Good 70s collects Mike Mandel’s most famous work from the 1970s, all contained in a facsimile 8×10 Agfa film box. You can still find copies for almost double what I paid a few short years ago. Is it worth it?
If you’re unaware of Mike Mandel, you may be aware of some of his work, and not just his famous Evidence with Larry Sultan. If not Myself: Timed Exposures or Seven Never Before Seen Portraits of Edward Weston (the latter received mention even during my Art History and Criticism studies at Stony Brook ~15 years ago), then certainly his Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, which feature 134 photographers of the time (some very well known, others less so).
I bought it mostly to get the full set of trading cards. Round about the time my parents split up, I started collecting baseball cards, shortly after the wider pre-teen (and teen) culture hit its baseball card-collecting peak. (I quickly switched to comic books, and also hit it at its peak… one might see a trend here.) I backed Buff Monster‘s second series of Melty Misfits (which scratched my juvenile trading-card and Garbage Pail Kids itches, and fed my then-declining appetite for street art and graffiti), and so Good 70s hit me on multiple fronts: trading cards, boxed sets, photobooks, archival things, on and on. And like my other collections, now that I have it (and have this review written), I’ll probably never touch it again for fear of diminishing the value…. And that’s also largely why I stopped buying photobooks: I started buying photobooks as study aids, to help my eyes and maybe make my own photography better, and not for what has become a retirement/time-of-need fund…
Anyway…. Good 70s.
The outer box is quite attractive: the orange reminds me of my time at the University of Illinois (at Springfield, but still), and even though I’ve never shot 8×10 slide film or printed on Agfa Brovira paper, the box is the first point of interest for an idiot like me. Most others will be most interested in the contents, though, and these include: ‘People in Cars’ (1970), a poster of images of, well, people in cars that Mandel made while standing on a street corner; ‘Myself: Timed Exposures’ (1971), a zine of pictures made by starting the self timer on the camera, then running into the frame and getting situated before the shutter tripped; ‘seven never before published portraits of Edward Weston’ (1974), a zine featuring pictures and questionnaire responses from men named “Edward Weston”; two collections of motel postcards (Buildings and Pools) and a postcard collection of pictures of Motels that Mandel made on travels in the early 1970s; ‘Mrs. Kilpatric’ (1974), a collection of portraits of a neighbor that Mandel made as part of a graduate seminar; and the Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards. The collection also includes a set of “Letters from Sandra,” which situation the work above in the context of the DNC break-in and Watergate scandal (and culminate with President Nixon’s resignation and pardoning).
Together it’s quite the survey Mandel’s early- and mid-1970s work, and I appreciate every bit of it. There aren’t many “pretty” pictures; there are many “funny ” pictures; every bit of it screams early-70s conceptual and process art. I probably should go through each one in turn, but I’m really pressed for time and just don’t feel like it: apologies. You’ll have to make do with whatever I spew in the next paragraph or two.
I’m quite impressed with and inspired by the unity and originality of Mandel’s projects in this period. Each one is self contained, thorough, and quite distinct. At the same time, they’re all very much of their time. If you know your art history, you’ve heard of Every Building on Sunset Strip and 26 Gasoline Stations, the Ed Rucha classics that launched a movement. Mandel’s work in Good 70s is deeply indebted to Rucha and that whole school of art photography, and was probably a bit late to the party, and with the New Documents exhibit right around the corner, this work is very much Art School work that, rightfully so, found its way into the wider art world, and especially for those in the know. The work with Larry Sultan, specifically the classic photobook Evidence from 1977 is definitely after the Rucha-related process type work was well and truly out of vogue, and yet still just was one of those things that the cognoscenti jumped on, and I guess I’ve sorta made my way into that (perhaps rightly, in some sense anyway) maligned group.
None of that is meant to put down Mandel’s superlative work at all. Every project in Good 70s is a masterwork. The self-timer pictures are hilarious and very well conceived and make me want to play around with the idea (and regular readers know that I likely won’t, and if I do, I likely won’t ever mention it on this blog). The portraits of Mrs. Kilpatrick show a sort of chameleon-like woman who was roughly a decade older than my grandmother, and who dresses like and has the hairdos that Grandmom rocked well into the 1980s, and who wears the same usually-smiling face that occasionally, and very quickly, morphs into a ferocious sort of scowl that belies the otherwise jolly character. The People in Cars couldn’t be made in the same way today, in some parts of the DFW would easily see the photographer shot and/or arrested.
