Jacob Aue Sobol, "Untitled #8," from the series "Sabine," 1999-2002; gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York; © Jacob Aue Sobol, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Five spacious rooms, each featuring a series of works by a different artist—Jim Goldberg, Daniel Schwartz, Zanele Muholi, Jacob Aue Sobol, Richard Misrach—comprise this wide-ranging, direct, and personal photography exhibition. Like the book project from which the exhibition takes its name, published in 1929 by German photographer August Sander, this show aims to capture our contemporary moment in time by looking at the “faces” (mostly the photographs feature people, save Mirach’s series, which features graffiti in post-Katrina New Orleans) of specific situations around the world.

The show opens with poignant as well as beautiful images from San Francisco–based Goldberg’s series “Open See.” The series comes out of a project documenting new European immigrants and focuses on the African countries they come from. The people photographed, all of whom are desperately poor, are often facing the camera and shown within the context of their surroundings, be that a small hut or standing atop a pile of rubble. Throughout, they exhibit an undeniable strength—which, we assume, can only be known by those who have survived deplorable situations.

In the next room are thoughtful, meditative works from Schwartz’ series “Traveling Through the Eye of History.” From 1995 to 2007, the artist captured images along the historic Silk Route, which travels through parts of central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Kashmir, western China, and Mongolia. Especially as regards areas that have been heavily affected by war (particularly Afghanistan), these are refreshing for their everyday look. And while we see signs that conflict has taken place—most notably the large empty space in an Afghan hillside where a giant Buddha (destroyed by the Taliban) once resided—the images aren’t about the drama of particular moments in history. This is what you see, what you experience, just being in this place; these are people going about their daily business.

South African photographer Zanele Muholi presents straight-ahead, formal, background-less, black-and-white portraits of transgendered and homosexual South Africans, people who are often targets of violence, discrimination and ridicule. We are informed that even the most violent acts against these people go unpunished because there are no laws regarding hate crimes in South Africa; some of those photographed have died as a result of this violence. The works are undeniably powerful; the strong, direct, “everyday” people—none of them stand out visually in any obvious ways—who serve at Muholi’s subjects put a face on a horrible circumstance.

Aue Sobol presents candid shots from the life of his girlfriend in her hometown of Tiniteqilaaq, a small fishing village in east Greenland. The work is intimate and has an atmospheric quality. The haziness, off-kilter angles, and personal moments captured balance the rest of the exhibition, which elsewhere is more formally polished.

The exhibition ends on a sad but somewhat humorous note, with Misrach’s post-Katrina images of graffiti messages on New Orleans homes that were devastated by the floods. These works feature not one person (or any other living being, for that matter), but are nevertheless alive with raw human emotion: sarcasm, disappointment, sorrow, and anger. This is what happens when you have nothing more to lose. From the undeniably funny “wicked witch” painted on the side of a house, with an arrow pointing down to the ground, to the defensive and confrontational “I am here; I have a gun” painted on boarded up windows, Misrach deftly, elegantly conveys the wide range of reactions elicited by those who suffered the worst of the storm.

These artists put a human face, one we can identify with, on situations a great many of us have no personal experience with. They bring far-away situations into our direct contact, without drama or fanfare. These instances are as remarkable as they are ordinary. The power of the exhibition, then, lies in the ability of these works to touch on intense, loaded, or very personal subjects and remain fascinating to fully digest. These works don’t punch or shock; they gently, beautifully present our reality, and are an opportunity to take it all in.

This exhibition continues through October 16, 2011.

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Sol LeWitt, "A Square of Chicago Without a Trapezoid" (1979), altered photograph

Grids, formal studies, geometric shapes, and patterns fill the walls of San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery in this unique show of photography by seminal minimalist and conceptual artist Sol Lewitt (1928-2007), who is much better known for his sculpture and drawing. This is the first gallery exhibition to focus only on Lewitt’s photographs; the show, titled “Photographic Works, 1968-2004” and on up through April 30, 2011, spans the greater part of the artist’s career.

Some of the images directly transfer from Lewitt’s better known work. For instance, Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance But Little Value (1968; it’s the oldest work in the show) is documentation of a conceptual work; the process of the action is presented in a sequential grid. The evidence of the artwork is now the artwork itself.

Wall signage also informs us that Lewitt was influenced by motion sequence photographer Eadweard Muybridge (incidentally, there is a large Muybridge retrospective currently up at nearby SFMOMA). We can readily see Lewitt’s interest in sequencing via A sphere lit from the top, all sides, and all their combinations (2004), a study comprising 28 images, arranged in a grid, of a sphere lit from various specific angles. Note too, the work is created by following instructions left by the artist, the same concept Lewitt applied to wall drawings.

Perhaps most informative of how the outside world influenced Lewitt’s work is Grids of Grids (1976), in which images of similar everyday objects – wooden doors, grates, skylights – are arranged grid-like, three up and eight across. Is this how the artist processed what he saw? Is this our opportunity to see things through his eyes? Or perhaps this is the artist studying and seeing repetition, which he then breaks down to its most elemental forms and lines in his paintings, drawings, and sculpture (or “structures” as he fittingly called his three-dimensional work). Here we get some insight into a formal process and vision, and get to look at some elegant, rigorous, contemplative imagery as well.

The timely and thought-provoking exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 — currently on show at SFMOMA through April 17 next year — explores the use and cultural impact of photography made in public spaces. A thorough examination of a powerful subject, the show inspires us to examine and question how we feel as individuals and a collective about watching and being watched. It also makes clear the huge impact cameras and camera technology has had and continues to have on us.

Exposed is co-organized by SFMOMA and Tate Modern (where it débuted in May), and comprises over two hundred images with works by artists, amateurs, professional journalists, and governmental agencies. The exhibition was conceived by SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography Sandra S. Phillips and co-curated with Tate Curator of Photography Simon Baker. Just prior to the show’s SFMOMA opening, I did a walk-through with Phillips to gain insight on the show and learn about the stories behind the images.

Chérie Turner: What was the impetus for this show?
Sandra S. Phillips: That’s what everyone wants to know. I did a show a little more than fifteen years ago called Police Pictures, and it’s about the way we think photographs are objective truths, and they’re really not. This idea was the next obvious one — to look and see if the camera has made us see in ways we wouldn’t maybe ordinarily see and what it means culturally for us, too. If there’s a way we look at the world differently because we’re seeing it through a camera lens.

Can you talk about how the show is divided.
There are five sections [The Unseen Photographer, Voyeurism and Desire, Celebrity and the Public Gaze, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance]. The first [The Unseen Photographer] is really about the beginning notions of what privacy is in public spaces. We are sensitized to having a sense of privacy because photography exploded that and abused it.

In 1870 it was possible suddenly to make a camera small enough that you could conceal it and film fast enough that you could record movement. There were all these amateurs all over the place who were making pictures that were very invasive. The laws said that an American citizen has a right to privacy except in a public space. So that’s why there’s this tradition of street photography, especially in the United States.
So a lot of these pictures here were taken with concealed cameras [several such cameras are on display] — looking at people when they were sleeping or drunk or when they were poor.

Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916 by Paul Strand, 1916

This one is one you shouldn’t miss [Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916]. It was done very early with a box camera that had a false lens on the front and the real lens on the side. It’s an invasive picture. The photographer’s looking at someone’s private anguish. And obviously many of the people in these images are poor–that’s another inegalitarianism.

New York by Garry Winogrand, 1969 Collection SFMOMA, fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein; © Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This is interesting [New York] because the photographer uses a wide-angle lens, and of course, the couple doesn’t realize they’re being photographed. They think he’s taking just her picture.

nging photos; I’m thinking here about the torture or violence photos in this show as well as the sex images. Can you tell me why they interest you and why you think they’re important for us to look at.
First of all, I don’t think they’re all that difficult. We see most of this on the web all the time. They’re not unusual, they’re just in a different context here. And the reason they’re here is because I want people to think about them. I think they’re very beautiful.

