In this age of Instagrams and selfies, “Ourselves Through The Lens: Photography From The Ramer Collection” on view at the Crocker Art Museum is a deeply moving collection of masterful photographs that confront us with our shared humanity and ideas about modernity and power.
Human yearning and resolve are revealed in portraits of anonymous farmworkers, cafeteria clientele and a skinny high school drummer standing poised and rigid on a Wisconsin football field.
The exhibition, sensitively put together by former associate curator Diana L. Daniels, showcases gifts made to the museum from the important humanist and socially conscious Barry S. Ramer Collection.
From mid-20th century American masterworks by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), Robert Frank (b. 1924), and Leon Levinstein (1910-1988) to contemporary Latin American photographers such as Eniac Martinez Ulloa, Sebastião Salgado and Flor Garduño, the exhibition frames the question of how and through what social lens do we view ourselves.
These pictures are portraits “from the field,” part anthropology, part poetry, part social documentary. As we attempt to absorb these diverse aspects of experience, the work also questions how we present our truths and dreams. From Central Valley ranches to Cuban streets to Hollywood Boulevard, slices and sub-sections of diverse cultures are unflinchingly revealed.
Much of the most engrossing, emotionally haunting work is by the contemporary Latin American photographers. Garduño, born in Mexico City in 1957, began as a painter. But after meeting her two most important mentors, the Hungarian war photographer Kati Horna and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, one of Latin America’s most significant artists, she became enraptured with photography, learning critical and technical skills as Bravo’s darkroom assistant.
She began her career by taking photographs for the Mexican Ministry of Education, photographing rural, indigenous communities. “Eagle Knight, Japlan, Mexico” (1986/1993) is a work from that period. Photographed against a graffiti-scarred wall, a young man stands in profile, dressed in a handmade feathered costume. His head emerging from a gawping bird’s mouth, the boy appears to be blowing or playing an instrument reminiscent of an old-fashioned insect sprayer. The image is a timeless portrait of myth and ritual performance, but for the 20th century leather boots and white cotton socks.
“Worker’s Feet, Brazil” (1983) by Salgado is a shattering and deeply compassionate black-and-white portrait of three gnarled feet in worn plastic flip-flops. Encrusted with dirt, toenails half ripped from the toes, they are almost as foreign, as if they are claws. This simple, poignant portrait speaks volumes without uttering a word. It is impossible to stand before this profoundly moving portrait, wearing comfortable museum-going shoes and not question the ethics and values of global economics.
Initially educated as an economist, and the subject of Wim Wenders’ 2014 biographical documentary, “The Salt of the Earth,” Salgado is arguably the most important social documentarian working in the world today.
“Halloween in Gilroy” (1989) by Ulloa is a moving portrait of childhood and a moody nocturne of an ancient, but fading culture. It is lit with a rich mix of velvety blacks and sooty whites, and composed like an Ed Wood film-set. A little vampire child gazes serenely at us, while a companion stands close playing with a dog as the lights of Gilroy spread out in the distance below.
Ulloa was born in Mexico in 1959 and received a Fulbright fellowship in 1989 for his documentation of the Mixtec Indians who, out of environmental and economic necessity, migrated to the United States from their home state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The vast emptiness of this California valley night only emphasizes how tentative and fragile is this child’s history upon the land. But crushing poverty has compelled this ancient culture to choose either immigration or extinction.
Ourselves Through the Lens: Photography From the Ramer Collection
Where: The Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
When: Through Oct. 23.
Hours: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesdays - Sundays; 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. Thursdays. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”
More information: 916-808-7000 or crockerartmuseum.org.