PRINT October 1965



The Photographer And The American Landscape, San Francisco Museum Of Art:

Two years ago, John Szarkowski replaced Edward Steichen as Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art, and “The American Landscape” is the first major exhibit prepared under his direction. It is, in fact, the first important traveling show to come to the Bay Area since “The Bitter Years,” the photographs of the Farm Security Administration, an exhibit edited by Steichen and shown here in 1963.

“The American Landscape” is a big, sprawling show, spanning almost a hundred years. It is not a unified, conscientious travelogue. It is rather a group of small, diversified one-man shows loosely tied together around a theme—Paul Strand strolls through the woods and stops to enjoy a succulent mushroom growing up through grasses, and his photograph reflects the peace and silence of his surroundings; William Garnett flies his plane over Death Valley, and his photograph compresses vast expanses of land into a vivid reminder of the inexorability of time.

Not surprisingly, the magnificence of western mountains and deserts has attracted more photographers than the serenity of eastern plains and forests, and the exhibit is heavily weighted in favor of the Western United States—nine of the nineteen photographers have worked in the West. Many regions of the United States are therefore represented by only a few photographs, and some regions are not shown at all. Curiously, there are no photographs of the Southeast—no plantations, no Everglades—and we wonder if there have been no photographers to record them.

For all its diversity, the exhibit points out that there are two more or less clearly defined ways of looking at the landscape. Some photographers give us the scene itself, its objective reality, its existence in time. “Look,” they say, “this is what I saw, just then, just there.” And they hope that we will be encouraged, by looking at the photograph, to respond to the landscape as they did, to hear the aspen leaves flutter in the cool mountain breeze, to feel the oppressive stillness of the unknown desert. Many of these photographers—from the pioneers until the present day—have dedicated themselves to glorifying the land because it is their own. A strong American tradition, similar to a tradition in painting which continued in the work of such painters as Edward Hopper, John Steuart Curry, Luigi Lucioni until the second World War, has inspired photographers to show their corner of America to the rest of the world.

The early photographers—Szarkowski shows us Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson—accompanied survey parties into the uncharted, sometimes unexplored West, and their photographs proved that the fantastic landscape described by the explorers really existed. O’Sullivan and Jackson were proudly conscious of their responsibility to bring back true records of the new land. Partly because of the complexity of the mid-nineteenth century photographic process—the heavy, awkward cameras; the fragile glass plates that had to be coated with emulsion just before exposure since they were sensitive only when they were tacky; the long exposures—they saw directly and simply, and their work still seems dignified and strong. In Vermilion Creek Canon, O’Sullivan arranged the contrasting forms of cliffs in sun and shade against a bright sky and a bright curving stream to make a powerful, imposing scene. And the soft repetition of forms in Jackson’s photograph of the hot springs in what was later—primarily because of the message of his photographs—Yellowstone Park makes the viewer share the photographer’s wonderment at the almost unbelievable sight before him. O’Sullivan and Jackson seem to have worked, as Edward Weston did, by the rule that composition is the strongest way of seeing.

It is ironic that less than a hundred years later, Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter must photograph the Western landscape to remind us of our heritage and to plead that we respect and preserve it.

Other photographers are not concerned with showing us a specific, external landscape. The place is of no real concern to them or to us except insofar as it caused them to respond emotionally. It is no longer an American landscape, it is universal. The photograph shows us the photographer: “This is the way I felt, then, there.”

The most completely personal approach to landscape may be seen in the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz. In the early 1920s, he made the first of a long series of photographs of sun and clouds which he called “equivalents.” The photographs were not to be looked at as literal representations but to be studied as reflections of the photographer’s philosophy of life or his state of mind as he made the exposure. The “equivalents” were not abstract. The cloud forms are real, but we must look at them as metaphors—a kind of spiritual shorthand.

Harry Callahan and Paul Caponigro—often Edward Weston and William Garnett—continue the subjective tradition begun by Stieglitz, but with a difference. Their photographs, poetic, abstract, reflect both their emotional response to the landscape and their search for meaning within its design. Caponigro’s Rock Wall, No. 2, West Hartford, Connecticut forces us to explore the broken, jagged surface of the wall, to feel it with our hands, to reflect upon it, to see it with the photographer’s eyes, and to respond with his emotions.

The difference between the two attitudes towards landscape loosely objective and subjective, place and non-place—which we must consider not as two neat pigeonholes into which we can stuff prints but as two more or less predominant ways of seeing—may be shown in two superficially similar photographs, Detroit, 1941 (Grasses in Water) by Callahan and Wisconsin, 1956 by Brett Weston. Both are pictures of reeds in water, but Callahan has filled his print with the reed forms which make an explicit pattern of parallel lines. Weston has shown the reeds in their setting. They fill the foreground, but beyond, we see water, and beyond the water, the misty outlines of the farther shore. Callahan’s print exists only in the space it occupies on the wall, or it exists in all space. Brett Weston’s print recalls a particular time, a particular place.

