where the light is

I noodled around the Des Moines Art Center with some friends a couple of days ago. It had been a while since I’d visited the art center, and I’d forgotten just how visually engaging its architecture is. I’d brought a camera (a real, actual, no-nonsense camera), thinking I might shoot some photos of the artwork. And I did. I shot three frames with the camera — all of the same Calder mobile. I spent far more time shooting quick black-and-white snaps on my cellphone. And very little of that was of the artwork; almost all of the photos I shot were about the building.

Stairs in the Meier wing

The history of the architecture of the Des Moines Art Center is sort of interesting. Well, it’s interesting to me. The original design was the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. He’d won a competition in 1939 to design the Smithsonian Gallery of Art. But Congress being Congress, they decided to deny funding for the construction. Happily, the folks in charge of creating a new art museum in Des Moines saw Saarinen’s plans for the Smithsonian and said, “Dude, slide on over here and build us a museum.” And he did. He cobbled together a structure that was an esoteric combination of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. They finished construction in 1948.

What made it unique, though, was the decision NOT to construct a standard museum gallery. Saarinen’s design also included spaces for practice and instruction, making it both an art gallery and a teaching center. And hey, bingo — we had us an art center. Pretty cool idea.

Sunlight through a curtain (with incidental Giacometti bronze)

In the late 1960s, the art center folks decided to expand the building to include a space large enough to hold an auditorium and display really big sculptures. They got I.M. Pei to design it. It’s hard to do better than Pei. But his design revolved around a sort of massive block building that would tower over the existing structure. It was necessary, of course, but the design would have clashed with the low, ground-hugging Saarinen design. So Pei said, “Dudes, not to worry. I’ll sink the block into the landscape, easy peasy, lemon breezy.”  And hey, bingo — we had us a fine addition to the art center.

I.M. Pei window (with incidental Debora Butterfield painted steel horse)

By the 1980s, the art center needed another new extension — a space to house more contemporary works. This time they landed Richard Meier as the architect. Meier is one of those Pritzker Prize geniuses whose work is fairly idiosyncratic. The guy is totally smitten by structures designed around very white geometric patterns. Nothing at all like the designs of Pei or Saarinen. The advantage of being a Pritzker genius is nobody’s going to force you to adapt your aesthetic to fit in with your predecessors.

Meier’s addition to the art center is basically what he’s known for — white geometric patterns. It sort of looks like it was designed by a member of the Borg Collective who’d gone to an architecture school in Minecraft. That sounds more harsh than I mean it to. It’s really a very smart, clever, and very very clean design. Just different from the rest of the art center. But hey, bingo — we have us a space for contemporary artwork.

It speaks to the design, I think, that the only time I felt the need to shoot a photograph in color was in the Meier wing.

Mobile — Calder, Meier wing.

The fact is, I really didn’t make any thoughtful, considered photographs. I just walked around and took quick, square format, b&w snapshots using an app I’ve configured for black-and-white photography. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos (there were only 18 of them) that I realized most of the photos were of the building itself rather than the art it houses. Art figured into some of the photos, but they were accents incidental to the photo rather than the subject of it. If that makes sense.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the art; I did. I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, I’d often put on my glasses and get really close and try to figure out exactly how some of the work was done. I mean, how did George Wesley Bellows manage to paint a human face (it is, I’ve decided, humanly impossible — maybe Bellows was an alien)? I looked at the sculptures and admired the sketches and appreciated the paintings and watched a couple of works of video art. By the way,  some of the video art? Incomprehensible and (is there a polite way to say ‘stupid’? — no, I don’t think there is) stupid. But then there was this piece by Michael Najjar. Sublime.

Spacewalk — Michael Najjar

I looked at just about everything and I enjoyed most of it, but in the end the primary reason I’d shoot a photograph had most to do with the way the building interacted with the light. The way the light and the structure worked together seemed to infuse some sort of extra meaning to both. For example, I was very much taken by a chair (based on an Eames design) partly because I mistakenly thought I was in the Saarinen wing (the Eames brothers were students of Saarinen). I was actually in the Pei wing — irony gone awry.

Unironic Eames chair

Some of these photographs, I know, probably won’t appeal to anybody but me. Like the chair above. It’s just a chair the guards sit in. Or this view out a window to the street. What’s that about? There was something about the geometry that appealed to me, though I couldn’t say what.

