Batter up: New Bedford Gallery exhibit devoted to baseball
By Lou Fancher
You don't have to like baseball, or even hot dogs, to love the aura of the sport.
Capitalizing on Americans' love for a sport that features a deliberate pace coexisting with 94 mph fastballs and conjures images of World Series drama as well as kids swinging bats on a lazy summer afternoon, Walnut Creek's Bedford Gallery kicks off the 2016 season with "Safe at Home," an exhibit of baseball art open now through June 12.
"We've transformed the gallery into a baseball lover's haven," says Carrie Lederer, co-curator with Bay Area art dealer and gallerist George Krevsky. "We intentionally focused on securing a group of historic pieces to anchor the show, including works by Al Hirschfeld, Ben Shahn, Claes Oldenburg, Elaine de Kooning, and Andy Warhol."
Drawn to a broad range of media and approaches, Lederer says she and Krevsky selected works that ranged from surrealism to photo realism to "gestural."
In other words, there's something for everyone. The exhibit also offers baseball memorabilia and artifacts, including contributions from the family of legendary player and Martinez native Joe DiMaggio. There are materials recognizing Satchel Paige, the first African-American player to pitch in a World Series game, photographs of women baseball players from the early 20th century and more. And many of the standout contemporary images come from Bay Area artists.
Sports photographer Brad Mangin of Pleasanton grew up in Fremont near the Oakland A's stamping grounds but managed to become a "huge San Francisco Giants fan." He shot his first MLB game as an intern for the Contra Costa Times in 1987, working under photographers he says remain his heroes, Dan Rosenstrauch, Jon McNally and Bob Larson. Mangin has donated approximately 88,000 baseball images he's taken over 30 years to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
"Every day is different," he says, about his approach to shooting the game. Indeed, night or day, sun or rain, and the progress of the game itself impact his choices about equipment and composition. "When I'm shooting the World Series, it's a night game with no pretty light, but it's the freaking series. I document. During the season, when there's that great 5 o'clock light, I'm shooting the light. I'm just trying to make art."
Talking about cameras, he says, "is boring." He shoots images with his iPhone 6 or one of several digital cameras with a range of lenses -- like the 800 mm he used for "Umpire in Tucson," a giclee print for Sports Illustrated that captures the pink-tinted nails and beefy hand of an umpire clearing a plate. "It's cool, says 'baseball,' and shows details most photographers don't shoot in soft, overcast light," says Mangin, of the umpire photo. "I'm a baseball guy. I love the pace, can't explain it. Going to the ballpark, early, the ground crew's raking, and it's pastoral. You can't fake being a baseball person."
But Berkeley photographer Tabitha Soren proves that an artist can honor the sport without being a fan.
"I don't care for baseball much at all, but I met these 21 players and became attached to them as people," she says. Soren followed the players for 12 years, creating "Fantasy Life," a series of images exploring the game as a metaphor for individualism.
"Baseball underscores this American way of thinking -- that to be successful, you have to stand out," she says. Her 10-by-8-inch tintype, "0132," employs the aged technique that casts a picture directly onto metal, depicting a player looking high into the night sky as if searching for a fly ball lost in the darkness. White speckles and a gauzy, soft green patch of light give the picture a magic, antiquated feel. The effects are "happy accidents of the process," says Soren.
Owen Smith of Alameda, an award-winning illustrator whose works have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Time and The New Yorker, says he's "an art nerd" who's "interested in that moment of tension." The approach is evident in "Dizzy Dean," an oil on paper rendering of the famed pitcher coiled to release a ball.
"It's all up to the one guy at that moment, even though baseball is a team sport," he says. Smith says he gained respect for baseball while studying the game in order to paint it. You can grow cynical about the corporate nature of professional baseball now, Smith says, but the fact that you can play the sport practically anywhere -- regardless of gender, race or age -- makes it a democratic game.
"We can all love that," he says.