More Than Meets the Eye

MMS_20120922_139I have not lived in Owosso for more than forty years now, but on the morning of 9 October 2012, I came for a visit. While here I walked around the old neighborhood I’d grown up in. As I approached the corner of Park and Comstock streets I saw beneath an American flag an A-frame sidewalk sign that read, Shane Thanks For Your Service—the words spelled out in upper case, unpunctuated, sans serif, plastic letters of mixed size—a humble and poignant scene. PFC Shane Cantu had been killed in Afghanistan six weeks earlier.

As a photographer I saw a pleasing composition—the curving yellow curb, Old Glory waving against an azure sky and the flag’s shadow framing the sign. But there was more in this picture.

The sign stood in front of 123 East Comstock street, the current location of Sunnyside Florist. But, in 1948 this was the building in which Clay Reeves began Reeve’s Wheel Alignment. As a Marine Clay had fought on Iwo Jima and was wounded three times. For his heroism he received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. And just a few yards up the street, but not visible in the photograph, sits the Indian Trails Bus station from where hundreds of young men and women have left for service in: World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1968, I was one of them—on my way to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. So it is fitting that Shane was remembered in this place.

When I look at this picture I remember how I felt that August morning in 1968 as the door closed and the bus lurched onto Comstock street. I remember those last glimpses through the window of the quiet town and life I was leaving behind and thinking I might never return.

For me this photograph is a reminder, warning, evocation and image of hallowed space.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

The Enlightened Window

A little after 2:00 p.m., on 15 December 2005, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I photographed the front window of Evangelo’s Cocktail Bar. It displayed a melange of images taped and painted on the pane, including: a partial events calendar, a cash only sign, an ice blue and yellow hand-painted welcome star or flower, a spindly yellow painting that appeared to be a Christmas decoration, and two Xeroxed copies of photographs originally taken by the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith, during the Second World War, of Angelo Klonis, the founder of the bar. Behind all this a table, or some other piece of furniture, leaned against the glass.

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Evangelo’s Window, Santa Fe, NM

This was not a window dressed by a professional. It was not conventionally beautiful, pretty or appropriate to the season. But it was an intriguing assemblage that called out to be photographed. And for me it was a pleasing find—a Christmas gift.

I find windows fascinating aesthetically and for what they reveal about the people who made them and those who live and work behind them. Windows are historical, cultural, social, political and artistic statements both in their form and by whatever appears on and behind the glass.

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City Lights Bookstore window, San Francisco, CA
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“Storrer’s” (vacant storefront window), Owosso, MI
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1947 Dodge Pickup, Davison, MI

The fundamental purpose of the window is to allow light in but some emit enlightenment. They are portals for vision and imagination. They can be promises, gifts or disappointments. They demarcate the here from there, the then from now. They show, tell and inspire.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

 

Beyond the Image

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Sentinel Building, San Francisco, CA © 2014 Michael Maurer Smith

It was a quintessential San Francisco morning, moist and grey. The perfect light in which to photograph the Sentinel Building, also known as the Columbus Tower.

I sought a vantage point and soon discovered a position on Kearny Street from where I could align in the viewfinder part of the Transamerica Pyramid, which until 2017 had been the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, with the Sentinel.

The result was a composition bringing the new and old together. And there was a bonus—a chunk of yellow in the lower left— the top of a billboard, with the only words visible reading, “parking sucks.”

All this made for a satisfying picture, but it told little of the Sentinel Building’s story. A photograph can arrest our attention and assert beauty. It can hint and arouse our curiosity. It can encourage us to get, as the broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “…the rest of the story.” But the photograph alone cannot tell us why it was made or what was happening outside the frame when the shutter was released. It cannot tell the inner thoughts and feelings of the people pictured or those of the photographer. The photograph can only show what was before the lens.

But this very limitation makes photographs and photography valuable and fascinating. They capture moments that bridge time and serve as evidence and aids to memory.
Looking at photographs I have made, weeks, months or years before compels me to see them in a new context and in light of newly acquired knowledge and information. Looking at them anew I may recognize and question, biases, beliefs and values I once held—aesthetic, social, political and personal.

