One of the most exciting aspects of being a newspaper editor is recognizing a wave of activity that isn’t connected to government mind control or onslaughts of corporate-sponsored and mass-marketed art. This kind of spontaneous mass energy is happening via photography in San Francisco right now. August is known as a slow month, but the city’s galleries are alive with contemporary photos. Bill Daniel’s latest look at the US landscape is opening at RayKo Photo Center, the Daniel-influenced vagabond spirit Polaroid Kidd has his first Bay Area show at Needles and Pens, Greg Halpern’s moody views of Buffalo and Kelli Connell’s double-minted prints are up at SF Camerawork, and at City Hall through the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery the work of 32 local photographers is on view.
Baptized in arguments regarding its viability as an art form, photography remains as contentious as it is expansive. Witness a veteran such as Duane Michals sharpening his claws on the megapopular likes of Cindy Sherman in last year’s rant-monograph Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank (Thames and Hudson). We live in an era when the ready availability of portraiture seems to have made its definition even more reductive; via MySpace and more explicit sites, people use cameras to readily package themselves as products. Yet when black-and-white and color and digital and film collide with unpredictable results, photo portraiture can be as varied and lively as the work you’ll find on these pages.
Thanks to fellow Guardian arts editor Kimberly Chun for suggesting, late in the selection process, a focus on portraiture. This decision necessarily narrowed the Bay Area photographers to choose from; there’s a wave of garden- and eco-driven work being done by Bill Basquin and others, while Dusty Lombardo, R.A. McBride, and Jackson Patterson are discovering tremendous depth in interiors. Thanks also to Basquin, Daniel, Glen Helfand, Chuck Mobley, Katie Kurtz, and Dave and Ray Potes for their suggestions.
Twelve years ago I interviewed therapist and author Walt Odets because he was bringing much-needed humanity to discussions of the AIDS crisis; to find out that he’s also a superb photographer whose subjects have included Jean Renoir and his wife, Dido, is a revelation. In distinctive ways, Vic Blue, Robert Gumpert, and Amanda Herman reveal what journalism usually ignores or renders shallow. The intimacy of Vala Cliffton’s photos makes one ponder her presence within the scenes she depicts. Matthias Geiger shows a city you might not have noticed even when it’s been in front of your face. Stan Banos has an eye for the many shades of gray within the multihued and the cuckoo. Job Piston is that rare Bay Area photographer whose work brandishes a sexual edge that isn’t obvious or predictable. Jim Goldberg’s urban work has been canonically influential since the publication of Rich and Poor (Random House, 1985) and Raised by Wolves (Scalo, 1995). Photography is just one aspect of Désirée Arlette Holman’s hand-fashioned fantasy world, a place that looks like a wicked satire of our own.
If you’d like to see more about some of these artists, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision. (Johnny Ray Huston)
NAME Stan Banos
TITLE The Marine
THE STORY "This photo was taken in San Francisco during Fleet Week in ’04."
INSPIRATION "I’ve always had a vague obsession with time and place, and the camera is the best-suited instrument to record such transient moments (particularly when you can’t draw). I generally try to incorporate whatever signs of irony life can offer within a rectangle."
FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHERS "I have more favorite photographers as an adult than I had favorite ballplayers as a kid: Bruce Davidson, Josef Koudelka, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Carl de Keyzer, James Nachtwey, Cheryl Richards, Henry Wessel, Elliott Erwitt, Martin Parr, Lee Friedlander … the list is endless."
SHOW "Our World," at SF Arts Commission Gallery’s City Hall space, through Sept. 21.
WEB SITE www.reciprocity-failure.com
Victor J. Blue
NAME Victor J. Blue
TITLE Honduran immigrants, Detention Center Tapachula Mexico
THE STORY "I went to the Guatemala-Mexico border to photograph immigration there. These guys had been caught trying to ride the freight train to the United States. We only had a few minutes to take pictures inside. They were on a bus back to Tegucigalpa within a day, probably just to try again."
FAVORITE MONOGRAPHS The Mennonites by Larry Towell (Phaidon, 2000), Exploding into Life by Eugene Richards and Dorothy Lynch (Aperture, 1986), Kosovo 19992000: Flight of Reason by Paolo Pellegrin and Tim Judah (Trolley, 2002), Under a Grudging Sun: Photographs from Haiti Libere 19861988 by Alex Webb (Thames and Hudson, 1989).
WHAT ARE YOU SHOOTING NOW? "The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the people of San Joaquin County."
WEB SITES www.victorjblue.com, online.recordnet.com/projects/iraq/Jose/index.html
NAME Vala Cliffton
THE STORY "Unicorn is a portrait of my niece and my brother after their trip to Hawaii. My niece is in love with Hawaii and could not seem to detach herself from her scuba gear that afternoon. My brother was trying to catch a nap before dinner. The combination of elements in this unposed portrait captures an essential and intriguing aspect of their father-daughter relationship."
INSPIRATIONS "The Family of Man [Harry N. Abrams] was the first photography book I can remember picking up and being interested in. Photography was always a part of our family life. One of my projects while at the San Francisco Art Institute was to print the black-and-white snapshots taken of the family over the years."
WHAT ARE YOU SHOOTING NOW? "I have spent the past couple or years working as a filmmaker and producing music videos, some of which I have put up on YouTube at youtube.com/alavala11."
SHOW "Our World," at SF Arts Commision Gallery’s City Hall space, through Sept. 21.
