All posts in “photography”

Zanele Muholi on Visual Activism & Undoing Racism

In my instance, visual activism has a lot to do with two things: connecting the visual and my activism. Which means that every image that I take has a lot to do with politics. In my work, I am pushing a political agenda.

– Zanele Muholi

Taken in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa between 2014 and 2017, each of the 76 self-portraits in the Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) series is distinct and poses critical questions about social injustice, human rights, and contested representations of the black body. South African visual activist Zanele Muholi combines classical portraiture, fashion photography, and ethnographic imagery to establish different archetypes and personae.

Hear from the artist as they describe how household and found objects become culturally loaded props in these self-portraits. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude. Rubber tires, electrical cords, and cable ties reference forms of social brutality and capitalist exploitation. Collectively, the portraits evoke the plight of workers: maids, miners, and members of disenfranchised communities. The artist’s gaze challenges viewers while firmly asserting their cultural identity on their own terms. Don’t miss your chance to see Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness while it’s still in Seattle at SAM through November 3.

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Art Zodiac: Hail the Virgos

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness would have been the perfect subject for Leo season, but despite that, I am focusing on one of Muholi’s photographs for Virgo season instead. Their (Muholi identifies as they/them) work titled, Bester IV, shows Muholi against a geometric-patterned background with a scarf over their head like the Virgin Mary. Virgos rule detailed work like the complex patterning of material which requires patience, steadiness, and routine rigor to perform. I picked this work for Virgo season because the root of the word Virgo is virgin, and this photograph alludes to the most famous one, the Virgin Mother Mary.  Most astrologers prefer to interpret the virginal representation of Virgo as the love of the unadulterated or the purity of essence rather than the religious or sexual overtones it signifies.   

Zanele Muholi: Somnayma Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness features 76 black-and-white self-portraits, making the artist very prevalent in this body of work. The time of Muholi’s birth is unknown, but according to Wikipedia, they were born on July 9, a Cancer—the archetype of the mother in astrology. The only planet that Muholi has in Virgo is Pluto, which makes a lovely sextile (a 60-degree angle) to their Cancer sun. In evolutionary astrology, Pluto represents the soul, its incarnations and the karmic gifts brought into this lifetime. Muholi, like others born between roughly 1956 and 1972, has a Virgo soul structure and it melds well with their Cancer ego structure (the sun). This is another reason why I chose this photograph as it mimics this aspect in their natal astrology chart.

via GIPHY

Virgo is the 6th sign of the zodiac and the sun transits Virgo from August 23 to September 30 each year. Virgos are meticulous, but Pluto-in-Virgos take the details of an issue to a staggering profound depth and breadth. You can see it in the entanglement of multiple themes and the pure (virginal) qualities in Muholi’s photographs. There is obviously an incredible amount of thought and planning that went into each image so the viewer could understand the difficult and powerful, sometimes in-your-face themes communicated through their body of work. This, along with the simplicity of how the sitter is framed and the exacting ruthlessness of the proportions, takes you on an internal journey into the shadow side (Pluto) of society and your own psyche. But the quality that shines the most in Virgos is ‘service to others’ and that is what I ultimately see Muholi doing with their work. They portray images of the plight of workers, maids, miners, and members of disenfranchised communities, in order to serve the greater good, forcefully demanding recognition and integration. 

– Amy Domres, SAM’s Director of Admissions 
Amy is also a Psychospiritual Evolutionary Astrologer and Healer at Emerald City Astrology

Images: Installation view Zanele Muholi: Somnayma Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at Seattle Art Museum, 2019, photos: Natali Wiseman.
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Object of the Week: Yuka

It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that we live in a youth-obsessed culture. If we only take a moment to look around, we can see it everywhere. It pops up in advertisements, in movies, and in TV. It works its way into our minds with anti-ageing skin creams and anti-graying hair dyes. It settles into our society and fills us with the irrefutable fear of getting older. To be young—or so our culture seems to suggest—is to be wild, uninhibited, and free. And, conversely, to be old is to be slow, sidelined, and ignored.

