ve dug into that, I may have totally contradictory things to say.

By Reason of its Unmixed Purity

A baby stares out to the left of the frame, his face showing a mixture of scorn, exasperation, and distress or fatigue. Not far off, an old man bears almost the same look, as unselfconsciously and as blatantly. Each seems to be saying, as clearly as if illustrated with a cartoon speech bubble. What is this shit?

They are what I see first as I move through the Winogrand exhibit — well, not what I see first, but what I first notice when I start to really look.

They aren’t alone. Faces are everywhere — male and female, child and adult, human and animal — and seemingly always caught in the middle of something: a grimace, a frown, a laugh, a coolly composed mask. More often than not, Winogrand’s subjects seem to be forming a judgment of someone or something that is just outside the frame. And these are the subjects who seem to be the most thoroughly and mercilessly revealed by Winogrand’s camera.

You know the feeling of checking an unconscious judgment or reaction — when you experience a visceral revulsion, and as soon as you notice it, you shut it down or dilute it to an acceptably urbane disinterest. Or you begin to break out into a belly laugh at something that maybe was not funny, or not supposed to be funny, and so you try to choke it back. Just afterwards, there’s a fraction of a moment in which you are not sure whether you were seen or whether you got away with it and your moment of untoward intensity went unnoticed.

Click.

There is an intensity to the expressions on Winogrand’s faces that is unsettling, even when the expressions are positive ones, smiles or laughter. There is something upsetting (in both the sense of distressing and the sense of knocking things out of order) about seeing undiluted feelings on the faces of others.

The more I look, the more it becomes clear that this is playing out on both sides of the camera. There is a manic aspect throughout, and as I move through the show to the later work, from the late 70’s and the 80’s, there is increasingly a prophetic condemnation (in the sackcloth and ashes sense, not the predictive sense) and a visible despair and disgust.

Click.

Simone Weil described poetry as “a joy which by reason of its unmixed purity hurts, a pain which by reason of its unmixed purity brings peace,” and this sort of poetry is in Winogrand’s photographs, through and through.

Under a glass case, the diary of Winogrand’s first wife declares in big loops of colored ink: “We have so many friends who love us.” Under another glass case, Winogrand’s Guggenheim application declares, “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…”

Had I not noticed this in Winogrand’s photographs before? I guess not. I think that in the past, I’ve fallen into the trap of associating him with the wry, dry humor of the bemused European pioneers of street photography. It’s easy to do. In terms of content, his photographs do fall easily into that genre. They are clever and skillful photographs of interesting-looking people.

But that kind of photography, even at its hardest and most critical, is building a different kind of account of the world than Winogrand was making. I glossed it in my notes as the difference between structuralism and existentialism. I don’t know if that’s fair or not, but something like Frank’s The Americans was essentially building a critique out of visual types. Winogrand obviously pursued his own types (animals, women, politicians, etc.), and he did so with great vigor, but his actual photographed subjects never feel typical; they feel absolutely specific and completely fixed each in their moment.

In that specificity, and more importantly in the intensity of emotion going into them, they may actually have more in common with DeCarava than with any other street photographer. But where DeCarava photographed to tell truths (and Frank to break down myths), it seems that Winogrand’s photographs are all questions and provocations.

What is this shit?

A Time Machine and a Red Pen

In the MAN Podcast interview with Leo Rubinfien, there is an interesting exchange regarding Women are Beautiful that I think says a lot about how this show is organized:

Green: “The [book] least represented in your show is Women are Beautiful, and I’m guessing either you think they aren’t his strongest work, or there’s something in them that’s a bit dated, or that those pictures didn’t work for you for another reason.”

Rubinfien:”Well, actually, I think that Winogrand photographed women more than he photographed any other subject, and they appear all the way from the very beginning of his career to the very end. Women are Beautiful was a collection of…”

Green: “82 pictures.”

Rubinfien: “Is that right, is that the number? A collection, I was going to say, that was assembled 1974-75 of work that Winogrand was particularly excited about at that moment. But one of the things, one of the… discoveries of this project for me was that there were many stronger photographs of women that he did not include in that book that came from the very early 1960’s when he was photographing…women relentlessly in the streets of New York. The book itself consists largely of his more recent work, so it’s predominately work from 68, 69, 70, 71, etc. I think that…photographs like the one of the young woman carrying the suitcase, you know that is not in the …Women book —”

Green: “And it’s fantastic.”

Rubinfien “And it’s fantastic. And there are many, many other ones like that; another one is plate 57 in the book, you know this marvelous woman crossing 42nd St., I think it is, with her hand touching her hat — and he left that out.”

Similarly telling is the way Rubinfien introduced Tod Papageorge at Papageorge’s SFMOMA talk. He distinguished between Papageorge as an intellectual and Wingorand as a “tradesman,” and asserted that Papageorge showed Winogrand “the gravity of what he himself was doing.”

The sense I get is that Rubinfien, while not making a big deal out of it, does not fully trust Winogrand’s judgment and understanding of his own work.

