Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

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

Pop Art at the Sonoma County Museum

“Andy Warhol to Kara Walker: Picturing the Iconic”
Sonoma County Museum, Santa Rosa, CA
April 12-May 24, 2015

Now that my teaching duties have wrapped up for the spring semester I took the opportunity this past week to view the current exhibit at the Sonoma County Museum. I was lucky to see this show in its final days as many of the artists and pieces are difficult to view in any one place at one time outside of a major collection such as the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For a small venue like the Sonoma County Museum to put on a show of this scope (thanks to the loaned artwork of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation) is quite a coup and the body of work amassed is impressive.

While the show is not quoted as such, this is ostensibly a “Pop Art” collection of imagery. While a few of the more recent artists such as Kara Walker float outside of that categorization, the themes and lineup of artists are strictly within the milieu of said genre. The entire original band was represented: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Ruscha and Oldenburg amongst others. While I myself am not an acolyte of the late Andy Warhol I did enjoy his series of classic soup cans as I had never before had the opportunity to see more than one of them displayed together in a single showing. The quality of the silkscreening is superb and the metallic luster of the tops of the cans is a feature that grants these seemingly generic typological objects a presence in the gallery that is lost in media such as the book or online.

Andy Warhol, "Campbell's Soup Cans"

Another pairing of graphic works that I found curious were architectural blueprints created by Mark Bennett in 1997. These lithographs detailed the floor plans of the fictional homes of Genie from I Dream of Genie and The Flintstones respectively. The Genie diagram included both an overhead layout and an exterior elevation of the lamp that houses the single chamber dwelling within. I was bemused that while there are several couches and areas where one might relax and lounge away the long periods of inactivity that accompany the genie lifestyle, there was no inclusion of a sink or any “toilette”. I guess we are not meant to go that deep as casual viewers. The abode of the Flintstones was more detailed and complex in its mapping of the famous cartoon’s living quarters. I thought these pieces rather clever in how they appropriated the traditional pop culture subject matters of the larger movement but also added more of a witty commentary and personal flare than the often cold and objective treatment granted by artists such as Jeff Koons or Richard Prince. Speaking of Prince, who has recently been selling enlarged screen shots of Instagram user’s postings in galleries for upwards of six figures, one can trace how the evolution of Pop Art blended with the conceptual priorities of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s American art scene and led to, along with other more fertile territories, the intellectual and cultural wasteland represented by millionaire garbage artists such as Koons, Prince, Richard Pettibone and British contemporaries like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emins. These individuals are the unfortunate afterbirth of an unctuous system of reciprocal art world fellatio that has seen record prices commanded for artifacts of increasingly poor and sophomoric tastes. It was my specific displeasure to spy a photographic representation of Koon’s infamous Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture included in the show. I dared not linger too long in viewing it as I could sense my brain cells cannibalizing themselves in response to the optical stimuli I had unintentionally inflicted upon them.

Mark Bennett, "Home of Fred and Wilma Flinstone", 1997

Ending on a brighter (yet topically more serious) note, the exhibit culminated in works by more recent artists such as David Levinthal and Kara Walker. While Walker’s oeuvre is stylistically appropriate to the company it finds itself in, her silhouetted stage plays related to the history of slavery and racism in the United States are by far the strongest social commentaries featured in the show. The great majority of the exhibition relies on strictly aesthetic or tongue in cheek references to the image and media culture we have become so saturated by over the past half century, but Walker’s pictures harken back to not only an older period (antebellum America) but also utilize the stark convention of her silhouetted figures to force the audience into a confrontation with its nation’s history and morality. This is a fitting finale to a collection of images that at first aim to only aestheticize the residue of mass media and entertainment and progress towards art as an intervention of social conscience and contemplation.

Kara Walker, "The Means to an End...A Shadow Drama in Five Acts", 1995


The Historical Inaccuracy of Fredric Miller

Fredric Miller

Perhaps you have seen the commercials for “Ancestry.com”, a website designed to help people trace their family tree and unearth details about their ancestors and their accomplishments. One of the company’s most recent television spots features Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in 1863 with the advertisement depicting the president delivering his speech in front of a large crowd. All the while the camera pans across the scene before fixing on the figure of a photographer who is documenting the event. The individual later identified as Fredric Miller is shown working underneath the dark cloth of his 8 x 10″ view camera and then repositioning to remove the lens cap in advance of taking a picture of Lincoln and the assembly. While there are in fact two known photographs of the address being delivered, there are a few problems with the accuracy of the fictitious photographer presented to us by Ancestry.

