Friday saw the members’ reception for the new SFMOMA Photo Exhibit, Robert Adams: Turning Back. I missed my friend Graham but did run into a pair of double former colleagues, Matt Pharr & Craig Kolb; like myself veterans of both NVIDIA and Pixar (though I’m still at NVIDIA every day, thank you). As it happens, Craig’s wife Corey is one of the curators for photography, and besides having mysterious powers over the bartenders, she also introduced me directly to Sandra Philips, senior curator of photography, whom I’d seen at events but never met (Sandy had introduced Eikoh Hosoe last week, for example — a role she regularly assumes for PhotoAlliance, which I had thought was simply due not to her official station but to her obvious personal knowledge and appreciation of, and friendship to, Hosoe).
As for the show itself, I found it… difficult. The photographs were sometimes terrific — the first handful got me excited, and here and there others did as well, but in the end I couldn’t help but feel that it couldn’t match Adams’s greater and earlier works, particularly What We Bought (amazing at every level) and From the Missouri West. While sharing many of the same subjects and Adams’s characteristic use of naked, mid-day light to augment the bareness of the land, in the end I was left wanting something more, both something more in terms of purpose and principle (Adams has already photographed and written eloquently on many of these same land-use and historical topics), and also in method, these photographs looking much as his earlier ones had, though with a stronger sense of the vertical and frame-edge exit points, perhaps informed by works like Friedlander’s Stems and Sticks and Stones. Most of all, these new photos, while perhaps similar meditations, seem far less personal. In the previous works I felt that Adams explored the environment and point of history in which he (as we) were embedded, part of a very individual experience. While these new photographs are each specific (as photographs usually are), the themes seem over-arching and addressed socially, rather than to Adams as a sole observer.
I’ll go back another time, to see if my perceptions vary.
The other photo galleries had also seen their displays refreshed: a number of new acquisitions, not particularly surprising but worth getting in front of the public: a pair of Loretta Lux portraits, one of Simon Norfolk’s Afghan landscapes, etc. I was also struck by a trio of Gene Smith Pittsburg photographs, at once characteristic Smith in their printing and tonality but surprising to me in that they were all landscapes. And every one good.
Some other smaller exhibitions opened over the past week, they’ll each get their turns: new Burtynsky at 49 Geary, Michael Kenna just down the street at the deSaisset, and another PhotoAlliance talk, this time with Alec Soth, on Tuesday evening.