So, in brief, here is some of what my photograph of the Sentinel Building does not tell.

The construction of the building began in 1906, just before the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. Only its steel frame survived the flames. But, in 1907 construction was resumed, the building was completed and the notorious Abe Ruef—political boss, lawyer and crook—saw his dream realized. In subsequent years the building was owned by the Kingston Trio and it was also the original location of the fabled “Hungry i,” nightclub. Today it is owned by Francis Ford Coppola and houses his Zoetrope Studios Headquarters and the Zoetrope Cafe.

A Contemporary Art Museum?

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The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, photo © 2012 Michael Maurer Smith

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, which is located on the campus of Michigan State University, is, quoting their website, “Expressly dedicated to exploring contemporary culture and ideas through the probing gaze of international artists, the MSU Broad is a place where artists’ ideas, words, and actions create a vibrant center for questioning and understanding the world.”

Housed in a stunning building that was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the 2004 Pritzker prize winning architect, and financed by the largess of Eli Broad, the “Broad,” as it is called around here, has generated a range of reaction. Some people love it. Some loath it. But few who know about the place remain indifferent to it.

A museum, by definition, is a place in which objects of established historical, scientific and cultural significance are housed and exhibited. So then how can there be a museum of contemporary art? How can art being made in our current social and cultural milieu already be deemed worthy of preservation and veneration?

The Broad, in its current guise, succeeds in provoking thought—encouraging the visitor to ask such questions as:

  • Is what I am seeing/experiencing Art? Why or why not?
  • Am I open to seeing and perceiving in new and uncomfortable ways?
  • Does the Art reside in the object? Or does it reside in the guiding concept?
  • Am I, the viewer/experiencer, necessary to complete this art by my presence?
  • What knowledge of art should I bring to this encounter?
  • Do I need to broaden my thinking about what art can be?

The Broad, however, continues to struggle with its identity. Who is it for? What is its fundamental purpose? It calls for people to come and be culturally and artistically enriched, even as it confronts them with art that is often alien to their life experience, comfort level, knowledge, education, tastes and values. This, of course, is a good thing—provoking curiosity and learning—expanding the individual’s horizons. But it is also the privileging of the artistic values and tastes of the museum directors, curators, art collectors, dealers, investors and the art press who decide what will be shown and promoted and what they currently consider a good investment. But, contemporary art by its very nature is not art which has been proven worthy over a period of decades or centuries.

In my opinion the Broad should not be called a museum or pretend to be one. It cannot promise that what it shows today will be remembered as significant one, five, ten or a hundred years from now. Instead it should call itself what it is—The Eli and Edythe Broad Contemporary Art Center.

© 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

Unresolved

Saint Podius by Pietro Francavilla, 1589, Duomo Museum, Florence, Italy

This past year I was in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. There I stood rapt before Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Primavera, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation and Brunelleschi’s dome crowning Santa Maria del Fiore. I was surrounded by much of the greatest art and architecture ever conceived by the human mind and made by human hands—most of it done at the behest of rich, ruthless and proud patrons seeking to aggrandize themselves and extend their power.

The Florentine ruling families of the Renaissance, the Medici and Strozzi along with the Cardinals and Popes of the Roman church, used the greatest artists and architects of their time to enhance their image and assert their authority. This art and architecture, however, was not the free expression of its makers. It was not done to further artistic ideals and exploration. It was done as a service to those who could demand and pay for it. It was commercial art.

Nonetheless, what I saw in Florence filled me with an awe albeit tinged with sadness. So much skill, sweat and talent had been expended on furthering the aims of the wealthy and powerful.

Today, we as tourists come to admire these frescos, paintings, sculptures and buildings that were commissioned by rapacious, amoral patrons some 500 to 800 hundred years ago—works depicting scenes of battle, beheadings, poisonings, rape, and murder—works done to adorn the halls of power and walls of churches—churches ostensibly dedicated to Christ’s teachings of love and compassion.

