woensdag 14 juni 2017

Views & Reviews The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards Mike Mandel Photography

Album description
135 cards originally sold in randomly sorted packs of ten, 3.5” x 2.5”
The project satirized the phenomenon of the fine art photography community being consumed by the larger art world and commercial culture. I photographed photographers as if they were baseball players and produced a set of cards that were packaged in random groups of ten, with bubble gum, so that the only way of collecting a complete set was to make a trade. I travelled around the United States visiting about 150 photographic “personalities” and had them pose for me. I carried baseball paraphernalia: caps, gloves, balls, a mask and chest protector, a bat, as well as photographic equipment, and made a 14,000 mile odyssey. Out of this experience came 134 Baseball-Photographer images. I designed a reverse side for the card which would allow for each photographer to fill in their own personal data that in a way referred to the information usually included on real baseball cards: Favorite camera, favorite developer, favorite film, height, weight, etc. I used whatever information each photographer provided me. In a sense, each of their responses provides an insight about how they each approached their participation. I had 3,000 cards made of each one: 402,000 cards plus 6,000 checklists. The cards were packaged in polyethylene bags, with bubble gum, in random groups of ten. I sold cartons of 36 packs to museums and galleries all over the country. I received press attention from Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle, and all the major print media. Thus, the cards were a media event even though they were intended to satirize the media’s impacts.

Mike Mandel: 'The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards' 
by Aaron Schuman 
May 2010

This essay was originally published in Aperture #200, Fall 2010.

      In 1974, just a year before Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, classmates at the San Francisco Art Institute, were awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts to pursue what eventually became their seminal project, Evidence, Mandel found himself becoming frustrated by the growing competitiveness within photographic circles. “[In the Seventies] it seemed that the photo community was comprised of a group of dedicated artists, who. . . had been snubbed by the art world for having the audacity to negate the imperative of the unique, precious object,” Mandel wrote in 1999, “But a strange thing happened about that time: the art world discovered photography. . . Competitions for NEA grants and university jobs began to revolve around the hierarchy of art world professionals.”

Mandel’s response was to embark on The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards, a collection of 134 informal portraits of photographers posing as baseball players, which were produced in the manner of ordinary trading cards, complete with index numbers, accompanying statistics and quotes on the reverse side, and were then sold in packs of ten—complete with bubble gum donated by Topps, the leading producer of sports-related cards at the time. “I wanted to lampoon the newfound celebrity-hood of photo personalities in the art marketplace,” Mandel explains, also remembering that during his own baseball-card collecting childhood, “cards made the players more accessible—in fact, public property.”

      Today, the persistent debate surrounding photography’s validity as Art (with a capital A) can seem dated and tiresome, yet the underlying sense of inferiority that many worthy, accomplished, and celebrated photographers have suffered over the years is well evidenced throughout the medium’s history, in both imagery and photo-related writings. Reassuringly, alongside this streak of angst there has also always run a vein of confidence in the medium as a relevant pursuit in its own right, without need for comparison or justification in relation to the traditional arts. In 1913, after spending several decades doggedly defending the artistic merits of photography, Alfred Stieglitz bluntly summarized his argument: “Photographers must learn not to be ashamed to have their photographs look like photographs.” Several years later, encouraged by Stieglitz’s call for “straight photography”, Paul Strand famously rejected the conceits of Pictorialism—the art-photography of his day—dismissing it as “fuzzygraphs” that ultimately expressed “an impotent desire to paint.” Similarly, Lewis Hine rejoiced in the fact that his documentary work had been recognized for conveying “the value of realistic photography, which has for some time been displaced by the fuzzy impressionism of the day.” And even as late as 1971, Walker Evans was championing photography in the face of its straggling doubters: “[P]hotography, a despised medium to work in, is full of empty phonies and worthless commercial people,” he remarked. “That presents quite a challenge to the man who can take delight in being in a very difficult, disdained medium.”