In the show, the prints made posthumously from negatives Winogrand never saw, or saw but did not himself mark for printing, are identified, but they are presented mixed in with photographs from Wingorand’s existing canon, as a contiguous unit. The new and the old are combined to make one body of work. It is not a case of newly shown material shedding light on old material; it is simply that they have looked at both the new and the old, and shown us what of each they think is “stronger.”

In presenting the work this way, the curators essentially avoid the question of how and why their approach to Winogrand’s photographs differs from Winogrand’s. It is treated as a nonissue, as it would be in a show of, say, Vivian Maier’s or Charles Cushman’s photographs. In other words, this show is almost an answer to the question I posed in the last paragraph of a short post on Cushman from 2010:

I wonder what the world would have made of the archive of someone like Winogrand if he had never published work during his life time.

The sequence on display does not function as a rejoinder to or a reevaluation of Winogrand, and it does not seem to present itself as a challenge or to acknowledge a discontinuity between it and Winogrand’s editorial distinctions. It’s more of an ahistorical “best of,” or an alternate history second draft. Curation by means of a time machine and a red pen. In other words, it’s a retcon.

It’s a good retcon. But I think I would much rather have seen the images presented in a different way. Minimally, I would like to see some or all of the new ones grouped together and provided with some better insight into what does or does not differentiate them from the previously published work.

Tod Papageorge said, “One is venturing into very treacherous territory to look at a contact sheet of [Winogrand’s] and imagine that he missed a picture,” and that frequently when Winogrand chose not to print a negative, it was for specific reasons — such as a resemblance to work that someone else had done, or that Winogrand had done.

That’s not to say that those photographs Winogrand passed over shouldn’t be shown now — but I feel like there should be more to it than just to say, “these are the strongest” — and in particular there should be more transparency for the viewer in terms of what editorial decisions are being made, and why, and how those decisions are new or different.

I also think the show might have benefited from being organized differently, for example by location (it should be possible to get pretty granular with the NY photos in particular), or by subject. Winogrand’s way of collecting subjects would really lend itself to being grouped this way, just like browsing someone’s flickr stream by tag.

(In fact, I would love to see this work presented in just that way, as a flickr stream, organized by date and tagged with locations and keywords. I think it would provide a maximum of information and utility to the viewer and I think it would be entirely appropriate. Plus you could invite viewers to make their own “collections” using the eponymous feature in flickr. Seriously, think about it.)

I think maybe the most useful way to organize the physical prints would be to arrange them in something like a grid, with rows assigned to subjects, places, themes, etc., and columns for time divided in, say, five year increments. Something very like what the Oakland Museum has for California history would be perfect.

But in whatever format, the show would certainly benefit from more, and more explicit, historical context, both in terms of how it relates to previous presentations and evaluations of Winogrand’s work, and also in terms of world events. Winogrand’s photography is steeped in the historical situations in which he lived, and the show does a good job of referencing that, but it still expects the viewer to bring a lot of history with them. Which means it’s not going to serve all viewers equally well. (It might also be a factor in determining how well it ages.)

I’m not talking about suicide, but I’d just as soon not exist.

The best part of the evening was Tod Papageorge’s talk, "Too Much is Enough." There was a lot of really wonderful material about Winogrand as a photographer and as a person, personal anecdotes, etc. He covered a huge amount of ground, much more than it would make sense to go over here. (I did post a raw transcript of my notes from that day on my seldom-updated personal blog I think at least some of what Papageorge covered is also in the catalog.)

What most caught my attention was Papageorge’s observation that there is something like a Buddhist quality to Winogrand. He ascribed to Winogrand an “almost Buddhist sense of vocation.” and said that, “only if the self is more and more in the background can a body of work like this be profound.”

He opened the talk by relating a presumably apocryphal anecdote about Wingorand going to a therapist, and being told to hit a pillow. Winogrand pounded on the pillow as instructed. The therapist then asked what Winogrand was thinking about, and he replied, “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?”

Winogrand wasn’t thinking about his mother because he was thinking about hitting pillows. And when it came to photography, well, he made photographs with the intention of making photographs. To call it “just photographing” on analogy to Zen’s “just sitting,” would be too cute, but not necessarily wrong.

This presents a sharp contrast not only to the classic documentary mode of treating the photograph as evidence of a represented reality, but also to the personality-driven, psychological mysticism of photographers like Minor White, which treats photographs as metaphors or as channels for transmitting an experience — and which is usually identified as representing the “Buddhist” or “Zen” side of photography, something which has long puzzled me.

This gives Winogrand’s photographs a literal quality that makes them hard to write about or think through. It’s a kind of opacity or flatness that can mask how complex, loaded, and yet also emotionally raw they are. They are always full of significance, but at the same time it is seldom easy to say what, if anything, they mean or what they are for. This can lead to a lack of appreciation from both the high and the low ends of photographic culture. (See this Blake Andrews post for good examples of both.)

How far this diagnosis of Winogrand as a Buddhist can be taken is unclear. It may or may not cover the aphoristic and circular way he sometimes talked about photographs — photographing to see how things look photographed, a photograph as the illusion of a literal description, etc.

