Friday, April 11, 2014

Bull City Summer -- A Season at the Ball Park -- at the NC Museum of Art

The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh has up now through August 31st a show of photographs entitled Bull City Summer.

Bull City Summer is a fine art photography show about baseball, Southern small-city baseball, minor league baseball.

For those of you not from North Carolina, the Bull City is Durham, where the AAA minor league team the Durham Bulls play baseball in the summertime, in the heart of the city, taking their name from Bull Durham Tobacco, a brand of loose-leaf tobacco manufactured in Durham from the middle of the 19th century until the late 1980's.

The images in this show were made by nine regionally and nationally known artists, including Alec Soth (see second image above), Hank Willis Thomas, Hiroshi Watanabe, Alex Harris (see second image below), Frank Hunter (see image above at the top and image three images below), Kate Joyce (image four images below), Elizabeth Matheson (see image directly above), Leah Sobsey (see the image five images below), and Ivan Weiss (see image directly below).

One or more of these folks photographed at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, NC, during all 72 home games of the Durham Bulls 2013 baseball season.

This convergence of first-class photographers -- and the appearance of their work at the NC Museum of Art -- did not come about by accident.

The summer of 2013 was the 25th anniversary of the movie Bull Durham, certainly the greatest minor league baseball movie -- and arguably the greatest sports movie -- ever made.

The popular success of Bull Durham brought renewed attention to minor-league baseball and contributed significantly to the transformation of downtown Durham, NC, from a semi-wasteland into a thriving, hip, arts-and-dining center, full of galleries, restaurants, farmers markets, theaters, and, of course, the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park (or DBAP, as they call it).

Spring a year ago, with the anniversary of Bull Durham fast approaching, Durham's Sam Stephenson, of Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, saw the opportunity to mark the occasion with a documentary project, to be the inaugural project of his Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials.

Stephenson describes the goal of this project as “to converge on the stadium and its surroundings with a team of documentarians and see what we find — ’stories, images‘ — on the field and behind the scenes over the course of a season. If we succeed, there will be a portrait of the art and craft and grit of baseball and the community that revolves around it in downtown Durham.”

Now, baseball comes in games, and games are events that are about wins and losses, and hits, runs, and errors. Baseball as an event is photographed constantly by exceptionally skillful sports photographers, whose work shows up in your local newspaper, and in Sports Illustrated, and on ESPN.

But baseball is also a game that appeals to a cadre of exceptionally talented and well-educated people who can discuss the minutiae of the game and quote Albert Camus in the same conversation.

These folks see in baseball more than a game, more than an ephemeral activity that is a good way to spend a warm summer evening.

For these folks, baseball is more about ritual and metaphor and meaning than it is about beer and hot dogs, or wins and losses.
Stephenson is one of these guys, and he was joined in the organization of this project by another of these guys, Adam Sobsey, a baseball writer who of course is not just a baseball writer, but a playwright, too, and an essayist for the Paris Review, and probably other things as well.

“For me, a baseball game is much more than a series of events and outcomes simply to be reported and disseminated,” Sobsey says. “It’s a cultural object, both by itself and as it interacts with American life, and therefore a subject for documentary art—it invites and demands consideration, elaboration, framing, cropping, coloring and exposure."

These are the kinds of folks who know how to make something distinctive out of the ordinary, how to turn something like minor league baseball into a subject for lengthy essays that they can get published in the Paris Review, as well as how to get heavy hitter photographers like Alex Soth, Hank Willis Thomas, and Hiroshi Watanabe to photograph baseball games in Durham.

So they got organized, and partnered with the folks at Daylight Books, and put together a local team of some of the best photographers in North Carolina, from the glorious Elizabeth Mattheson to the splendid Alex Harris and the brilliant Leah Sobsey, and planned visits by the big gun out-of-towners, and started themselves a blog and a website

From the website, you can see a lot more of the photographs. If you follow these links, you can also read Stephenson's and Sobsey's essays in the Paris Review.

These guys also know how to get things done.  Not only do they have the exhibition at the NC Museum of Art, they have a book coming out, also called Bull City Summer, from Daylight Books.
They will also have another exhibition of this work later this year at the Contemporary Art Museum in downtown Raleigh.

Baseball to these folks is about life, or about particular kinds of obsessions in life, especially the obsession of minor league baseball, which is played in the shadow of the majors.

The photographers they brought in didn't photograph hits, runs, or double plays; they left that to the sports shooters. They photographed the people, the patterns, the lights, the rituals, and the dust marks baseballs leave behind when they hit the walls of the park (see Kate Joyce's image below). 

Bull City Summer is about baseball in the minors, where its all about the game itself, the playing, the setting, the rhythms. Players come and go as their careers take them up or down. No one remembers for long who won or lost.

What endures is the memory of time spent in a place out of time, and an event of endless complexity within a basic simplicity, where one makes one's way from beginning to end with as much grace and dignity as one can muster.

The challenge of the small city baseball fan is to find in the very nature of the minor league game a truer and more honest resource for making sense of life. We, too, are here, now, in this place, and we, too, will fade away, lost and forgotten like the rest.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and some of our dreams may come true, but not all of them, and there comes a time when we have to see, really see, where we are, and who we've become, and what sense we can make of it.

So minor league baseball is about making a virtue of necessity, about elevating the mundane and everyday to a new place by looking closely, by taking care, by making art.

In Bull Durham, the character Crash Davis -- whose days of dreaming about making it to the Show are long past him -- criticizes the young pitcher he is trying to get ready for the Show for not having respect for the game.

That's what comes through these photographs -- an attention to detail, to selection, to arrangement, as well as a respect for the dignity of the subject matter, of the people, and of the ordinary moments in   
their lives.

My sons-in-law, who live in New England and are big fans of the Boston Red Sox, assure me that at Fenway Park, the home of the Show, of real baseball, the baseball that is a multi-billion dollar industry that can capture the attention of a nation -- at Fenway Park there is no mascot who runs the bases with kids, no sign on the wall that flashes lights and blows smoke when someone hits a home run.

From the perspective of minor league baseball, however, the glitz and glamor of the Show are, finally, illusions. As small city baseball fans, we can believe that minor league baseball is real, or at least realer, than the majors, because we can't fool ourselves for long, or at least as long, that this matters as more than a structure for time and place.

And we don't have to pay major league prices to learn that lesson. 

Minor league baseball, small Southern city baseball, is in part about the dream of being in Boston, or Chicago, or San Francisco, or New York, or even Atlanta. But its also about what results when you respect the game, wherever its played.

They've got the Show; we've got the ritual, that and Wool E. Bull.

No comments:

Post a Comment