Mike Mandel: Good 70s @Robert Mann

JTF (just the facts): A total of 84 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. (Installation shots below.)

The show incudes works from the following series/projects, with the number of works on view, their processes, dates, and editions (as appropriate) as background:

  • Evidence (made with Larry Sultan): 13 gelatin silver prints, each 8×10, 1977
  • People in Cars: 20 vintage gelatin silver prints mounted to a 30×40 board, 1970-1973
  • Boardwalk Minus Forty: 23 gelatin silver prints, each 8×10, and 4 archival pigment prints, each 9×11 (in editions of 6), 1974
  • Myself: Timed Exposures: 21 vintage gelatin silver prints, each roughly 6×8, 1971
  • Motels: 3 archival pigment prints, each 16×24, in editions of 6, 1974
  • Baseball – Photographer Trading Cards: compete set of 135 cards (in vitrine), 1975
  • Don Drowty The Famous: 13:54 min. video, in edition of 6, 1971

A retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work is currently (5/20/17-8/20/17) on view at SFMOMA (here). A boxed set monograph of these bodies of work was published in 2015 by J&L Books (here).

Comments/Context: Mike Mandel is in the midst of a long overdue “rediscovery” moment. Between a celebrated new box-set photobook, an SFMOMA retrospective, and this gallery show survey, all three covering his many projects from the early 1970s, he’s hit the equivalent of the artistic trifecta, only several decades out of phase.

While others ended up as the bold-faced names of brainy, capital p Photoconceptualism in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the West coast, Mandel’s individual work from that period has been largely overlooked, almost entirely overshadowed by Evidence, his now landmark 1977 found photography collaboration with Larry Sultan. And while Evidence has over the intervening years proven to be undeniably worthy of its icon status in the history of photography, what Mike Mandel: Good 70s does, in all of its various incarnations, is give that bright shining light some much needed context. What the included projects make clear is that Mandel was thoughtfully unpacking the formal relationship between photographer and subject long before he started sifting through government and industrial archives in search of unexpected photographic oddities.

The car culture of Southern California has proven to be a seductive subject for many photographers, but Mandel’s People in Cars series neither snatches pictures of anonymous drivers from a distance nor fetishizes car styles. Instead, the project creates active interactions between Mandel and each passing car, generating a satisfying range of personal reactions, from smiles, laughs, and waves to peace signs, protective blocking hands, and extended middle fingers. In each picture, Mandel is overtly acknowledging the invasion the camera is making, and by doing so, is subtly giving his subjects an opportunity to respond. While the pictures are seemingly easy going and simple, their breakdown of conceptual space is sneakily smart, with Mandel inserting himself into the middle of what was typically an arms-length (and one-way) visual transaction.

Mandel pushes this idea of deliberate interaction further in his reliably clever series Myself: Timed Exposures. In these pictures, he upends the idea of the ordinary snapshot, joining seemingly tossed off photos of people on the streets, at the beach, at weddings and rallies, in elevators, and at the bus stop. There is something joyfully wacky about these pictures, Mandel’s long bushy hair, dark rimmed glasses, and contagious presence throwing everything playfully off kilter, even when he’s not wearing a sombrero, Mickey Mouse ears, or nothing at all. At once performative and inclusively communal, the pictures once again test the limits of interaction (as captured by the camera) – he’s both joking and not joking at the same time, and his invasion of personal space (i.e. the snapshot) consistently creates unexpected moments of quirky humor.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that Mandel was, in a sense, working his way through various photographic tropes, and then conceptually rethinking each one. He applied the same offbeat logic to the genre of the baseball trading card photograph – one of the most mannered examples of posed photographic portraiture – layering the same formal hat, ball, glove, and bat poses onto his fellow fine art photographers. The inversions are truly pricelessly and wonderfully ridiculous, from Ansel Adams in catcher’s gear and aging, non-sporty Imogen Cunningham pretending to pitch to John Divola diving for a catch and Robert Heinecken perfecting his elaborate windup. That Mandel got so many giants of 1970s photography to participate in his unconventional series says that the conceptual reversal of the project had staying power – not only did the pictures turn out to be fun, they were inherently about smartly appropriating and rethinking a mainstream style of photography.

Intellectually, the next step to decontextualizing images found in forgotten archives for what became Evidence isn’t that far afield. Once again, Mandel (and in this case, Sultan as well) was exploring yet another existing genre of photography, namely the corporate/government documentary shot of various experiments, tests, and circumstances, and then conceptually rethinking those images, removing their surrounding information and forcing them to stand alone without further explanation. Without knowing an underlying purpose, or even what exactly is going on, the strangeness of these photographs comes forth, and it is this very uncertainty (in relation to the certainty that generated the pictures in the first pace) that is so durably intriguing.

While many of the photoconceptualists were fascinated by the optics (and distortions/illusions) of camera vision, Mandel took his conceptualism somewhere different. As the projects here show, he was instead consistently interested in interrupting the normal flow of pre-existing genres of photographic imagery, often using himself as the agent of change. His ability to mix hard headed aesthetic thinking with obvious personal warmth and affection is what sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries. His photographs from the 1970s are both bracingly smart and engagingly joyful, and that unusual combination of head and heart feels vital and fresh even decades later.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by project/series:

  • Evidence: $8000 each
  • People in Cars: $85000 for the set
  • Boardwalk Minus Forty: $35000 for the set
  • Myself: Timed Exposures: $6000 each
  • Motels: $7500 each
  • Baseball – Photographer Trading Cards: $6000 for the set
  • Don Drowty The Famous: $12500

Aside from first edition copies of Evidence, Mandel’s work has only been available infrequently in the secondary markets in the last decade. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Mike Mandel, Robert Mann Gallery, J and L Books

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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