Le Journal de la Photographie

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San Francisco Collectors: The Traina Collection

Martin Parr, Fashion Shoot for Amica, New York

Our third private collection brings us back to San Francisco, this time to the M.H. de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park where Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection is on view. The history of photography in this show begins with Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand who set the stage for a fresh, young vision of photography: lots of color, lots of very large pieces and very conceptual. The collection hits all the stars of contemporary photography and includes younger artists such as Ryan McGinley and the much beloved Alec Soth. The idea is that photography has gone from reflecting the “real” to re-definining it. The 100 pieces are sorted into four groups: “Everyday”, “Excesses”, “Spectacular”, and “Losses.” The works fully embrace the conceptual aesthetic of the NOW: shuffled, sequenced, and laid out in nonlinear narrative structures. Combining and recombining already re-contextualized images, the photographers subvert the photographs’ original roles. That is the theory. In reality, people usually have no idea what they are really viewing but they are drawn to the work unconsciously. It is enough for most people to simply know that they have been somehow entertained or stimulated in some way without really knowing how or why.

One feels lost in a fun house, full of confusing ideas that turn back on themselves by wondering what is deconstructing what and when or how; whether imagination is more real than what we determine to be real and so on. As guest curator Kevin Moore says, “Contemporary photographs are tricky concoctions. . . . Particularly today, in an ultramediated culture of tepid Facebook friendships and corporate propaganda and political spin and industrially manufactured foods, the desire to cut through the layers separating us from the real is more urgent than ever.”

Lurching from something as intense as Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” work to Laurie Simmon’s “Walking Cake II” and then on to Eggleston’s “Untitled (Memphis) and on to Jack Pierson’s “Fate” perfectly captures the Generation Text mind and therefore is actually perfectly suited to our times – so much stimulus coming from every direction at the same time. I’m not sure that Mr. Moore’s goal of cutting through layers (of what?) to the real can be accomplished without adderall.

The lack of boundaries around this exhibit extends to a lack of boundaries between Mr. Traina and the museum. He is a board member of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (managing organization for the de Young) and the son of its president, Dede Wilsey. This raises all kinds of ethical questions about using the show to enhance the value of the Traina works, whether the museum board is serving the community or themselves, and if nepotism were not a factor, would the collection be worthy of such a show. But, for my personal pleasure, I was happy to see the show, try to look past the fashionable art speak of the catalogue and connect with humanity and myself in new ways, which is more than enough for a vacation excursion.

As John Szarkowski put it with his famous mirrors and windows analogy, there are basically two types of photographers – those who take photographs of things to show what they look like when photographed, and those who take photographs of things because they’re engaged in some process of (self) discovery. They either shed light onto the inner experience or show us an aspect of the outer world. The Traina exhibit is a mad fun house careening back and forth between mirrors and windows – very much the opposite of the Pier 24 collection, with its very thoughtful, purposeful choices. The di Rose collection might be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: largely experiments in self-discovery but with some reaching out to look at and document the world. Whatever your personal cup of tea might be, these are three worthy offerings for the summer.

Image and text courtesy of Le Journal de La Photographie