What is the aesthetic perspective implicit in those declarations? I find it tempting to read in(to) them an epistemologically conscientious insistence on treating appearances as appearances, but I don’t know if that’s really what Winogrand was about, or whether these were his ways of getting out of rationalizing something that shouldn’t need an explanation: the joy of making photographs.

And how should we relate Winogrand as Buddhist to the manic, despairing prophet who thought the bomb might be only the fitting conclusion of a failure of our society to live well?

Papageorge described Winogrand’s reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis as “I know I could die, I didn’t die, I know I’m nothing, therefore I’m free.” He also conveyed one of those amazing Winogrand quotations which went: “I’m not talking about suicide, but I’d just as soon not exist.”

One of the earliest forms of Buddhist meditation involves sitting in graveyards and similar sites and contemplating the decay of human remains. Coming to terms — through the most acute attention — with the factual reality of death in the world as a step on the path to freedom from bondage to the suffering which fear of death begets.

Maybe for Winogrand, especially at the end, photographing America was his way of contemplating a graveyard.

Document and Artifice

"Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994," by Rineke Dijkstra (via SFMOMA) and “Untitled #405, 2000,” by Cindy Sherman (via MOMA).

Note: as you may have observed, we are fantastically behind schedule. So, set your time machines for “several months ago,” and join me in a topical journey into our semi-recent past. In this case, I’ll be discussing exhibitions which I saw in April and September of this year.

There is a bit of a running gag regarding me and portraits, that I only like them if I can’t see the subject’s face. (cf. here or here) And while there is a lot of portraiture that I like, it’s true that I generally don’t have much to say about traditional portraits — when I do end up talking about portraits, it’s usually outliers. (e.g., here or here)

So it was a subject of some speculation how I would respond to SFMOMA’s Dijkstra and Sherman exhibitions — two bodies of portraiture (or pseudo-portraiture in the case of Sherman) that are technically great and conceptually…well, let’s say fraught.

I perhaps should have had an easier time with Dijkstra than Sherman. There is at least some semblance of a documentary function at work in her photographs, and in general the farther a photograph is from recording some actual subject, and the closer it is to presentation of a construction or performance, the less comfortable I am with it. Not in this case, however.

I found Dijkstra’s photographs deeply off-putting. It’s tricky to pin down precisely why, though. Taken individually, they’re blandly enigmatic, which I think is more or less the default for large-format color portraits these days. They’re well-executed, and executed in service of a substantial organizing principle: recording subjects in periods of intense transition. (Adolescence, childbirth, military service, bullfighting, etc.)

The implication is that a photograph of a person in such a state will somehow provide more information, or more insight, or more truth — either into the subjects, or into humanity at large. In other words, Dijkstra’s photography seems to be working along philosophical principles similar to those of Shan Yu. Which is to say, it’s (a) creepy and (b) horseshit.

In fact, the way that Dijkstra polices contextualizing details within the frame systematically renders them less informative and less revealing — or, rather, it renders them informative and revealing only about Dijkstra. (Which I regard as a bug, although it can also be regarded as a feature.)

Dijkstra’s photographs form an incredible artifice — which would not necessarily be objectionable if they were not presented as offering an appearance-transcending insight. They deliver the viewer a visceral stimulus sterilized of context and specificity, but with a branding of verisimilitude. A bit like pornography presented in the format of an anatomy textbook.

None of which actually quite accounts for how much Dijkstra bothers me. That litany of complaints really only adds up to “boring,” rather than “offensive.” What pushes it over the line for me is, ultimately, a personal hangup about portraiture, and in particular about the relationship between the photographer and the subject. It’s something I’ve never had a lot of luck expressing succinctly or completely — which contributes to my reticence to discuss portraits on 1/125. (There’s nothing more annoying than a bias you can identify but not fully account for.)

The simplest way I can think to put it is: I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means. I respond positively to portraits where the subject seems to be putting up a fair fight in determining how they appear and what that appearance signifies.

This isn’t something that has a uniform objective measure — it can be a matter of whether the subject has chosen what clothing to wear, how to pose, etc., or it can be a matter of irrepressible personality. But manifested in whatever way, it’s the sense that the person has decided (how) to appear before the camera, and that the subject is therefore in some part a coauthor of their own photographed image.

The nature of Dijkstra’s project effectively precludes this — in some cases by photographing people in circumstances where their appearance is effectively beyond their control, and in other cases (esp. adolescent subjects) through interpretation which reduces the individual to a type. The most we can really deduce about them in terms of their agency relative to the observed photograph is that they consented to appear in it.

In contrast to this, Cindy Sherman’s work — which I had never really been exposed to in a comprehensive way before, just piecemeal — was really refreshing. Which is a strange thing to say about something so extremely meta. I mean, come on: Sherman’s work is a classic example of a medium being fully up its own ass.

Well, it’s a classical example apart from one thing: it’s funny. It is at least some of the time fully laugh-out-loud funny, and while not everyone is going to appreciate it (no joke is truly universal), it has one of the hallmark features of good comedy: it scales well with regard to knowledge of what the joke is about. And as comedy, it can in some ways be more truthful or more honest than a factual treatment of the same subjects would be.