      From these examples and many others, one gets the sense that photographers—at least a certain kinds of photographers—have always taken pleasure in inhabiting the role of the outcast, the charlatan, the underdog. It is not surprising, then, that during the latter half of the twentieth century, when photography finally began to be embraced rather than rejected by the art world, mixed feelings were stirred, and a certain sense of mistrust arose among many practitioners. In response, a number of photographers rapidly turned away from notions of the medium as one of fine craftsmanship and purist aesthetics, and sought refuge in more vernacular territories, experimenting with popular rather than “artistic” forms of photography. In 1963 Ed Ruscha (#22 in The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards, shielding his eyes from the bright sun in search of an imaginary fly-ball) adopted an intentionally amateurish, “snapshot” approach in his Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and later adapted conventional aerial photography for his own conceptual purposes in Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967). In the late 1960s John Baldessari began incorporating intentionally “bad” or “wrong” photographs into his canvases, instantly imbuing them with artistic merit. In 1971 Stephen Shore produced Amarillo: Tall in Texas, a series of ten generic-looking, geographically unspecific commercial postcards, which he then surreptitiously distributed in various stores and postcard-racks across America.

      Mandel’s Trading Cards sit comfortably within this movement—the half-ironic, half-sincere reappropriation of everyday images and photographic contexts—and also reflect an almost exaggerated unpretentiousness through the performances of many of their subjects. A baby-faced Larry Sultan (#13) poses satirically pious as an altar boy, his two hands clasped around a baseball, his wide eyes aimed toward the heavens; a grinning Beaumont Newhall (#103) is subsumed by a face-mask and chest protector, jokingly playing the umpire-in-chief behind home-plate; on the back of her card, Joyce Neimanas (#37) proclaims: “You should bunt to sacrifice yourself to the runner”; and on the front of another, Bill Owens (#31) does just that, bunting the approaching camera back down toward the ground; a bemused William Eggleston (#126) looks at his glove, apparently surprised that the ball has actually managed to land in it—the back of his card reads “No comment.” Even Mandel’s own card (#24) shows him releasing a curveball, subtly implying that although he may appear to be aiming straight at the target, his delivery will deliberately veer away from the strike-zone at just the last second. It’s as if all these newfound “photo-celebrities” are reminding the viewer—and perhaps more importantly, one another—that despite their impending art-stardom, at heart they’re still just goofy kids with cameras who don’t  take themselves too seriously.

      Of course, today these cards no longer convey accessibility or lampoon the celebrity of their subjects. Instead, they have become coveted icons in their own right, treasured totems to heroes of previous generations. Eggleston’s cool bemusement is now legendary, the disorientating break of Mandel’s artistic pitch is now venerated, and the overall wit and comedic self-mockery of 1970s Conceptual photography is much revered. Mandel fully acknowledges this: in the last several years complete sets of the cards have been auctioned, by Mandel and others, for thousands of dollars. “I find myself in the position of selling these at a premium, participating in the same commercial matrix that the cards originally intended to parody,” Mandel has written. “I can accept that. Now they are historic artifacts of an earlier generation of photography.”

      Yet it is important to recognize that these are not just individual artifacts of particular practitioners. Collectively, Mandel’s Trading Cards testify to the humble, joyous, and ultimately supportive spirit of a small, tightly knit network that truly shared a passion for a once “distained medium” at a particularly awkward point in time, and mutually refused the egotism and envy that can so easily accompany the approach of artistic success. Now that photography, the art world, and the “commercial matrix” have fully merged to form a severely competitive atmosphere around the medium, one hopes that Mandel’s Baseball Photographer Trading Cards will not only be relegated to the collectibles market, but might also serve as a quiet reminder that photography thrives best on community and collectivity, rather than through fierce competition. To quote Yogi Berra: "It ain't the heat; it's the humility."

By Ian Crouch   November 19, 2015

Photograph by Mike Mandel

When you think of the photographer Ansel Adams, you might imagine majestic scenes from Yosemite or the Tetons, conveyed in glorious, high-contrast black-and white. You’re less likely to picture the man himself, and certainly unlikely to imagine him dressed for a baseball game, wearing a catcher’s mask and a chest protector. But that’s how he was captured, in the nineteen-seventies, by the photographer Mike Mandel. Then a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Mandel took pictures of Adams and more than a hundred other photographers, and turned them into figures on baseball cards. He printed nearly half a million cards in total, put them into packs of ten, and even included a familiar stick of bubble gum, which he got directly from the Topps trading-card company.

In a recent interview with Smithsonian, Mandel explained that he intended the project as commentary on photography’s growing legitimacy in American culture at the time; as the medium gained recognition as a serious art form, individual photographers were becoming stars.

I wanted to make fun of the fact that this was a double-edged sword. It was great that photographers were . . . getting long overdue recognition, but at the same time there was this other half that came with it, which is this popular celebrity-hood which keeps people from being accessible.