Szarkowski has chosen several photographers who are interested primarily in exploring man’s place within the framework of landscape. The photographers of the survey parties marveled at the broad, lonely spaces before them, and often included a man or a team of horses. Their function was only to give the scale of the scene. O’Sullivan shows two tiny, inconspicuous men standing on the wall of the upper ruin of the Canon de Chelle joined by ropes to two men on the lower ruin, and we know then the size of the buildings and the expanse of the sheer face of the cliff.

Szarkowski has made “The American Landscape” an imaginative, highly individual treatment of a complex theme, but it is an uneven show, both in the preponderance of Western photographers and in the capabilities of the photographers selected. The peculiarities of the editing make us ask why he has chosen these particular photographers to embody his ideas. Occasionally, individual photographs seem to have been selected because Szarkowski liked them, not because they were relevant.

None of the other photographs look so dated as Steichen’s misty, impressionist landscapes; they look old-fashioned rather than old. Steichen will never be remembered for them, nor would he wish to be, and it seems likely that Szarkowski included them only in deference to his predecessor. Paul Strand’s studies of the intimate details of landscape—iris leaves, a cobweb glistening with raindrops—remind us of a photographer whose original prints are too seldom seen here, who is now best known for his recent books Tir A’ Mhurain and Un Paese. There are too many prints by Edward Weston three too similar prints of Dunes, Oceano (1936) have no more impact than one would have, and the Shell and Rock Arrangement (1931)—a shell from the South Pacific rests on a rocky ledge—has nothing to do with American landscape.

Bradford Washburn’s aerial photographs will, of course, be compared with William Garnett’s. Garnett seeks out the designs of the landscape to make significant studies in abstract form. Washburn’s photographs were made for surveying and mapping, and many of them have been published in the National Geographic. They show us vividly that the imaginative photographer can transcend the practical requirements of an accurate record of the land. Washburn, in Barnard Glacier, Alaskan-Canadian Border, contrasts the abstract stripes of the glacier with the cold reality of the mountains. The Western Tip of Grindle Islands is as alive and organic as a photograph of heart surgery.

The prints selected to represent Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Paul Caponigro, and Brett Weston are competent, but they are so exactly the prints that we would have expected to represent Adams, Callahan, Caponigro, and Brett Weston that they make us impatient. Irritably, we ask ourselves, “Hasn’t Caponigro made any prints since that rock wall?” The small enclave of Eliot Porter’s color prints in a gallery where it is surrounded by black-and-white prints is a mistake. Our perception is attuned to black-and-white, and the color prints, excellent though they are, seem as obtrusive and garish as a bouquet of paper roses.

Szarkowski’s surprises—photographers shown here for the first time are generally failures. We are pleased to be introduced to H. H. Bennett’s romantic souvenir views and Darius Kinsey’s fancifully-portrayed inhabitants of the logging areas. But a half dozen of Art Sinsabaugh’s long, narrow prints—thin slices of the horizon—convey no more message than one, and the message of the one is that O’Sullivan and Jackson described the vastness of the landscape more tellingly in their prints which emphasized, instead of breadth, the depth of the distance between the viewer and the horizon. Paul Vanderbilt’s photographs of Wisconsin only make the area look dreary. One print (instead of three) of William Current’s California sycamores is certainly enough in a show of this size. Kosti Ruohomaa’s landscape photographs of eastern farms are adequate, but Ruohomaa is more interested in man than in nature, and his best prints (a portfolio was published in Contemporary Photographer) are perceptive genre studies of man in his surroundings.

What does “The American Landscape” tell us about John Szarkowski? He is obviously a man who understands photography and respects each photographer’s point of view. His scheme of presenting nineteen small shows to allow each photographer to describe in detail his relationship to the landscape is a good one. He has delivered his exhibit in an attractive, convincing package. It is only much later that one realizes that Szarkowski’s landscape was not a 20th-century landscape. It has, in fact, a quaint, nostalgic air. No freeways. No land devouring suburbs. The two-horse Eastern farm, not California’s thousands of mechanized acres of lettuce. Only one print, Beetown (vicinity), Wisconsin (1956), points rather perfunctorily to man’s despoiling of the landscape. Rusty car bodies have been dumped in a field, but Vanderbilt looks at them as casually as Brett Weston looks at rocks on a beach, and they exist more as elements in a design than as violators of the scene. Imaginative as it is, Szarkowski’s view of the landscape is firmly embedded in the nineteenth century.

Ward Morsman, James Barker, San Francisco Museum of Art: Morsman has tried on styles of photography with the giddy abandon of a woman trying on shoes to kill time while she waits for a bus. He shows a John Rawlings nude, a Man Ray solarized figure standing in a doorway, a Frederick Evans architectural study. He has prowled the junkyards and alleys, and has recorded the dented, rusting fenders, the broken windows, the graffiti on walls that so many of today’s photographers find irresistible. He has even found that ever-so-symbolic broken and abandoned doll. Only three prints that examine the groping tentacles of a torn wire fence seem to express a personal poetic vision.

Should we read profound symbolism into the lead photograph of James Barker’s show—a row of houses in San Francisco’s Western Addition viewed through a screen—or should we consider it only an interesting but not terribly daring idea? The rest of the photographs give no answer. For Barker is in the vanguard of a school of photography that has heretofore been rather uncommon on the West Coast, although it has long existed in New York where it may be recognized by the invariable photograph of the little Negro girl skipping rope in front of the brownstone house.

