Photography in California

Three weeks, a lot of time on the road – we weren’t expecting to see much in the way of photography exhibitions during our trip last November. But there were good, substantial shows almost everywhere we went.

Highlights included the Huntington’s excellent A Strange and Fearful Interest, with its images relating to the US Civil War; Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead, and Other Chapters I-XVIII at the Geffen Contemporary at MoCA (scale and format making it much more compelling as an exhibition than as a publication); and the galleries at 49 Geary St, San Francisco, which offered exhibitions by Idris Khan, Michael Kenna, Steve Fitch, Meridel Rubenstein and Takeshi Shikama, and individual works by photographers including Atget, Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Diane Arbus, Imogen Cunningham and Carleton Watkins. (Over the Sierra, the Nevada Museum of Art had some absorbing work on show, too.)

San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts had a survey of photographs by Ruud van Empel along with their first ‘crowd-sourced’ show – 40 works from the collection, as chosen by visitors from a digital presentation of 120 images. The exhibition also included the lowest-ranked three photographs, inviting people to think about why they might have attracted fewer votes, and a touch-screen arrangement so that you could see all of the initial 120 images. It was a smart way to give people a sense of the scope of the museum’s collection, a chance to see some great work in the flesh, and encouragement to reflect on what we think makes a good photograph.

The Oakland Museum was our last stop before heading home, and we spent most of a day there in the local history and art exhibitions. The range of photography on show was impressive. It was great to see Watkins’ mammoth-plate images in Yo-semite, and then to see his less well known c.1873 cabinet card of Californian pears, and I was pleased to have the chance to see work by contemporary photographers such as Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe (an image ‘connecting’ a Weston and a Muybridge), and Roger Minnick. Among the work that has stayed with me most was a selection of daguerreotypes. Isaac W. Baker’s work from c.1853 (as dated by the museum) included a couple of strong portraits, an untitled portrait of a Chinese man and another of an ‘Indian boy’, and a probable self-portrait in front of ‘Batchelder’s Daguerrian Saloon’ c.1853. The ‘saloon’ – a photographic studio in the form of a wagon transported around nearby goldfields – is remarkable for its size and solidity, especially in comparison with the wet-plate-era carts used by photographers here in New Zealand a little later. Apparently not many of Baker’s photographs have survived, but a selection can be seen online at time of writing, including a terrific image of a gold mining operation, deeply excavated and flumed, and a street in a mining ‘camp’.

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