The nature of the comedy is also relevant to my issues with Dijkstra — Sherman is basically doing the polar opposite of what Dijkstra is doing, and the comedy in her photography springs from that.

Baker: What about humor? It seems like there’s more license to laugh in some images than others.

Sherman: I see humor in almost everything, in even the grotesque things, because I don’t want people to believe in them as if they were documentary that really does show true horror. I want them to be artificial, so you can laugh or giggle at them, as I do when I watch horror movies. ("Cindy Sherman: Interview with a Chameleon")

Sherman’s work is artificial, but transparently so, at least when presented in the correct context. (If encountered out of context, a viewer could easily mistake some of them for documents.) It is an honest artifice, which is infinitely superior to a dishonest document. And I say this as someone who is pretty ill-equipped, both in taste and in knowledge, to appreciate artificial and conceptual photography.

And in terms of my particular hangups, the performance nature of Sherman’s work is surprisingly appealing. It would be doubly incorrect to call them self-portraits, but they are a case where the person in the photograph is in complete control of the way they appear in the frame, and what that appearance means. Normally this is only true for certain kinds of model-photographer collaborations, and in the case of subjects who — intentionally or not, by choice of the photographer or against it — hijack the photo. Because this is not the norm for most portraitists, my experience in looking at portraits is usually hit and miss.

In the case of Sherman, I can see — well, if not portraits, portrait-format images — without the need for that little internal flinch that most portraitists trigger in me some or all of the time. And that really is a relief — almost a tangible weight being lifted.

"Mexico, 1934," by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Via O SÉCULO PRODIGIOSO.

I stopped by SFMOMA last night to see Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century and Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. I’ll follow up on “Exposed” later, but I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on Bresson now.

The main thing on my mind as I walked through the exhibit was how very, very diverse Bresson’s body of work is. It would be easy to edit and sequence the photographs on display five or ten different ways to make Bresson’s work appear profoundly similar to five or ten entirely different photographers.

The second thing — which, to some extent, is an extension of the first — was a persistent ambivalence in regard to the work I was seeing.

Previously, I would have said that I agreed with Robert Frank’s statement that Bresson “traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that a condemnation.) But now I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.

With Frank, the social criticism always floats to the surface, and Frank’s humor and artistry work in harmonious subordination to it. (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that praise.)

With Bresson, it is hard to tell sometimes whether a subject is supposed to have mainly social/documentarian content, mainly humorous content, or mainly formal/abstract content. And I definitely do not think the three are working in balance or harmony, as they do in the work of, say, Roy DeCarava.

I think that in Bresson’s best photographs, one of these qualities is in ascendence at the cost of the others, while in other photographs (like the one above) the three are stuck in an uneasy or discordant association. And I think that makes those photographs — while not Bresson’s best — the ones that come closest to typifying his work as whole, and thus illustrating (and perhaps excusing) my mixed feelings regarding him.

Again, I don’t think this is necessarily a condemnation. It certainly doesn’t make Bresson’s photography uninteresting or unimportant, and if I drew that conclusion from my observations here, I would be perilously close to asserting consistency as a measure of worth in photography, which would be an awful idea. But I do find it helpful in understanding how I respond to his photography.

Apart from working that out, the main area of interest for me in the exhibit was the ability to examine both old prints (made by Bresson in a lower-contrast style typical of the 1930’s) and later prints (made by expert printers in the higher-contrast style that modern viewers generally expect). As you might expect if you read my post on albumen landscape prints, I tended to gravitate toward the lower contrast prints.

"Mexico, 1934," by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Via O SÉCULO PRODIGIOSO.

I stopped by SFMOMA last night to see Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century and Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. I’ll follow up on “Exposed” later, but I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on Bresson now.

The main thing on my mind as I walked through the exhibit was how very, very diverse Bresson’s body of work is. It would be easy to edit and sequence the photographs on display five or ten different ways to make Bresson’s work appear profoundly similar to five or ten entirely different photographers.

The second thing — which, to some extent, is an extension of the first — was a persistent ambivalence in regard to the work I was seeing.

Previously, I would have said that I agreed with Robert Frank’s statement that Bresson “traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that a condemnation.) But now I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.

With Frank, the social criticism always floats to the surface, and Frank’s humor and artistry work in harmonious subordination to it. (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that praise.)

With Bresson, it is hard to tell sometimes whether a subject is supposed to have mainly social/documentarian content, mainly humorous content, or mainly formal/abstract content. And I definitely do not think the three are working in balance or harmony, as they do in the work of, say, Roy DeCarava.

I think that in Bresson’s best photographs, one of these qualities is in ascendence at the cost of the others, while in other photographs (like the one above) the three are stuck in an uneasy or discordant association. And I think that makes those photographs — while not Bresson’s best — the ones that come closest to typifying his work as whole, and thus illustrating (and perhaps excusing) my mixed feelings regarding him.

