Napa Valley Museum’s latest exhibit, “Modern Vision, Modern Women: Selections from the Bank of America Collection” almost didn’t happen. Laura Rafaty, the museum’s executive director, said that the exhibit she had planned fell through at the last minute. So she reached out to Amy Loflin, senior vice president for local markets, at Bank of America to see if there was anything available from the bank’s extensive art collection.
“Typically the waiting list for an exhibit like this can be a couple years long,” Loflin said. “It just happened to be a lovely coincidence, that she reached out suddenly at a time when it unexpectedly became available.”
Loflin is a senior vice president for local markets at the bank. She wears many hats, but summarized her position with, “we make a big bank feel like a community bank.”
“We want to be a place that supports the community and that supports the arts. If this can bring tourism up here, if we can get people to come here from Sacramento and San Francisco, we’re going to help the economy and the community. The arts are so important. Everybody wins,” she said.
The exhibit is a fascinating study of the depth and breadth of American life, as presented solely by women photographers. It is a collection of photographs that is serious, insightful, imaginary, and at times, like the very life that we have lived in the past century, heartbreaking.
Perhaps the most significant coup in the exhibition is Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” taken in 1936 in Nipomo, California. You may have seen this photo before; it’s a veritable personification of the desperation people felt during the Great Depression. Her confoundedness, her hopelessness, the perplexity evident in her face, as her three boys snuggle around her, is one of the greatest, most arresting portraits ever taken. And you can see it in Yountville.
There are several photographs by Diane Arbus, the sometimes awkward, but provocative photographer who killed herself in 1971. She was famous for treating marginalized groups — LGBTQ people, dwarves, nudists, the elderly, and some middle-class working folks — as friends and capturing them in moments of unguarded intimacy.
Arbus’, most provocative work may be “Boy with Straw Hat.” It is a picture of a young man with an earnest look on his face, fedora on his head and bow tie at his chin who wears a pin that says, “Bomb Hanoi.” He is advocating for the Vietnam war, which today is an American equivalence with the Holocaust in its tragedy and inhumanity. Seeing someone so young want something so violent for people he has never even met only underscores the extent to which we brainwash our young with our own arrogance and misconceptions. Visitors at the show turned away at the image in horror.
Some photos, like “Migrant Mother” are candid, taken in a split second as a result of a photographer’s heightened instincts. But others are studied, calculated.
In “ID400” Tomoko Sawada, a Japanese artist, meditated on the identification cards endemic in modern society by taking hundreds of self portraits in a photo booth, changing her hair, make-up and facial expression in an impossible variety. The photos, like what you would submit for a government issued ID card, are presented in a huge rectangle, one after another, so that you get a sense of the multiplicity of humanity, as it is codified by the one inch square black and white image on our driver’s licenses and passports.
The fact that none of the photos look alike, yet they are all the same person, speaks to Sawada’s inventiveness and ingenuity, giving her a rightful place, even at 42 years old, among the works of these other artists.
Sandy Skoglund’s “Revenge of the Goldfish” is another calculated photograph. Skoglund often takes several months to construct what she is going to photograph, such that often in her exhibitions the rooms are recreated as art installations themselves. Close examination of this photograph shows the attention to detail—the aquatic blue of the entire room, juxtaposed with many, bright gold koi. The koi are ceramic, not rubber, adding an additional dimension of planning.
There are two people in the photograph, the only other colors besides the blue and gold. One, an adult, is asleep, and a young child is awake and sitting on the bed’s edge. The whole photograph seems like a dream — perhaps the adult is dreaming of the fish while in bed, and child, whose imagination is not yet hardened by adulthood, can experience the dream while conscious.
Perhaps the most arresting photo — one that Harmony Plenty, of Cope Family Services,and the mother of two young boys said broke her heart — was “Olivier” by the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. “Olivier” is a young man who enlists in the French Foreign Legion. On July 21, 2000, he is photographed in Marseille in a navy T-shirt. His young, innocent face is callow, but somehow knowing, anticipatory.
The next photograph is taken in Corsica on June 28, 2001. In uniform now, with a box hat and chin strap that frames his young jaw, seeming to constrict his ability to open his mouth in protest. His shirt is too big for him and the bright red tassels hanging from the epaulets on his shoulders are absurd, a holdover from the 19th century when fashion in war was more important than one’s ability to move. They are an ornament, contrasted with his, bitter determined face, personify the paradoxical painfulness and inevitability of war.
In the third photo, taken in Djibouti on July 13, 2003, he is a hardened warrior. Crows feet between his eyebrows that did not exist in the first picture, are now hardened creases. He has lost the tassels from his epaulets and he is more muscled — his shirt fits him this time. He stares at you directly in the face, defiant, but resigned. An air of sadness, but determination. Is he thinking of other things he could have done with his life? Has he seen things he would have rather not seen and will never be able to unsee?
The Foreign Legion is known for its psychologically intense training, and you can see it on his face. France was the first country in the world to mandate military service as a result of the Revolution. It was phased out in 2001, so it is possible he is there only as a condition of citizenship, which, given the expression on his face, was against his will. At any rate, he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, as most soldiers do, their fate determined by people far removed from the horror they experience every day.
This is the magic of the photographer. While painters create from their imagination, photographers use the real things, real people in the real world to do their work. These photographs are much more relatable than, say, the recent exhibition of surrealists at the Napa Valley Museum, because they are faces, hands, feet, torsos, bellies and legs all in situations we are familiar with, rather than just interesting designs sprouted from the imagination of one artist.
Or they are recognizable things in positions we never thought of, that are provocative. They are split seconds of time, in place, captured by the photographer’s eye, a particular point of view.
Some of the photographs, like Lange’s “Migrant Mother” are time capsules. Berenice Abbott’s 1934 photograph of the New York Stock Exchange, from an angle down Wall Street, may have been the first time that angle of the facade of that cathedral to the religion of capitalism was captured. The Corinthian columns and greco-roman frieze above are illuminated by the sun and 1930s- era cars with square windshields and big fenders are parked on the street.
There is a quiet majesty to the photograph. A reverence. The New York Stock Exchange is the soul of the American economy, the very progenitor of our affluence. But, when this photo was taken, six years after the 1929 crash and two years before 1936’s “Migrant Mother,” the building in this photograph is the seat of a great tragedy, a symbol of the market’s fickle vicissitudes, the mob mentality and unbridled greed that plunged the United States into the most traumatic time in its history since the Civil War.
In this case, the building is indifferent to the suffering it has caused. Its stately facade echoing the dignity of the Athenian enlightenment, or Roman civility, is now the opposite of those things. The facade is just a mask, insincerely, fraudulently cloaking the ruthlessness of capitalism with the architectural trappings of another time, millennia ago.
Remember, these photographs are taken by women. The sensitivity, ingenuity and sensibility are all feminine. Though, that really should not matter. The work should stand on its own, and be judged for its own sake, not based on the sex of its creator.
However, in a world dominated by men in most areas, we can’t help but celebrate, as the curators of this show have, the equality of women’s work with men’s — its sensitivity, ingenuity and sensibility are not sex-based; instead they are nothing but, universally human.