Here is a link to the spot: http://www.ispot.tv/share/7ryD

First off the available light is all wrong. In this mid-nineteenth century era of wet-plate collodion photography even midday exposures would have necessitated an average of 3 seconds for sharp pictures, with subjects needing to remain deathly still during the process. This fact would cause the non-posed people in the commercial to undoubtedly be rendered as blurred in any resulting photograph. The artificial reality of the weak backlighting from the November sunset is also something that would have increased the capture time dramatically and additionally led to no figure appearing crisp in the final picture. Look closely when Miller is under the dark cloth behind the camera. What is he doing? He certainly isn’t loading the film holder and if he is focusing the image on the ground glass then how come the lens cap is on? No matter what the circumstances, once the photographer emerges from his shadowed chamber he proceeds to free the lens of its felted encumbrance, but to what end? He hasn’t pulled the slide out of the holder and therefore there is no possibility of creating an image.

I know, I know. This might seem picayune and trivial, but if physicists like Neil Degrasse Tyson can deconstruct the scientific errors in films such as Gravity then I feel justified in doing the same in the case of Ancestry.com. Similar to Dr. Tyson who enjoyed the film he picked apart, I also liked the Ancestry commercial and its focus on a historical type of picture-making. The ad is shot wonderfully and the music is quite lovely as well.

For an idea of what one of the authentic photographs of Lincoln’s address looks like consult the picture at the end of this writing. This image was made at high noon with the fastest possible exposure time and still the figures appear extremely soft. Even the president who is visible two heads left of the gentleman with the top hat in the center of the frame is noticeably fuzzy in depiction.

unknown photographer, "Gettsyburg Address", 1863

unknown photographer, “Gettysburg Address”, 1863

Lumen Prints

These are Lumen Prints, a photographic process that generates a unique and experimental image created entirely through “solar development”. An object is placed on gelatin-silver photographic paper for an extended period of time and then placed in fixer in the darkroom. The color is unpredictable and immediately changes once the image touches the fix. (This can be witnessed in the color variation in the image of the laurel leaves versus its eventual final result.) All of these prints were exposed to the sun between 45 and 90 minutes. Enjoy!

P.S. I am hoping to feature more darkroom processes on this blog in the future with this being one of the first besides the traditional black & white prints I have previously posted.

Stream Violet

Sword Fern


Lumen Print technique

Reminiscing about Arizona

Alicia and I will be off to Arizona in a few weeks and a recent print in the darkroom has me anxiously awaiting a return to the desert. I made this picture a few years ago but only recently printed it this past month. I used to always drive back to visit my father in AZ, but alas this coming trip will be via air. Still, while we may get there quicker, there is something to be said about the call of the open road and sights less seen.


Recent Prints

Here are some of the recent prints I have been making in my darkroom.


Alicia, Eel River

Waterfall, Yelapa, Mexico

Two Bullriders, Bakersfield Rodeo

Georgia O’Keefe at the deYoung

Georgia O'Keefe-Storm Cloud, Lake George-1923

Exhibition dates: February 15-May 11, 2014

I recently visited the deYoung Museum to see the Georgia O’Keefe “Lake George” retrospective and walked away having enjoyed much of the work. There were a few pieces that seem included but for their reference to the stated theme alone, but in general the exhibition was strong and insightful with concern to the seeds of natural exploration that had been sown during O’Keefe’s time in New York and later brought to fruition in the artist’s best known paintings of the New Mexico years.

Coming off of the massive David Hockney show that had previously been on display at the museum, it was hard not to conceive of the O’Keefe exhibit as intimate in scale. There were essentially five rooms of various sizes that displayed the artist’s Lake George paintings as well as contemporary photographs and images by other artists that shed light on the themes and intellectual currents present in the canvases of O’Keefe. I must say that while most museums and the deYoung in particular always pay great attention to the arrangement of the artworks and their lighting, the quality of light present in this exhibition is quite beautiful and produced an effect akin to a glowing window in many of the pictures. The watercolors especially seemed to radiate light and generated an impression of transparency.

I was happy to see towards the finale of the exhibition that some of O’Keefe’s early “Precisionist” style work was included. This period is probably the least known of the artist’s oeuvre, but one look at classic New York moodscapes like “Radiator Building” and other urban abstractions enhances the reputation and range of this great painter. I have chosen to include two specific landscape paintings in this blog entry as they are the two images from the show that struck me with the greatest intensity. The dramatic tonalities and subdued color palette of “Storm Cloud, Lake George” (1923) functions similar to a warmtone Romantic style Western landscape in its gravity and emotion while the quiet sunset (or sunrise) depicted in “The Chestnut Grey” (1924) reminds me of my own quiet reverence for the simpler daily recurrences of the natural world and the complimentary play of cyan and peach hues lends an aesthetic aura to an otherwise seemingly cold and distanced formal design.

