Douglas McCulloh is an artist based in Southern California and Senior Curator at UCR Arts: California Museum of Photography. His most recent exhibition, In the Sunshine of Neglect, is on display until April 28, 2019.
In the Sunshine of Neglect includes 194 works by 54 photographers, including Kim Abeles, Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, Yolanda Andrade, Lewis Baltz, Noah Berger, Laurie Brown, Rachel Bujalski, Bystedt & Egan, Judy Chicago, Will Connell, Joe Deal, Lewis deSoto, John Divola, Christina Fernandez, Judy Fiskin, J. Bennett Fitts, Robbert Flick, Corina Gamma, Anthony Hernandez, Ellen Jantzen, Ron Jude, Hannah Karsen, Sant Khalsa, Meg Madison, Tony Maher, Alia Malley, Ken Marchionno, M. Robert Markovich, Douglas McCulloh, Thomas McGovern, Mark McKnight, Kurt Miller, Richard Misrach, Chelsea Mosher, Kenda North, Naida Osline, Stuart Palley, Leopoldo Peña, Ryan Perez, Herb Quick, Catherine Ruane, Mark Ruwedel, Allan Sekula, Julie Shafer, John S. Shelton, Julius Shulman, Joel Sternfeld, Kim Stringfellow, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Larry Sultan, Andrew K. Thompson, Brett Van Ort, and Aashanique Wilson.
We spoke on March 7.
Paula: The exhibition is called In the Sunshine of Neglect. How did you decide on this title?
Doug: This area, inland Southern California, would be a major metropolitan region anywhere else in the country. There are four and a half million people in 27,000 square miles. It's a larger population than 23 whole other states, but here in Southern California, it's the periphery of Los Angeles. It's the place people drive through on their way to Palm Springs. It's kind of an edge. That's the neglect part. It's overlooked. It’s overshadowed. It doesn't have iconic defining things. There's no Hollywood sign in the region. But as a result of that, as a result of it being this edge, and such a huge place, and not having obscuring iconography, it's a perfect place for experimentation by artists. Especially photographic artists. For years, decades - this show is from 1950 to the present – artists have used this area as a laboratory for experiment. It's the highest area in Southern California and the lowest. It's the hottest. It's the coldest. It's the most extreme. It's the most socio-economically varied. So if you're looking for a place to experiment, this is a great place.
I started a folder on my computer three laptops ago and started throwing stuff in. I kept coming back from shows elsewhere and thinking about all the people who have worked around here. It just kept piling up until I thought that someone should do an exhibition. It's, again, a neglected zone in which there is this sunshine of possibility with an artist, especially as it relates to this shift of landscape and photography that relates to place.
Paula: It’s interesting that it's the absence of something…
Doug: ... that creates the possibility. The bottom line is that there’s freedom on the margins. That's true. If you're in LA, you're kind of following the pack of LA or New York. It takes a kind of edgy subset within that to change something. Here, it is the edge, so there's freedom. The sunshine comes from the absence, right? The corollary to all that is that it's close enough to a major metropolitan area that it kind of cross pollinates with it, but at the same time, the freedom still exists here that isn't available over there.
Paula: So what happens?
Doug: The first things that I threw into that folder on my desktop related to the New Topographics photographers. New Topographics was a famous show. Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal--all of them have deep connections here. Robert Adams went to University of Redlands, and then to USC, where he got a PhD in English before he started photography. He was making photographs around here before he was in the New Topographics show. Lewis Baltz, same deal. He's from Newport, but then went to Claremont, which was then Claremont Graduate School. Joe Deal was friends with Baltz. Joe Deal got into photography because he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and they made him do alternative service. The alternative he served was as a museum guard at Eastman House. He was 21. He was friends with Baltz and he kept coming out here and shooting pictures.
Before this on the West Coast and in the West in general, of course, people were looking at the landscape. They were looking at Point Lobos, Yosemite Valley. What these people did, and what New Topographics crystallized in a way that's durably changed photography is to recognize that the whole built landscape is equally valid or even more valid than going to Point Lobos and shooting some remnant of the natural west that's now being eroded away by this tsunami of red tile roofs. These photographers all became essentially symbols of that, but also evangelists for it.
