PRINT October 1967



Late in June, the Friends of Photography Gallery opened in Carmel, with all the tinsel and fanfare one would expect of an occasion sponsored by the two top names in California photography, Ansel Adams and Brett Weston. But it seems only one more attempt by the Old Guard to hobble creativity in California and to keep it confined to the well-worn paths already established. The first show, a dozen or so photographs by each of seven respected artists—Adams, Brett and Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, and Minor White—was devoid of surprises. Bullock showed his Boy Fishing, Miss Cunningham Morris Graves and Alfred Stieglitz, and, to represent Dorothea Lange, the Oakland Museum submitted a print of Migrant Mother. There was nothing in the Adams collection that was not shown in his mammoth retrospective at the De Young Museum in 1964. Miss Cunningham’s prints were shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1965, and at the Stanford University Art Gallery in 1967. And Migrant Mother is used as an example almost every time Dorothea Lange’s work is mentioned. Only the prints by Minor White, a selection of abstractions from The sound of one hand clapping, had not been shown in Northern California before, but their style is more than familiar to readers of aperture, the magazine edited by White.

This is not to disparage any of these photographers or their work. But they speak—most of them—completely for a past generation, and their refusal to look at what is going on today may so stifle creative photography in California that it will take another generation for it to get back on its feet.

Although Edward Weston died in 1958, the fires of his legend have been kept alive by his sons and other cultists, and his direct way of seeing, which did much to free American photography from the heady romanticism of the 1920s, has now been perverted to a ritual of accepted subjects and forms. Weston has been canonized. His Daybooks were recently published, and although they are the dull records of an almost completely visual man and are about as exciting as a stranger’s snapshot album, they have been seized on as Sacred Writings, and they have the same function for many photographers as the family Bible. Weston’s best work was done before 1940, and, although the exhibit at the Friends of Photography Gallery would deny it, the photographer today must reflect the world of the racial strife in Detroit, the war in Vietnam, and potential atomic disaster.

The San Francisco photography scene, however, in obeisance to the Westons, and with an occasional nod to Adams, has fallen into a quagmire of derivation and escapism, and it needs no further reminder of the sanctity of the Masters. (Interestingly, Miss Lange has attracted no followers. It is less complicated to contemplate a tree or a rock than a human being.) West Coast photographers need to be jolted into taking a long hard look at the plastic-coated, neon-blinking world that engulfs us.

Recently, only David Donoho, in Walls and America, has made an oblique study of the relationship between man and his surroundings. Donoho has not photographed people, and thus the show is detached, a little bloodless. He has photographed figures drawn on walls, or messages: “Eat drink and make Mary.” And walls have been cracked or spattered or painted to make symbols of love and hate, of springtime and joy, or death and destruction, all conditioned by the relentless passage of time. Donoho’s prints show the influence of many other photographers—Aaron Siskind, Walker Evans, Brassai—and yet Donoho, who was obviously trained as a painter, has, through imaginative editing, elegant technique, and flawless design, told a story which is peculiarly his own.

Otherwise, recent shows have taken two directions: on the one hand, imitations of the Masters, and on the other, “My Trip.” In the first category, we might mention Lloyd Ullberg (Focus Gallery) who imitated, among others, Adams, the Westons, Tana Hoban (some darling little Siamese kittens), and even exhibited photographs of late 19th-century houses that are no more interpretive than the fly-specked prints that clutter the front windows of realtors’ offices. There have been few other photographers as unconvinced of the value of their own vision as Ullberg, and he hops from imitation to imitation with the giddy abandon of a man with a large repertoire of bird songs. But a man who can imitate a nightingale is not a nightingale and never will be one.

Don Worth’s photographs (De Young Museum) are unashamed in their debt to Adams, and yet they substitute peace for Adams’s polemic. Adams grabs his viewers by the lapels and harangues them about nature conservation. Worth has accepted and digested Adams’s message, but has turned aside to enjoy his own more poetic and introspective reaction to the landscape.

