PRINT December 1965



THE POSSIBILITIES OPENED UP by the invention of the camera 125 years ago were immediately grasped by the painter. Here was an instrument that could reproduce the “real” world more easily, more cheaply and with greater fidelity than the paint brush. One could, flippantly, say that from that moment on the “real” world was conceded to the camera, and a new world began to be created by the painters.

But today the photographer, as well as the painter, has turned his back on the real world (though few photographers have looked as sharply at our neon-and-hamburger society as, say, the Pop painter) and has devoted himself to the pursuit not of reality, truth, beauty, fantasy or of a hundred honest and important goals he might reach through his camera, but to the pursuit of the photographic. He no longer looks at the world around or within himself. He looks at the prints of other photographers and produces prints like them.

The serious photographer pokes fun at the salonist with his endless proliferation of fuzzy kittens playing with balls of yarn, his bigger than life gnarled hands holding the helpless hands of a baby, his sepia-toned portraits of Cousin George, head wrapped in a table runner, pretending he is an Arab. But serious photographers have constructed an equally dreary, equally repetitious canon of acceptable images, and their shows have become as monotonously predictable as the salons.

Highest on the acceptable, the IN, list—higher than the abstract designs of boarded-up buildings, the bubbles on the water as the waves recede from the beach, the broken windows, and the Westonian prints of the dead pelican on the beach (at one time, this print seemed required for graduation from the—then—California School of Fine Arts, and the rate of attrition among pelicans must have been staggering)—is the inevitable, the hallmark, the diagnostic print—The Eroded Rock.

Since the three exhibits to be reviewed this month—so different in proficiency, in depth, and in intent—have this photograph in common, it seems opportune to discuss the implications of the eroded rock, to explore the reasons why people have photographed rock forms in the past and why they are photographing them today. Most West Coast photographers who have wandered along the shore with their cameras have been intrigued by the patterns the sea has created as it beats on the shore; photographers in the mountains have studied the patterns of rock piles and slides. “Eroded” rock is used loosely; “eroded” will include fractured rocks, striated rocks, rocks jumbled together in peculiar patterns, lichen designs on rocks—any product of geologic time that sufficiently arrests the attention of the photographer to provoke him into setting up his camera. Most West Coast photographers have hundreds of rock negatives in their files.

What is the history of this photograph? Newhall’s History of Photography reproduces Rock, Point Lorne, Nova Scotia which Paul Strand made in 1919. There may be earlier photographs. Edward and Brett Weston have made prints that explore the design of the coast near Carmel. Minor White, while he lived in California, also photographed the patterns of cliffs and shore. More recently, Aaron Siskind, Eliot Porter, Jack Welpott, Paul Caponigro—whose Rock Wall No. 2, West Hartford, Connecticut has been misguidedly likened by A. Hyatt Mayor to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase—have all photographed rock forms. But all these photographs are honest, strong, and perceptive, because the photographer has looked at rocks, not because they are currently fashionable, but because they are related to the body of his work and expressive of his philosophy.

For a time, Strand concerned himself with a profound study of the minutiae of nature—leaves, toadstools, spiderwebs, rocks. Edward Weston’s rock forms have the sensual, sometimes erotic, quality of his nudes and peppers. Brett Weston’s arise logically from his interest in the total landscape. Minor White’s rock prints are often dark, somber, and we see in them the intense, reflective character of the man—although his annual summer workshops on the West Coast leave in their wake a host of minor Minors who slavishly produce eroded rocks in imitation of their teacher. To Siskind and Caponigro, rock photographs are one aspect of their preoccupation with abstract design wherever it may be found. Porter sees in the beauty of the rock designs of Glen Canyon a telling argument against building a dam. Welpott, whose eye is caught by similarities and repetitions, often pairs his prints of rocks with prints of nudes.