While this is never fully true in reality, it is difficult to deny that, in our current society, old age is a thing that many people fear. Some might argue that this is even more prevalent for women, who are judged more frequently on their looks than men and who, as such, feel more pressure to maintain a youthful appearance. How many times have you heard a woman complain about “getting old”? It is because women have so much more to lose when they lose their youth.

In her series My Grandmothers, however, photographer Miwa Yanagi presents a fascinating and poignant counterargument to our societal fear of aging.

For My Grandmothers, Yanagi interviewed a variety of women between the ages of fourteen and twenty, asking them to describe what they thought their lives would look like in fifty years. She then staged photos to capture these descriptions. The photo above is titled Yuka, named for a woman who imagined herself living on in the U.S. with her younger, playboy lover. Yuka, with bright red hair and a cigarette, riding down the Golden Gate Bridge in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hardly fits our stereotypical idea of an old woman. She is laughing with abandon, unashamed and unconstrained.

With Yuka, as with the other portraits in the series, Yanagi explores the idea that old age is liberating rather than limiting. Women, no longer defined by their beauty and (as one critic noted) by their reproductive abilities, are free to live for themselves, on their own terms, by their own rules. According to Yanagi, young women today are restricted by society’s expectations and are unable to express their true desires for the lives that they want to live. When they are freed from their youth, they are freed from those confines. Old age, it seems, is not so much our great nightmare as it is our ticket to a more liberating life.

See this photograph in person at the Seattle Asian Art Museum when it reopens in early 2020!

Isabelle Qian, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Yuka, 2000, Miwa Yanagi, chromogenic print, Plexiglas, Dibond mounted on aluminum with text panel, 63 x 63 in., additional text: 15 5/8 x 15 5/8 in., Gift of Janet Ketcham, 2004.33, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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Object of the Week: Bullet

As we have seen too many times in recent weeks, a single bullet can destroy a life, a family, and a community. In this photograph by Harold Edgerton, a bullet is frozen in time and space, its trajectory and destruction momentarily bound.

Born in Nebraska in 1903, Edgerton studied electrical engineering at MIT. His academic background, coupled with his interest in motion and high-speed photography, allowed him to produce images that made visible the imperceptible. After earning his PhD in 1931, Edgerton developed and improved upon various stroboscopic models—a repeatable flash device better known today as a ‘strobe’—ultimately applying for 45 patents between the years 1933 and 1936. The high-powered repetition of the strobe allowed Edgerton to effectively freeze objects in motion in order to capture them on film, resulting in iconic photographs that bring together science, technology, and art.

The history of photography is inextricable from the history and development of military technology—to borrow from French theorist Paul Virilio, “For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye”—making the bullet a fitting subject for Edgerton to capture.[1] In this photograph, printed in 1961, the bullet serves to represent technological achievement and photographic mastery; today, however, it is hard to see a single bullet as anything other than destructive, especially when they are rarely singular, more often multiplied in the hundreds and deployed in seconds.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989), p. 20.
Image: Bullet, 1961, Harold Edgerton, gelatin silver photograph, 9 1/2 x 8 5/8 in., The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation, 96.48 © Edgerton Family Foundation
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Object of the Week: Twins

The work, Twins, created by photographer and video artist, Sue De Beer (American, born 1973), depicts two entwined twin teenage girls. De Beer’s work examines the internal conflicts of high school-aged girls—a period of both happiness and great terror. De Beer describes Twins as a “depiction of an impossible situation, a companion who is not an other; a state of pure completion, the strength and horror of desire without fear.”[1] What makes this work even more interesting is that De Beer portrays her subjects through her own likeness. Rather than a pair of identical twins, this image is a digitally-manipulated photograph of the artist herself. Using her own body to explore the identity of others is a technique the artist utilizes, to great effect, in other work, like Two Girls and her seminal video work, Making Out With Myself.

In her correspondence with Seattle gallerist Linda Farris (American, 1945-2005), De Beer explains:

“Much of my work takes place at high school age, a time of heightened experience, and often a time of ‘first’ experience: sexual experience, drug experience, intellectual experience. High school is the first time since birth that your height has stabilized, when your mind had learned enough to begin to analyze information, rather than just accumulate it. You have all of the physical equipment you will carry with you for the rest of your life, but it is all so new and unfamiliar, your agony and pleasure is heightened by the newness of being ‘complete,’ fully formed, and yet blank, without experience.” [2]

Twins, along with two other De Beer works, more visceral and violent—Two Girls and Untitled, from Heidi 2—came to SAM as part of the ContemporaryArtProject gift. CAP was the brainchild of Farris, who assembled a group of private collectors that were willing to share their private spaces with challenging images and objects. Farris selected daring new works that touched her very personally and passionately. In 2002, this group graciously gifted this work to SAM. The thirty-three artworks in the CAP collection include painting, photography, and video unified by a strong feminist perspective with an overarching theme: identity as a complex convergence of the cultural, social, and sexual selves.[3]

Learn more about the 33 works from the ContemporaryArtProject.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

Image: Twins, 1998, Sue de Beer, color digital C-print, 35 13/16 x 49 3/8 in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.15 ©Laura Parnes
[1] Paul M. Smith, “Identity Paradox – Austin Museum of Digital Art,” Amoda.org, 2002, http://www.amoda.org/events/exhibit-02/.
[2] Email correspondence between Sue De Beer and Linda Farris, July 3, 1999.
[3] Seattle Art Museum and Tara Reddy Young, SAM Collects ContemporaryArtProject (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2002), 8, 9, 40.
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Object of the Week: Imogen Cunningham and Grandchildren at Fun House

I still feel that my interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything.

– Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham was a seminal female American photographer, active in the Pacific Northwest (where she was born and raised) and the San Francisco Bay Area. This image of the artist and her grandchildren, taken in the reflection of a fun house mirror, is representative of Cunningham’s larger practice that spanned decades: experimental, technical, and the stuff of everyday life.

Cunningham is perhaps best known for her abstracted botanical photography, though she also produced images of the human nude, industrial landscapes, and street scenes. Here, her subject matter is much more personal and takes on an emotional valence.

It is often perpetuated that Cunningham was forced to choose between her career and motherhood, ultimately choosing the latter when she closed her portrait studio. However, this narrative is not quite accurate—Cunningham managed her responsibilities as both a mother and an artist, developing a photographic practice that blended art and life seamlessly. Neither roles were without sacrifice, of course, but Cunningham did her best to juggle her identities as a mother and artist—identities that, to this day, are either presented as mutually exclusive or not discussed nearly as much as they should be.

Moyra Davey’s Mother Reader is a major achievement in this regard. Published over fifteen years ago, the volume brings together testimonials, diaries, and essays by women artists, writers, and creative thinkers whose lives were forever altered—both positively and negatively—by pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. It is an amazing resource that focuses on the intersection of motherhood and creative life, honestly exploring the varied experiences of being a mother. In Margaret Mead’s essay “On Being a Grandmother,” Mead, a cultural anthropologist and contemporary of Cunningham, writes:

However, I felt none of the much trumpeted freedom from responsibility that grandparents are supposed to feel. Actually, it seems to me that the obligation to be a resource but not an interference is just as preoccupying as the attention one gives to one’s own children. I think we do not allow sufficiently for the obligation we lay on grandparents to keep themselves out of the picture—not to interfere, not to spoil, not to insist, not to intrude—and, if they are old and frail, to go and live apart in an old people’s home (by whatever name it may be called) and to say that they are happy when, once in a great while, their children bring their grandchildren to visit them.

When taken into consideration with this photograph, one can’t help but wonder what Cunningham’s experience was like as a grandmother. Was she able to spend real time with her daughter’s children? Did she feel a similar tension between acting as a resource and an interference? How did being an artist and grandmother differ from being an artist and mother? This early selfie suggests that she and her grandchildren had some adventures and joyful times, but it is just one glimpse into their relationship after all. Even still, we’re fortunate Cunningham chose to share it with us—there’s certainly a little beauty in it.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Imogen Cunningham and Grandchildren at Fun House, San Francisco, 1955, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x  7 1/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.38 (1955), 2009 ©Imogen Cunningham Trust

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Object of the Week: Veronica

Veronica is a telling image from a larger body of work that examines what it’s like to be an erotic dancer. For the photographer, this series sheds light on the commitment artists make to produce meaningful work.

