Documentary History Photography
‘A History of the World According to Getty Images’ Challenges the Power Structures Inherent in the Capture and Control of Footage
When a creative material’s copyright lapses, it enters the public domain, which means it is no longer subject to trademarks, patents, or intellectual property rights. No individual, company, author, or artist owns it, and it belongs to the public. If this is the case, why is some public domain footage so expensive? This is the question at the core of Richard Misek’s short film “A History of the World According to Getty Images” in which he explores how historically significant footage from newsreels, government agencies, and pioneers of film are “held captive” behind paywalls.
Beyond the history contained within the images, Misek examines footage itself and what happens after it’s captured. He focuses on Getty Images, the world’s largest commercial archive, challenging its control over public footage, which it only makes available through steep licensing fees. In the case of The Miles Brothers’ iconic short film “A Trip Down Market Street,” which captures downtown San Francisco just days before the devastating 1906 earthquake, the film was digitized in 2016 by the Prelinger Archive and made available for free, while Getty charges hundreds or thousands of dollars for the rights to use the footage, depending on its intended use.
Misek parses the unequal power dynamics inherent within capturing life and major events, in addition to the barriers to accessing that footage today. “Newsreel cameras document power, but what strikes me most from my exploration of the Getty Archive, is how much the act of filming itself is an expression of power,” Misek narrates. He points out that footage shot by the government, like the first atomic explosions at Bikini Atoll in 1946, enters the public domain immediately, but that NASA is the only federal agency that releases directly to the public. Misek paid to us use six of the eight full clips in the film, which he sourced from various collections to find the best price.
Whenever I search a news archive, I always hope I’ll find some images that aren’t about power. And once in a while I do. But by and large, the past offers no surprises. As it is the source of all the inequalities and injustices that still exist. That’s why I made this film. Its aim is not only to share images’ stories, it’s to release them from captivity.
By paying to use the full clips, Misek slyly adds previously inaccessible images into the public realm by claiming no copyright, making the film available to stream online and download in full for free. You can find more of his work on Vimeo and his site.
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Art Documentary History
Duct Tape and Dreams: The Wild History of SFMOMA’s Famous Soapbox Derby
Art can have many purposes—to be beautiful, to teach, to make us feel—but sometimes, art is just for fun. Such is the case for SFMOMA’s Soapbox Derby, a raucously creative race that sent dozens of artist-designed cars barreling through the streets of San Francisco in 1975, 1978, and again last April.
The idea originated with Bay Area sculptor Fletcher Benton (1931-2019) back in the 70s when he proposed that the museum commission a competition to make art fun and accessible to the public and to provide local artists with funding. SFMOMA agreed to the project, and more than 90 artists were tasked with designing racers and trophies. Rules stipulated that the cars “must coast, that they must not exceed the dimensions of six feet in width and seventeen feet in length, (and) that the vehicle contains an adequate steering and braking system.” Plus, the works should be cost-effective, and the museum offered $100 per car and $35 for trophies.
Thousands of viewers lined the 800-foot winding slope of McLaren Park’s Shelley Drive to watch artists like Ruth Asawa, Carlos Vila, and the collective known as Ant Farm compete. Racers were varied in subject matter and material and included vehicles shaped like bananas, sneakers, enormous hands, and a yellow No. 2 pencil, the latter of which was built by Richard Shaw, the winner in the “Fastest Looking” category of the legendary 1975 competition and the only alum in the 2022 revival.
Shaw features in “Duct Tape and Dreams,” a short documentary produced by SFMOMA and Stink Studios about last year’s event that follows artists as they construct their cars and sail down the hill. After studio visits and glimpses into the construction processes, race day is a riotous, high-energy event that sees a range of mishaps and successful descents for designs like Windy Chien’s rope dome (previously), a googly-eyed backhoe by Girl’s Garage and “Succulent Sally,” a car covered in native plants made by a team of the city’s gardeners.
Capturing the streets lined with spectators, the documentary is a reminder of what life was like before digital connection became ubiquitous and that art can be both playful and foster meaningful connection. “Art is not just in a white cube,” writes Tomoko Kanamitsu about the derby. “It can be a car made of bread that disintegrates halfway down a hill on Shelley Drive. Art can be anywhere and everywhere.”
SFMOMA hasn’t yet announced plans to host another iteration, but you can brush up on your derby history by watching “Duct Tape and Dreams” and diving into the photo archive in the meantime.
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Explore Hundreds of Thousands of Japanese Woodblock Prints in a Ukiyo-e Archive
From Katsushika Hokusai’s unmistakable views of Mount Fuji to contemporary landscapes by Asano Takeji, Ukiyo-e Search collects a wide variety of Japanese woodblock prints. Programmer John Resig built the online database back in 2012, and the archive now boasts more than 223,000 individual artworks from the early 18th century to today. Encompassing an array of styles, subject matter, and aesthetic impulses, the database is organized by artist and time period, and the system facilitates easy comparison of copies held at museums and institutions around the world
Find some of our favorite works in the database below, and head to the archive to dive into Ukiyo-e history. (via This Isn’t Happiness)
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Meticulous Flat Lays of Vintage Toys and Miniatures Celebrate the History of Play and Design
“There’s a feeling I remember which has to do with the seriousness of play, when you were completely absorbed in playing a game with your toys and fully believed in the world you’d created, and it really mattered,” Jane Housham says. “I look longingly back at that imaginative space.”