Again, I don’t think this is necessarily a condemnation. It certainly doesn’t make Bresson’s photography uninteresting or unimportant, and if I drew that conclusion from my observations here, I would be perilously close to asserting consistency as a measure of worth in photography, which would be an awful idea. But I do find it helpful in understanding how I respond to his photography.

Apart from working that out, the main area of interest for me in the exhibit was the ability to examine both old prints (made by Bresson in a lower-contrast style typical of the 1930’s) and later prints (made by expert printers in the higher-contrast style that modern viewers generally expect). As you might expect if you read my post on albumen landscape prints, I tended to gravitate toward the lower contrast prints.

"Aunt Lucy," by Michael Jang. From the series, The Jangs. Via SFMOMA.

This is another photograph from the “The View From Here” exhibit at SFMOMA. I’ve been wanting to post about this since the first time I visited the show, but I was unable to find it online, and I keep forgetting to take a point and shoot with me to the museum.

A lot of photographers, past and present, have made a point of emulating snapshots. These efforts usually come off as pretentious, at best. I don’t get that feeling from this photograph, however, despite the bullseyed subject and flat on-camera flash.

I’m not entirely sure what makes it work for me. Partly, it’s the way the line of the hose climbs up and in as it traverses the frame, then transforms into a frozen spray of water, some falling to the ground, some continuing to arc up toward the sky. Partly, it’s the deadpan face of the woman — not mugging for the camera, not posed (or if posed, not cooperating particularly well), but also not really startled. She pushes back against the camera’s gaze. And partly, it’s the way the light from the flash falls off as it approaches the fence — and the ominous, mostly indiscernible , landscape beyond.

All of that is part of the reason why this isn’t just another pseudo-vernacular exercise, but I think there’s more to it that I cannot yet put my finger on…

"Aunt Lucy," by Michael Jang. From the series, The Jangs. Via SFMOMA.

This is another photograph from the “The View From Here” exhibit at SFMOMA. I’ve been wanting to post about this since the first time I visited the show, but I was unable to find it online, and I keep forgetting to take a point and shoot with me to the museum.

A lot of photographers, past and present, have made a point of emulating snapshots. These efforts usually come off as pretentious, at best. I don’t get that feeling from this photograph, however, despite the bullseyed subject and flat on-camera flash.

I’m not entirely sure what makes it work for me. Partly, it’s the way the line of the hose climbs up and in as it traverses the frame, then transforms into a frozen spray of water, some falling to the ground, some continuing to arc up toward the sky. Partly, it’s the deadpan face of the woman — not mugging for the camera, not posed (or if posed, not cooperating particularly well), but also not really startled. She pushes back against the camera’s gaze. And partly, it’s the way the light from the flash falls off as it approaches the fence — and the ominous, mostly indiscernible , landscape beyond.

All of that is part of the reason why this isn’t just another pseudo-vernacular exercise, but I think there’s more to it that I cannot yet put my finger on…

"Mt. Broderick, Nevada Fall, 700 ft., Yo Semite," by Carleton Watkins. Via SFMOMA.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about albumen prints. They’ve been at the back of my mind for a while now, but they’ve lately come to the front, partly because of an SFMOMA exhibit, "The View From Here", which documents the history of photography as it has played out in California, and also partly because of a discussion Karl and I had a while back about 19th-century vs. 20th- and later landscape photography. (Cf. Karl’s post here.)

One of the things which is very easy to discern from “The View From Here,” is the transition in landscape photography from mammoth plates and albumen prints to smaller plates and silver gelatin prints or platinum prints.

From a technical standpoint, this advancement brought with it a vast improvement in the ability of photography to record and reproduce detail throughout a scene, particularly a scene like a landscape which contains a huge range of tones.

But I am increasingly certain that, at least in the realm of my own tastes, this advancement in the descriptive power of the medium was not really accompanied by an improvement in the quality of photographs. If anything, I’m inclined to prefer the older prints.

I have had a fairly difficult time articulating the reasons why, and I am not at all sure that I have succeeded in doing so. However, let me try to explain.

Albumen prints, at least the ones that I have seen, are generally distinguished by muddy shadows with no real blacks, somewhat compressed  midtones, and a tendency to lose detail entirely in the highlights. Silver gelatin prints are what most people today think of when they think of a black and white photograph, assuming they think of a photographic print rather than a desaturated digital image, of course. Platinum prints have greatly expanded midtones and often less overall contrast.

Please bear in mind that aside from a very slight amount of practical experience with mundane modern silver gelatin printing, I don’t really know anything about photographic processes. So, take what I say with a grain of salt. (Photographic chemistry pun left as an exercise to the reader.) Technical corrections from astute readers are of course welcome.

There’s no good technical reason why I should like albumen prints more than well-executed silver gelatin or platinum prints. But here’s what I’ve figured out from comparing my experience of viewing an albumen print from, say, Carleton Watkins, and then viewing a silver gelatin print from, say, Ansel Adams. (Who, for better or worse, is essentially the definitive silver gelatin landscape photographer/printer.)

