PRINT March 1964


“Ideas in Images” at the Oakland Art Museum

The current exhibit at the Oakland Art Museum, “Ideas in Images,” selected by Peter Pollack, former Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, and author of the handsome but rather superficial “Picture History of Photography,” includes Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Harry Callahan, Bruce Davidson, Andreas Feininger, William Garnett, Gyorgy Kepes, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, and Todd Webb. They provide a broad picture of present-day photography, its diversity, its successes, its limitations. Each photographer shows ten prints which are grouped together at some distance from the next photographer’s prints. The interested viewer can thus leisurely concentrate on one man’s work to understand what he is saying. Pollack’s choice of ten photographers to survey the entire field of photography was a formidable undertaking. It is unlikely that any two people would select the same ten photographers. Why him? Why not him? Why Tod Webb? The wall-and-doorway school is dreary at best, but Webb’s prints are particularly meaningless, dead. And exciting designer that Kepes is, do photograms represent any major trend in photography today? Photograms were well explored in the 1920s and ’30s, tastefully and imaginatively by Kepes and Moholy-Nagy, sometimes interestingly and sometimes with embarrassing cuteness by Man Ray. One is, indeed, hard put to consider them photographs at all; they are more like what is called, paradoxically, “monoprints.” Their entire rationale is painterly, not photographic.

In general, however, Pollack’s choices are good. He has selected three very different photojournalists—Bourke-White, Davidson, and Parks—three very different personalities, three very different ways of seeing. Bourke-White’s photographs—Gandhi, Kimberley Mine, Africa—are formal and deliberate. They are the expression of a highly disciplined mind, and they tell their story well with the addition of a simple title. Davidson’s photographs are informal, casual, relaxed. He enjoys what he sees—a clown, Scottish children scrambling up a rocky incline—and wants to share his enjoyment with us. With Parks’s work, we are constantly aware that the photographs were never meant to be isolated and hung on a wall. They were designed to be a part of a story to be published in a magazine with a well-integrated text. When they are displayed on a wall—how unfortunately beside the meticulous technician, Arnold Newman—we wonder why they are all so dark. And why didn’t he get that boy in focus? Boy Wearing a Paper Mask has a strange surrealist magic, but in general, Parks’s photographs do not survive this treatment.

Newman’s portraits of artists with their paintings, musicians with their instruments, are, as Pollack points out, reminiscent of pictures of medieval saints with their attributes. They have been widely and carelessly imitated, but Newman is a daring designer and an elegant craftsman whose work bears the unmistakable imprint of his personality. His photographs of Stravinsky and Picasso have become classic; his photographs of Brooks Atkinson (in an empty theatre), Max Ernst, and Kuniyoshi are certainly as perceptively done.

Feininger picks up small objects and explores their details in a spirit that seems strangely old-fashioned. His photographs seem to spring from a more relaxed past when we had the time to pick up the flotsam of nature, the wing of a fly, or the skeleton of a snake, or a cactus, and lovingly study and photograph it. They seem to mirror the passing of the old-time naturalist. Today’s exploration of nature is electron photomicrography and schlieren photographs. It is instructive to compare Feininger’s photograph of a snail shell with Wes-ton’s. Feininger’s shell is a wonderful home for a snail; Weston’s is an object of sensual beauty.

Callahan also examines nature on a rather small scale, but more poetically than Feininger. He is concerned with its forms as designs, not as scientific curiosities. The placement of a single weed within a framework has caused him great agony—is it exactly right? And his photographs communicate both his questioning and the delight he feels in having created a beautiful, inevitable design.

Adams’s photographs have been thoroughly discussed within the past few months because of his mammoth one-man show at the De Young. The current selection of his prints shows him when he is photographing something that excites him—Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, Aspens, Northern New Mexico—and when he is photographing simply as a job—Rails and Jet Trails, Roseville, California. Most commercial photographers are better than Adams at making their client’s problems their own. Adams comes to life only when he is expressing his own philosophy.

Some of the most interesting photographs in the Oakland show are the high-altitude photographs of the landscape by William Garnett. The landscapes are reduced to their simplest abstract patterns—not a new type of exploration, certainly, but one which Garnett pursues with rare skill and perception. His Birds and Sun—Reflected on WaterSurface of Sump (with the cattle trails connecting the water holes), and Tractor Patterns are truly fine photographs.

Ideas in Images raises many questions that should be considered by people interested in photography. Why are all the prints that Pollack selected black-and-white? Certainly, color prints are common enough today—we see objects in color: does he feel that no significant color photographs are being made? What kind of show would he have assembled if he had limited himself to color prints?

And what of the photographer’s development? One can look at a painting by Picasso, and say, “this is early,” or “this was painted about 1950,” but an Ansel Adams photograph of 1933 looks like an Ansel Adams photograph of 1963, a Kepes photogram of 1942 looks like a Kepes photogram of 1962. What is there about the nature of photography, or the nature of photographers, perhaps, that makes most photographers find a way of seeing and cherish it throughout their active lives?

Margery Mann