Erika Langley (American, born 1967) moved across the country in 1992 after attending the Rhode Island School of Design and working as an aspiring photojournalist. She quickly learned that photojournalism work in Seattle was hard to come by, being turned down by several potential employers. One told her to go out and do something “really gutsy and personal” and then come back.[1]

Upon arriving in Seattle, Langley had noticed Seattle’s many topless bars and thought she could do a project on strippers. She stumbled upon the Lusty Lady–the legendary peep show establishment formerly located across First Avenue from the Seattle Art Museum—and was intrigued to learn it was women-run, that the dancers were protected from the patrons, and that they were paid a reasonable wage in 1990s dollars: $9/hour to start with a $1/hour raise every week if you came in on time and were doing well. Some dancers made $27/hour. This operation was defying industry stereotypes.[2]

There was one catch. If she wanted to take photographs, she had to become a dancer. “If you really want to understand this, you have to work here,” she was told by one of the supervisors. “You have to dance to gain people’s trust and be taken seriously.” There was no access to the locker room until she was a Lusty Lady employee. So, she became a dancer. “I want to learn about a world I know nothing about, I want to see what I’m capable of.” She took the stage name, Virginia, after her home state: Southern, Gothic, exotic. She got to know her co-workers. They were married and single, straight and queer, some were doting mothers, and some had degrees or were working their way through school. She was interested in “showing these women as whole women…it’s just a job.”[3]

In 1997 the body of work she’d created at the Lusty Lady was transformed into a book produced by European publisher Scala called The Lusty Lady. She delivered a copy of the book with a handwritten note–“Howdy, neighbor!”–to then SAM Deputy Director of Art/Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Trevor Fairbrother. Shortly thereafter, he encouraged her to be part of a group show. In 1999, several of her works–from the Lusty Lady series, including Veronica—were included in the exhibition, Hereabouts: Northwest Pictures by Seven Photographers, one of the Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series exhibitions. SAM ultimately brought five of Langley’s photographs into the collection.[4]

Langley’s work reminds us that women like Veronica (that’s her stage name) work legal jobs, just like other women. “There are no venues like this for women, this is the intersection of public sex and fast food. Sometimes I feel like a naked waitress—other times, a quarter-operated social worker. It’s not so unlike other jobs. I punch a time clock, look forward to my breaks, and then I go home. But I love it best when my friends and I are howling with merriment in the shadow of Hammering Man.”[5]

“Had the Lusty Lady not told me I’d have to dance to photograph, I’m sure I’d have made some competent but average pictures. Instead, working there changed my life, how I looked at myself and my sexuality, and it taught me about my own erotic power.” — Erika Langley[6]

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Peggy Andersen, “An f-stop and a G-string Mark Woman’s Dual Career” in The Seattle Times (January 30, 2000), p. B4.
[2] Erika Langley, The Lusty Lady (Berlin: Scala, 1997), p. 10 and Andersen, p. B4.
[3] Langley, p. 7, 13 and Andersen, p. B4.
[4] Andersen, p. B4 and Trevor Fairbrother, Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series: Hereabouts: Northwest Pictures by Seven Photographers (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1999), p 3.
[5] Langley is referring to Hammering Man, the monumental public sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky, sited in front of the Seattle Art Museum. Learn more here. Fairbrother, p. 3.
[6] Langley, p. 7.
Image: Veronica, 1993, Erika Langley, Gelatin silver photograph, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm), Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 2000.57, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.
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Object of the Week: Untitled (Louisiana)

A pioneer of color photography (sometimes even referred to as “the godfather” of color photography), William Eggleston is, for many, synonymous with photographs that evocatively capture the mundane, trivial, and everyday. In the 1960s and 70s, at a time when color photography was largely associated with commercial advertising, Eggleston managed to elevate it into a fine-art form.

