PRINT February 1965



Joseph A. Barnett, Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento: Barnett’s photographs, “Sacramento Then and Now,” are described in the introduction as the Crocker Gallery’s “first documentary exhibition to focus upon the reality of the city today”—certainly an ambitious program, and one wonders how Barnett can carry it out with only thirty-two prints. When one studies the show, one sees that for Barnett reality—probably better, Reality—means primarily the West End, Sacramento’s Skid Row, with its flop houses and pawn shops, and a scattering of the people who live there. A few of his photographs illustrate the contrast between old and new buildings, and his final photograph—one is compelled to hear an imaginary trumpet fanfare—shows the State Capitol Building at night.

Barnett’s show is superficial and misguided. Why is the man looking at a display of used boots in a window (a print sentimentally entitled “Wishful Thinking,” although the man is wearing obviously new boots in better condition than the ones in the window) more “real” than the Junior League matron trying on shoes in Ransohoff’s? Are the cheap hotels of the slums more “real” than the new Mansion Inn? Are the half dozen or so people he has photographed—old men on the sidewalks more representative of Sacramento’s population than the legislators and lobbyists, the hordes of people who work for Aerojet, or even the housewives with their hair in pink rollers buying TV dinners at the supermarkets?

Sacramento’s West End—the oldest part of the city, with many buildings still in use that were built just after the middle of the last century—has long been an almost unique backwater of society. The area has attracted winos, drifters, men down on their luck, and men who have not felt compelled to get trapped in the American cult of success through money. It has been the largest source of part-time agricultural labor in the country. Men can work a day or a week, until they accumulate as much money as they want. But the lives of the inhabitants are rapidly being disrupted. Buildings are being torn down; the area is being cleaned up, made respectable. A sympathetic photographer should be making a profound investigation of this corner of our society before it is too late. But he would have to know more about the people than that they were from time to time visible on the sidewalks. Where do they eat? Where do they drink? Where do they sleep? Why are they there?

Barnett has made a number of well-planned photographs, and one feels that he should have been encouraged to examine some smaller facet of Sacramento’s life until he could give us some real insight into its nature. He shows us a salvage yard with an accumulation of bottles, crates, and cartons, the bottles glittering in the sunshine; a complex wall pattern with a cat (he seems to like cats); several interesting but not particularly important records of the facades of the buildings—details of ornament on gables and around windows and the intricate wrought-iron balconies. But he has far from expressed the reality of the whole complex city of Sacramento, and he has made only the shallowest study of his chosen area. In an adjoining gallery, there is an exhibit of the art work of students in the San Juan School District. Surely, Mr. Barnett, this too is an aspect of the city’s life.

Richard Kauffman, De Young Museum: The inventors of photography, Nicephore Niépce and Daguerre, already dreamed of a process that would permit photographers to reproduce objects in their natural colors, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of investigators worked to clarify the nature of color and to discover the technology for reproducing it. Several systems of color photography were developed, but they required cumbersome equipment and often specialized technical knowledge. In 1935, Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome, the first film which allowed any photographer to press the shutter of any camera to reproduce a complete range of colors on one piece of film.

Within the past thirty years, color processes have been refined and improved, but color photography has been adopted by relatively few photographers as a serious creative medium. There are, of course, exceptions, photographers who interpret in color the world around them—notably Ernst Haas—but the most successful use of color photography is in the controlled, artificial world of advertising.

The proper conditions for discussing the reasons for the prejudice against color photography—Beaumont Newhall’s new edition of “The History of Photography” devotes to color only four of its two hundred pages—would be a long night and a keg of beer, but a few reasons are self-evident. The real world is hard to compose in color; black-and-white tones down harsh, intrusive contrasts. Some color films show an unpleasant brighter-than-life world. Some color films and printing papers must be processed under such carefully regulated conditions that the photographer must turn his developing and printing over to a commercial color laboratory, and thereby becomes alienated from his work. So many color photographs are so inexpressibly hideous that the sensitive photographer is repelled by them and consequently by the whole process. Professional photographers are seduced into producing tasteless, blatant colors that almost burst into flame before the viewer’s eyes; amateur photographers have a transparency that shows a blue sky and a green tree and want nothing more.

Richard Kauffman has photographed Yosemite Valley and the surrounding country, and his color prints, now being shown at the De Young, have been assembled by the Sierra Club into a book, “Gentle Wilderness: The Sierra Nevada.” Kauffman has climbed the Alps and the Rockies as well, and, by contrast, he finds the Sierras a gentle landscape. His prints, which he has made himself by the carbro process, are an elegant expression of his love for a region he has carefully explored. His prints are often reminiscent of Eliot Porter’s, but he is more sparing than Porter in his colors. Sometimes his prints are almost monochromatic. “Yosemite Valley—Winter” looks like a black-and-white print, but when one studies it carefully, one sees a suggestion of dark green in the pine trees. Milkweed seed pods, backlighted, are yellow-grey against a black background. “Tahoe Shoreline” is an abstract pattern of water, sand, and rocks in shades of brown. His most colorful prints contain, at most, three or four colors. “Yosemite Path, Autumn” shows the muted reds, yellows, and greens of dying dogwood leaves. Kauffman is concerned with subtle interplays of forms. “In Evolution Basin” balances cloud shadows against grass hummocks in a lake. A red pentstemon is photographed in front of Devil’s Post Pile.

Kauffman’s photographs are color photography at its most expressive. By reducing his colors to a few and allowing the forms of the landscapes to interact unexpectedly with each other, he is able to make the observer share his delight in a country he loves.

Margery Mann