San Francisco

“Photography in California 1945–1980”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

“Photography in California 1945–1980,” a traveling exhibition featuring 250 photographs by 50 photographers, is a poor attempt at a historical survey. Organized by this museum (an institution that has collected and shown photography since the ’30s), the exhibition is inexplicably bereft of historical perspective, connoisseurship, and the most basic art-historical scholarship. Though conceived as a survey of the past three and a half decades, the show consists predominantly of works made after 1975; the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s are dealt with as a mere introduction to the creative apogee that Louise Katzman, an assistant curator at the museum and the show’s organizer, sees in the late ’70s. This curatorial near-sightedness makes for startling omissions: the most significant is Ansel Adams, who not only directly influenced postwar photography through his own work, but, in 1946, founded the photography department of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), and thus was perhaps the individual most responsible for the growth of postwar photography in Northern California.

It is a commonly held notion that California, removed from the urban East, developed its own set of regional concerns. The landscape work that Adams, Minor White, and Wynn Bullock produced in Northern California in the late ’40s and ’50s supports this idea, as does the work of Southern California photographer Robert Heinecken, who in the ’60s and early ’70s was instrumental in pushing photography beyond the physical and intellectual boundaries of the perfectly made print. Had “Photography in California” truly proffered a historical view, it would have revealed a long and impressive list of practitioners whose work was involved with and influenced by the Californian lifestyle and geographic distance from the East. From the perspective of one who has written extensively on California photography, and whose own photography is included in the exhibition, the weaknesses of the show can be attributed not only to poor curatorial choice but also to a preconceived, superficial notion of what California photography should look like. Work that Katzman refers to in her catalogue essay as “exciting, discerning, and complex” resembles a New Yorker’s clichéd vision of narcissism in lotus land when it reaches the museum wall.

Almost without exception, photographers are represented not by their best or most important pieces, but by their most recent efforts. Influential earlier works by photographers such as Heinecken, Judy Dater, Richard Misrach, and Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel are by and large usurped by work of more recent vintage. In many cases the works on view were made after 1980, contradicting the curator’s own parameters for the exhibition. The book that accompanies the show shares its faults. In the absence of much in the way of commercial, journalistic, or fashion opportunities, it has been the academic institutions, which have flourished in the postwar years, that have offered training, employment, and a sense of community to California photographers. The essay discusses this point, but analysis and thoughtful criticism are lacking; the text reads like an alumni newsletter, detailing in excess who studied with whom and where they ultimately taught. In some instances Katzman’s interpretations contradict what the photographers have publicly stated or written about their art.

“Photography in California” is almost totally lacking in redeeming features of either an esthetic or scholarly nature. Only a handful of photographers, most notably Robbed Flick, Henry Wessel, and Lewis Baltz, rise above the mass of glitzy, self-indulgent color photography that sets the tone. The show is an unfortunate reflection on California photography and on this museum.

Hal Fischer