PRINT March 1965



Photography in the Fine Arts, IV, De Young Museum: The current exhibit, like its three predecessors, pays tired tribute to a jury selected for eminent respectability rather than for understanding of the medium. This year—perhaps because six of the jurors chose prints for the previous show and are thus familiar with what photographs look like, perhaps because Beaumont Newhall, Director of George Eastman House, a man who does know photography, was a juror—fewer photographs imitate paintings. Many more of them imitate previous photographs.

Few of the photographs seem to have been made because the photographer saw something he reacted to with intense personal excitement and preserved to convey his emotion to others. Too often the photographer seems to have seen something and to have realized it was safely and acceptably photographic because it had been photographed so many times before.

Thus, the inevitable clotheslines, fire escapes, mouldering newel posts, scraggly trees, dreary graveyards. Certain photographs must have been accepted because they were reminiscent of photographs familiar to the judges. Zakany’s “Flying Arrow,” a sloppy mishmash of birds against a red sky and yellow sun is a poor imitation of Hiro’s “Birds Silhouetted Against the Sun,” a vibrant composition of a handful of birds. sensitively seen and photographed when they had arranged themselves most dramatically—one of the few eloquent photographs of PFA III. The Chinese peasant in his picturesque straw hat, ankle deep in water, bending over to plant rice by hand, certainly earns more money every year posing for photographers than he does from his crop.

Few photographers seem to be using color to extend the limits of the medium. Over a third of the 66 color photographs are standard travel snap-shots of the “Look, everybody, I was really in Paris, France” variety. In our culture, an evening of viewing these as slides has become a common substitute for Nembutal. Most of the rest are colored, competent, and dreary.

Several photographers have, however, used color creatively and imaginatively. One can praise Dmitri Kessel’s “Crucifix in Cordova”—bathed in bars of light from a stained glass window; George Silk’s “Nefertiti from the Mast”—a dramatic, strikingly-composed ship under full sail; Albert J. Burrow’s “Tidewater Pool”—an underplayed abstraction of cool, green water surrounded by rocks; Lynn Wall’s “Microscopic Fish”—with the limits of vision extended by the microscope; Gordon Parks’ “The Pigeon”—an ambiguous juxtaposition of bird and lichens.

Some of the strongest photographs of the black-and-white section—86 prints—are photographs of the American landscape by men who are viewing it not as they rush by on a two-week guided tour but as an integral part of their philosophical heritage. They say nothing new, nothing startling, but they speak with meaning and with authority. Interestingly, it is the California photographers who are most concerned with landscape. Among many excellent photographs by Philip Hyde, Pirkle Jones, Don Worth, and William Garnett, Worth’s superb “Aspens in Winter, Colorado” is outstanding. His eye has tied together isolated clumps of black trees in a snowy landscape into a dynamic whole.

The abstractions reflect generally photographic rather than painterly thinking. Paul Caponigro has combined a mushroom with starkly delineated mystical interplay of shapes—“Untitled.” Masae Tamura has photographed a small segment of the beach to create the delicate traceries of “A Design of the Tide.”

The photographers of this exhibit are little concerned with people. Only two prints could be considered strict photojournalism, and one of these, Arthur Rothstein’s “Alabama Sharecropper’s Daughter,” must be left over from the Farm Security Administration days of the late 1930s. Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of Pablo Casals, from behind, playing the cello, is a departure from his usual porey monumentality, and is strong and unpretentious.

One of the most provocative photographs is Jack Welpott’s “Twins, Stinesville, Indiana.” Two middle-aged women in house dresses flank the door of a white frame house. A dog is curled up against the wall. They stare directly at the photographer. From their faces, one can presume their lives. Welpott has unerringly captured the spirit of the rural Middle West.

In the past, both photographers and critics have been scornful of the prints shown in the PFA shows. This year, to court status, a committee headed by Ansel Adams invited prints from selected well-known photographers. The prints Adams himself submitted were undistinguished; one was a lifeless “extraction” of falling water, the other a postcardy view of the New Mexico desert. One of the prints submitted by Brett Weston (certainly one of the invitees), “Broken Glass,” is an exciting abstraction, but the print was made in 1953. Does a painter who is asked to send to a major show contribute his least important work or a painting that was made a dozen years ago?

If the current show truly represents the best photography of the 1960s, photography is a moribund art medium, for photographers have been molded into stodgy thinking before they have taken the trouble to investigate the possibilities.

Margery Mann