The way it happened is that this junior curator, William Jenkins, at Eastman House, was part of a team working on this big multi-year project on the history of architectural photography. And then, in the middle of that, a different show that was planned for a side gallery fell through in early spring of 1975. Jenkins was tasked with throwing together a show. He was just a junior guy. He had met Joe Deal when Joe was working there, and had seen some of the other photographers’ work, and since he had been working on the architecture show he got the idea of a subset he called the man-altered landscape, which is the title:New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.
Suddenly this New Topographics point of view bends photography away from Point Lobos toward the strip mall on the highway near Point Lobos. It became part of the environmental movement, but it also really changed photography. This show that literally was thrown together - there are ten photographers and they each got twenty images. They're all 8x10. And that was the show. That's almost nothing, and yet somehow that show really still symbolizes this point. I love the story.
Paula: And that's born here in the Inland Empire.
Doug: That's born here. Joe Deal came to teach here at UC Riverside the year after the New Topographics show. He was still in his 20s and vaulted into like, "Wow, you're famous! We'll hire you here." All these people keep circling back through this area. If you have this new attitude about “to hell with Half Dome, we'll concentrate on sprawl,” Southern California is a good place to come. So then these people are teaching here. Lewis deSoto studied with Deal. It kind of cross -pollinates with Stephen Shore and Eggleston and the new color photography, but it's still really that kind of New Topographics inflective stuff.
Paula: The framing seems very important.
Doug: It's very important. It's all very carefully constructed. William Jenkins made a comment about the New Topographics at the very beginning that it looks like a frame has just been dropped over the scene. And yet that's kind of false. They're still constructed. A pole goes right through the car. Except if you're out walking around, that's what reality really is. It's more like you're just kind of tossing this frame casually over the scene, rather than carefully putting it together. Which then fits this sort of chaotic constructed nature of the landscape you're dealing with. It all is coherent, which is why it's been so durably powerful. It's a very coherent view of the world, and runs against the previous in a strong way. It's hard to look at Ansel Adams after this without saying, “Wait a second. He was setting up his tripod in the parking lot of the Curry Village at Yosemite. Why didn't he just back up and show the parking lot?" Which these guys would have done, ended up doing.
Laurie Brown was another that went to school at Claremont colleges. She got married, had kids, then later took a night class in photography at Orange Coast College, where her teacher, still a grad student, was Lewis Baltz. These become the acolytes, and then eventually evangelists themselves. Laurie Brown has a huge body of work, big panoramic views of constructed landscapes or landscapes under construction.
Paula: What kind of response have you gotten from the local community to this exhibition?
Doug: We had record-breaking attendance for opening night. You couldn't walk around. It was crazy. There were people from all over, including many of the artists. Despite the fact that the trajectory of the art scene has been changed by people operating here, this show has never happened. It’s gratifying that the region is recovering its own history that has been neglected.
Paula: That shows the importance of the local institutions beyond working artists. You have to have a place and a curator that's interested in bringing these ideas together.
Doug: Amen. And all of these institutions – UC Riverside, Claremont Colleges, University of Redlands - all have these traditions. The university hubs have played a key role in art in general, but photography in particular. It just hasn't quite been recognized.
Another section of the exhibition gets into social landscapes, which is still place-based, but it has this other social overlay. We have three photos of The Rubidoux Drive-In from three different photographers: Julius Shulman, the famous, famous, famous architectural photographer, Lewis deSoto, who made a new print for this show, and then Hiroshi Sugimoto, who has made many of these movie screen photographs. Sugimoto makes these by exposing the film for the the whole movie. It’s really wonderful, because we have the best traditional architectural photography, then this color/New Topographics piece, and a conceptually based image where the idea is the driver. You not only have three different views, but sort of a history of different approaches to photography.
Paula: You mentioned that a few of these prints were printed for this show. Can you say something about the mix of vintage and new prints?
Doug: I'm not really a photo purist. I don't think photography is pure any more. There are extremely valuable vintage prints in the show that were really hard to get loans for from the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian, et cetera. Many museums loaned very valuable prints and have extreme rules about how you can show it. The light levels have to be this and that, and all that kind of stuff, which you can do here at the museum.