Born and raised in Tennessee, Eggleston largely focused his attention on the rural South but has traveled across the United States documenting post-war American life and culture. His compositions are unmistakable—they embody a slowness and stillness that, despite the certainty suggested by their documentary quality, grows more complex and complicated over time. Landscapes, buildings, signage, trash, restaurants, the contents of a freezer or oven—all is fair game for Eggleston. Peter Schjeldahl once wrote that to view Eggleston’s work was to be “pummeled by eccentric beauty, and to wonder about it.”[1]

Untitled (Louisiana) is an exemplary work in this regard. Its geometry, framing, lavish color, light, and shadow are quintessential Eggleston. Taken from the neutral vantage point of a restaurant tabletop, the image focuses our gaze on an unlikely cast of characters: a few scattered menus, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and a Winston cigarette lighter. Other details we might also overlook, like the poor paint job or stack of napkins in the background, are hard to ignore. Contrary to the relative emptiness of the photograph, there is an overwhelming amount of visual information to absorb.

In today’s rich media landscape, such moments of stillness are increasingly hard to find. And while our smartphones have turned us all into amateur photographers, sharing everyday observations and experiences on social media, how many of us really sit with an image we find scrolling through our feeds, taking the time to dissect and analyze the story being shared—to wonder about it?

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, “Local Color: William Eggleston at the Whitney,” New Yorker, November 17, 2008, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/17/local-color-peter-schjeldahl.
Image: Untitled (Louisiana), 1980, William Eggleston, dye transfer print, 16 1/16 x 19 7/8 in., Pacific Northwest Bell, the Photography Council, the Polaroid Foundation, Mark Abrahamson, and the National Endowment for the Arts, 83.55 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.
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Object of the Week: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture

Though this 1957 photograph is by Imogen Cunningham, its subject is Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013). For decades Asawa has been little known beyond the West Coast, and is all too belatedly finding herself rewritten into the history of American art. Rather than concentrate on photographer Cunningham, this post focuses on Asawa, her diaphanous wire sculptures, and her complex identity as a Japanese-American woman artist.

Cunningham’s photograph is a quiet yet evocative image: Asawa sits with her face occluded by the semi-transparent curvature of one of her hanging wire sculptures. She’s surrounded by her four children, ranging from toddler to six years old. Each, including Asawa, is engaged in and absorbed by his or her own activity: reading, playing, observing, drinking, and making. The iconic photograph has often been read in gendered terms, focusing on Asawa’s demonstrated domesticity, femininity, and passivity. Like too many women artists, Asawa has been positioned primarily as a wife and mother—identities that override her identity as an artist, which can and should include these other identities. As curator Helen Molesworth discusses in her recent paper delivered last month at the Smithsonian, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” this image has additional import, positioning art making as a social activity, and Asawa, therefore, as a citizen above all else.

As a child, Asawa would draw and make art while in a World War II internment camp with her Japanese parents. She was not an outside or self-taught artist though, for she attended Black Mountain College and studied for three years and two summers (1946–49) with Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller, among others. For Asawa, “Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do. And then you put a label on it afterwards. I think that’s the nice thing about what Black Mountain did for its students. It was like they gave you permission to do anything you wanted to do. And then if it didn’t fit they’d make a category for you. But I think Black Mountain helped make something with weaving and with printmaking, and it gave people the freedom to make something of each category.”¹

Black Mountain was a transformative place and time for Asawa, creatively as well as socially: incorporated into Black Mountain’s utopian environment was an attitude that expanded what art can do for society. Therefore, to be an artist is to be a citizen—engaging actively in the world and making choices alongside others.² Though Cunningham’s photograph captures Asawa in her home, surrounded by her four (of six) children, central to the visual narrative is her artwork, which is inextricable from her role as an artist, wife, mother, and citizen.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in. (26.4 x 26.4 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
¹Ruth Asawa, “Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-July 5,” interview by Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom, Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ruth-asawa-and-albert-lanier-12222#transcript.
²Helen Molesworth, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” filmed September 12, 2018 at Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., video, 1:07:05, https://americanart.si.edu/videos/clarice-smith-distinguished-lecture-series-scholar-helen-molesworth-154476.
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