PRINT Summer 1965



Eliot Porter, De Young Museum: The magnificent scenery of western North America has given impetus to a peculiar local phenomenon we might call the “Conservation School.” In 1871, William H. Jackson accompanied an expedition to the Rocky Mountain region, and his photographs convinced skeptical congressmen—who had previously believed the verbal descriptions of the Yellowstone area were as fantastic and as false as the tales brought back to Europe by the early spice traders—that the scenery was truly as remarkable as it had been described, and persuaded them that the area must be set aside as a national park.

Today, the “Conservation School,” sponsored and promoted by the Sierra Club, has been a powerful influence in arousing public interest in preserving the beauties of mountains, coast, and forest for the enrichment of future generations. The Sierra Club books, handsome, well-designed volumes of palatable propaganda, illustrated by such photographers as Ansel Adams, Philip Hyde, Richard Kauffman, and Eliot Porter, provide tangible, easily assimilated reasons why the wilderness must not be sacrificed to the insatiable demands of an exploding population.

Eliot Porter, whose book, “The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado,” was published by the Sierra Club in 1963 (shortly before the canyon was flooded to make a reservoir) exhibits fifty color prints at the De Young. ’When he was a boy, Porter had a box camera, and, during his summer vacations, he photographed sea birds and their nests on the coast of Maine. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1929, and, for the next ten years, taught biochemistry and bacteriology at Harvard and Radcliffe, although his interest in photography continued, and his enthusiasm for photographing birds was revitalized with advances in flash techniques. In 1939, Alfred Stieglitz showed a number of Porter’s prints at An American Place in New York, and in 1940, Porter gave up teaching and research to devote all his time to photographing girds—a project which was assisted by the receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Porter was the first American photographer to work almost exclusively in color.

The current show, a selection of prints from 1954 until the present, contains color prints of many subjects flowers, birds’ nests, rock forms, lichen patterns, clouds, misty landscapes—a sample of the many images that have attracted the attention of a man who is involved in capturing the poetry of the landscape and placing it before us with the plea that it be cherished. The multiplicity of subjects makes the show less powerful than Porter’s last show in this area, “The Seasons,” exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1960. In “The Seasons” Porter minutely examined the effects of changing seasons on the New England woods and created a complex panorama interwoven with quotations from Thoreau. The impact of individual prints was heightened by the highly structured arrangement.

The prints in the current show—dye transfer prints made by Porter himself are, however, brilliant windows into the natural world. Porter’s nature is usually peaceful—a few colored aspen leaves sparkle against a dark rock; lichens and barnacles on rocks show that the rocks have been long undisturbed; a yellow fleshy mushroom grows at the base of a tree; trilliums and May apples bloom in the woods; mist hovers over the landscape; birds’ eggs are arranged neatly in their nests. Only one print—a tense, tortured pattern of interlocking roots—indicates that Porter also sees a dynamic, forceful nature.

Porter’s photographs, like those of Richard Kauffman, another conservationist, show us color photography at its most satisfying. His eye is sensitive to the subtleties of color harmony—Glen Canyon rocks are many shades of dull, reddish-brown; the fracture lines create the excitement. He places his camera to avoid intrusive patterns a few flowers are more important than a large number. He uses the yellow evening light to bathe the whole landscape in a golden wash. Porter loves the landscape, and his photographs embody his love.

Through photographs, the Sierra Club has succeeded in bringing about a new appreciation of the Western landscape, and the “Conservation School” is becoming an established tradition. To influence men’s minds, poetry is as effective as polemic.

Ted Streshinsky, Morley Baer, Proctor Jones, Oakland Public Museum: It must have been difficult to round up three photographers as different from each other in their thinking as the three represented in this exhibit. Ted Streshinsky, “A Photographer’s Viewpoint,” allows his camera to roam as freely as a curious terrier, and follows where it leads him. His camera has ferreted out a motley collection of unrelated images, but he ties them together with such winning exuberance that the viewer is easily drawn into accepting his way of seeing. The patterns of the world must be explored—the softness of dandelion heads, the hard, formal silhouette of birds on a television aerial against the sky or of a cattail in water. His camera presses between children’s shoulders to find a girl engrossed in a book; small children playfully chase a man in a park; a boy lifts his head in delight as he listens to music; people dance on a beach. Yet children are cruel as they taunt each other; and a man climbs steps with his ankles in chains. Streshinsky’s work is informal and his selection of prints is haphazard, yet his insight, particularly into the world of children, is penetrating and his human sympathy is profound.

Morley Baer, “The California Coast,” like Streshinsky, presents us with a strange diversity of images, but his work is deliberate, carefully planned, and we must view it more coldly and objectively. The collection of prints he has assembled to represent the California coast is a bewildering mishmash. Baer is one of the West Coast’s leading architectural photographers, and the formal architectural photographs he has included are splendid, but when we say “California coast,” we certainly are not thinking of the Crown Zellerbach Plaza in San Francisco or a house in Burlingame or the interior of a church in East Oakland. His weathered farm buildings south of Carmel surrounded by old eucalyptus trees, a fallen windmill at Anchor Bay, a barn door at Jalama Beach all convey a coastal atmosphere, although his photographs of the coast itself do little more than show us that west of California there is indeed an ocean. Most of Baer’s photographs, considered individually, particularly his photographs of buildings, are solid and competent. But his editing is hilariously humorless. Even if the boundaries of the California coastal region were tugged and stretched to their limits, the inclusion of a photograph of the Nevada Statehouse in Carson City would seem a brazen disregard for geography.

The prints by Proctor Jones, a society portrait photographer, were made with such soft-focus lenses or through so many layers of cheesecloth that they give off a musty odor of 1920-ish elegance. He makes the Beatles’ look like prep school boys dressed up as a prank. Arthur Treacher, alas, might be a Regent of the University of California.

Jack Welpott, Toren Gallery: The photographs that Jack Welpott—who teaches photography at San Francisco State—has chosen to exhibit at Toren all indicate that he is a photographer of better-than-average ability. Several of the prints, however, show that he is one of the most perceptive of the young Bay Area photographers. Welpott is often concerned with investigating significant parallels and significant repetitions. He sees in the half-lighted hair of a girl the texture of waving grass; he sees in the dry grass the sensuous excitement of wind-blown hair. He is amused that a rock formation has the shape of a woman’s buttocks—and, conversely, that the woman’s buttocks look like weathered sandstone.

Welpott’s most significant photographs explore the impact of repetition—mirror images, twins, a photograph of a photograph—in such intimate, domestic surroundings that one is unprepared for their emotional intensity. Old women, twins, sit stolidly in front of their house watching the photographer, the tragedy of their lives painted on their faces. A plain block gravestone has a medallion photograph of the owners—a man and woman smiling happily, artificially, at each other. A hard, white wrought iron bench sits behind the stone. How much more comfortable they are in their grave than on the bench. A girl, sitting under her portrait, reflected in a mirror, with a breakfast table still life arranged on a round oak table, shows a more complex manner of seeing than most photographers attempt. That Welpott sees successfully is a measure of his ability.

Margery Mann