When Ansel Adams put together a portfolio of views back in 1927, he printed the photographs himself to make sure that they were of the highest quality.
And Adams being Adams, he also saw to it that the subject matter was uplifting. For his portfolio "Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras," he went into the wilderness for inspiration and came back with pictures like "Monolith: The Face of Half Dome." Alternating between light and shadow, it depicts an austere rock cliff darkly rising up against a glowering sky, a patch of snow glimmering in the earth below.
Forty-five years later, in 1972, Les Krims took an approach that was worlds away.
Instead of Adams' carefully crafted gelatin silver prints, Krims went for cheap photo offset litho. Rather than finding something monumental in nature, he turned his camera on tawdry human affairs. And instead of extracting images from the real world, he created his own, staging seedy murder tableaux in run-down kitchens.
Even his title is irreverent. He called his portfolio "The Incredible Case of the Stack o' Wheat Murders." Using chocolate for blood in one picture, he photographed a naked woman on the floor, apparently dead in a pool of her own blood. An adjoining pancake stack is meant to be the murderer's signature. If Adams prized the refined, the monumental and the beautiful, Krims went for the cheap, the vernacular and ugly.
The Adams-Krims dichotomy is illuminated in Boxed Sets: Portfolios of the Seventies, the enormous show now at the Center for Creative Photography. Put together by new CCP curator Britt Salvesen from the center's own holdings, the exhibition examines the 1970s photography revolution through the prism of the theme portfolios that proliferated then. Adams may have pioneered the form back in 1927, followed by Paul Strand, Edward Weston and others, but it was the rebellious artists of the '70s who really flooded the market with photos-in-a-box.
For this show, her first solo effort at the center, Salvesen exhibits portions of some 28 portfolios in the center's archives, along with the finely crafted cardboard boxes that once housed the work. Photographers and gallerists had the idea if they selected a handful of limited images, presented them in "handsome boxes" and accompanied them with texts, they could persuade buyers of the work's "rarity and quality," Salvesen writes in a wall text.
Some of the boxes themselves are worthy of the glass cases Salvesen has placed them in. Phil Davis' 1972 collection of documentary photos of fading small-town life, "The Dexter Portfolio," boasted a black box with elegant gray letters, and two black ties on the side. If the collectors who clamored to buy portfolios kept the work in their specially made containers, Salvesen takes the photographs out of the box and puts them on the wall in frames. She includes historical portfolios from Adams and others in a prologue, but the main show focuses on the 1970s photography boom.
Compared to, say, painting and sculpture, photography was still a relatively young art form in the 1970s. (The first true photograph was made in 1839.) Finally emerging from the shadow of the older arts, photography was suddenly commanding high prices, being shown in specialized galleries and museums, taught in new university photography departments, and winning government grants for its creators. (Founded in 1975, the CCP was part of this boom.) And photography was already spawning an insurgency.
Artists like Krims, 30 years old when he undertook his stack o' wheat, were rebelling against a whole range of photographic conventions developed by elders like Adams, from the reverence for the fine print to the veneration of black and white over color to exalted ideas about Art with a capital A.
Steeped in the new media culture of television, movies and mass marketing, young artists started borrowing from the popular culture they'd been immersed in since infancy. Krims' murder scenes, for instance, are almost unimaginable without film noir or TV cop shows. And artists didn't hesitate to use the cheap, disposable materials they saw all around them--instead of gelatin silver prints, their art came in the form of Polaroids and photocopies.
Robert Heineken, who drew his inspiration from the ubiquitous images of advertising, is a good example. For one late '70s work, included in the show, he made three Polaroids of a heavily made-up young woman who looks exactly like the kind of wind-blown model you'd find in a popular magazine. He also interviewed the woman--her real name, she insisted impossibly, was Brandy Alexander--and jotted her answers on a napkin. He photocopied the napkin, with its he-said, she-said Q&A, and appended it to the three Polaroids as his entry in "Westcoastnow," a 1979 invitational group portfolio of numerous California photographers.
Apparently, even the portfolio's organizer was a little nervous about his unconventional materials. Heineken used an anxious question she asked him as the title for his piece: "But Will Each One Be an Original SX-70 Print or a Duplicate?" For Heineken, questions of originality simply weren't significant.
Not all of the portfolio work was this groundbreaking. Davis' loveable small-town images fit easily into an earlier documentary tradition. Richard Avedon made a gallery of politicians in the election year of 1976 in his trademark stark black and white. A group project, The First Apeiron Portfolio, from 1974 captures the strangeness of human life in black and white (Duane Michals' New York street scene) and the grace of the natural world (Linda Connor's untitled bird and leaf).
Some of the '70s portfolios were even reworkings of much older pictures. In 1977, photographer George A. Tice made new contact prints of pictures the long-dead Weston had made of his young son, Neil, back in the 1920s. The Weston heirs apparently gave their blessing to the project, which was published as a new portfolio, "Six Nudes of Neil."
The exhibition hints at the turmoil across all art disciplines of the time, when painters were abandoning oils and canvas for conceptual and performance art, and body and earth art. For instance, artist Jim Dine collaborated with photographer Lee Friedlander on the multimedia portfolio "Photographs and Etching," 1969. On one of their joint pages, Friedlander inserted a pedestrian image of a dog with a pie plate in its mouth while Dine contributed an etching of a man's bathrobe that could have come straight from a newspaper ad.
This dull work is a reminder that some experiments fail. The color work of Todd Walker, the late UA professor, included in the 1975 portfolio "Colors: A Portfolio of Original Offest Prints by 10 Imagemakers," also has a dated look. He included a dual image, of two photographers photographing each other; it appears once in black and white, and once flipped over and dissolving into hallucinogenic color.
Still, this kind of work is historically important. It led, as Salvesen notes, directly to much of the photography--and other art--being done today, with its appropriated images, mixing of media and embrace of sources high and low. In fact, the curator said in a phone interview, the photography students at the university have enjoyed it immensely, because "it's a multimedia show."
In any case, portfolios reached a dead end by decade's end, their very proliferation undermining their own goal of making the work seem rare. The art market returned to its previous preoccupation, highly prizing the finely made individual photograph.