One issue here is, How important in photography is it for the photographer to be an artist? I don’t think it’s important at all. I think the only thing that matters is the picture. And the picture can be taken by a robot or a child or a master photographer. This show is really about ideas as much as it is about pictures. That’s why they’re here. They’re here to be provocative and to promote discussion and thought. There are some creepy pictures, but I think they’re probably creepy because our culture is creepy. Many of these pictures were published in newspapers and magazines. It’s shocking we tolerate it.

We get to face that here, too.
This section [Celebrity and the Public Gaze] is about celebrity and the double-dealingness of celebrity. Celebrities, to be celebrities, need a public, and they need to show their privacy to the public because that’s what the public wants.

The Queen Plays with her Corgies from the series Confidential by Allison Jackson, 2007 Courtesy the artist and M + B Gallery; © Alison Jackson, courtesy M+B Gallery

These pictures [by Alison Jackson] are completely made up. They’re not real. They’re made with people who look like, say, the Queen.

[Moving on to the Witnessing Violence section.] One thing about this part of the show is that it demonstrates the violence and change in the sixties. There was a lot of sixties trauma that’s depicted that everyone got acclimated to; you saw people getting mangled by dogs and the Vietnam War.

Then we come to the first of the surveillance rooms. We start with history here beginning with the Civil War.

Criminal Record Office, Great Britain, Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes, ca. 1913 Collection and © National Portrait Gallery, London

Then, here [Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes], very early in the twentieth century, late nineteenth century, the police had these files on dangerous persons, like suffragettes or anarchists.

And then the technology improves, so you can have pictures taken of people in courtrooms or private meetings, without their knowing. And then this is Cold War stuff; here are real spy pictures.

I like them because you really can’t tell what happened. They’re completely ambiguous. They’re supposed to say something and they really don’t.

Marc Garanger, Femme Algerienne, 1960 collection SFMOMA, Accessions committee Fund purchase; © Marc Garanger

And these [images by Marc Garanger, 1960] are interesting. The photographer is a French soldier, who, during the Algerian War was sent to photograph woman to keep police records of them. Everyone had to have an identification card. And these are women whose faces had not been seen by anyone except their families. He had to insist that they take their veil off and be photographed. So two things that these women don’t appreciate, that kind of invasiveness and the graven image thing. The experience of doing this radicalized the photographer. He now uses these as documents of how we shouldn’t treat people.

Looking through these surveillance images, a lot of what this show is about is technology.
But also the meaning of technology and what technology looks like. You have to see it to be able to understand it. In the next room are more personal investigations of surveillance. This is a very interesting piece by Yoko Ono where she follows this person. It’s called Rape, but she’s just following someone.

Again with the creepiness.
It is creepy, but it’s also fascinating once you get into it.

Shizuka Yokomizo, Stranger No. 2, 1999 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Shizuka Yokomizo

These are other images [work by Shizuka Yokomizo] that you feel like you really shouldn’t be looking at because they’re so invasive.
Well, she’s this little Japanese lady and she writes to these people and says, “I’d like to take your picture through your window at night. And if you don’t want me to, just close the curtain.” She never actually talks to them directly. She just leaves this note in the mailbox. Of course, they can’t see her —

But they seem to be looking right at her. So, we’ve reached the end of the show here. Is there anything in particular that you would like the viewer take away from this show or think about.
I think the thing to think about is how powerful this is in our culture. How much a part of our culture it is. It’s infiltrated our lives. And, we might want to think about that. Not to be judgmental, but to understand what it means to us as a culture.

Several months back, I was ordering a cappuccino at SFMOMA’s new rooftop sculpture garden, and I noticed a dessert offering that uncannily resembled a Piet Mondrian painting. Another looked a lot like a Wayne Thiebaud cake. Looking closer, I saw that all of the desserts had ties to artwork.

“These are beautiful, and look delicious,” I thought. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
And I was right; these unique sweets are the creation of resident pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman and can only be found in this singular location. And though the idea of making art-inspired treats came to Caitlin in a flash, the full-circle journey to this took a decade.

