San Francisco

“Arts of the Bay Area, Photography”

San Francisco Museum of Art

Selections from the work of eight photographers have been assembled by Hal Roth for the current San Francisco Museum show under the portmanteau misnomer of “The World Around Us.” A title leading us to expect a thorough visual investigation of man’s environment, and an expectation completely disappointed by the haphazard selection. The photos shown are by Ernest Braun, Paul Hassel, Imogene Cunningham, Pirkle Jones, Donald S. Ross, Brett Weston, and T. W. Tenney, to which Roth adds some snap shots of landscapes and campers of his own. Braun has contributed a set of large grey designs derived from plant and animal life, which, despite their abstract design, achieve little of the formal interest he frequently elicits from his less promising architectural subjects. Braun’s dull greys may be an occupational hazard of architectural photographers, for they seem to be shared by Pirkle Jones, whose uninspired group of city views falls far short of his earlier landscapes. Jones’ bland de-energizing of large scenes, combined with an inability to see people, results in one of the curiosities of the show. A thoroughly impossible subject; a row of contractor’s houses at the sea’s edge, the quintessence of a contemporary non-scene is Jones’ strongest photo, which perhaps illustrates the dialectical possibility that nothing, pushed far enough, becomes something. Paul Hassel’s perceptive head-on documents record the rich varieties of architecture and ornament found among older San Francisco buildings, a valuable record of the visual wealth currently being destroyed here. T. W. Tenney’s selection ranges unevenly from apt observation to visual notes which rarely attain the level of considered comment.

By far the most successful photographs are those of Weston and Ross. Ross’s works beautifully display a rich, magic imagery, achieved by excellent formal seeing and use of the heavy deep black so noticeably absent in most of the show. His treatment of reeds jutting through snow is even more satisfying than Callahan’s. Brett Weston’s section again illustrates the distinction between his work and his father’s. While working in the same genre, his photos extend the tradition through their achievement by technical mastery rather than by the repetition of images for which Edward was noted. The image retains its strength, but it is no longer a simple strength, having become quite subtle. One of his photos of a meadow and background wood seen through trees would have been technically impossible to a former generation, and even now could perhaps only be equaled by Minor White or Ansel Adams. And in a show purporting to be the world around us in Northern California, by the way, where is Ansel?

Arthur Bardo