Looking out on Grand

I actually spent more time on this stupid photograph than all the others combined. I wanted to get that tree in the right spot, and the reflection of the window’s crossbar just the right angle. Then I probably stood there, trying to be still and hold that view, for a couple of minutes, waiting for the passing cars to line up properly. Silly, I know, but it seemed worth it at the moment. Still does.

It’s a wee bit embarrassing to visit the art center and return home with nothing but a handful of black-and-white photographs. All that amazing art, and here’s me with some photos of curtains and stairways and chairs and random views out of windows.

Some random curtain

But what can you do? That’s where the light was.

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16 thoughts on “where the light is

  1. How soothing for my mind to read your post today. Now I want to visit Des Moines, Iowa. If you get to San Francisco in the future, I’d love to show you the new addition to the SFMOMA and the de Young, as well. And yes, it’s all about the LIGHT. Thank you, Greg.

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    • I’ve read and heard such great things about SFMOMA. There’s no scientific basis for this, but I like to think one reason the light is usually so good in museums is because they’re quiet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 1. I’m more than just a little skeptical about your quotes. What exactly was your sourcing on those?

    2. You said: Unironic. Also… the chair is definitely one that would have photographed. I similarly am apt to take photos of the visuals within a museum. They are, of course, what were designed to last since the art regularly changes.

    3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who will spend time waiting for certain silly-to-others details to fall into (or out of) place for a photograph.

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    • 1. Okay, I admit that whole ‘easy peasy, lemon breezy’ bit may have been inexact. There’s some dispute about that.

      2. Unironic, referring to a single ronic. What’s the problem?

      3. I know. I like to think it’s a common affliction. We should start a support group.

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  3. I would say “well of course you did”. I would have done the same. And I’d love to see the place next time I’m in your neck of the woods. The photographs are lovely.

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  4. Wonderful post! I just visited SFMOMA and took a bunch of pictures of the artwork (and architecture) with my iPhone. Nothing as beautifully artistic as yours (b&w didn’t even occur to me). But it was therapeutic to stop and look and compose and revel in our artistic legacy.

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    • I keep four camera apps on my phone, which is sort of embarrassing to admit. Two (ProShot and Camera FV-5) are apps that simply give me more control over the camera, and since I can’t decide which I like better I keep switching between them for no apparent reason. One (Lenka) is a dedicated b&w app; it’s fast, simple, easy to use. The fourth (Vignette) is a highly configurable app that I’ve set up to give me a specific b&w style — and that’s the app I used for these photos.

      I sound like a total geek, don’t I.

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      • Thank you for this! A few years ago I did a workshop on Molokai called “iPhoneography for the Soul” (talk about geekiness) and downloaded a whole mess of apps, some of which I still use (Snapseed, Pro HDR, Slow Shutter for a few). I don’t see the ones you mention here, so… App Store, here I come! And maybe I’ll try using the others I’ve got installed, see if I can’t, um, get rid of a few of them. I think the iPhone (or Galaxy or what have you) was a real breakthrough for creative photography. Though I still do like to pull out my various “big-girl” cameras and lenses and just focus on shooting, with “developing” coming later. It’s all fun! And yes, good for the soul.

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  5. I went to the Calder exhibition at Tate Modern 3 or four times while it was on and thought – in keeping with your blog’s motto – that (if it wasn’t for the need to pay off a mortgage/raise children/support an insane book-buying habit etc) I’d happily jack it all in, learn how to accurately and repeatably bend wire and build mobiles for the rest of my life. The red of the calder in your picture against the blue of the sky through the window, reminds me of what a nice dream that is….

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    • Calder’s mobiles look so simple, don’t they. They’re engineering marvels, though. Multiple balance points, each depending on another, all of them necessary. Remove one, or shift the balance of one slightly, and the entire thing fails to work. Amazing.

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  6. Pingback: where the light is — gregfallis.com | theBREAD

  7. I love the ‘looking out on Grand’ picture. You have such a well-defined, graphic eye for striking compositions; I’m not sure if you really realize it on a conscious level or if you’re bringing it out on a more instinctive level, but it’s so pleasing. The gently opposing arcs of the railing and street with the window frame, the subtly opposing directions of the cars’ movements, the contrasting levels of lights and darks, all combine into a complex, yet oddly soothing little dance of composition. Whatever impulse makes you stop and wait, move a bit to one side, or whatnot, keep listening to it and rewarding us with your images.

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