WEB SITE alavala.com
NAME Matthias Geiger
THE STORY Train is taken from Geiger’s "Tide" series, which he describes as "an examination of human presence" in "places of transit and momentary rest…. The technique of layering still images allows past, present, and future moments to appear simultaneously, reflecting the notion that each moment in time is a construct of our memories, our presence, and our projections."
INSPIRATIONS "Direct physical experience such as being outdoors, dance, and meditation, as well as readings on metaphysics."
WHAT ARE YOU SHOOTING NOW? A series on utopian subcultures.
SHOW "Matthias Geiger: Tide." Sept. 6Oct. 20. SF Camerawork, 657 Mission, second floor, SF. (415) 512-2020, www.sfcamerawork.org
WEB SITE www.matthiasgeiger.com
NAME Robert Gumpert
THE STORY "For the past 13 years I’ve been doing an off-and-on documentary project called ‘Lost Promise: The Criminal Justice System.’ This image was done in August 2006 while I was documenting the closing of San Francisco County Jail No. 3. Built in 1934 and beset by a number of serious issues and several lawsuits ordering its closure, the jail was finally closed in August 2006, when inmates were moved to County Jail No. 5, built on land adjacent to the old jail."
FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHERS Don McCullin, Lewis Hine, August Sander, Leonard Freed, Gilles Peres, and Philip Jones Griffith.
WEB SITE www.robertgumpert.com
NAME Amanda Herman
THE STORY The image is taken from Herman’s most recent work, the short film Lost Island, which looks at the impact of Hurricane Katrina on one large family two years after the storm forced them from their home in Chalmette, La. Herman met the Morris family in Oakland while doing free family portraits for survivors at a relief day in October 2005, one month after Katrina drove them from their homes, and, she writes, "over time, I became interested in exploring the intricacies of one family’s experience with the disaster." Donations and income from the sale of the Lost Island DVD will go into a family fund to assist the Morrises as they rebuild their lives in Oakland.
FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHERS Seydou Keita, Allen Sekula, Susan Meiselas, Jeff Wall, Wing Young Huie, Wendy Ewald, Jessica Ingram, Eric Gottesman, and others.
SHOW "Inchoate," through Aug. 11. Patricia Sweetow Gallery, 77 Geary, mezzanine, SF. (415) 788-5126, www.patriciasweetowgallery.com
WEB SITE www.amandaherman.com
Désirée Arlette Holman
NAME Désirée Arlette Holman
TITLE Something Ain’t Right
THE STORY "This image is from a larger series of video and photo work depicting actors wearing crude, handmade (by me) chimp costumes. Something Ain’t Right was inspired by smoking chimps in zoos in South Africa and China. One zookeeper claimed that the chimps were smoking because they are frustrated. Could captivity make a chimp neurotic and lead it to smoke? Others claimed that the chimps were imitating tourists, recalling the cliché ‘Monkey see, monkey do.’ "
INSPIRATION "I am inspired by psychology, popular culture, figurative sculptures (including toys), art, and various types of fantasy and fiction making. I capitalize on the potential to create fantasy from realistic imagery through the use of the camera."
FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHERS Currently include Tracey Moffatt, Liza May Post, and Suzy Poling.
SHOWS "CCA: 100 Years in the Making," at the Oakland Museum of Art, and a solo show at San Francisco’s Silverman Gallery. Both open in October.
WEB SITE www.desireeholman.com
NAME Job Piston
TITLE A Year Later
THE STORY "I was making portraits of young Hollywood and became interested in deconstructing glamour. This is a good friend of mine who was sent away to a facility for a long while. I took this picture the first time I visited him. Today popular figures openly go to rehab; it too has become glamorous."
INSPIRATION "Complicated personalities, intimacy in public spaces, secrets, the figure, and the fountain of youth."
SHOW "Our World," at SF Arts Commission Gallery’s City Hall space, through Sept. 21; "Evidence of Things Unseen," Peninsula Museum of Art in Belmont, through Oct. 21; solo show at Silverman Gallery in San Francisco in October.
WEB SITES www.jobpiston.com, book-of-job.blogspot.com
NAME Walt Odets
TITLE Greg Hoffspiegel, Palo Alto, California, 2007
THE STORY "Because it is so instantaneous, there is much chance in photography. This photograph seems to me about the gaze and emotion of the three figures, some combination of attention, reflection, loss, and pathos, as well as the visual organization."
INSPIRATION "I have taken pictures since I was 16. If I can use the camera in a way that forces deconstruction of what we normally see but do not observe, then I feel I have accomplished something."
FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHERS "Henri Cartier-Bresson, of course, and Ed Ruscha and Lee Friedlander, for their elegance and form, intellect, and relentless literal rendering, respectively."
SHOW An October 2007 three-person show at SF Camerawork, devoted to winners of the James D. Phelan Award for photography.
WEB SITE www.waltodets.com/photo
NAME Jim Goldberg
PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHEN WIRTZ GALLERY
THE STORY The image is drawn from "The New Europeans," a project Goldberg started around the time of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. The series focuses on the journeys of refugees and immigrants from war-torn or economically devastated homelands in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Palestine, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere to settle in Europe, specifically Greece and Ukraine. In June, Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris presented Goldberg with the HCB Award so he could travel to his subjects’ countries of origin and tell the complete stories of their migration.
SHOW "Jim Goldberg: New Work." Oct. 3Nov. 10. Reception Oct. 4, 5:307:30 p.m. Stephen Wirtz Gallery, 49 Geary, third floor, SF. (415) 433-6879, wirtzgallery.com