Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

3 for 1 review: 49 Geary Street Galleries, San Francisco-December 2013

This past week I had the opportunity to visit the galleries at 49 Geary Street and view a few photography exhibitions that warrant discussion. While at times the shows were mixed in their success and impact on the viewer, all three of these exhibits provided their own unique take on photographic approaches to a specific subject.

Let’s begin with the Robert Koch Gallery and the display of images by the late Hungarian photographer János Szász (1925-2005). The Koch gallery is typically a staple of high quality contemporary and historical photography, and this show presented an artist who was unknown to myself prior to the viewing of the work. The high contrast black & white prints display the strong emphasis on abstraction latent in much of Modernist art photography and Szász’s pictures attest to the international influence of contemporary practitioners such as Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. The photographs appear to be the result of extreme underexposure and then severe push processing of the film to achieve an all but bi-tonal separation of values that render even mundane subjects like a movie theatre or soviet-era blockhouse into crisp, rhythmic designs. The photographer utilized potassium-ferricyanide bleach (a chemical applied with a paintbrush to brighten highlights or shadows) to augment the richness of his monochromatic separation and the results create a striking level of non-objectivity despite the all-too everyday interest implied by his chosen subjects. The prints in this exhibition were vintage, and this was an element of the presentation that was readily noticeable in the varying paper types, creases and dents in the prints, as well as the multi-colored and roughly retouched dust spots and scratches visible in the imagery. As a darkroom instructor myself, the utter sloppiness of the attempt at concealing the imperfections of the photographs would normally begin to detract from the refinement of the pictures, but here the effect was less pronounced and even arguably something that lent to the humble nature of the simplified designs. (To be fair, this is an arbitrarily applied axiom that often accompanies older, historical photographs.) The most striking image in the show was perhaps the one heavily reproduced by the gallery in their promotion of the exhibition, a picture of couples dancing and captured with their movement dragged across the plane of the film’s negative. The effect is reminiscent of Italian Futurism and their adoption of motion to impart both energy and formal dynamism to their artworks. For myself the most interesting picture and the one that seemed to best handle the heavily manipulated contrast was a simple image of a herd of sheep contoured in intense chiaroscuro, thus elevating a common rural scene into one of strong pictorial values.

János Szász-“Herd”-1971
Janos Szasz-Herd-1971

Next up was the Stephen Wirtz Gallery and Sean McFarland’s body of work entitled “Glass Mountains”. This exposition was the most conceptually oriented as well as thematic of the three galleries being reviewed, and perhaps some viewers might not take to the loosely applied criteria that often determined which pieces were chosen to amalgamate the exhibit. The title and subject matter of McFarland’s work is derived from a particular location in the Inyo National Forest of California that constitutes the locale for most, but not all of the pictures included in the gallery. There were a variety of different photographic media on display, from the contemporary archival pigment print to traditional gelatin silver images as well as cyanotypes and minimalistic multiple media collages. There were also several small-scale black & white polaroids presented both as singular images as well as multi-panel grids, and while some of these particular pieces were interesting in their abstract allusions to various aspects of the natural landscape, the process being detailed on the title cards as “monochromatic dye diffusion transfer print” might seem obnoxiously grandiloquent. Even to the most high-minded of gallery-goers this may seem pompous considering this description is a blatant financial pampering of “instant print” or “polaroid”. That said, I do believe that keeping an open mind when viewing this work allows for the audience to appreciate the cosmopolitan approach McFarland brings to his subject matter, and I found the diversity of mediums refreshing considering the strong emphasis on an uniform theme. Some of the photographs do depict actual mountain landscapes while others suggest similar formal and even emotional resonances with constructions created by McFarland that echo features of the natural environment. The pigment prints were dimly exposed and de-saturated in their palette, but this artistic choice not only generated a strong mood for these pictures but also unified these pieces with the remainder of the imagery, while an alternate take on the capture process might have made these more straightforward documents of the terrains incongruous. As a total effect, “Glass Mountains” evidences the vision of an individual clearly interested in themes of nature and its illustration, but with the unique perspective of a photographer less concerned with the purity of any one medium and more for the impact derived from the manipulation of materials towards their own conceptual goal.

Sean McFarland-“Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)”-2013
Sean McFarland-Untitled (Blue Glass Mountain)-2013

Finally, we must discuss the Arbus retrospective at the Fraenkel Gallery: “DIANE ARBUS: 1971–1956”. This show is a must-see and a perfect example of why Fraenkel remains the premier institution at 49 Geary for seminal and groundbreaking photography. While a case for the importance of Arbus in photographic history hardly needs to be waged, this presentation of both lesser and well-known images provides for a wonderful assessment of the photographer’s oeuvre. Chronicling a 15-year period, the included portraits attest to Arbus’ continuing interest in persons on the margins of society as well as her aptitude for normalizing these individuals at the same time that she seems to debunk the status quo of civilized archetypes that she also chose to highlight. The aesthetic of Arbus breaks every rule of both traditional as well as academic approaches to composition, lighting and printmaking, but as has been long remarked, these are the often charming qualities that generate the reality and impact of her pictures and make them stand out against the peers of her own time period. While brought to a level of prominence during her lifetime with her inclusion in the landmark 1967 MOMA exhibition “New Documents”, it is largely the posthumous notoriety she has received that has firmly cemented her in the annuls of photographic history. What a sensitive and perceptive artist she was. She understood that technique or style could not supplant her empathy for humanity, and that ultimately this is why she was a great photographer. Interestingly enough the print quality in the Fraenkel prints is quite good, while still in keeping with the anti-aesthetic associated with Arbus’ work. The most telling images were the more obscure inclusions, such as the “Backwards Man” in his NYC apartment and especially a completely non-sexualized portrait of an older gentleman and his hired dominatrix. Pictures such as “Kid in black-face with friend, N.Y.C. 1957” not only project the prejudices of a bygone era, but also the overarching manner in which Arbus was able to deflate the “normals” of society while at the same time ennobling the so-called “freaks” that she humanized repeatedly. While I had seen the large survey of Arbus’ life and work that SF MOMA put on several years ago, honestly the impact is almost greater when viewing this more modestly sized collection of images. The genius of the photographer is subtler and at the same time more potent in how the pictures display her recurring themes over the multiple decade approach to her chosen iconography.

Diane Arbus-“The Backwards Man”-1961
Diane Arbus-The Backwards Man-1961

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