SFMOMA’s “Constellations: Photographs in Dialogue” is a mesmerizing reminder that San Francisco’s greatest art form has long been and remains photography.
Every day, hundreds of millions of selfies are taken, along with another mass of mobile phone-enabled pics of smiling friends, bawling babies, rose pink sunsets, cresting waves, tax documents, car accidents, coyotes scurrying city streets. All of this is not exactly happening here but has been made significantly possible by the companies in our midst – Apple, Instagram, Facebook, Google — by a world gone made for snapping, sharing and storing photography.
Most know this. But few are aware that the first school devoted to photography as an artform was founded in San Francisco. In 1946, Ansel Adams helped establish the photography department at the California School of Fine Art, now the San Francisco Art Institute. It was the first program to teach photography as a non-commercial craft.
The program also made the emerging art form available to women and non-white artists. Adams and CSFA instructors Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Minor White and Imogen Cunningham taught a second generation of San Francisco photographers who were groundbreaking not just for their arresting images but for who they were.
“Constellations” starts with the dialogue that took place between the CSFA masters and their students, Benjamen Chinn, Charles Wong, David Johnson and Muriel Green. Chinn and Wong were born in Chinatown — and their neighborhood images view like heart-stopping time capsules. Johnson grew up in segregated Florida and, equipped with G.I. Bill funds after serving in World War II, wrote to Adams asking if he took Black students.
Adams accepted him into the program and watched his student become a documenter of the Fillmore District’s jazz culture. It’s fun to look at Johnson’s “Portrait of Johnny in Front of Ansel Adams’ House” (1945) and Adams’ “Boards, San Francisco” (1946) in the same room. The latter looks like it was influenced by the former — gritty wooden boards from the photographer who captured Yosemite.
“There was a lot of camaraderie between the teachers and the students. They had an event called an exchange party, where (between 1945 and 1953) they would gather once a month at Ansel Adams’ home and exchange their favorite prints,” explained Shana Lopes, SFMOMA’s assistant curator of photography, who assembled the images for CSFA gallery.
“When I arrived here a few years ago,” continued Lopes, “I began thinking, ‘What’s a good way to show this work?’ I landed on the idea to show artists who had just come into collection: Chinn, Green, Johnson, the students of greats.”
“Constellations” is a brilliant show that tells not just the San Francisco origins of art photography but of SFMOMA’s outstanding 85-year-old photography collection, which includes 20,000 images. The show features just 1% of this collection, nearly 200 photographs, half by women, two-thirds of which have never been on view. Each of the six thematic rooms are meant to showcase the museum’s collection and compel viewers to think about the ways that photographs have reflected and served human nature, politics, documentation, identity.
“What drew me to photography was the connection to the real world and the slipperiness of it, the messiness of it,” said Erin O’Toole, Baker Street Foundation curator and SFMOMA’s acting head of photography. “Is it art? Is it something else? Photography operates on so many different levels in our everyday life. The way that artists use photography to comment on what’s happening is different than painting because it has this purchase in the ‘real.’”
The second gallery, which O’Toole curated, is devoted to the museum’s collection of Japanese photography. Thanks to Sandra Phillip, SFMOMA’s former head of photography, the museum began collecting work from Japan in 1992 and acquired more than 300 photographs by 47 artists in the nearly three decades she led the department. In 2014, the collection doubled in size with the gift from the Kurenboh Collection, founded by Akiyoshi Taniguchi, a Buddhist priest in Tokyo who spent his formative years studying photography in the United States.
The 17 images O’Toole selected for the show’s second gallery are some of the most beautiful and innovative photographic images on display probably anywhere. Kou Inose’s “Aomori” (1983) is on one level an image of a grimy store with women’s hair products and an unsanitary fish tank. But on another level, it’s a dream image of unrelated objects that destabilize reality.
Tomoko Yoneda’s “Horse, Evacuated Village, Fukushima” (2011) appears to be a pastoral shot of a horse grazing in untouched nature until you realize it shows an animal abandoned in a contaminated landscape since the tsunami and nuclear accident.
Daisuke Yokota’s “Cloud” (2013) is a textured photograph in which the artist combined analog and digital prints and ran them over each other so many times that the technique seems to reference the other kind of cloud.
Visitors will debate their favorite room in the show. Gallery 3’s “Forms of Identity” and Gallery 5’s “Politics of the Self” will appeal to those who are forever documenting themselves. The range here is vast – images of faces up close, people in disguise and captured through daguerreotype, mug shots and work IDs (from a 1910 coal mine).
Tomoko Sawada’s “School Days” is a trick identity image in which she photoshopped her face into every uniformed girl child in two class day shots. The effects of all these presentations is chilling and funny, challenging and bizarre. Gallery 5 in particular is like a fun house of individual objectification and presentation. Most will probably remember Wendy Red Star’s “Fall” in which the Native American artist places herself in traditional dress in a natural history museum diorama. It is not a subtle critique of museum culture, but it is damningly funny.
Traditionalists may like the room called “The Thing Itself,” devoted to photography’s oldest subject, the still life. Do not miss Josef Sudek’s “Unitled (Glass and Egg)” (1952), Edward Weston’s “Pepper No. 30” (1930) or Shomei Tomatsu’s “Atomic Bomb Damage: Wristwatch Stopped at 11:02, August 9, 1945” (1961). The room begs the question why the show is not on permanent view and what else has not been shown from SFMOMA’s treasure trove of art photography.
Gallery 4’s “In Depth: Joanne Leonard and Elaine Mayes” is a nod to the curators’ decision to feature the trove of female photographers in the collection. During the 1960s, Leonard lived in West Oakland, where she took photos of her neighbors and stapled them to doors of the building where she lived to ensure people could take copies home. The images from Mayes are from a 10-day journey by car from San Francisco to the East Coast in 1971.
“There were many more female photographers from beginning of art photography period because the stakes for entry were lower,” explained O’Toole. “Kodak marketed to women, saying, ‘You’re the keepers of the memories of your family.’ … It was acceptable for women to do.”
That meant women were freer to experiment and to join departments like the one at the California School of Fine Art. The result of that department — whose instructors were the founding artists of SFMOMA’s photography collection – is a must-see for anyone curious about the history of camera-taken images in San Francisco and the world over. It is also a chance to wonder at the distance from still lives to selfies.
IF YOU GO
“Constellations: Photographs in Dialogue”
Where: SFMOMA, 151 3rd St., S.F.
When: Monday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 1 p.m.-8 p.m., Friday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., through August 21, 2022
Tickets: $0 for 18 and under, $19 for ages 19-24, $22 for seniors, $25 for adults
Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org