Golden State, Golden Age

New exhibit collects 150 years of California photography

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Photographer Edward Weston has been quoted as saying, “Everything worth photographing is in California”–and the Oakland Museum’s show

Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography is a fitting record of the extraordinary love affair between the camera and the natural drama of the Golden State. Two hundred photographic works and an assortment of equipment from over the past 150 years, all drawn from the museum’s own collections, provide kaleidoscopic views of three different but interrelated histories: that of California, that of photography, and that of art itself.

Drew Heath Johnson, the museum’s curator of fine-art photography, has done a thoughtful and inspired job of choosing images that illuminate the path the photographer’s art has taken since 1850. There are famous images, such as Edward Weston’s photo of Charis Wilson, her head bowed over her knees to form an elegant, long triangle. There’s Ansel Adams’ dramatically lit field of stones, titled Mount Williamson from Manzanar, and Eadweard Muybridge’s timed study of a running horse. There are plenty of well-known subjects: Marilyn Monroe, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite. But then there are also plenty of photos by lesser-known artists and of more obscure subjects, and these are equally as beautiful, informative, and haunting.

The growth of California and that of photography are uniquely connected. Just as the lure of gold began to draw the hopeful and curious to California in droves, the daguerreotype made its way to America from Europe. A relatively simple technology that left a perfect likeness on a glass plate, daguerreotypy was the perfect tool for showing folks back East all the scenic and cultural wonders of exotic California. Just as sound recording technology made all sorts of music available to the consumer, the daguerreotype made it possible for people to see “the thing itself” from a remote distance–whether that thing was a loved one who had gone to seek his fortune, or a tremendous mountain range, or a dance-hall personality, or a Chinese immigrant or Pomo Indian in traditional garb.

Capturing Light begins with a series of photographs that give a taste of what California was like long before the advent of fast-food joints and strip malls, before the state became a theme park of itself. Horse-drawn carts, men with handlebar mustaches, wooden sidewalks–these daguerreotypes capture the Western romance in all its sepia glory: one photo shows a group of young women in long white dresses posing with their guitar club in front of early views of San Francisco.

Early photography was painfully slow and awkward. Sitting for a portrait at the daguerreotypist’s meant placing your head against a U-shaped metal contraption for twenty minutes so that the image wouldn’t come out blurred. Many daguerreotypists traveled like Gypsies in specially built wagons, taking pictures of prospectors, mine sites, and nascent towns. They were as likely to take their fee in eggs, vegetables, or wood as cash. Their jobs could be dangerous and unwieldy; the first men to photograph Yosemite, Mount Shasta, and the groves of “Big Trees” hauled in their equipment on horseback to capture the immense vistas. At 18 by 22 inches and nearly four pounds apiece, Yosemite photographer Carleton Watkins’ glass negatives were both huge and fragile. They also had to be coated at the site, exposed while they were still wet, and developed before they had a chance to dry.

Several of the first California nature photographers are represented here: besides Watkins, Muybridge, and Charles Leander Weed, stereoscopic view pioneers Alfred Hart, John James Reilly, and Charles Pond all have work on display. Frustratingly, the cards are displayed framed–it would have made sense to exhibit duplicates of these images with stereo viewers.

Over time, photographers seem to have tried every combination of chemicals and supports. The staggering variety of techniques and materials run off the tongue like an alchemist’s shopping list: wet collodion, orotone, bromoil, photogravure, salted paper, albumen prints, gelatin, bromide, platinum, autochrome, Cibachrome, cyanotype, melainotype, gum bichromate. And photographers have printed their images on almost as many media: glass, metal, leather, oilcloth, wood, paper, iron sheeting–almost any surface that can be sensitized to light with chemicals, leading to effects as diverse as the clear, sharp color of Cibachrome (where the pigments are incorporated into the paper itself) to the dreamy effects of bromoil (where bleach is used to fade the dark areas of a photo, which are then enhanced with oil paints).

Orotone is an especially fascinating historical oddity–unfortunately, there is only one example in this show, Edward S. Curtis’ Prayer to the Stars, which depicts a loincloth-clad Native American facing away from the camera, his arms raised in supplication. The gold- and sepia-toned image is printed onto glass, the back of which has been covered with a mixture of gold pigment and banana oil. Up close the result is iridescent and slightly liquid, and looks as if it has been painted with a Q-tip. It doesn’t look anything like a photo printed on paper, nor even a daguerreotype on glass: it has an unusual depth and sense of motion. Not to mention the obvious, wonderful question: How do you get banana oil? The matter-of-fact tone of the explanatory plaques belies the creativity of generations of photographers seeking exactly the right combination of materials to get the desired effect with available materials.

As well as providing fascinating technical information, the show examines the shift in conceptual priorities, from straight representation to a more artistic approach. For example, these days the term “soft focus” has become derogatory, conjuring up trite images of misty women drifting through flowery meadows in loose dresses, and indeed the vaseline-coated lens has concealed a multitude of sins. But there was a period when the ability to manipulate an image, either in-camera or in the darkroom, was still a novelty. The first photographers to explore the camera’s potential as an artistic tool and not just a way of recording exactly what they saw were known as Pictorialists, altering their negatives and prints with tools and paint. Artists such as Anne Brigman and William Mortensen attempted to transcend the pedestrian by manipulating photos to match internal states, represent abstract concepts, or illustrate fantastic stories. Generally, their work is not well known–sometimes soft and mystical or strange and theatrical, these images feature human forms in imagined environments (Brigman’s Heart of the Storm and The Bubble), literary or historical characters (Laura Armer’s Irving Pichel as Lord Kurano, Alice Burr’s Untitled (Portrait Bust of Nefertitti)), and surreal landscapes (Sigismund Blumann’s Dawn, Sunset, Moonlight). Many of these photos, while undeniably campy, are also strikingly beautiful, merging painting and photography in sophisticated ways.

Pictorialism survived on the West Coast longer than it did on the East, giving way to Modernism by the early ’30s. The Modernists, who sought the sparest, truest representation of any given subject, were represented by the Photo-Secessionists (sparked in New York by Alfred Stieglitz) and Group f.64, named after the camera aperture that allows for the sharpest image. Whereas on the East Coast Modernism led to a fascination with industrial forms, out here such photographers as Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham began to explore the abstract qualities of the female form and natural shapes, such as plants and shells. Dorothea Lange began her collaboration with Berkeley economist Paul Taylor and shifted from studio portraiture to Social Realism, in which she documented the lives and struggles of working people (White Angel Bread Line).

Since then, photography has moved in so many directions that it has become difficult to categorize, especially during the ’60s and ’70s, when this comparatively new art gained as much acceptance as drawing, painting, or sculpture. Capturing Light is a sampling of the fascinations of modern Californian photographers, from the digital manipulation and pure experimentation of Greg MacGregor, who creates and records explosions, to the incisive commentary of Bill Owens, whose I wanted Christina to learn some responsibility for cleaning her room, but it didn’t work shows a disheveled little girl with an impish smile sitting on her bed, surrounded by a disaster zone of a room.

Many of these photos couldn’t have been taken anywhere else: Reagan Louie’s South Central, Los Angeles, captures a Korean-owned store torched during the ’92 riots, while Richard Misrach updates his scenic predecessors with Desert Fire #1, Burning Palms. Capturing California as a big, diverse place in a near-constant state of self-definition, the works exhibited here show that photography, too, is big and diverse and constantly changing.