The SF Arts Commission Gallery's "Afghanistan in 4 Frames" brings together images from a quartet of photographers. SFMOMA's mammoth exhibition "Exposed" errs on the side of excess.
HAIRY EYEBALL Around 500 people a day pass through the long corridor that bisects San Francisco City Hall's lower level: supervisors dashing to the café for a quick lunch; tour groups of elementary school children; aides making a post office run; the occasional member of a wedding party looking for the bathroom.
It is also one of the last places where you'd expect to find a politically vital art installation, which is what makes San Francisco Art Commission gallery director Meg Shiffler's decision to hang its current exhibit, "Afghanistan in 4 Frames," in such a public and heavily-trafficked area so gutsy. Though the SFAC regularly puts on three to four art shows a year in the City Hall space, none in recent memory have resonated so powerfully with the dynamics of the venue itself.
The "4 Frames" exhibit presents a ground-level (no pun intended) portrait of the country through the lenses of four photojournalists who, over the past five years, have embedded themselves with various military forces and units stationed there. Though each photographer varies in style and background, their work — presented as photo-essays — shares a focus on the day-to-day, intersecting lives of civilians and soldiers off the battlefield.
James Lee, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and current San Francisco State University graduate student whose move to photography from writing was a recent one, captures in crisp color the downtime faced by young Afghan National Security Force soldiers stationed near the Pakistan border.
In contrast to the all-male environment Lee documents, Lynsey Addario's series "Women at War" focuses on the experience of female U.S. troops and their engagement with female civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer has a knack for taking a picture at the moment her subjects are at their most unguarded, whether sharing a laugh with each other or shaving their legs in the barracks.
Addario's photos are pointedly hung on a wall across from Bay Area photographer Eros Hoagland's slightly more testosterone-driven series, "Siege Perilous." The high contrast black and white photos depicting British military forces in the Korengal Valley and Helmand Province practically crackle with tension.
Another veteran photographer, Teru Kuwayama, is the only one who works with actual film, and his grainy, black and white Holga and Leica portraits of rural clans and armed mercenaries feel as if they are from another era. Kuwayama's most timely work on Afghanistan actually resides offsite and online: his Web reporting initiative, Basetrack, links deployed Marines with life at home through images and video created by embedded journalists (although just last week military brass asked the embeds to leave).
Afghanistan made front pages again last summer after WikiLeaks uncovered 90,000 pages of classified materials chronicling a five-year window in the U.S. military's long slog there. But "4 Frames" reminds those who encounter it — as well as those who seek it out — that regardless of the headlines, there will always be an ongoing, human side to what has been so often dubbed "the forgotten war." And forgetting is not a luxury we can afford.
Although a vastly different beast from "Afghanistan in Four Frames," SFMOMA's current juggernaut of a thematic survey "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870" offers a pointed study in contrast, demonstrating how not to curate a photography show with clarity of vision or regard to what could be called an ethics of representation.
As proclaimed by its title, "Exposed," which was organized by SFMOMA and the Tate Modern in London, where it originally premiered, attempts to track — across various eras, technologies, and milieu — what the introductory wall text calls the "voyeuristic impulse" in modern and contemporary photography: "an eagerness to see a subject commonly considered taboo."
With such an open-ended criteria, the curators have essentially given themselves carte blanche to include everything from early 20th-century "detective cameras," Walker Evans' portraits of unknowing New York City subway passengers, Ron Galella's paparazzi snaps of Jackie O., Nick Ut's iconic image of a crying Kim Phuc in Vietnam (as well as his 2007 picture of a crying Paris Hilton), Robert Mapplethorpe's BDSM pictures, surreptitious documentation of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and Trevor Paglen's near-abstract renderings of distant military sites.
The 200 or so pieces are arranged in thematically-grouped galleries ("Celebrity and the Public Gaze," "Witnessing Violence") that wind through half of the museum's fifth floor. By the time you've made it through the lengthy, final "Surveillance" section of the show, "Exposed" feels more like a photography catalog that become the genesis for an exhibit, and not the other way around.
Such tidy categorization has the negative effect of creating closed systems rather than allowing different pieces to speak to each other. For example, two harrowing, anonymously-attributed lynching photos belong next to one of the most moving selections in "Exposed," Oliver Lutz's Lynching of Leo Frank, which hangs in another gallery. At the same time, the very proximity of death images and paparazzi shots cheapens both.
When presenting highly-charged, difficult images, many of which document humankind at its most brutal and unsavory, the context they are displayed in becomes as crucial as the images themselves. "Exposed," which feels like the result of several unseemly Google image searches rather than a decade of curatorial sweat, disappoints in this regard.
Atrocity. Murder. Fame. Kinky sex. It's all here! The question no one seemed to ask is: does it need to be? "Exposed" is simply too much. *
AFGHANISTAN IN 4 FRAMES
Through May 13, free
1 Dr Carlton B. Goodlett Place (ground floor), SF
EXPOSED: VOYEURISM, SURVEILLANCE, AND THE CAMERA SINCE 1870
Through April 17; free–<\d>$18
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF