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The View From Here

California Style at SFMOMA

In the age of digital cameras and one-hour photo processing, we often forget that photography is a relatively new art form that initially required large amounts of costly equipment, long hours in darkrooms, and manual focus.

In fact, during its first several decades, photography was not accepted as a valid art form. It is therefore not surprising that from the moment it opened in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art began what came to be an extensive collection — started, of course, with a gift of Ansel Adams photographs. The View From Here, drawn from SFMOMA’s own collections, is part of the 75th anniversary celebration of the museum.

But don’t be fooled; this is not an Ansel Adams exhibition. A California photography exhibition sans Ansel, you ask? Not entirely. Three of Adams’ smaller photos are on exhibit, leaving plenty of room for other photographers who were either from California or had spent considerable time here. While some may be disappointed by this, the quality and variety of photographs more than sufficiently compensates.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition is an excellent survey of California photography, spanning the last 150 years and presenting compelling images of a wide variety of subject matter. It provides not only an impressive aesthetic treat, but also a small window into the greater history of photography.

The development of photography coincided with the Gold Rush and the population boom in California, leading to a wonderfully voluminous visual record of the many social and political movements, natural wonders, and natural disasters that have taken place in the Golden State.

The exhibition begins with Carleton E. Watkins’ impossibly crisp photos, many of Yosemite in the late 1800s, and many of which led to Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Bill in 1864. His “Mirror View of Upper Yosemite Fall” depicts a gorgeous view of the falls perfectly mirrored in a lake below. The size and clarity of Watkins’ photographs is impressive, given the technology of the time.

The development of the panoramic photo is also represented, here by several views of San Francisco, including a couple of the city in its post-1906 earthquake state. The Pillsbury Picture Company’s shot, taken near Turk and Market Streets, reveals the ghostly ruins of once-beautiful buildings and burned out tree trunks incongruously juxtaposed with a clear sky and men and women seemingly going about their business.

After these early examples of California photography, the exhibition moves into various movements and trends in the art of photography, including pictorialism, Group f.64, documentary photography, experimental works, and the work of contemporary California photographers. This progression presents fascinating contrasts in style, subject matter, photographic technique, and artistic philosophy.

The pictorialists, for example, active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sought to bring a painterly quality to photography, no doubt to give it validity as a new art form. Johan Hagemeyer’s Cypress Trees, Telegraph Hill, San Francisco (1925) provides a view of a rooftop through sinuous cypress trees, a composition somewhat reminiscent of many of Van Gogh’s works. The photo is not blurry, but its lines are softer, creating a less harsh outline and a hint of sentimentality.

In direct opposition to pictorialism arose Group f.64, of which Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke were a part. Group f.64 rejected pictorialism in favor of direct, realistic, unmanipulated photography, which is evident in the work of Adams. However, in The View From Here, the works of other members of this short-lived group are also on display, providing a deeper look into this modernist movement.

Edward Weston’s “Legs in a Hammock, Laguna, California” (1937), for instance, is a fascinating piece that fully explores the ability of photography to create compelling images purely through juxtaposition of shapes, textures, and shadow. The diagonal lines of the leg and the hammock contrast beautifully with the herringbone lines of the brick patio beneath, at the same time creating a sense of movement across the photo. The camera has merely captured — expertly and exquisitely — what is there.

The diversity of images only increases at this point, moving into some of Dorothea Lange’s documentary photographs of the Depression era and Edward Ruscha’s aerial shots of empty parking lots, both revealing beauty in misfortune and what many consider to be the negative effects of industrialization and suburbanization. Also, be sure to check out John Gutman’s “The Artist Lives Dangerously” (1938), a very aptly named work.

In addition to photography that captures and documents at the exhibit, Wallace Berman’s “Silence Series #10” (1965-68) plays with repetition, depicting sixteen negative prints of the same hand holding the same radio, but with a different image projected on each — a nude body, a gun, a snake, ancient coins, an ear. Lew Thomas’s “The Vacuum” (1975), on the other hand, maintains realism, but breaks the vacuum up and pieces it back together again, like a bizarre, curved panoramic survey of a modern appliance.

It does seem a little odd, though, that the section of experimental works is relatively small — one might expect a much larger collection of experimental, avant-garde, or abstract photography from the SFMOMA but, perhaps, California was just not as great a provider of these types of work.

The only difficulty at this point is the fact that many of these trends in photography were overlapping or contemporaneous, making it impossible to maintain the earlier chronological organization. However, grouping the works by movement or subject matter presents viewers with a more cohesive experience.

The exhibition continues on, ending with work from contemporary California photographers, leaving viewers with the sense that this is not a static art but one that continues to change and evolve, and letting them know that the SFMOMA maintains its commitment to procuring works on the leading edge of aesthetics.

The View From Here is a diverse, rich collection of stunning and interesting imagery that successfully places the works in SFMOMA’s collection into context.