The photographers reviewed here, however, have no philosophical commitment to rock forms, and we must find out why they have photographed and exhibited them, adding them to their work as casually as popping a maraschino cherry onto a chocolate sundae:

Tom Myers, E. B. Crocker Gallery, Sacramento: Myers has visited Bodie, Locke, Noyo, and Mendocino and has made random photographs in each town. His photographs are meaningless without text, but if he had written a few words to accompany each set of prints, he would have realized how superficial his photographs were, and would have withdrawn the exhibit. The exhibit is photojournalism stillborn. We learn so little about each town. Chinese people live in Locke; Noyo is a fishing village; there are artists in Mendocino; and Bodie is a crumbling remnant of a town where there lives an ever-present little boy who hams it up with his rifle for the camera.

On the coast near Mendocino, Myers has seen and photographed eroded rocks. The rest of the Mendocino photographs—children playing on a fence, snapshot views of the town—are so unrelated to the eroded rocks that we must conclude that Myers is using the photograph to draw our attention to the fact that he, is no mere photojournalist: in his soul, he is an ARTIST. The prints are carelessly mounted.

Rob Macconnell, Rudolf L. Van Der Vegt, Eric Kronengold, Adolph R. Ramos, Herald Gallery: The four photographers exhibiting here claim to have been students at San Francisco State of Jack Welpott and Don Worth, who should be ashamed of themselves, for the show at the Herald Gallery is one mammoth cliché. It omits so few ideas from the repertoire of the serious photographer that it seems almost a parody. The eroded rock is there, of course—MacConnell shows two of them—and the Negro children in front of billboards; and the knotty wood; and the shingles; and the graveyard fence; and the broken panes of glass. Three of the students have at least absorbed some technical proficiency; Kronengold’s imitations of Edward Weston are skillfully done. The fourth, Ramos, is far from ready to exhibit. His print quality is muddy; the vertical lines of his buildings are canted and his figures are not erect but leaning drunkenly in space; and he is convinced that because he is photographing paraplegics and down-and-outers, he is showing us Real Life.

The teachers should, no doubt, be blamed rather than the students. They have not taught that the camera is a means to explore and express one’s own ideas; that the copying of currently fashionable images could be compared to a painter’s filling in theoutlines of a coloring book; that no one must declaim “The boy stood on the burning deck . . .” and swear it is his own.

Harry Callahan, San Francisco Museum Of Art: Since most of the prints in Harry Callahan’s show were reproduced in the monograph published last year by El Mochuelo Gallery in Santa Barbara (which was reviewed at length in Artforum, September, 1964), it would be superfluous to dwell on the aspects of his work that were previously discussed. All the familiar kinds of Callahan photographs are well represented: his dark or sparsely-designed nature studies; his brooding, unhappy women on Chicago streets; his buildings whose bleak, empty windows show us the bleak, empty lives of the people who live within; his thoughtful multiple exposures and prints.

But the current show—the prints from 1963, after the selection of prints for the monograph, and the mounting, particularly the mounting—reveal a new Callahan, suddenly unsure of himself, no longer meticulous, now at the whim of fashion. The old Callahan, whose presentation of his prints was unpretentious, almost diffident, would never have been conned into cramming his prints into harsh, chrome-steel frames that so overwhelm the delicate images they contain. The glass over the dark prints makes such a perfect mirror that a girl was repairing her lipstick in a landscape from Aix-en-Provence, and looking at the prints is as impersonal as looking into steel-rimmed dark glasses.

The old Callahan would not have permitted the hanging of six prints of his daughter, Barbara, in a line to make a proud father’s snapshot album. The Callahan who made the prints of the facades of Chicago buildings meaningful because he so carefully squared up the window frames with the edges of the print, would ’not have made the casual, toppling, 1963 studies of middle-class neighborhoods in Providence. And Callahan, who was once so imaginative and curious, has retreated to the examination of the eroded rock. He shows five prints of rock forms from Massachusetts and Maine made in 1963, and one wants to call to him and warn him, “Too late, too late. That well has run dry. That claim was long ago mined out.” The Callahan show gives a frightening glimpse of the declining good judgment of a once poetic, individual photographer. The senseless working over of the same tired images must stop, and photographers must take the time to think through a fundamental reappraisal of the medium.

Margery Mann