On a classic, slightly chilly San Francisco day, my wife, daughter and I made a pilgrimage to 49 Geary. The outside of 49 Geary is non-desrcript; it looks like any other office building idly standing by. To me, it looked nothing like an art gallery. With other galleries, you might walk past them (with their wide open ground floor windows), peering at their wares as an interloper would into a stranger’s den. But at 49 Geary, you are not given this window shopping pleasure. In fact, you have to take an elevator up a few floors to see any art at all, and even then you have to make your way through a labyrinthian maze of hallways and doors before you see anything. However, once you do arrive at a gallery, it’s the same schtick you see at other galleries. You have sterile, wide open space, a minimalist approach to furniture (if any), stuff on walls, and docents deep into facebook on their laptops. The Fraenkel gallery was no different in this regard.
Upon entering the Fraenkel gallery, you get a sense of intimacy with the photos on the walls. This is in part because the gallery is physically small. It consists of maybe three rooms and a hallway. The space does not feel that small. It feels as if it could almost be a room in MoMA, except for the room in the back with the carpeting (which I might add is a great place for 10 month-old babies to crawl around). But I don’t like to compare spaces like that. To be more specific, to compare spaces to MoMA. While MoMA is big and grand and holds a great many things, it feels so very pedestrian. The Fraenkel gallery had more of a mystique because it took a bit more work to get to. Perhaps this speaks of my ignorance with art galleries in general, or my over (or under) estimation of the Fraenkel gallery. But this spiel is not about galleries, it’s about photographs.
The walls of the Fraenkel gallery were littered with photographs. And I do say “littered” in the strongest meaning of the word. The exhibition featured was titled “furthermore,” and was basically a mash-up of different photographers’ work. The description of the show basically said as much, but in much more creative words. There was not a strong sense of continuity as I glanced from photo to photo. The only real thing holding them together was the big industry names pasted next to them. You had heavyweights like Walker Evans, Irving Penn, and Diane Arbus just to name a few. I’m sure that these photos were devastatingly beautiful in their execution and intellectual meaning, but they just looked like any other photographs to me. Maybe it’s the fact that they are being shown out of context (as in a meaningful set that has a progression) that makes me shrug in their general direction. Or maybe it’s a sign of modern society with our short attention spans. I eventually found some photographs that were worth more then a few seconds glance.
In the semi-hallway leading to the back carpeted room, I found two photographs that were of interest. The first of these was taken by Bruce Davidson in 1964, titled “Los Angeles Super Market.” The photograph itself does not appear to be technically stunning. It seems more like a snapshot than anything else. In the foreground of the photo a woman is a pushing a shopping cart out of a check stand. The woman is looking directly at the camera with a disgruntled and somewhat surprised look on her face. In her shopping cart are two framed impressionist paintings, which seems completely absurd. It’s just the idea of buying art in a supermarket is silly. But then again, if you like something it’s not a problem no matter where you buy it. Plenty of people buy art from places like Cost Plus, Ikea, Z-Gallery, art.com and Amazon. So with a deeper inspection it is not that silly. What makes the photo interesting is the woman’s expression. As I stated before, she has a disgruntled and somewhat surprised look on her face. But she has a defensive look as well. Perhaps she is defending her silly purchase by giving the viewer a dirty look. Other details of the photo are barely worth mentioning, but some of them add to the photo’s appeal. There is a high amount of grain in the photo which supports the snapshot vibe of the scene. The photo was also shot in black and white with good amounts of contrast and very inky blacks. This quality fits in with the time period that the photo was taken (the mid 60’s). The woman is also standing off to the side, which supports the rule thirds. It adds more of an intent to the composition, transforming it from a mere snapshot into something a little more meaningful.
A photo by Nicholas Nixon also caught my eye. The photo was untitled, but its location was “Hyannis Massachusetts.” I’ve seen some other works of Nicholas Nixon and they were very interesting when seen in a series. This particular photo was rather boring without any context to frame it in. The only reason I mention the photo is because of the content. The other technical details were less then stellar. It is a black and white print where the subjects are off to the left side of the scene, probably shot with a low to mid ISO, and lacking in large amounts of contrast. But as I said before the technical details are not the star of this photo. When you look at the elements of the composition you find yourself at a crossroads of interpretation. This is because the photo is of a woman and (presumably) her son having their portrait drawn by an artist. You can see how the artist has rendered the woman and the child, and how Nixon has rendered them. It is an amusing juxtaposition that pits the hand against machine. The artist has not drawn them with picture perfect detail. He (or she) has given them his own viewpoint which only reflects a small facet of who the woman and child really are. Nixon has done the same, yet his tools are different. This is an example of the old argument that photographers are not real artists. And I can see where that argument stems from, as the photo by itself is lackluster, Which leads to the main problem of this exhibition.
It’s hard to get a grasp of what the photographers intended to express when all their work is shown in a giant mash-up. It’s as if you took a few huge music artists of our time (like Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Al Green, Radiohead, and Led Zeppelin) and made a mix-tape. Then you gave that mix-tape to someone who has never heard of these artists. Sure the person listening to the music might enjoy what they hear, buts that is it. They only get a shallow glimpse into what each of the artists has to offer in a deeper intellectual and emotional meaning. And I think that is a sad thing. With the photographs exhibited at the Fraenkel gallery, I felt that I was missing out on something more profound. Perhaps that is why the exhibit is called “Furthermore.” However, if you must see this show it is running from April 21 to June 25.