PRINT Summer 1968


“Certain Aspects of the American Dream in the Mid Nineteen Sixties” at the Richmond Art Center

BAY AREA PHOTOGRAPHY IS FLAILING around like a carp caught in the muddy pool of a drying stream. There is tremendous activity but little progress. We might—abruptly changing the metaphor—divide the photographers having one-man shows into two columns. As the leader of one column we see Ansel Adams, and at the head of the other we imagine the shade of the late Edward Weston. The photographers standing in the column behind Adams are older—many of them look like business or professional men on holiday costumed by Abercrombie and Fitch—but a few of them are obviously old-time naturalists. They carry scarred binoculars in addition to their cameras, or a few weeds they plan to identify with their dog-eared copies of Jepson’s Manual. There are still a few people who have a visceral reaction to nature, but most of Adams’ followers turn out superficial, pretty little pictures of pine trees and rushing streams. In his recent book, Fiat Lux, produced to celebrate the centenary of the University of California, Adams so Half-Domed the University that the book will appeal only to conservative, sixty-year-old alumni. In its glorification of the University—the reproduction of the photographs is so lush that after looking at twenty pages or so, you feel as bloated as if you had eaten too much chocolate pudding—the book quite unwittingly explains the student turmoil and the Free Speech Movement.

The Westonians—there are ten times as many of them, and a lot of them are very young—look with an ill-concealed sneer at the Adams followers. They have been combing the sands of Point Lobos near Carmel, and with faces and souls contorted with angst, making Significant Statements about wisps of seaweed. The most blatant Weston-worship was to be seen in William Current’s photographs of Point Lobos exhibited this February at College of Marin in Kentfield. The whole show should properly have been enclosed in quotation marks.

Besides the stranglehold of the Adams-Weston axis, my reading brought to light another significant fact: few Bay Area photographers have any sense of humor. Admittedly, we are not living in a world abounding in joy and hilarity, but we live in a thoroughly ridiculous world, and many painters—Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, among others—are keeping us tuned in to it. Perhaps because the photographer is always a little defensive about his medium—clinically paranoid, most of us—he is forced to be serious because the world mocks him enough. Humor in photography is usually the humor of incongruity—the chance juxtaposition of two things that are unrelated, and it is usually obvious and corny. A statue of a nude Venus in a museum makes a good place for the photographer to stake out. Two frumpish old ladies will look at her with disapproval; nuns will pass by with heads averted; an old man will look at her wistfully; two sailors lecherously; and a small boy will study her in frank curiosity. None of these were terribly funny the first time around, and after they have been repeated—with minuscule variations—hundreds of times, they have worn pretty thin.

Social satire is almost completely absent in California photography. It is too subtle for the man who cracks up at the procession of nude Venuses. But for their show, “Certain Aspects of the American Dream in the Mid Nineteen Sixties,” at the Richmond Art Center, Thomas and Margaret Tenney have combed the pages of mail order gift catalogs and tiny filler ads that are in the back of many magazines, and have photographed and blown large a number of them that seemed to have both elegant design and sharp comment on the way our society lives and what people can be induced to buy. A slim, well-manicured hand enwreathed in a pearl bracelet drops a deodorizing tablet into a toilet bowl; a man enjoys an ear of corn that he grasps with ear-shaped holders; golf tees are nude torsos, and ice cubes can be frozen as nude busts. Man’s society is reflected in his artifacts, and the Tenneys have made a valuable contribution to the anthropological study of our tasteless affluence.

Margery Mann