PRINT November 1966



RUTH BERNARD, AARDVARK GALLERY: Ruth Bernhard’s sad little show which opens the relocated Aardvark Gallery raises some disquieting ques­tions about the differences between the artist-painter and the artist-pho­tographer. While the artist-painter often carries wet canvases into the gallery, because his ideas have been boiling as he worked under the pres­sure of the impending exhibit, the artist-photographer plays it safe and shows the same old prints again and again. Most, if not all, of Miss Bernhard’s prints have been around for a long time—the skull with the crucifix, the pigeons through the window, the three doll heads. Her print of two magnolia leaves was published on the cover of aperture in 1953; it has been shown at the San Francisco Museum at least twice since then; it was shown at the Hermetic Study Group; it was shown at the Toren Gallery in 1964; and it turns up again here. For some reason—perhaps to give it new im­pact—Miss Bernhard has enlarged the print to almost three times the size it appeared on aperture, and the leaves are no longer hard and sparkling, but appear as cold and flabby as two pancakes left over from this morning’s breakfast.

Miss Bernhard, of course, is not alone in her constant re-airing of old photographs. The established photog­raphers rely heavily on their estab­lished prints. Ansel Adams’s Redwood Empire show was a tour not only through the north coast country but also through Adams’s file of old nega­tives. Brett Weston always shows the beautiful glass abstraction that ap­peared on the cover of Arts and Archi­tecture in 1955.

We must ask if the creative urge in photography is more ephemeral than the creative urge in painting. Is the artist-photographer inherently a dif­ferent personality type than the artist-painter, a man who loses his curiosity and desire to explore once he has seen a few exciting things and made a few exciting images? Or is perhaps the desire to play it safe peculiar to the Bay Area?

“DAYS OF PROTEST,” City Lights: With the utmost sympathy for the demonstrators and with nothing but good will in his heart, Steven Krolik photographed the Vietnam Day rally in Berkeley. No amount of sympathy and good will, however, will make up for the lack of an incisive eyeball and a sense of what is visually meaningful. The lead photograph—the stolid spread legs of armed policemen be­hind a street barricade—gives prom­ise of better photographs than Krolik has actually made. A group of Hell’s Angels standing on a corner is dom­inated by a street sign that gives the unimportant news that the group is on King Street. A man carries a ban­ner demanding “MORE WAR” be­cause Krolik has cut off the “NO” in shooting or printing. A naked man is escorted into a police car, and the visual image is no more fascinating than the written sentence: if we don’t know why, we don’t care about him. Old people behind a sign, “STOP THE KILLING IN VIETNAM,” how­ever, make a moving image. From the many photographs exhibited recently, photographers must often outnumber demonstrators at the Berkeley rallies, and Krolik’s prints are far better than the average.

“OAXACA, MEXICO,” Oakland Public Museum: Marion Patterson’s photo­graphs of Oaxaca show a sympathy and understanding that are rare in photographers working in foreign countries. She has immersed herself in the region, so that although her work would not satisfy the tourist seeker after the quaint and pictur­esque, it would probably be im­mensely satisfactory to the people she photographed.

Miss Patterson is sensitive to the nuances of the tropical light. She shows us the hard, merciless noonday glare of the unshaded streets in con­trast to the soft grey mists of the for­ested hills. She shows us the close interrelationship of men and animals in a primitive society. She shows us the dependence of the people on their religion with photographs of religious festivals and symbols.

The show suffers from a peculiarly offhand attitude towards editing. A block of eight prints contains seven portraits and a banana plant. Several abstract studies of plants, handsome as they are, are so different in spirit and intent from the rest of the prints that they look like fugitives from another exhibit.

Miss Patterson’s portraits reveal a warm friendship between photogra­pher and subject. Her people are as curious about her as she is about them. They seem to be amused by her. One must compare her portraits with Richard Elkus’s portraits from Alamos. Miss Patterson’s people are proud and dignified. Elkus’s are the stereotype of the poor, downtrodden peon. The difference is not in the subject; the difference is in the pho­tographer.

“PORTFOLIO 66,” Zellerbach Build­ing, San Francisco: The exhibit of the San Francisco Chapter of the Amer­ican Society of Magazine Photogra­phers is so elaborately and stylishly laid out that one realizes immediately that the designer intended it as a monument to himself and chose the photographs only grudgingly as the necessary raw material. For he has mangled the photographs to fit his layout, unmindful of the photogra­pher’s vision or purpose—Imogen Cunningham’s study of conformity, men wearing identical ties and white shirts sitting in a line, was too tall to fit the space allotted to it, so he chopped off the top and showed only a row of feet. And he has selected photographs that are at worst mean­ingless and at best unimportant. Phiz Mozesson is represented by a set of portraits of celebrities, unlabeled, and unless we are to play a guessing game and win lollipops for having recog­nized Benny Bufano or James Baldwin (Mrs. Mozesson invariably shows pho­tographs of James Baldwin), the prints have no place here. Joe Munroe’s giant color print of a redwood forest dwarfing a tiny man in a bright red shirt looks like a page ripped from a 1934 National Geographic. Wynn Bullock’s rocks on the seashore are third rate Bullock. And, as usual, the juxtaposition of a number of George Knight’s prints—here, a political rally in Berkeley—makes a whole that is considerably weaker than any single one of the parts. Madison Devlin’s photograph of lightning in the eve­ning sky would be outstanding in any company. It is a life-saver in this sea of mediocrity.

“THE EXPERIENCE,” San Francisco Art Institute: The Experience, subtitled Last Year at Hasselblad, a set of pho­tographs by Steve Arnold, Jerry Bur­chard, Chris and Sharon Gray, and Phil Perkis, is described as “the result of a group experiment to translate hallucinatory terms to visual results. The photographs represent the increasing beauties revealed by the eye among five people over a 12-hour period.” In English, this must mean photographs made while the photog­raphers were on an LSD trip. (After all, is there any other capital-E Experi­ence these days?)

Although the prints are euphemisti­cally described, they are printed with extreme honesty. Every negative is meticulously printed to the edge of the frame—one can sometimes read the Tri-X in the margins—and it has even been suggested that the true sig­nificance of the exhibit may be read in the pattern of squiggles of dust which on many prints dominates the image. The photographs––of people sitting around drinking coffee by candlelight or hamming it up or star­ing broodily at the camera—are dull and repetitive, although, to relieve the monotony, the photographers have covered some of the prints with Koolaid-colored sheet plastic—and how dazzling they look under their thin films of Goofy Grape and Jolly Olly Orange—paradoxical when one considers the emphatic purity of the original vision. Some writers have suggested that psychedelic drugs do not so much heighten creativity as lessen critical ability. The current ex­hibit is a score for their side.

Margery Mann