Thursday, June 04, 2009

SFMOMA Free Tuesday 1: The Americans

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has two special exhibits that have been touring the country lately. The first is called "Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities" which is a sweet, lowbrow affair celebrating paintings by O'Keefe and black-and-white photos by Adams that were created mostly in New Mexico at the same places. They reminded me once again that I enjoy O'Keefe's pretty colors, and am left utterly cold by Adams' perfectly composed black-and-white photos of unpeopled nature.

Downstairs is a 50th anniversary celebration of Robert Frank's landmark Grove Press photography book from 1959, "The Americans," which is a series of 83 mostly downbeat, black-and-white photos from across the United States which Frank took as part of a Guggenheim grant project which he culled from 28,000 shots.

The book was met with horror and derision when first published because they were a slap in the face of how Americans pictured themselves at the time, but they have aged brilliantly, and transport you to a place in time so powerfully that it's hard to shake off.

The Magnum photojournalist Elliott Erwitt uttered a famous quote trashing Adams while praising the Swiss Jewish exile Robert Frank:
"Quality doesn't mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That's not quality, that's a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy - the tone range isn't right and things like that - but they're far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he's doing, what his mind is. It's not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It's got to do with intention."

The exhibit starts with a few early photos by Frank from Latin America and also photos by photographers who "influenced" him, but they aren't what's interesting about the show. To see the 83 photos of "The Americans" one after the other makes you realize there's an overall, intangible narrative. It's photoblogging on a grand scale before such a thing existed.


Nancy Ewart said...

Frankly, I enjoyed the show but expected to be more impressed. Maybe because my class in African-American art last semester did a whole section on photos of lynchings and the postcards that were made from them. NOW those were gut wrenching. I'm still pondering how to write about the show. So many people just raved over it so maybe I had unrealistic expectations. I think that a more comprehensive overview of his influences such as Walker Evans and Paul Strand would have added some much needed background. He was one in a long line of photographers who have used the camera to document the dark side of the American psyche, starting with Matthew Brady's Civil War photos or daguerreotypes

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: I had the opposite experience in that I knew little to nothing about "The Americans" before I walked in so it was a major surprise. Also, I didn't think it was that dark, just bizarrely interesting as a completely work.

AlbGlinka said...

Hi Mike: I'm looking forward to seeing the Frank show, but I don't know how fair it is to compare his art to Adams'. Seems like they were motivated by very different visions.

I was underwhelmed by the the sculpture in the Rooftop garden-- some of it seemed cheesy and obvious to me. Plus, $3.50 or so for a cup of coffee!

Did you by any chance catch the Kentridge show? It was amazing.

Civic Center said...

Dear AlbGlinka: I think I actually saw you watching the Kentridge music box opera in the front row when I was there the week before, and tried to get your attention but your were transfixed. And yes, the Adams/Frank comparison is unfair, so let's just say that I can't stand Adams photographs on their own merits. They feel dead.

AlbGlinka said...

LOL, I WAS transfixed by those music box pieces. I went back to see them a second time. I think I may have pushed some little old ladies out of the way to sit in the front row. Sorry I didn't see you.

I saw the Robert Frank show yesterday. (Hey, I get in for free because I'm a Macy's slave, err, employee!) It was an impressive exhibit. I can see why you'd like it, given your photojournalist skills.