In September, 2011 William Carter joined the Photography Accessions Committee of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Carter’s ongoing contributions to the field include his founding, 8-year membership in the Photographs Council of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
This is part of a process for me — coming out of the darkroom, if you will — into the light of public exposure. Like the Getty, SFMOMA owns some of my prints. You can see them here. Just one sample (click here for the story behind this picture):
Cool Appraisal vs. Hopeless Infatuation
It must have been in the mid-1960s that my father remarked, “More people now attend museums in this country than attend baseball games.” Around the same time an edgier friend exclaimed sardonically, “America can package anything.”
The two statements are related.
Dad’s announcement centered partly in his belief in the gradually rising tastes of the American consumer, as reflected in his long, successful experience in the department store business. His enthusiasm also derived, in no small part, from his giving large chunks of his time, over many years, to cultural and educational institutions. These included his deep involvement as a founder of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he served as the first President of its Board of Directors.
I suppose some of these values must have rubbed off on me. But in truth, by the late 50s I was long out of the nest, into my own thing. While poking around in what would later be termed the counter culture, I launched myself as a photographer and began accepting commercial assignments; but in my heart of hearts my esthetic values were aligned with those historic photo purists — Stieglitz, Cunningham, Weston, Strand, Frank, and others — who, for the past century, had struggled to prove the new medium could be, in the hands of a master, a high art.
Fast forward forty-five years. Today, no one doubts the legitimacy of photography as art. Although no one can claim, “As many Americans now visit museums for their photography shows as for their painting shows,” it’s getting to be thinkable at some institutions. I’ve served on the Photographs Council of a major museum for a number of years, and just joined a similar committee at a second important museum. From such vantage points one sees how the fine art photography world has really exploded: the auctions are packed, collectors proliferating, students exfoliating, galleries booming.
All this is glorious. Yet there is another question: is there ever a straight-line progress in the arts, comparable to that, say, in the sciences? Which is where I recall my friend’s sage observation of half a century ago, about America’s special genius — packaging.
A high degree of professionalism has evolved in the ways photographs are catalogued, evaluated, presented, historically researched, bought and sold, discussed. Going back, one remembers the suddenly addictive passion, a borderline craziness that infected and united (or sometimes bitterly divided) the band of crazies who believed in this stuff in, say, 1958, when I first caught the bug. To admit to nostalgia for that era of hopeless, senseless infatuation risks sounding an awful lot like your too typical geezer sharing some park bench with the pigeons and wheezing to the world about “these kids now, they don’t know…” Which in fact it may very well be. Except I’ll take the darkroom over the park bench, anytime.
Hey, blogging is cheap, so I’ll say it anyway: it’s all about love. When photography was that single print that took your breath away, filled your life for a minute or a week or longer. Later you learned how to spell the name of the photographer, where to see more of his or her work… on and on to the steel flat file cabinets, intelligent researchers and conservators putting each artist in context, discerning movements and influences and historical technical and social factors, walking the learned walk, and proving the proof of why that picture by that artist has, after all, some importance… hoping to let your mind find ways to justify what your heart, unfiltered, had tried to tell you in the first place.
The history of the medium, no less than the history of each print, is a giant and important history, as we have certainly learned by broadening out scholarship, sharpening our sensitivities, honing our awarenesses. Indispensable.
Still, I suspect that many artists and appreciators, in their hearts of hearts, would agree that it is that first sheer thrill, with zero references, that sometimes inner burst of private joy when you unexpectedly encounter a person face to face: that knowing naiveté — your obsession — knowing what’s in the package under all the packing but wishing to remain out of the box — that primal heartbreak — which is all that finally matters. Those of us who feel this kind of thing about certain prints can sometimes exchange a wave from our park bench, or privately wink in passing, been there and done that, war’s over but still with that mad essential glint exchanged between us — the walking wounded.
I’ll go farther. The two prints below are statements, consciously or not, about the artists and their times. Imogen’s style of discourse is as unguarded as it could possibly be. In the case of hot contemporaries like Struth, their work arrives packed under thickets of docent-like explanation, laced and layered with ironies about repressed semi-feelings and implied disconnects, slyly staged, magazine-level exposés of the offbeat, deadpan decadence asking to be decoded. Struth’s oversized optical spectaculars are sold by giant commercial selling systems specializing in corporate clients and people like Russian oligarchs. At a steep discount you can probably buy a duplicate of your Struth to keep in cold storage against the day, scientifically predicted, when his fugitive color dyes will fade and evaporate — a value metaphor in itself. More than doing abstractions, Struth told the New Yorker of September of 2011 that he has a desire “to be an antenna for a part of our contemporary life and to give this energy…a sort of symbolic visual expression.” (The old ideal of art was to go beyond the Now.)
I first saw Imogen’s work in modest thumb-through bins at the Focus Gallery, a hole in the wall for nuts like me on Union Street in San Francisco. If you couldn’t find a certain one and showed up on her doorstep, or in her kitchen, the diminutive little lady probably would have scrounged around to look for one or promised to make you another real soon, meanwhile sizing you up personally, from under her beanie, with that shrewd twinkle she also used on occasion to skewer the pompous. Being based on silver or platinum, the print would have continued to demonstrate its permanency in more ways than one.
Which of the two photographs below would you rather live with…hold close?