PRINT July 1963


“Photography in the Fine Arts III” at the De Young Museum

PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE FINE ARTS III, De Young Museum: Ivan Dmitri, who or­ganized the Photography in the Fine Arts III exhibit which has just closed at the De Young Museum, has brought to­gether a distinguished panel of judges, museum directors and experts in paint­ing (the author of The Graphic Work of Mary Cassatt). The only difficulty––and the show well bears this out––is that these painting-oriented people have no more understanding of photography than an equivalent number of sympho­ny conductors, gynecologists, or truck drivers. A photograph is not a painting, and Mr. Dmitri’s attempt to give status to photography by calling in these im­pressive but unqualified judges has laid an egg as large and colorful as the one in the photograph by Irving Penn.

Dmitri has also tapped the resources of the Photographic Society of America, the organization of camera club mem­bers whose work bears the same rela­tionship to photography as the create-­by-number masterpieces (“where the area is marked 11, you paint it light blue”) do to painting. All the clichés of camera clubbery are represented, from grain elevators to puppy dogs, except, mercifully, the baby nuzzling the kitten, and there is a photograph of a girl with a rabbit that one can easily accept as a substitute.

The show has one good feature: the color prints are unusually well made. Except for a print of Glen Canyon by Brett Weston, which seems to have been bathed in black raspberry ice cream, they look as if they had all been made by one extremely competent processing lab. And the black-and-white prints are generally adequate. But the content, the content!

A photograph may convey the essence of a place and of the photographer’s re­action to it. Of the photographs in the show, possibly only Brian Brake’s China’s Great Wall catches us with its emotional intensity. The rest are mere snapshots which will prove to the folks back home that the photographer was, really and truly, in Kuala Lumpur.

Photographs of great people are not necessarily great photographs. The pho­tographs of Georgia O’Keeffe by Michael Vaccaro and Ben-Gurion by John Vachon vie with each other for worst-in-show, and since the first is a color photo­graph, and the second black-and-white, we can award two prizes. Georgia O’Keeffe is surrounded by landscape so meaningless that one feels that the photographer must have asked her to step outside because he had forgotten his strobe equipment. And the back of Ben­-Gurion’s head, coyly imitative of Bar­bara Morgan’s Lloyd’s Head, is poor technically. There are fine portraits. Robert Frost by Yousuf Karsh and Marianne Moore by Richard Avedon both relate in visual image the poet to his poetry.

There are, of course, other good pho­tographs in the show. Both photographs by Eliot Porter, Fox-tail Grass and Maple Leaves represent nature photography at its best. Theodore Rozumal­ski’s Retiring After 60 Years is a per­ceptive photograph story, poignant and nostalgic. Hiro’s Birds Silhouetted Against Sun, Irwin Gooen’s Para­chute, Leonard McCombe’s Baby in Hammock are all photographs by men who understand their medium and are using it to make statements that can be made in no other medium. Ernst Halber­stadt’s Fire Escapes is an example of true photographic abstraction, as op­posed to Keiichiro Goto’s Beauty of the Junk A, B, and C which are copies of abstract expressionist painting.

And this is the essence of the prob­lem with the show. The judges do not understand the nature of photography,  and believe that the photograph is a cheap and easy substitute for a paint­ing, and the more a photograph looks like a painting, the better a photograph it is––in fact, there is appended to the catalog an article called Brush and Camera from the Saturday Review of Literature, in which A. Hyatt Mayor, Curator of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes pairs, a painting or print with a photograph, which prove, not as Mr. Mayor hopes, that photogra­phy might be an art after all, but that Mr. Mayor hasn’t the faintest idea what he is talking about.

Photography does not need the ser­vices of Mr. Dmitri and his respectable experts in painting to convince people that it is an honest-to-goodness art form. This hoary argument, dragged out for an occasional few pages in the Sun­day supplements, was long ago settled by the work of Alfred Stieglitz, and be­fore him by the photographs of many others as early as Daguerre and Julia Margaret Cameron.

Most photographers would feel diffi­dent about arranging an exhibit of the work of Mary Cassatt. And until photographs are judged by people who have some intelligence about the aims and responsibilities of the photographer, we will see shows as far from the mark as this.

––Margery Mann