Five centuries from now will people travel the world to admire the art and architecture commissioned by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Mussolini? Can something done to further the regime of a tyrant or to glorify the pain and suffering of war truly be a beautiful thing—genuine Art? If so we must concede that certain machine guns are exquisite in their function and form and deserve to be appreciated as art and their creators as artists. If so Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK47, would then be the artistic equal of Leonardo Da Vinci. Surely his invention has had as large an effect.

© 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

Agnes, Awe and Inspiration

On the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, almost hidden away, there is a small gallery in which hang seven paintings by Agnes Martin. This past November I sat there in bliss.

“ Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.”
Agnes Martin

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Agnes Martin: (l) untitled #9  1981 (r) untitled #5  1988  SFMOMA

Martin’s paintings are not clever. They do not tell stories. They are not about verisimilitude. They do not portray myths or celebrate battles. They were not done to adorn the halls of power. They are not demonstrations of the artist’s facility with a brush. They are simple but not simplistic. They are beautiful but not pretty. They are done with an economy of means—color washes and pencil markings on gessoed canvas.

To sit with Martin’s painting is to sit in peace in the presence of essential beauty. They bespeak reverence but not for any god with a name. They are pure in their imperfections.

A little more than 2 months before visiting SFMOMA I was in Florence, Italy. There I stood in awe of Michelangelo’s David and works by such masters as: Fra Angelico, Donatello, Uccello, Botticelli, and Vasari. All these artists were and are unsurpassed in skill. But awe is not the same as inspiration.

Martin made her own rules. Working in solitude in New Mexico, after leaving New York in 1967, she developed her own visual lexicon. And unlike the renaissance masters, her art was not restricted and directed by the demands of the church and wealthy bankers. Her art was the manifestation of her own vision, truth and integrity.

I am in awe of what the old masters accomplished. But I am more inspired by the life and work of Agnes Martin.

 

Loupe, Lightbox and Community

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Rana sylvatica (Wood Frog) © 1993 Michael Maurer Smith

PhotoMart was not a place Architectural Digest would have featured. It was dilapidated, dingy and stunk of chemicals. Its paneled walls were unadorned except for a wall clock and a couple of photographs. A rack of sundry photo supplies and accessories stood against one wall and just inside the front door and below the big plate glass windows there was a long, wall-mounted light box and two chairs that once belonged to a cheap dining room set. Between the chairs sat a single wastebasket, invariably overflowing with discarded transparencies, film canisters, and pickup envelopes.

By the late 1980s I had become serious about my photography and would no longer entrust the processing of my film to a drugstore. I began searching for alternatives. PhotoMart became my favorite.

Whenever I came to claim my images I was eager to tear open the sealed envelopes knowing that each held a plastic box with 24 or 36 fresh 35 mm transparencies—Kodachrome or Fujichrome testaments to my vision or the lack of it. I hoped I’d be surprised but always I worried that I’d have nothing in the batch worth saving. And if I had done the shoot for a client I was doubly concerned. So I’d take a seat at the light box and before leaving I’d contribute my share of discards to the basket. For the serious photographer the rule of thumb was that only 2 to 4 images out of every 36 would be worth keeping. Shooting film was an expensive process.

Sometimes, Marty Kies, the owner, or his son, would greet me at the counter saying, “you got some nice ones this time.” That was always a pleasure. Even more satisfying was talking with them and the other photographers who happened to be there holding forth on techniques, film characteristics, composition, lighting, and working with various photography subjects and clients. There was in this a sense of community.

PhotoMart is now long gone. Today I photograph with digital cameras and do most of my own printing. It is an isolated process. I go from shooting the subject matter to immediately seeing the results on the camera back and I can archive a file or delete it with the push of a button—no mess. The final sorting process is done at a computer monitor. And because I shoot raw files I can adjust them in Photoshop and save images that would never have been salvageable on film. I appreciate all of this and I would not want to go back to the costs and waste of film. But, I greatly miss the community I found at the PhotoMart, and I miss the anticipation, waiting to discover what would appear in those transparencies and negatives.

© 2013 Michael Maurer Smith, revised 8 December 2016