Barker has a photographer’s eye, and most of his individual images—high Victorian houses, Negro children playing ball on the streets, groups of people talking on corners—are pictorially satisfying. But the prints are so haphazardly arranged that he has only recorded, not commented upon, the existence of the area. A photographic essay—which is evidently what Barker is attempting—must be organized as logically as a literary essay. Each photograph equals a sentence or paragraph, and it must be placed beside the next photograph as thoughtfully as one sentence is placed beside another to guide the viewer in the direction of the photographer’s reasoning. Random recording of slum areas is not social commentary. One leaves Barker’s show with no hint of his reaction to the neighborhood he photographed and no idea of what story he was trying to tell.

Linda Boyd, Aardvark: Scrape away the thick, gooey frosting of the influence of Jerry Uelsman and Frederick Sommer from Linda Boyd’s photographs, and what is left? Remarkably, Miss Boyd emerges as a strong, imaginative personality in her own right. Some of her work seems cheap and phony—a decaying pair of old pants; a maudlin fabrication of a garbage can with a curtain, a photograph of a nude, and a crucifix—but she creates a supernatural landscape of water droplets on moss, and produces incredible nostalgia with a coat hanger in a window. Miss Boyd’s most provocative images are multiple prints—a weird fetish figure; a staring face with a hand with a neat zipper in the thumb. They introduce us to a monstrous, ambiguous dimension of the world, half real, half nightmare. Although Miss Boyd is heavily indebted to Uelsman and Sommer, she is developing a vision of her own.

Jim Coe, Beep: Aaron Siskind is a photographer with a strong personality, and we are never so conscious of his strength as when we see prints by one of the scores of photographers who have followed his lead as recklessly as the children followed the Pied Piper. Coe’s photographs of corners of buildings, wall details, feet, are pallid Siskindian repetitions.

Jim Coe was formerly a student at the San Francisco Art Institute and now teaches there, and his work is symptomatic of the enervation that such inbreeding can bring about. Without an immediate transfusion of rich, whale blood, the Art Institute Photography Department seems fated to dissolve in a faint wisp of pale lavender smoke.

Jerry Stoll, Infoplan Office, 209 Post Street, San Francisco: Although photographs of jazz musicians are commonplace—the sweat-beaded Negro face shining forth from the blackness is a photographic cliché—many photographers make a jazz concert as uproarious as a D.A.R. tea. Jerry Stoll knows jazz. He is official photographer for the Monterey Jazz Festival, and he has assembled a collection of big, brash, gutsy prints that make the Festival a boisterous, vibrating place. He shows the tension of all-night rehearsals, the exhilaration of playing, the relaxed friendship of musicians who meet again after long separation. The candid portraits—Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Big Mama Thornton, and dozens of others—are splendid.

THE REDWOOD EMPIRE, San Francisco Museum of Art: One leaves the latest Ansel Adams show as shocked and bewildered as if one had learned that a beloved pastor had been discovered in a midnight raid on a brothel. Even the most jaundiced nature-haters have admired Adams’ technical skill, have taken pleasure in the careful, crisp delineation of redwood branches, the meticulous range of tones from glowing clouds to deep shadowed trees that has given his prints the monumental, better-than-real-life quality that ’has been their trademark. Adams has taught technique to hundreds of students—at the California School of Fine Arts, and, more recently, in his summer courses in Yosemite. Classes everywhere have used his texts on “The Negative“ and “The Print.” Most of the prints in the present exhibit still sparkle with the old Adams magic—waves caught as they are about to break, a young pine tree in a forest, rain clouds lying softly between the tops of Sonoma County hills—no other man has so scrupulously portrayed his communion with the landscape—but we are uneasily aware that we have seen all these prints before, that they are relics of his mammoth retrospective at the De Young in 1963.

Some of his recent work is downright sloppy. The negative of the sheep near Stillwater Cove was carelessly developed. One of the views of San Francisco is so contrasty that it looks like the work of another photographer. Redwood trees in shadow have been so painstakingly bleached that they look painted. Most important, Adams has forgotten the lesson that he has impressed upon even the most casual student of his work—the small camera is an inadequate tool for compressing large expanses of landscape. If we are to participate fully in the photographer’s experience, we must be able to place ourselves in the midst of the landscape, to separate out its parts, enjoy its textures. A large-camera print of a redwood grove is satisfying, because, in imagination, our fingers can explore the gritty surface of the bark, bury themselves in the deep crevices. A small-camera print shows us amorphous blobs of lichens on mushy, insubstantial alder trees, and we reject the print as the insignificant shadow of the real world.

The editing of the show is a delight. Adams takes us with him on a leisurely, winding trip from San Francisco to Mendocino County, and we stop along the way to look at the beaches and forests, farms and churches. We examine an old stove. We watch the fog clear from the town of Mendocino. He thoughtfully combines many images, many points of view to share with us his profound insight.

Margery Mann