In short, while most of it is clearly of its time—if, as mentioned, slightly late to the party—it’s all well worth checking out, though prices have gone way up since I bought this copy.
Now… I started to give this a 5 star review, and, were I honest, I definitely would. That said, given where prices are right now, and the state of the US (and global?) economy in 2023, I can’t in good conscience recommend anything as frivolous as this, despite the near-universal excellence of the work, so Good 70s sadly will go
You can find new copies still available for nearly double what I paid a few years ago. I make a practice of not linking to anything owned by a DC villain, so you’ll have to do your own research on that front. Mike Mandel also seems to have no website, strangely, and most of the Googling I’ve done leads to booksellers trying to get as much as they can for however many of the 1000 copies remain available new, and even more for used copies. I found a nice review by Alexander Nazaryan on Newsweek and some of the People in Cars pictures can be seen on FT. Beyond that, I guess my unboxing is about the best you’ll find, and, as always, ymmv.
Edit: I almost clicked the button to post this nonsense when I realized I hadn’t written much of anything about the work that caused me to buy Good 70s in the first place: “The Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards.” There’s a reason for this: Tweenager James was a baseball card collector and knows how to keep his cards mint. He doesn’t touch them, not without white gloves on or something. And middle-aged James hates gloves and can’t let go of the idea that the slightest bit of hand oil will sully the cards and irrevocably lower any latent resale value. So I haven’t really looked at them after flipping through them for the unboxing video….
To be honest, I wasn’t going to unseal the box in the first place, and by doing so, the cards lost a good chunk of value on the late 1980s baseball card convention route and scale. Thankfully, I did, and, thankfully, I can just watch my own unboxing to get an idea of the cards. And I have the sealed pack of original cards (with the front of Arnold Newman’s card and the back of #99 Chuck Swedlund’s card visible, and the chewing gum…) if I need a closer look.
Short answer: the cards are rather hilarious.
You’ve probably seen the Ansel Adams card, with the elder statesman in a paisley shirt and catcher’s pads posed in front of a hedge as if he’s about to toss the ball
to a grandson back to the mound. You may have also seen the Larry Sultan card, with Sultan holding a baseball up like an engagement ring or something. Other cards are similarly silly, with photographers photographed wherever Mandel found them, wearing whatever they had on at the time, and adorned with some bit of baseball gear—bat, ball, hat, mitt, in whatever combination, selected from the collection in the back of Mandel’s car—and in a more or less realistic baseball-adjacent pose.
The back of each card gives some biographical data (height, weight, birthplace, current residence) and baseball/photography data (Throws, Bats, FC (favorite camera), FD (favorite developer), FP (favorite paper), FF (favorite film), and Feh (favorite photographer)), and a quote. Chuck Swedlund, for example, was 6’2″ & 180 lbs., born and resided in Chicago; threw and batted right, and used Tri-X in a Widelux, developed in D-76 and printed on Brovira. His favorite photographer was Harry Callahan and his quote follows:
Baseball players may be classified as first base or shortstop. I do not like or want to be pegged as a photographer who makes buttons or photographs nudes. I am not a “one sentence” photographer. When I go for that final HOME RUN, they are going to need a PARAGRAPH.Mandel, Mike. “#99 Chuck Swedlund” in Photographer-Baseball Trading Cards. Mike Roberts lithography, Berkeley, CA. 1975.
I assume other cards are similarly detailed and silly, and the whole thing is wonderfully fun, but doesn’t change my opinion, really. The inclusion of 11 proof sheets of some of the more famous images from the “Photographer-Baseball” cards are likewise fun and add value to the box, and still….
Unrated, and cautiously recommended with caveats.
If you have a spare $400—and with grocery prices and everything else still at +50-60%, who has a spare $1, let alone $400?—then by all means track down a new/old-stock or used copy. The work is, indeed, universally excellent and equal parts hilarious and a deeply conceptual interrogation of the medium of photography itself, and I find the whole thing incredibly stimulating. Good 70s is some Good Stuff.