Georgia O'Keefe-The Chectnut Grey-1924

Cabin Creek

This is some footage of the creek on our property up here in the redwoods. The creek is normally dry but after five days (and counting) of heavy rain the stream is now going full force. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


David Hockney-“A Bigger Exhibition”

de Young Museum of San Francisco
October 26, 2013-January 20, 2014

Both in scale and quantity of imagery, “A Bigger Exhibition” lives up to its title in this massive survey of painter David Hockney’s work of the past two decades. Outside of a few examples from earlier periods that establish context, this exhibition program almost exclusively features work from the 2000’s and displays the diversity of the artist’s range in several media in his continuing evolution of style as well as engagement of contemporary technology. Hockney’s investigations and adaptation of photographic techniques and principles dates back to the death throes of Pop Art and Modernism, but the ways in which the painter turned conceptual photographer has embraced such novel platforms as the iPad and digital video are stunningly refreshing and also a promising sign of technology not signaling an inherent end to creativity, but rather a chronological extension of it.

David Hockney-%22More Felled Trees on Woldgate%22-2008

David Hockney-“More Felled Trees on Woldgate” (2008)

While the exhibition press releases and catalog make continued mention of Hockney’s consummate virtuosity of “draftsmanship”, I found this statement to be an unfit description considering the often purposefully rough and slightly unfinished qualities of the works included in the exhibition. This is not to say that Hockney isn’t gifted in his ability to manipulate line and paint, just that the emphasis on this aspect of the artist’s practice seem at odds with the lack of pictorial delineation the painter so often employs to thoroughly evoke texture and atmosphere. One may argue that these are in deed attributes of impeccable drafting, but when a large part of both the show as well as Hockney’s oeuvre concentrate on painting’s relationship to photography, this argument gets lost in some of the points the artist has repeatedly broached over the course of his career.

Take for example the room which displays Hockney’s own camera lucida drawings juxtaposed against a large multi-wall mural of reproductions that depict the evolution of the painted portrait over the course of eight centuries: “The Great Wall”. Beginning with the pre-Renaissance work of Cimabue and cycling through an ever-greater sense of photographic realism in the masters of the following epochs, both the accompanying text statement and the organization of the imagery suggest the potential use of aids to draftsmanship that may have produced the realistic fidelity of painting throughout art history. Hockney ushered in a controversial debate a decade ago with the publication of his “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” and its suggestion that artists from Van Eyck to Vermeer utilized camera obscuras and lucidas in order to master perspective and perfect verisimilitude of their subjects. For those unaware, the camera obscura is the forerunner of the contemporary camera and is either an opaque room or box that projects an image from the outside world into the dark interior through a small aperture (without or without glass). This basic principal of optical physics would allow an artist to construct a tent in the landscape or utilize a smaller apparatus and then project and trace an image onto a mounted canvas or support. These techniques date to the Renaissance and the smaller and more portable camera lucida was first introduced in 1807. While Hockney does have strong evidence for his claims that many artists have made use of such tools as aids to their artistic practice, the over-simplified account detailed in the exhibition makes too broad of an assumption. Renaissance figures such as Paolo Uccello created incredibly complex spatial studies that relied heavily on mathematical formula and spatial observation, not the use of a camera obscura. Jan Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” (1434) signals a massive breakthrough in the life-like delineation of the human form not only for its photographic perspective and clarity, but also for that master painter’s landmark introduction of oil paint rather than tempera and the resulting vivid colors and textures that render greater illusionistic depth. Even the statement’s assertion that the great Frenchman Ingres was exploiting the camera lucida bears little consequence upon close examination of his famous odalisques and the obvious ways in which the painter has elongated the female form and “mannerized” the human body. Even in the 20th century abstract artist Willem de Kooning was able to so faithfully render a portrait that both his sitters and contemporaries were amazed by his gifts of draftsmanship, often comparing him to Ingres in his absolute mastery of line. While one is less apt to take issue with the claim that many artists have incorporated photographic aids into their work over the centuries, it becomes a specious argument the way in which the exhibition states it, and one that is especially speculative and perhaps politically motivated given the 20th and 21st century painterly practice of using grids (see Chuck Close), slide projectors (see Richard Estes) and even computers and Photoshop (see the scores of realists of the past 20 years) as means of making paintings appear photo-realistic.

David Hockney-%22The Great Wall%22

David Hockney-“The Great Wall” (detail)

On a less contentious note, let us take into consideration the beauty of David Hockney’s recent large-scale landscape paintings in oil and the gorgeous plays of color that make them successful. Hockney is truly a master of color, and this is a feature of the work that should have been played up more than the quality of his draftsmanship. In several canvases the medleys of chroma remind one of Gauguin or Van Gogh and this kinship bears out further likeness in the linear movements created in several pieces. The 2008 painting “More Felled Trees on Woldgate” seems especially reminiscent of some of Van Gogh’s canvases both in their sense of color contrasts and implied spatial dimensions. Many of the charcoal studies and works on paper also evoke similar sensations of texture in the style of Charles Burchfield. The implication of tactility was marvelous and the ways in which Hockney has allowed the negative space and lack of defined contours to create a greater suggestion of substance shows his aptitude for knowing how to utilize a minimal rendition for maximal effect.


Comparison of Charles Burchfield’s “Pine Tree and Oriental Poppies” (1955-60) and David Hockney’s “Kilham to Rudston” (2008)

I was also very pleasantly surprised by Hockney’s iPad drawings/paintings which proved to be some of the most interesting work in the show. Both the portraits and landscapes were successful in their manipulation of this new technology (which the artist has used since its inception in 2010) and these pieces seem to glow with a wonderful sense of interior illumination. It is almost as if the backlit projection of the mobile device has been embedded into the reflective surface of the physical prints on dibond that were mounted for the exhibition.

In my opinion the “cubist movies” which Hockney has recently created really stole the show. These pieces were crafted using several digital video cameras mounted to an armature so that a larger scene was captured with multiple perspectives. Calling to mind Paul Cezanne’s disintegration of one-point perspective as well as the Cubist movement in general, these multi-screen installations were stimulating in their off-kilter registration of the same scene as well as their inherent emphasis on perception. A piece with jugglers throwing their implements across a panoramic space was perhaps most dramatic in displaying this re-organization of spatial realities but the landscape pieces were breathtaking for their immersion of the viewer into the space(s) as well as their conceptual structuring. In the same downstairs galleries as the artist’s largest works on canvas, there is one room which exhibits the same East Yorkshire bucolic locale in all four of the distinct seasons. Each piece occupies its own individual wall and all the videos are synchronized as to generate an enveloping encounter with time and weather creating an almost sublime experience. Even with other museum attendees present the pieces create an intimate space for the viewer to become a part of. These digital videos serve as a fitting compliment not only to the nearby painted landscapes but also to the continuing fascination that David Hockney has had with photographic media over the course of his career and his desire to both adapt and go beyond this medium as a counterpart to his oeuvre in painting.

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

The Benefit of the Book

Felicitaciones de Mexico. As I sit here overlooking this beautiful tropical landscape on the Pacific I feel the need to share some thoughts stemming from my most latest re-reading of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. As you may know there is a new biography on the author who passed away a few years ago and some recent radio interviews regarding the author and his work sparked my interest in returning to his iconic novel.

Besides the many private and undisclosed details of Salinger’s life, I find it fascinating that he repeatedly refused to allow a film adaptation of his most famous book to be produced despite numerous offers over the later decades of his life. There are several reasons for this rationale, but one is the ownership he took over the character of Holden Caulfield and how his perfectionist streak could not envision anyone other than himself being able to play the role of this angst-ridden youth. Now, here is the main point of this unfolding dialogue: Thank God we have not had to see a movie version of this book up to this point! As someone actively engaged in visual culture (the arts, not what passes as “culture” in these days of the intellectual demi-monde), it does not bother me in the slightest that there is as of yet no cinematic realization of this wonderful piece of American literature, just as I am equally pleased that I have not had to view scores of others of my favorite reads as overly-simplified, watered-down caricatures of themselves as translations from the written word to the pictorial image. This is not to say that film or movies are not works of art or valuable pieces of culture, just that some narratives and characters are better left to the page and not the screen.

Most of us have had the experience of having read a book only after it has been adapted to cinema, and often there is the unfortunate occurrence of not being able to picture the events or persons described on our own terms, but rather as they have already been presented to us by a theatrical visualization. This is precisely why I have avoided watching some of my favorite novels as films (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Child of God serve as prime examples), because once you have had that personal mental image supplanted by that which is provided to you on the screen, you can never get it back. This seems inconsequential to the non-reader I realize, but when an author transcribes their words to the page and you read those same pieces of text directly off of said page, there is an intimate relationship thus created. The writer is now speaking to you alone, and no matter how many millions of copies a book might go on to sell or how popular it already is, there is a connection between the two of you that accounts for just one of the multitudes of reasons that reading can be magical. So, even if you aren’t overly-concerned that your favorite book will soon be turned into the next vapid Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay monstrosity, heed these words: don’t see the movie.