A writer, artist, and self-described accumulator, Housham continually returns to the engrossing joys of childhood through a vast collection of found objects. Stickers and plastic doll hands, a pantry of non-perishable goods, and a menagerie of animals on wheels are the catalysts for her flat lays. Precisely categorized by color, shape, or theme, each composition highlights the varied styles, functions, and contexts of similar items and becomes a useful and approachable entry into the history of design. “If I’ve acquired a new (to me) little object, that often nudges me to revisit the category it belongs to—a new tiny seahorse or radio will subtly alter the pre-existing set, and the arrangement is always fresh in any case. Seahorses and radios are particular favourites of mine,” she says.
Housham’s mother was a dollhouse enthusiast and passed on her love of miniatures, which inspired the artist to keep a box of treasures as a child that she would frequently sort and arrange. That early experience is the root of her current practice, which is the result of rummaging through massive stores—she estimates there are thousands of objects in her possession at the moment—of vintage toys and tiny items.
Because many of the pieces in her collection are antiques and sourced secondhand, sometimes they’re rusty, scratched, or broken, and a considerable number are made from plastic. Housham adds:
I’m not really interested in new plastic things as I don’t want to encourage the continued spewing out of unnecessary plastic bits and pieces, but I like to save old plastic toys and other secondhand bits and bobs and to celebrate their colours and the ingenuity of their design. Although it’s now understood to be so bad for the world, plastic was a beautiful material in its heyday.
Housham shares a trove of miniature finds and color-coded compositions on her Instagram, Found and Chosen, and sells prints of the flat lays on Etsy. As she amasses more objects and engages with the childhood curiosity and imagination she so deeply values, she does find herself asking one recurring question: “Where will all this collecting end, I wonder?”
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Rooted in the American South, ‘Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers’ Recognizes Remarkable Artistic Traditions of Black Artists
The last line of a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes reads, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” From the sun rising over the Euphrates to the muddy banks of the Mississippi, his words evoke the universality and timelessness of flowing water mirrored by the coursing of blood through our veins. Taking inspiration from Hughes’s reflections, Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers at the Royal Academy of Arts in London shines a light on the creative traditions of Black artists in the American South whose artistic pursuits reflect pervasive issues of economic inequality, oppression, and marginalization and examine themes like identity, sexuality, the influence of place, and ancestral memory.
Encompassing more than 60 quilts, sculptures, installations, paintings, drawings, and assemblages by 34 artists from the mid-20th-century to the present, the exhibition is drawn largely from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the organization stewards a collection of around 1,000 works by more than 160 Southern Black artists—two-thirds of whom are women—to advocate for their inclusion in the art historical canon. While many are now well-known in the U.S., most of their works have never before been exhibited in Europe.
Many of the pieces are made from materials like clay, driftwood, roots, discarded objects, and recycled cloth. Because access to formal exhibition spaces was often curtailed for Black artists, many presented their works on their own property in a disappearing yet deeply Southern tradition known as “yard shows.” One of the best known and last remaining is Joe Minter’s “African Village in America,” in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1819, enslaved people accounted for more than a third of the state’s population, and the DIY shows evolved from a tradition in which yards were the only space for many to enjoy music and express creativity. Minter’s work is represented at the Royal Academy in a sculpture made of welded found metal poignantly titled “And He Hung His Head and Died.”
The legacy of Gee’s Bend, which continues today as a collective, is represented through numerous bold quilts, including Marlene Bennett Jones’s “Triangles,” in which she repurposes corduroy and denim jeans into a geometric composition. Raised on a farm in the community that was formerly a cotton plantation owned by Joseph Gee, Jones and other residents are direct descendants of the enslaved people who worked the fields, then remained there following the Civil War to work as sharecroppers. During the Depression, the U.S. government purchased ten-thousand acres of the former plantation and provided loans that enabled residents to acquire the land. Unlike many others who were evicted or forced to move due to economic circumstances, families were able to remain in Gee’s Bend, and “cultural traditions like quiltmaking were nourished by these continuities.”
The majority of the artists featured in this exhibition learned artistic skills that were passed down through the generations or from friends and mentors. Many respond to dark and painful parts of U.S. history like the era of slavery and subsequent racial segregationist policies that continue to profoundly influence life today. Artist and musician Lonnie Holley assembles pieces of metal from an old phonograph into “Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music),” an abstract, rusted turntable topped with an animal skull. The work visualizes passing time, decay, and the idiomatic phrase “sound like a broken record”—repeating the same thing over and over again.
Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers continues at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through June 18.
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While Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ Is on Loan, the Mauritshuis Showcases 170 Imaginative Renditions in Its Place
While Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is on loan to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for the largest-ever exhibition of the Dutch artist’s work, a cheeky surrogate takes its place. The Mauritshuis in the Hague is currently showing My Girl with a Pearl, a lighthearted and vastly creative digital installation, where the iconic painting usually resides.
Resulting from an open call last year that garnered nearly 3,500 submissions, the temporary piece features 170 renditions of Vermeer’s 1655 portrait presented on a loop. Mediums and styles vary widely, and the installation features everything from an abstract iteration using multi-color rubber bands to elegantly photographed portraiture to the viral corn-cob figure.
My Girl with a Pearl is on view through April 1 when the original painting—which has been the site of speculation in recent weeks as scholars revealed the earring to be an imitation—is slated to return to the Hague. Those who won’t be able to see the installation in person can find dozens of the renditions on Instagram, in addition to a virtual exhibition of the Vermeer exhibition on the Rijksmuseum’s site.
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Editor's Picks: History
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.