PRINT March 1966


Richard Elkus’s Alamos at the De Young Museum

It is fortunate that the De Young has chosen to show Richard Elkus’s photographs from his book, Alamos, since few of us will have the opportunity to see the book, which was published by Grabhorn Press in an edition of fewer than 500 copies and costs $75. The book is a magnificent, opulent volume, almost a tribute to the taste of Renaissance man, for its spine is covered in rich brown suede and it is bound in specially-woven Mexican fabric––actually, more accurately, Mexicanesque, for the light brown, orange and buff look to have been mingled by an interior decorator rather than by a Mexican peasant. The introduction by Barnaby Conrad––who has borrowed (without due credit) his information about the history and geography of this part of Sonora from standard guidebooks, and his laconic literary style from the later writings of Ernest Hemingway––is printed on only one side of the page.

The twenty-four photographs, which were blown too large for the book and even larger for the Museum, are truly dreadful; indeed, it is hard to recall a display of more pretentious incompetence. The prints are hard, poorly-resolved, and meaninglessly grainy. Elkus is always the rich American outsider doling out pesos to the quaint peons who sit for his camera. He sees only the surface of their lives and molds them into stereotypes. Only an old, slightly out-of-focus, black-draped woman has defeated him by looking through rather than at him. And he has seen the quaint sights that every tourist in Mexico has seen before him––the gingerbread bandstand in the square, the bell tower (photographed, of course, with a dark red filter), the mongrel dog in the back street.

Unhappily, Elk us has not contented himself with making bad photographs. He has appended to each photograph a brief, pithy statement––occasionally somewhat related to the photograph’s content. Elkus is no spinner of sprightly aphorisms, no juggler of light phrases. His thoughts are couched in heavy, resounding generalities––“integrity,” “strength” (used 3 times), “understanding” (4 times). “Hatred frees the forces of destruction/understanding opens the door to greatness” sits beside an overblown photograph of a metal lock on a weathered wooden door. Richard Elkus is not Edward Weston. “Each year brings forth the youth in man searching out new horizons, those dreams that make for maturing greatness” rests uneasily beside a boy posing uncomfortably and self-consciously on a sawed log.

Mr. Elkus is a wealthy San Francisco industrialist.

––Margery Mann