SFMOMA show unveils 85 years of photography

SFMOMA’s “Constellations: Photographs in Dialogue” is a fascinating reminder that San Francisco’s greatest art form has long been and remains photography.

Every day, hundreds of millions of selfies are taken, along with another mass of cellphone-compatible photos of smiling friends, squawking babies, pink sunsets, crashing waves, tax documents, car crashes, coyotes rushing through the city streets. It doesn’t exactly happen here, but has been made possible in a significant way by the companies among us – Apple, Instagram, Facebook, Google – by a world made for taking, sharing and storing photographs.

Most know it. But few know that the first school dedicated to photography as an art was founded in San Francisco. In 1946, Ansel Adams helped establish the photography department at the California School of Fine Art, now the San Francisco Art Institute. It was the first program to teach photography as a non-commercial profession.

The program also made the emerging art form accessible to women and non-white artists. Adams and CSFA instructors Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Minor White, and Imogen Cunningham taught a second generation of San Francisco photographers who were revolutionary not only for their striking images, but for who they were.

“Constellations” begins with the dialogue that took place between the CSFA masters and their students, Benjamen Chinn, Charles Wong, David Johnson and Muriel Green. Chinn and Wong were born in Chinatown – and their neighborhood images are seen as jaw-dropping time capsules. Johnson grew up in remote Florida and, equipped with GI Bill funds after serving in World War II, wrote Adams to ask if he was accepting black students.

Adams accepted him into the program and saw his student become a Fillmore District jazz culture librarian. It’s fun to watch Johnson’s “Portrait of Johnny in Front of Ansel Adams’ House” (1945) and Adams’s “Boards, San Francisco” (1946) in the same room. The latter seems to have been influenced by the former – grainy wooden planks from the photographer who captured Yosemite.

“There was a lot of camaraderie between the teachers and the students. They organized an event called an exchange party, where (between 1945 and 1953) they would get together once a month at Ansel Adams’ house and exchange their favorite prints, ”explained Shana Lopes, deputy curator of photography at SFMOMA, who collected the images for the SCAF. Gallery.

“When I got here a few years ago,” Lopes continued, “I started to think, ‘What’s a good way to show this work? »I landed on the idea of ​​showing artists who had just entered the collection: Chinn, Green, Johnson, senior students.

“Constellations” is a brilliant exhibition that tells not only about the origins of fine art photography in San Francisco, but also SFMOMA’s exceptional 85-year-old photography collection, which includes 20,000 images. The exhibition presents only 1% of this collection, nearly 200 photographs, half of which are women, two-thirds of which have never been exhibited. Each of the six themed rooms is intended to showcase the museum’s collection and engage viewers in thinking about how the photographs have reflected and served human nature, politics, documentation, and identity.

“What attracted me to photography was the connection with the real world and its slippery, mess,” said Erin O’Toole, curator of the Baker Street Foundation and acting head of photography at SFMOMA . “Is this art? Is it something else? Photography operates on so many different levels in our daily life. The way that artists use photography to comment on what is happening is different from painting because it has this purchase in the “real”.

The second gallery, curated by O’Toole, is devoted to the museum’s collection of Japanese photographs. Thanks to Sandra Phillip, former head of photography at SFMOMA, the museum began collecting works from Japan in 1992 and acquired more than 300 photographs by 47 artists during the nearly three decades she led the department. In 2014, the collection doubled in size with the donation of the Kurenboh Collection, founded by Akiyoshi Taniguchi, a Buddhist priest from Tokyo who spent his formative years studying photography in the United States.

The 17 images selected by O’Toole for the second gallery of the exhibition are among the most beautiful and innovative photographic images on display probably anywhere. Kou Inose’s “Aomori” (1983) is on one level the image of a filthy store with women’s hair products and an unsanitary aquarium. But on another level, it’s a dreamlike image of unrelated objects that destabilize reality.

“Horse, Evacuated Village, Fukushima” (2011) by Tomoko Yoneda appears to be a pastoral photo of a horse grazing in unspoiled nature until you realize it shows an abandoned animal in a landscape contaminated by the tsunami and the nuclear accident.

“Cloud” (2013) by Daisuke Yokota is a textured photograph in which the artist has combined analog and digital prints and layered them so many times that the technique seems to refer to the other kind of cloud.

In “Fall” by Wendy Red Star, the Native American artist is in traditional costume in a diorama of a natural history museum. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Visitors will discuss their favorite room in the lounge. The “Forms of Identity” in Gallery 3 and “The Politics of Self” in Gallery 5 will appeal to those who are constantly documenting themselves. The range here is vast – images of faces up close, of people in disguise and daguerreotype captured, ID photos, and work IDs (from a 1910 coal mine).

Tomoko Sawada’s “School Days” is a deceptive identity image in which she photoshopped her face on each girl in uniform in two school day photos. The effects of all these presentations are scary and fun, stimulating and bizarre. Gallery 5 in particular is like a fun house of individual objectification and presentation. Most will probably remember Wendy Red Star’s “Fall” in which the Native American artist places herself in traditional costume in a diorama in a natural history museum. It’s not a subtle critique of museum culture, but it’s pretty darn funny.

Traditionalists may appreciate the room titled “The Thing Itself”, devoted to the oldest subject of photography, still life. Don’t miss “Unitled (Glass and Egg)” by Josef Sudek (1952), “Pepper No. 30” by Edward Weston (1930) or “Atomic Bomb Damage: Wristwatch Stopped at 11:02, August 9 1945” (1961 ) by Shomei Tomatsu). The room raises the question of why the exhibit is not on permanent display and what else has not been shown in the SFMOMA Fine Art Photography Treasure.

“In Depth: Joanne Leonard and Elaine Mayes” from Gallery 4 is a nod to the curators’ decision to present the treasure of women photographers in the collection. During the 1960s, Leonard lived in West Oakland, where she took pictures of her neighbors and stapled them to the doors of the apartment building where she lived to make sure people could take copies home with them. Mayes’ images come from a 10-day road trip from San Francisco to the East Coast in 1971.

“There were a lot more female photographers in the early days of fine art photography because the stakes for entry were lower,” O’Toole explained. “Kodak has marketed to women saying, ‘You are the keepers of your family’s memories.’ … It was okay for women to do it.

This meant that women were more free to experiment and join departments like that of the California School of Fine Art. The result of this department – whose instructors were the founding artists of SFMOMA’s photography collection – is a must-read for anyone curious about the history of camera footage in San Francisco and around the world. It is also an opportunity to question the distance between still lifes and selfies.


“Constellations: photographs in dialogue”

Or: SFMOMA, 151 3e St., SF

When: Monday 11 am-5pm, Thursday 1 pm-8pm, Friday-Sunday 11 am-5pm, until August 21, 2022

Tickets: $ 0 for those 18 and under, $ 19 for those 19-24, $ 22 for seniors, $ 25 for adults

Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org

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