The Adams print is full of rich detail and strong contrast throughout. The image is anchored by rich blacks and defined by crisp highlights, and in between there is a wealth of information presented with great confidence and certainty. Adams seems very sure of what he wanted from the negative, and of course he knew precisely how to get it.

The Watkins print has no black point to anchor it. Shadowed rock and trees almost — but not quite — run together because of the comparative flatness of the dark areas of the print. The level of contrast increases as my eye travels from shadows through midtones to highlights, so that the illuminated areas of rock and tree stand out sharply, but as it continues further into the highlights, faint details are enfolded in the emptiness of the blown-out sky.

The scene — even with the geological heft of mountains weighing it down — seems to have something of a dream or reverie about it, and it seems to me that Watkins (whether he would have wished it or not) has left something in the scene for my interpretation and judgment which Adams would most assuredly have reserved for his own. And this openness or sense of the photograph being slightly unfinished has an immense appeal for me, which I value above the precise and final demonstration of technical mastery which generally defines a 20th-century or contemporary well-executed landscape print.

"Mt. Broderick, Nevada Fall, 700 ft., Yo Semite," by Carleton Watkins. Via SFMOMA.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about albumen prints. They’ve been at the back of my mind for a while now, but they’ve lately come to the front, partly because of an SFMOMA exhibit, "The View From Here", which documents the history of photography as it has played out in California, and also partly because of a discussion Karl and I had a while back about 19th-century vs. 20th- and later landscape photography. (Cf. Karl’s post here.)

One of the things which is very easy to discern from “The View From Here,” is the transition in landscape photography from mammoth plates and albumen prints to smaller plates and silver gelatin prints or platinum prints.

From a technical standpoint, this advancement brought with it a vast improvement in the ability of photography to record and reproduce detail throughout a scene, particularly a scene like a landscape which contains a huge range of tones.

But I am increasingly certain that, at least in the realm of my own tastes, this advancement in the descriptive power of the medium was not really accompanied by an improvement in the quality of photographs. If anything, I’m inclined to prefer the older prints.

I have had a fairly difficult time articulating the reasons why, and I am not at all sure that I have succeeded in doing so. However, let me try to explain.

Albumen prints, at least the ones that I have seen, are generally distinguished by muddy shadows with no real blacks, somewhat compressed midtones, and a tendency to lose detail entirely in the highlights. Silver gelatin prints are what most people today think of when they think of a black and white photograph, assuming they think of a photographic print rather than a desaturated digital image, of course. Platinum prints have greatly expanded midtones and often less overall contrast.

Please bear in mind that aside from a very slight amount of practical experience with mundane modern silver gelatin printing, I don’t really know anything about photographic processes. So, take what I say with a grain of salt. (Photographic chemistry pun left as an exercise to the reader.) Technical corrections from astute readers are of course welcome.

There’s no good technical reason why I should like albumen prints more than well-executed silver gelatin or platinum prints. But here’s what I’ve figured out from comparing my experience of viewing an albumen print from, say, Carleton Watkins, and then viewing a silver gelatin print from, say, Ansel Adams. (Who, for better or worse, is essentially the definitive silver gelatin landscape photographer/printer.)

The Adams print is full of rich detail and strong contrast throughout. The image is anchored by rich blacks and defined by crisp highlights, and in between there is a wealth of information presented with great confidence and certainty. Adams seems very sure of what he wanted from the negative, and of course he knew precisely how to get it.

The Watkins print has no black point to anchor it. Shadowed rock and trees almost — but not quite — run together because of the comparative flatness of the dark areas of the print. The level of contrast increases as my eye travels from shadows through midtones to highlights, so that the illuminated areas of rock and tree stand out sharply, but as it continues further into the highlights, faint details are enfolded in the emptiness of the blown-out sky.

The scene — even with the geological heft of mountains weighing it down — seems to have something of a dream or reverie about it, and it seems to me that Watkins (whether he would have wished it or not) has left something in the scene for my interpretation and judgment which Adams would most assuredly have reserved for his own. And this openness or sense of the photograph being slightly unfinished has an immense appeal for me, which I value above the precise and final demonstration of technical mastery which generally defines a 20th-century or contemporary well-executed landscape print.

"San Fernando, California," by Joe Deal. From The Fault Zone.

This is another photograph that figures prominently in my notes from my visits to SFMOMA’s current exhibits. It seems at first glance to belong to a class of photography I would normally walk right past without much thought or emotional involvement — but luckily I gave it a second glance, and was fully absorbed.

As with the other Deal photographs on display, there is a very particular and very interesting use of perspective. It seems to me to be sort of the inverse of the Atget-type approach to perspective and camera position. When I look at Deal’s photographs, I feel that I do not know where I stand. This uncertainty or ambiguity does not weaken Deal’s work, mind you. The photograph portrays or induces a sense of uncertainty, but the photograph itself is very certain — sure and decisive.

What makes this the most interesting of Deal’s photographs currently on display at the museum is the intersection of the straight, paved road with the meandering dirt path that curves across it like a river. Both are obviously artifacts of human action in a desert landscape (or a landscape that has been made desertlike), and as such are of a kind — and yet, they are such perfect opposites.