On the other hand, I also love prints made yesterday. I think that's just fine. If somebody had said, "You know what? I've got these ones that I don't want to make prints at all. We'll just project them on the floor." I'd be open to that. I think that's what photography is and should be. A university space and a museum space should be a little bit on the adventurous side. So we’ve got everything from ultra-blue-chip pieces, including that Sugimoto, which is a rare thing and worth a lot, and on the other hand, there are prints that were made for the show and run off on an artist’s laser printer at home.
Another project that I find wonderful is the series Fotomat by the partnership of Bysted & Egan. They’re kind of running against the Instagram moment. Their goal is to evoke the veracity of snapshots that were developed at those Fotomat places, thrown in a shoe box, and left in the closet since 1971. The twist is that they're brand new. They're super high res digital. Everybody in them, including the arm, is them. They go out and find classic El Caminos and go to thrift stores to find stuff of the period.
Paula: I feel like these were the ones in the shoe box that wouldn't have made the photo album.
Doug: Exactly. But because of that, because of the horrible construction where the heads are cut off, the composition is strange, etc., they're not curated the way an Instagram feed is. Even though I know they're totally staged, bogus, and fake, I still think the veracity of the images is very real. They've done this for years, decades. They've known each other since high school. I love that.
Tony Maher is operating in the same terrain. This project started when he was walking to work one day on campus and found that the architecture department had thrown out all these old models that were used to sell tract homes back in the 50s. He dug through and he found one that he says is uncannily similar to the house he grew up in, which was in a crappy neighborhood in north San Bernardino. It set him off building these. They're all autobiographical. One example is The Day Dad Moved Out. He says that his dad did have a Mustang, but it wasn't a red Mustang. He says, "You know, I wish my dad was a better dad. So I gave him a red Mustang." It's kind of touching.
Paula: We can all project our own memories onto these pictures.
Doug: Something like this. What would I build if I was doing this for my life?
Doug: Ryan Perez is a young photographer teaching at Art Center. He’s half Mexican and half Filipino. He was part of the street racing scene in Ontario and had a super fast red car. He said, "I got a ticket almost every week with that car.” At that time, it was about freedom and finding yourself, so these pictures represent that. Now he's married, teaches at Art Center, and drives a Prius. These are high angle views. He rented the biggest box truck he could get and set up a tripod on top of it, and shot 4x5, black and white film. These are cul-de-sacs along the 210 freeway that were all cut off when the freeway was put in. These marks in the road are from people who still have freedom. He’s now passing by on the freeway driving to Art Center. That's him. He's linear. They still have freedom. It's just beautiful.
In the 70s, Judy Chicago was living in southern California. Ed Ruscha and Michael Heizer and James Turrell and all the land artists were doing their macho modify the landscape thing. Judy’s work is a reaction against that. It's a performance piece with these photographic documents that came out of it. It’s in upper San Antonio Canyon. She actually apprenticed with a pyrotechnics company to be able to set off these industrial level smoke flares, and spent one day feminizing-her word- the landscape with white smoke. She transformed the whole place with drifting snow developing, sweeping into all the curves. Meanwhile, other land artists are bulldozing places to alter the landscape. Her point is that this completely changes when the snow goes away. She hasn’t damaged anything, but it's a whole different place. At the same time, from the point of view of actually changing the landscape for a female artist, Judy Chicago really did change the landscape, and challenged the macho theme. it's pretty great..
Paula: The exhibition’s time frame is the 1950s to the present. What do you see going forward? There’s still quality teaching going on here. This story is ongoing.
Doug: I've kind of puzzled about that. It’s really interesting to un-archive a lost history, this overlooked history, which is what this show does. It’s even harder is to look into the future and go, "What now?" It's hard to say. What seems clear is that this place is really a strong, powerful, extremely varied place. You can find almost anything you would want. With this base and that New Topographics bend with all those people operating here, what's happening is work where someone is performing in the landscape, painting, or smoke, or acting or so on. Or thinking about identity like Ryan Perez. Who am I in this space and how do I define myself here? All of those things, which are really the major strands of photography at this point. Identity, performance, and staging for the camera have now woven strands into what was already a very place-based practice, and the power of tradition in photography and tradition in teaching continues.
Paula: Well congratulations. This is quite an achievement. I hope that it was gratifying.
Doug: Oh, it's an incredible pleasure. Are you kidding? To do this? It is. I mean, really, every day I'm like, "Wow, that's the luckiest thing ever."