I sat down with Caitlin at the rooftop garden on a recent sunny day to discuss how she went from being a photography student at UC Santa Cruz and pastry shop counter girl to developing her own baking and pastry niche.

Caitlin Williams Freeman holding a Wayne Thiebaud-inspired cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Chérie Turner: Can you tell me about your art background?

Caitlin Williams Freeman: I was at school in Santa Cruz in the photography program, and we would come up here [to San Francisco] a lot to see various gallery shows. And we would always come to the museum. That’s when I first saw Wayne Thiebaud’s painting [Display Cakes], and I was captivated. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I just really, really loved that one particular painting.

CT: And how’d you get started with baking?

CWF: In college, I worked at this pastry shop. I was just a counter girl, but I was so obsessed with pastries. Years later, I ended up meeting the woman [Megan Ray] who became my business partner.

She had just gotten laid off at a dot com and had never worked at a bakery. But she decided she wanted a cake shop, and so, the two of us were enthusiastic enough that we would just work all hours. We would do farmer’s markets. Then we were offered a space in the ferry building. That was October 2003.

Working at Miette [the cake shop] is how I met James [Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee]. He was my next-door neighbor at the Berkeley farmer’s market. It’s a long story–then in 2008, I sold my part of Miette; it was actually the same day James and I got married.

The Ellsworth Kelly ice-cream bar (with Kelly sculpture on rooftop garden in background)' courtesy SFMOMA

I took a few months off after that and made pastries for James, for Blue Bottle. I figured I’d do that for a while, and then I’d go do my own thing–open a pie shop or something. Shortly after that, the museum [SFMOMA] asked James to open a coffee shop here [at the rooftop garden].

 

I thought it was really cool, but I hadn’t really thought about any connections–but we were up here and suddenly I was like, this is the reason I’m a baker! Because I was obsessed with this painting in this building. We were in this meeting, and I grabbed James and said, “Can I make Thiebaud cakes here?” He said, “Sure!”

So that was the plan: I was going to make Thiebaud cakes in the place where I became inspired to become a baker. It felt so perfect. It had taken me ten years to get here, but it couldn’t have happened better if I had planned it.

CT: But you did more than just Thiebaud cakes.

CWF: Yes. To figure out what else I was going to make, I went and soaked in every piece of art that was on display and tried to figure out what to do. And it’s fun because, with the exception of the Thiebaud cake, which we always have on the menu whether or not the painting is hanging, we really keep the desserts limited to reflecting what’s actually on display in the museum. So when a new show comes up, we make a new dessert based on what will be showing.

CT: Can you talk about the process of coming up with new desserts?

CWF: It’s generally something I’m really inspired by. But you also have to be in tune with what are the popping pieces, the pieces you just can’t miss.

We have this Agnes Martin piece right now that we’re working on, but I really wonder, “Is anyone going to get this?” It’s such a subtle piece, and it’s such a subtle product that we made, and I think it’s just perfect and delicious. But I have no idea if people are going to connect to it. In that case, then, we try to come up with something that is interesting in another way. We have both the artistic angle and the food angle, so if we have something that’s a little more abstract, we can try to make it a more beguiling flavor combo.
I’ve been inspired in many different ways. Like the Mondrian cake. I distinctly remember going past the Mondrian painting, and I kept thinking, “What can I even do with that?” I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.

The Piet Mondrian cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Then I happened to be looking through this old cookbook of Victorian cakes. There’s this old cake called the Battenberg cake; it’s an old British cake. When you cut it, it’s a checkerboard. And I was like, “There it is!” So that ended up happening by finding a cake that was an inspiration and seeing the structure and figuring out how to turn it into art.

We’ve also been really liking these do-it-yourself art/dessert pieces, like the Richard Serra piece. We’re just about to do Alexander Calder build-your-own mobile cookies.

CT: So, what is your overall general approach to developing these desserts?

CWF: We keep two worlds in mind [art and food] and see where they can cross over. Some are really obvious, like the Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn, and those we feel like we have to have because people can connect with them really easily. But I don’t ever want to recreate a piece of art. It’s our interpretation of it.

The Jeff Koons "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" dessert; courtesy SFMOMA