"San Fernando, California," by Joe Deal. From The Fault Zone.

This is another photograph that figures prominently in my notes from my visits to SFMOMA’s current exhibits. It seems at first glance to belong to a class of photography I would normally walk right past without much thought or emotional involvement — but luckily I gave it a second glance, and was fully absorbed.

As with the other Deal photographs on display, there is a very particular and very interesting use of perspective. It seems to me to be sort of the inverse of the Atget-type approach to perspective and camera position. When I look at Deal’s photographs, I feel that I do not know where I stand. This uncertainty or ambiguity does not weaken Deal’s work, mind you. The photograph portrays or induces a sense of uncertainty, but the photograph itself is very certain — sure and decisive.

What makes this the most interesting of Deal’s photographs currently on display at the museum is the intersection of the straight, paved road with the meandering dirt path that curves across it like a river. Both are obviously artifacts of human action in a desert landscape (or a landscape that has been made desertlike), and as such are of a kind — and yet, they are such perfect opposites.

"La Villette, Streetwalker Waiting for a Client, 19th arrondissement. April 1921," by Eugène Atget. Via SFMOMA.

This is one of the two Atget photographs currently on display at SFMOMA. (Note for locals: on the second floor, not on the third floor where the majority of the photography is.)

This was just a little bit mind-blowing for me. I’m accustomed to seeing Atget as a photographer of buildings and neighborhoods, whose long exposures render humans invisible or, at most, half-seen ghosts flitting about their inscrutable business. This is something entirely different: a posed portrait that would almost be at home in the world of fashion photography.

And yet, Atget’s famed sense of composition is still present. So is his ability to work with the light — something that is present in his usual photographs, but not necessarily obvious, particularly if one is looking only at one or two of them. His ability to pose a subject is obviously just as strong, and just as subtle.

Her studied nonchalance is fantastic, and her precise posture and position within the scene are perfectly chosen to make the best possible use of what is one of the most troublesome kinds of light for portrait photography. The woman’s leg and the chair create a line of shadow which runs together with the shadow/light boundary created by the doorway. This line converges with the line created by the by the paving stones at an angle which gives a strong sense of depth to the photograph, and seems to make the woman stand forward from the print toward the viewer.

The posing also places the shadows so that they add to the drama of the scene and the strength of the woman without obscuring her or upstaging her. Which is no mean feat with this sort of light.

Also of interest is the depiction of the subject itself — the woman does not appear to be other than what she is labeled as being in the caption (that is, a prostitute), but she does not, at least to a modern eye, appear to be burdened with any particular sexualized or moralized sentiments. One gets the impression of a tough, handsome, businesslike woman, which is quite likely what she was.

"La Villette, Streetwalker Waiting for a Client, 19th arrondissement. April 1921," by Eugène Atget. Via SFMOMA.

This is one of the two Atget photographs currently on display at SFMOMA. (Note for locals: on the second floor, not on the third floor where the majority of the photography is.)

This was just a little bit mind-blowing for me. I’m accustomed to seeing Atget as a photographer of buildings and neighborhoods, whose long exposures render humans invisible or, at most, half-seen ghosts flitting about their inscrutable business. This is something entirely different: a posed portrait that would almost be at home in the world of fashion photography.

And yet, Atget’s famed sense of composition is still present. So is his ability to work with the light — something that is present in his usual photographs, but not necessarily obvious, particularly if one is looking only at one or two of them. His ability to pose a subject is obviously just as strong, and just as subtle.

Her studied nonchalance is fantastic, and her precise posture and position within the scene are perfectly chosen to make the best possible use of what is one of the most troublesome kinds of light for portrait photography. The woman’s leg and the chair create a line of shadow which runs together with the shadow/light boundary created by the doorway. This line converges with the line created by the by the paving stones at an angle which gives a strong sense of depth to the photograph, and seems to make the woman stand forward from the print toward the viewer.

The posing also places the shadows so that they add to the drama of the scene and the strength of the woman without obscuring her or upstaging her. Which is no mean feat with this sort of light.

Also of interest is the depiction of the subject itself — the woman does not appear to be other than what she is labeled as being in the caption (that is, a prostitute), but she does not, at least to a modern eye, appear to be burdened with any particular sexualized or moralized sentiments. One gets the impression of a tough, handsome, businesslike woman, which is quite likely what she was.

"Southern California," by Henry Wessel. Via Graeme Mitchell Photography

I spent a few hours Saturday poring over the photography assembled at SFMOMA  as part of their 75th anniversary extravaganza.

There was some fantastic photography there, some of it from photographers who were completely unknown to me.

Unfortunately, most of the stuff that really struck me has proven difficult to find online, and (being the boy scout I never was) I neglected to take pictures at the museum, where doing so is frowned on by the blue blazer brigade.

Wessel’s photograph above is one of the exceptions, and while it isn’t my absolute favorite of the day, it’s close enough.