Ever since one man left the cave to go over the hill to see what was on the other side, he has felt compelled to tell his fellows what he saw. The yarns around the campfire have culminated in John Gunther’s Insides. The visual tradition extends from Lascaux through all manner of pretty watercolors brought back from Italy, to photography. Photography was indeed invented partly because Fox-Talbot was an inept draftsman who wished to preserve the places he had seen. The immediacy of photography—the photographer had to be There to press the shutter Then—makes it the ideal medium for telling about places—Roger Fenton’s visit to the Crimea, Timothy O’Sullivan’s travels through the American West, the grinning peasants doing the folk dances they have just learned from the National Geographic photographer, your neighbor’s out-of-focus children feeding deer in Yellowstone Park. Many people travel today not for pleasure but only to bring back photographic souvenirs. The man who would never think of photographing his own surroundings sees no anomaly in photographing an alien society.

The “My Trip” photographs this year are drearier than ever. LeRoy Robbins (San Francisco Museum) showed snapshots that he made as he drove across Mexico, the standard tourist bag of markets and churches; Ernest Braun (De Young), a talented architectural photographer with an affinity for the patterns of the city (his photographs are the best in the book, Our San Francisco) brought back a set of pedestrian (but large and colored) views of his trip down the Colorado River. Jeffrey Blankfort (Focus), made a series of photographs of “Children of Rome” which proves only that Roman children, like American children, make funny faces when they see a man with a camera. For some reason, photographs of Italy are always printed dark and grainy (although not as dark and grainy as photographs of the Balkan countries), and Blankfort has made dark, grainy prints to convince us that the children are in Rome and not in Oakland or Omaha.

In contrast to the glitter attending the opening exhibit of the Friends of Photography, the San Francisco Museum of Art quietly hung in its corridor the exhibit of 50 prints by Francis Bruguiere and Robert Frank. Two such unrelated photographers can hardly be imagined, and it must be assumed that someone at George Eastman House, blindfolded, selected the names out of a hat. Bruguiere experimented with light abstractions, multiple printing, and solarization, and his prints, while imaginative, are a reiteration of the forms and designs of the minor abstract painters of the 1920s and ’30s, and are as dated as the photograms of Man Ray or the paintings of MacDonald-Wright. Frank’s work, on the other hand, opened up a dynamic new way of seeing.

In 1955–56, Frank, a Swiss who was the first European photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship,drove around the United States in a 1949 Ford. Like the “My Trip” photographers, Frank was a tourist recording what he saw as he traveled, but his book, The Americans, published in France in 1958 and in the United States in 1959, is the coherent record of an eye that saw the mass-America that has since found expression in our Pop culture. Frank pointed out the cheap sensationalism of our flag-draped walls, our flashing jukeboxes, and the chrome and bulge of the automobiles which enslave us—everywhere emptiness and alienation. (Most critics responded peevishly that Americans weren’t like that at all.) Frank shows no trace of Dorothea Lange’s empathy and concern. Miss Lange talked with her people who responded to her warmth. The interaction is in the photograph. Frank’s people are, generally, photographed by an outsider who has made no contact with them. And Frank’s photographs report strictly American circumstances rather than reflecting a universal human brotherhood. Miss Lange’s photographs of people in India are as meaningful as her photographs of the Dust Bowl. Frank’s descriptions of alienation came at a time when a post-Depression, post-World War II generation was growing up in a world that was incomprehensible, and they incited a strong response among young photographers. Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus, for example, exhibiting together at the Museum of Modern Art, turn a cold, hostile lens on the urban condition. Both Friedlander and Winogrand show us the ugliness and futility of the Jives that we try to escape by driving aimlessly to and fro. They repeat many of the same symbols that Frank used—flags, television sets, and the eternal automobile. Miss Arbus, a more powerful photographer, turns her camera on circus freaks and transvestites and cripples and makes them represent, through a sort of visual synecdoche, universal entrapment.

To celebrate the opening of the Friends of Photography Gallery, Beaumont Newhall, Director of George Eastman House gave a lecture on “The Photographic Revolution in the Visual Arts.” He concluded with a photograph of the face of Half Dome, made by Ansel Adams in 1927. It was as foolish as concluding a talk on contemporary American art with a painting by Thomas Hart Benton.

Margery Mann