The cards have since become collector’s items, and facsimiles from the project are included as part of the new box set “Good 70s,” which collects Mandel’s work from the nineteen-seventies. In addition, the collection includes an original pack from 1975. (Lucky fans might get Imogen Cunningham, wearing a Mao cap, and tossing what appears to be a nasty hook.) The cards feature all the vital stats you’d expect on a trading card, and some you wouldn’t: favorite camera, film, and paper, and, in most cases, a quotation from the subject.

Several of the photographers, like many ballplayers, don’t have much to say. Harry Callahan, pictured squinting up at the sky, as if at a fly ball, offers only, “To make a statement would be against my nature.” John Divola, wearing a Dodgers cap and captured in blurry mid-dive for the ball, says, “Statements are hard to make.” Bill Eggleston, in a Sox hat and striped scarf, gazing at a ball held in his outstretched lefty glove, looking a bit like Hamlet with the skull, demurs with “No comment.”

Other statements sound like slightly more off-kilter versions of the famous aphorisms of Yogi Berra. Ed Ruscha, in a work shirt and Dodgers cap, pronounces, “Everything you’ve ever wanted is right in your own backyard.” Todd Walker, handling the bat gingerly, like a conductor’s baton, maybe getting ready to lay down an especially dainty, or precise, bunt, offers advice that could apply to baseball, photography, and life: “Shoot straight and, as they say in golf, keep your eye on the ball.” Minor White, showing off his righty stance, and hiding his body and the strike zone beneath a shawl, proclaims, cryptically, “Baseball is an amusing anecdote about beautiful women.” Even Yogi couldn’t have managed that one, nor would he have, as Frederick Sommer does, thought to make doggerel out of Shakespeare. “Nothing methinks is marvellous and hairy like a face or tender ass.” Play ball!

Then there’s Mandel’s own card, which captures him in an elegant follow-through, looking a bit like Sidd Finch. He throws left, the card informs us, and has a preference for Kodak Tri-X film.

Ian Crouch is a contributing writer and producer for newyorker.com. He lives in Maine. 

That Time When Ansel Adams Posed for a Baseball Trading Card
In the 1970s, photographer Mike Mandel asked his famous colleagues to pose for a pack of baseball cards. The results are as amazing as you’d imagine

(Photography by Mike Mandel; Graphic by Shaylyn Esposito)

By Brad Balukjian
SEPTEMBER 15, 2015

Forget that 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck card or your 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, the real baseball card prize is the Ansel Adams rookie. How many of you can say you have that in your parents’ attic?

The Adams card is one of 135 cards in the “Baseball Photographer Trading Cards” set, a whimsical and unique collectible that’s equal parts art and spoof. It was the grad school brainchild of Mike Mandel, a photographer and professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and features images of 1970s photographers in baseball gear and poses. The cards are being reissued this fall by D.A.P./J&L Books as part of a boxed set of Mandel’s work called Good 70s.

Mandel’s maverick streak was evident early—at the age of seven while growing up in Los Angeles, he received a San Francisco Giants hat and transistor radio from his grandmother following her trip to Northern California. The Giants were fresh from their move from New York, and Mandel would lie awake, feigning sleep and staying up late to listen to Giants games on the radio.

“All my friends were Dodgers fans,” he says. “I was kind of the antagonist.”

Like many other boys of his generation, he collected baseball cards throughout his childhood. By the time he reached graduate school for photography at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1970s, the country had changed dramatically—the scrubbed façade of the 1950s had been exposed by the counterculture movement, changing many facets of American society, including the art world. Up until that point, photography had been considered a derivative, sideline pursuit, the podiatry of the art community.

(Mike Mandel)

“There were very few photographers that were getting any kind of national recognition as far as artists go,” Mandel explains.

“Photography was always seen as this reproducible medium where you could make tens of thousands of photographs off the same negative, so it didn’t have that same aura of the original,” he says.

That lack of respect traces back to the early-20th century, when art theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin “talked about how the art object had a very particular aura that was very specific. If you saw the original artwork in a museum it was really a very different kind of experience than seeing it reproduced in a book or some other way,” Mandel says.

“Photography was utilitarian,” says Shannon Thomas Perich, curator in the photographic history collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“Where there were famous photographers, they were photojournalists and war photographers—Margaret Bourke-White, those photographers that were featured in LIFE magazine, Robert Capa—even though you had lots of great photography coming out of the WPA [Works Progress Administration] and those photographs were very visible, photography was still very functional, and there wasn’t a lot of art photography that was seen widely,” Perich says.

