PRINT Summer 1966


Paul Hassel, Robert Heinecken, Phil Palmer

The photographer-editor relationship is a controversy that has been widely debated in the past and will no doubt continue to be widely debated as long as there are photographers and editors to debate. “The photographer must never be allowed to arrange his own work,” claims the editor. “He is too close to it. He falls in love with mediocre images because they were difficult to obtain. He is unable to subordinate the single image to the whole.” “Not so,” cries the photographer. “I was there. I saw. I pressed the shutter, and only I can decide the order and importance of each photograph.”

At the one extreme, we have Life magazine, editor-created. The photographer may have exposed hundreds of films of the same subject to achieve one photograph in the magazine. Since the photographer sends his exposed films to the magazine, not developing, printing, or selecting the final photograph—or seeing it until it is published—and since the contact sheets and prints of the developed film are routed through editor after editor, of ascending importance, the photographer is reduced to a robot, more a shutter-pressing piece of machinery than a thinking, feeling, seeing human being.

At the other extreme, we meet photographers who feel that every photograph has excised from them such a precious fragment of their souls that they cannot bear to throw one away, and they show us—in darkened living room, or, unfortunately, on museum wall, one tedious, repetitious image after another.

Paul Hassel turned to photography after he was forty years old. He studied with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at the Institute of Design in Chicago, then moved to San Francisco where he became chairman of the Art Institute’s Photography Department. He died of cancer at the age of 57 in 1963. After his death, Mrs. Hassel turned his negative file over to Richard and Maisie Conrat (Richard Conrat teaches photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and assisted Dorothea Lange in preparing her final exhibit, which has just been shown at the Museum of Modern Art) to put together a retrospective show that would be expressive of his work. The current exhibit—part Hassel, part Conrat—is then a study of the complex symbiosis of editor and photographer. Many of Hassel’s negatives had not been printed in final form, so that, although the first seeing was Hassel’s the Conrats selected not only what negatives to print, but, more fundamentally, just what portion of the negative should be printed to make the viewer see as Hassel saw.

Paul Hassel was fascinated by people. His photographs of ordinary, everyday existence—people waiting for buses, picnicking on the beach, sitting on park benches (a print of a young couple is placed beside a print of an elderly couple)—show a man who was warm and curious. Perhaps we are closest to him as we see him through the eyes of a young French bride and groom who respond to a shy, friendly stranger who has stopped them to make their photograph. Hassel photographed peoples’ hands as they held purses, magazines, a shopping bag, and the Conrats have arranged the prints to make a set of sharp intimate glimpses.

Hassel’s photographs of the Victorian houses which were being torn down in San Francisco re-development areas communicate a deep poetic nostalgia and a sense of personal loss. Hassel responded to the life that had gone on in the houses as well as to their design. The photographs are thoughtful; they are the product of long reflection. He photographed whole houses and details of windows and gates, and he photographed houses as they were being destroyed. One large print shows an intricate rabbit warren of a house with the wall removed as clearly as a curtain is raised to show the scene of a play, and we almost expect people, Hassel’s ordinary people, to appear to carry on the drama of their lives.

Perhaps because he studied with Siskind and Callahan relatively late in his life, Hassel was able to learn from them without imitating them. Certainly, Hassel himself was keenly conscious of design—the imbrication of stacked suit coats is splendid—and the Conrats have emphasized his design sense by their arrangement—a print of a tree shadow on grass is placed beside a print of a tree in semi-silhouette that repeats the pattern. Hassel’s response to nature was a response to design. He was a city man. Some of his photographs of trees seem to have been made because he was trying to find out how other photographers were able to express deeper meanings.

How much, then, of the current show stems from Hassel and how much from the Conrats? From examining the bulk of Hassel’s work to prepare the exhibit, the Conrats must have known him as well as—perhaps better than—he knew himself and their selection of photographs gives us a portrait of a real person who loved life but was conscious of inexorable time. The arrangement of the photographs, the emphasis by size or repetition, the pacing of the show, and the mounting of the well-made prints on panels of muted colors must be attributed to the Conrats who show themselves to be among the most talented young designers in the Bay Area.

ROBERT HEINECKEN’S SHOW is a vast pastiche of technical fun-and-gamesing. Much of the work is tried-and-true experimentation, the usual grainy nudes, multiple exposures of unrelated objects, high contrast alleys. But Heinecken may perhaps take the credit for discovering the creative potential of positive transparency film, and his “Obscured Figures” may be photography’s first nod in the direction of Ad Reinhardt. Heinecken has cut mounted photographs of nudes into triangles and randomly re-assembled them; he has wrapped a cube with a nude; he has made tall, four-sided solids of nudes—positive and negative images—and has sliced the form horizontally so that pieces of the figures may be shifted about. Heinecken’s best work would be appropriate for display or package design. It is no more profound.

PHIL PALMER IS THE COMPLETE PHOTOGRAPHER. By day, he is a commercial photographer whose work has appeared in hundreds of magazine articles and who has illustrated two books on San Francisco. In the evenings, he teaches photography at San Francisco State Extension. And on weekends, he photographs to express his own ideas and to please himself. Palmer turned to photography after receiving his degree as a landscape architect. Much of his commercial work illustrates home and garden articles, and his personal photographs often show his concern with the intimate connection between man and his immediate surroundings—a portrait of Wynn Bullock working at his desk does not show us Bullock’s face; we can learn as much about him by examining the room where he works. Palmer is intrigued by the play of light on any object that will catch it—rolling hills and the grasses that cover them; the line of spray as a wave strikes the cliff; parking meters in an empty lot. He loves animals. He places a dead junco on a plate to photograph it, and his print of a glistening herd of gentle Brahma cattle is one of the finest in the show.

Margery Mann