Mike Mandel: 'The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards'
by Aaron Schuman

May 2010

This essay was originally published in Aperture #200, Fall 2010.

      In 1974, just a year before Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, classmates at the San Francisco Art Institute, were awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts to pursue what eventually became their seminal project, Evidence, Mandel found himself becoming frustrated by the growing competitiveness within photographic circles. “[In the Seventies] it seemed that the photo community was comprised of a group of dedicated artists, who. . . had been snubbed by the art world for having the audacity to negate the imperative of the unique, precious object,” Mandel wrote in 1999, “But a strange thing happened about that time: the art world discovered photography. . . Competitions for NEA grants and university jobs began to revolve around the hierarchy of art world professionals.”
Mandel’s response was to embark on The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards, a collection of 134 informal portraits of photographers posing as baseball players, which were produced in the manner of ordinary trading cards, complete with index numbers, accompanying statistics and quotes on the reverse side, and were then sold in packs of ten—complete with bubble gum donated by Topps, the leading producer of sports-related cards at the time. “I wanted to lampoon the newfound celebrity-hood of photo personalities in the art marketplace,” Mandel explains, also remembering that during his own baseball-card collecting childhood, “cards made the players more accessible—in fact, public property.”
      Today, the persistent debate surrounding photography’s validity as Art (with a capital A) can seem dated and tiresome, yet the underlying sense of inferiority that many worthy, accomplished, and celebrated photographers have suffered over the years is well evidenced throughout the medium’s history, in both imagery and photo-related writings. Reassuringly, alongside this streak of angst there has also always run a vein of confidence in the medium as a relevant pursuit in its own right, without need for comparison or justification in relation to the traditional arts. In 1913, after spending several decades doggedly defending the artistic merits of photography, Alfred Stieglitz bluntly summarized his argument: “Photographers must learn not to be ashamed to have their photographs look like photographs.” Several years later, encouraged by Stieglitz’s call for “straight photography”, Paul Strand famously rejected the conceits of Pictorialism—the art-photography of his day—dismissing it as “fuzzygraphs” that ultimately expressed “an impotent desire to paint.” Similarly, Lewis Hine rejoiced in the fact that his documentary work had been recognized for conveying “the value of realistic photography, which has for some time been displaced by the fuzzy impressionism of the day.” And even as late as 1971, Walker Evans was championing photography in the face of its straggling doubters: “[P]hotography, a despised medium to work in, is full of empty phonies and worthless commercial people,” he remarked. “That presents quite a challenge to the man who can take delight in being in a very difficult, disdained medium.”
      From these examples and many others, one gets the sense that photographers—at least a certain kinds of photographers—have always taken pleasure in inhabiting the role of the outcast, the charlatan, the underdog. It is not surprising, then, that during the latter half of the twentieth century, when photography finally began to be embraced rather than rejected by the art world, mixed feelings were stirred, and a certain sense of mistrust arose among many practitioners. In response, a number of photographers rapidly turned away from notions of the medium as one of fine craftsmanship and purist aesthetics, and sought refuge in more vernacular territories, experimenting with popular rather than “artistic” forms of photography. In 1963 Ed Ruscha (#22 in The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards, shielding his eyes from the bright sun in search of an imaginary fly-ball) adopted an intentionally amateurish, “snapshot” approach in his Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and later adapted conventional aerial photography for his own conceptual purposes in Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967). In the late 1960s John Baldessari began incorporating intentionally “bad” or “wrong” photographs into his canvases, instantly imbuing them with artistic merit. In 1971 Stephen Shore produced Amarillo: Tall in Texas, a series of ten generic-looking, geographically unspecific commercial postcards, which he then surreptitiously distributed in various stores and postcard-racks across America.
      Mandel’s Trading Cards sit comfortably within this movement—the half-ironic, half-sincere reappropriation of everyday images and photographic contexts—and also reflect an almost exaggerated unpretentiousness through the performances of many of their subjects. A baby-faced Larry Sultan (#13) poses satirically pious as an altar boy, his two hands clasped around a baseball, his wide eyes aimed toward the heavens; a grinning Beaumont Newhall (#103) is subsumed by a face-mask and chest protector, jokingly playing the umpire-in-chief behind home-plate; on the back of her card, Joyce Neimanas (#37) proclaims: “You should bunt to sacrifice yourself to the runner”; and on the front of another, Bill Owens (#31) does just that, bunting the approaching camera back down toward the ground; a bemused William Eggleston (#126) looks at his glove, apparently surprised that the ball has actually managed to land in it—the back of his card reads “No comment.” Even Mandel’s own card (#24) shows him releasing a curveball, subtly implying that although he may appear to be aiming straight at the target, his delivery will deliberately veer away from the strike-zone at just the last second. It’s as if all these newfound “photo-celebrities” are reminding the viewer—and perhaps more importantly, one another—that despite their impending art-stardom, at heart they’re still just goofy kids with cameras who don’t  take themselves too seriously.
      Of course, today these cards no longer convey accessibility or lampoon the celebrity of their subjects. Instead, they have become coveted icons in their own right, treasured totems to heroes of previous generations. Eggleston’s cool bemusement is now legendary, the disorientating break of Mandel’s artistic pitch is now venerated, and the overall wit and comedic self-mockery of 1970s Conceptual photography is much revered. Mandel fully acknowledges this: in the last several years complete sets of the cards have been auctioned, by Mandel and others, for thousands of dollars. “I find myself in the position of selling these at a premium, participating in the same commercial matrix that the cards originally intended to parody,” Mandel has written. “I can accept that. Now they are historic artifacts of an earlier generation of photography.”
      Yet it is important to recognize that these are not just individual artifacts of particular practitioners. Collectively, Mandel’s Trading Cards testify to the humble, joyous, and ultimately supportive spirit of a small, tightly knit network that truly shared a passion for a once “distained medium” at a particularly awkward point in time, and mutually refused the egotism and envy that can so easily accompany the approach of artistic success. Now that photography, the art world, and the “commercial matrix” have fully merged to form a severely competitive atmosphere around the medium, one hopes that Mandel’s Baseball Photographer Trading Cards will not only be relegated to the collectibles market, but might also serve as a quiet reminder that photography thrives best on community and collectivity, rather than through fierce competition. To quote Yogi Berra: "It ain't the heat; it's the humility."


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