Superficially, there are a lot of little faults one could find with this photograph. (This would be great fodder for a round of TOP’s Great Photographers on the Internet, in fact.)

But these are the things which, in my view, make this photograph really work:

The photograph is dominated by light tones and fairly low contrast. This means there is little for the eye to grab hold of. However, the sunglasses and the shadow below the man’s chin provide the missing contrast, and create a strong visual pull toward the center of the frame.
The opaque glasses mask the man’s eyes. Together with his oddly tentative body language, his blank expression, and the shadow which almost decapitates him, they create a sense of profound ambiguity.
The ambiguity of the man is perfectly framed by the exuberant font with which the building (motel? apartments?) proclaims its identity. The combination is both parodical and poignant, and I find it quite compelling.
I’ll see what else I can dig up to show you. But if you’re in the Bay Area in the next few weeks, I strongly recommend paying a visit.

"Southern California," by Henry Wessel. Via Graeme Mitchell Photography

I spent a few hours Saturday poring over the photography assembled at SFMOMA as part of their 75th anniversary extravaganza.

There was some fantastic photography there, some of it from photographers who were completely unknown to me.

Unfortunately, most of the stuff that really struck me has proven difficult to find online, and (being the boy scout I never was) I neglected to take pictures at the museum, where doing so is frowned on by the blue blazer brigade.

Wessel’s photograph above is one of the exceptions, and while it isn’t my absolute favorite of the day, it’s close enough.

Superficially, there are a lot of little faults one could find with this photograph. (This would be great fodder for a round of TOP’s Great Photographers on the Internet, in fact.)

But these are the things which, in my view, make this photograph really work:

  • The photograph is dominated by light tones and fairly low contrast. This means there is little for the eye to grab hold of. However, the sunglasses and the shadow below the man’s chin provide the missing contrast, and create a strong visual pull toward the center of the frame.

  • The opaque glasses mask the man’s eyes. Together with his oddly tentative body language, his blank expression, and the shadow which almost decapitates him, they create a sense of profound ambiguity.

  • The ambiguity of the man is perfectly framed by the exuberant font with which the building (motel? apartments?) proclaims its identity. The combination is both parodical and poignant, and I find it quite compelling.

I’ll see what else I can dig up to show you. But if you’re in the Bay Area in the next few weeks, I strongly recommend paying a visit.

"New Orleans, Louisiana, 2002," by Alec Soth. From the series, Sleeping by the Mississippi. Via SFMOMA

Alec Soth is a fantastic photographer, and I was ecstatic to see this photograph — in the form of a gargantuan c print — tucked away in the middle of a miscellaneous bunch of photographs at SFMOMA. I made a point of seeing it each time I went back to go over the “Provoke Era” Japanese exhibition.

It is mundane, luminous, and mysterious. It is full of win.

I really wish I could show you the physical print, but it simply wouldn’t fit in a blog post…

"New Orleans, Louisiana, 2002," by Alec Soth. From the series, Sleeping by the Mississippi. Via SFMOMA

Alec Soth is a fantastic photographer, and I was ecstatic to see this photograph — in the form of a gargantuan c print — tucked away in the middle of a miscellaneous bunch of photographs at SFMOMA. I made a point of seeing it each time I went back to go over the “Provoke Era” Japanese exhibition.

It is mundane, luminous, and mysterious. It is full of win.

I really wish I could show you the physical print, but it simply wouldn’t fit in a blog post…

"Sagara Village, Kumamoto Prefecture" by Toshio Shibata, 1991 via Cybermuse.gallery.ca.

I saw this recently on display at SFMOMA as part of 
Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea. Some of the photographs at that exhibit struck me as weak (merely clever), and some are tremendously powerful. This is among the best, if not the best, although it may be a bit tricky for you, gentle viewer, to discern that on the basis of this scan. If you’re in the vicinity, do go see the real thing in person. If not, just take my word for it that this is a large, technically perfect print from an 8x10 negative with a fantastic tonal range, etc., etc., etc.

What should come through even with the not-so-hot scan is the captivating and utterly mysterious juxtaposition of man-made and natural forms which, as I understand it, is a major interest of Shibata’s. And, above all, the apparently casual placement of those reeds—or whatever—which transforms what might have been a rather sterile landscape into something transcendent…

"Sagara Village, Kumamoto Prefecture" by Toshio Shibata, 1991 via Cybermuse.gallery.ca.

I saw this recently on display at SFMOMA as part of Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea. Some of the photographs at that exhibit struck me as weak (merely clever), and some are tremendously powerful. This is among the best, if not the best, although it may be a bit tricky for you, gentle viewer, to discern that on the basis of this scan. If you’re in the vicinity, do go see the real thing in person. If not, just take my word for it that this is a large, technically perfect print from an 8x10 negative with a fantastic tonal range, etc., etc., etc.

What should come through even with the not-so-hot scan is the captivating and utterly mysterious juxtaposition of man-made and natural forms which, as I understand it, is a major interest of Shibata’s. And, above all, the apparently casual placement of those reeds—or whatever—which transforms what might have been a rather sterile landscape into something transcendent…