PRINT December 1964


Adam Clark Vroman at Foohill College

EXHIBITS WHICH PLACE TODAY’S photography in its historical framework are rare in the Bay Area. Last year, to mark the centennial of the Civil War, Ansco circulated widely through northern California a set of enlargements of photographs by Mathew Brady and his coworkers. Occasionally, the San Francisco Museum of Art shows prints from its permanent collection—a collection particularly rich in the work of Alfred Stieglitz. The Farm Security Administration show, “The Bitter Years,” revealed the more widely remembered past. But as a rule, we see photographs which have been made recently and which express our present mode of seeing.

Many photographers have become curious about photographic history and tradition, and George Eastman House has made available collections of prints which show the delights of photographic discovery in a world less harassed than our own. Few of these print collections have been exhibited here, and the Vroman show whets our appetite to see what else Eastman House has to offer.

Adam Clark Vroman (1856–1916), who owned a bookstore in Pasadena, was an amateur photographer who traveled widely throughout the southwest to record the world that existed there around the turn of the century. He was a man of many interests. His complete record of the California Missions is valuable today because it shows us their appearance before restoration. He photographed several trips to the Pueblo country of Arizona and New Mexico. He studied the faces and customs of the Hopi Indians. He accompanied an expedition to explore the top of the Enchanted Mesa in New Mexico. He photographed the landscape of Yosemite, and he photographed his friends. Upon his death, his negatives were sold by his estate to the Los Angeles County Board of Education. They were filed and forgotten, and only recently discovered.

The thirty prints, from his legacy of twenty-four hundred negatives, were obviously chosen to show the diversity of his subject matter, but one suspects that Vroman might have appeared a more penetrating photographer if the exhibit had concentrated on one facet of his work. Except for a few prints, Vroman, as presented to us in this collection, is important primarily because he recorded a world that no longer exists. The Indians have been forced to change their way of life; the Missions have been restored. The Indian portraits and the scenes from daily life show us a photographer who respected the Indians and was respected by them. The portraits are direct and honest. The photographs of Mission interiors make us curious to find out how the Missions look today. The rushing water in Yosemite Valley is blurred by a shutter speed so slow that we are reminded of the limitations of the negative material that Vroman was using. The group of amateur photographers, posed with their cameras on tripods—possibly the Pasadena Camera Club?—amuses us with its turn-of-the-century seriousness.

Our interest in Vroman’s work is generally historical rather than photographic. And yet—The dynamic interplay of figures of Indians weaving mats in a room is subtle and sophisticated, more 1960 than 1900. The placement of the facade of a Mission within the framework of a negative reminds us of similar compositions of Edward Weston. The figure of an old man framed by a doorway seems a precursor of photographs made by Strand twenty-five years later. One feels that he would like to see more of Vroman’s work than this small sample.

The prints themselves, contact prints on present-day papers from Vroman’s blue-sensitive 6 1/2 x 8 1/2-inch glass plates, are unfortunately made to conform to today’s tastes. Vroman printed his negatives on platinum paper, and his prints must have been long-scale and mellow, while these are short-scale and harsh. It seems regrettable that the printer did not strive to reproduce that spirit of Vroman’s concept rather than simply to make visible the images.

Margery Mann