Student Review: Don’t Miss SFMOMA’s “The View From Here”

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©Henry Wessel, Southern California, 1985; gelatin silver print: SFMOMA collection

Student Review
By Kylie Mitson (PH51)

“The View From Here” is currently showing at the SFMOMA, 3rd Floor, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, January 16 – June 27, 2010.

“The View From Here” celebrates 75 years of photography at SFMOMA.  The exhibition showcases a wide spectrum of work by Californian photographers held in the museum’s permanent collection.  It was put together by Assistant Curator of Photography, Erin O‘Toole, who recently guided our fortunate Photo 51 class through the exhibition.

The SFMOMA was one of the first museums in the United States to recognize photography as an art equal to painting or sculpture and because of this has an enormous collection of early works dating back to the early days of photography in the 1840s.  Accordingly, the exhibition begins with a display of cased daguerreotype portraits of mostly unknown Californians as well as early salt prints of San Francisco city views and industry.  It then moves on to display of some early Carleton E. Watkins’ contact prints made in Yosemite using glass plate negatives.  The sharpness and clarity in these 1860’s photographs is phenomenal to observe, given the known difficulty of the technique employed by Watkins, and the fact that he made these photos in the then-remote dirt-filled environment of Yosemite.

The exhibition moves on from here to different rooms of photographs arranged thematically, and also in rough chronology, which allows viewers to observe the evolution of the trends and techniques employed by influential Californian photographers.  Works displaying pictorialism are exhibited followed by works from the group of modernists known as group f.64, including the likes of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham.  Then, displayed are eye-catching examples of street and documentary photography, photographs exploring metaphysical possibilities, then experimental and conceptual works of photography (controversial in their time), followed by natural and social landscapes and finally a selection of contemporary photographs.

I was particularly drawn to the mood-evoking photographs in the room displaying metaphysical and expressionistic themes.  A black and white photograph by Wynn Bullock, titled “Stark Tree” (1956), was captured on a dark cloudy night with a lone stark twisted tree as the subject in the foreground.  A bright moon peeks through dark and suffocating clouds illuminating the background of the scene in which the sharp outline of bumpy hills and distant trees can be seen through the misty fog.  The photograph is balanced by the dark tree in the bottom right corner, and the bright somewhat hidden moon in the upper left, and my eye was diverted between these two main elements to explore the bumpy lines of the mountains and the gnarly distant and barely visible trees.  There are few signs of life in this photo with the main stark tree empty of leaves and looking twisted and dead.  The dark clouds are menacing and the bright moonlight illuminating the hilltops and shining through the fog just adds to the eeriness and scary, deathly feel that this photo conveys.  What adds to the success of this emotive photograph is that Wynn Bullock managed to capture a great depth of field making the lines of the distant hills particularly sharp, despite the fog, and hence the image is all the more surreal.

The exhibition concludes by showcasing some contemporary works of Californian photographers, including the Untitled 1992 work of Matt Mullican which was attracting a lot of attention from viewers during our visit.  This 10 foot tall bulletin-board-like composition contains roughly 450 small black and white photos including portraits, landscapes, pictures of store fronts, cats, and pictures of every day objects such as a door handle, refrigerator, bathroom sink and hallways. The work is reminiscent of a collection of personal snapshots displayed on a refrigerator or a message board, except, somewhat shockingly and morbidly, there are repeating images of a cadaver mixed throughout.  It is difficult to interpret the meaning and intention of Matt Mullican in producing this work, but it appears to be an examination of the human psyche, perhaps providing insights into the artist’s own psyche.  Perhaps the artist is exploring whether death is as ordinary or as extraordinary as any other mundane object or happening that occurs in every day life.  It is a very visually stimulating and thought provoking work.

The exhibition on the whole is a very good insight into the history and evolution of photography in California and it is worth spending some time working your way through it.

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