But with the social foment of the 1960s, photography became a critical tool for depicting the injustices that fueled the decade’s outrage.

“If you go back to the ‘60s and the counter culture, you see images of the Vietnam War and recognize how photography was so important in communicating what was going on in the world,” says Mandel. That, coupled with vast improvements in the quality of 35 mm cameras, spurred a surge of interest in photography, especially in the academic community. Photography was finally taken seriously as art, and university art departments started churning out a new generation of photographic artists.

Sensing the shifting winds, Mandel wryly commented on photographers’ new legitimacy by combining their portraits with the ultimate symbol of commercialized Americana—the baseball card. With the help of his graduate advisor Gary Metz and Robert Heinecken, who established UCLA’s photography program in 1964, Mandel and his girlfriend at the time, Alison Woolpert, made a list of 134 photographers around the country who they wanted to depict in their set of cards.

“I wanted to make fun of the fact that this was a double-edged sword. It was great that photographers were being recognized as artists and that they were getting long overdue recognition, but at the same time there was this other half that came with it, which is this popular celebrity-hood which keeps people from being accessible,” Mandel says.

He started by approaching photographers in the Bay Area, landing such greats as Imogen Cunningham, whose card shows her throwing a nasty change-up while wearing what may seem like a Houston Astros hat but is actually a Mao cap, revealing her extreme political proclivities. Getting big names like Cunningham opened the floodgates, as other renowned artists like Ansel Adams signed on. Despite Adams’s celebrity, back then enlisting him in the effort was as simple as finding his number in the phone book and making a call.

“He thought it was a great idea, was very congenial and had a good time with it,” Mandel says.

Most of the artists he approached shared Adams’ enthusiasm.

“They were kind of making fun of themselves. They were in on the joke that photography was becoming a bigger enterprise, a popular cultural enterprise,” he says.

Mandel and Woolpert took their show on the road in the fall of 1974, cobbling together $1,700 in savings and embarking on a 14,000-mile cross-country road-trip to shoot their subjects. Once back, he took on the task of publishing 3,000 copies of each card for a total print run of 402,000. He carried his spoof to the extreme, including such vital statistics on the backs of the cards as “Favorite Photography Paper” and “Favorite Camera” and bits of wisdom from the photographers themselves (“Baseball is a an amusing anecdote about beautiful women,” said Minor White).

Mandel randomly sorted the cards into packs of ten and bundled them in plastic sleeves. The only thing missing was that key staple of all baseball card collecting—the bubblegum.

But Topps, the main manufacturer of baseball cards, gladly obliged Mandel’s plea for assistance, and before long his garage smelled like a cotton candy stand at the circus.

“I can’t recall how much it weighed, but I had 40,000 pieces of gum in these cartons that I stored in my garage,” he says.

He inserted one stick of gum per pack and distributed them to museums and art galleries around the country where they sold for a dollar apiece.

Coverage in Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and others generated such a buzz that museums began holding card trading parties where they could try and build complete sets. At one event at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mandel held a card flipping contest, awarding the person whose card landed closest to the wall with a carton of 36 packs.

Given their popularity and limited run, the cards have since become a rare collector’s item. Mandel still sells original complete sets for around $4,000. But a much more affordable option is the re-issued set that comes as part of the Good 70s boxed set, for which all of the original negatives were re-scanned.

“The cards look ten times better in terms of their detail than what we had in 1975 in terms of technology,” he says. The set also includes reproductions of his other work from that era, some of it never-before-published, and a pack of the original cards from Mandel’s remaining collection. Just don’t try chewing the gum that’s included.

“I contacted the Topps people and the guy there in public relations remembered the guy from 40 years ago [who had donated the gum in the original project]. He inquired whether or not they had any gum because now they don’t even make gum except for some esoteric projects. They just make the cards. But he actually connected me to a guy in New Hampshire who makes fake gum from Styrofoam material. It’s pink, and it looks just like the gum from the packs of that era. We bought it from the guy and printed on the backside ‘this is not gum.’”

But keep your dentist’s phone number close, just in case your nostalgia gets a little carried away.

About Brad Balukjian

Brad Balukjian is a science writer and a biology professor at Laney College in Oakland, California. He just completed an 11,341-mile road trip to track down all the players in a single pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards for his upcoming book, Wax Pack. Read more at waxpackbook.com and follow him on Twitter @waxpackbook.

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