Photography’s Golden Era 1

January 22nd, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

San Francisco, California, 1948, by Philip Hyde, 5X7 Deardorf View Camera, made for one of Minor White's assignments at the California School of Fine Arts.

Photography’s Golden Era 1

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With the digital revolution, photography is branching in many new exciting directions. Some of these trends feed creativity and enhance the medium, some cheapen it like a hollow, commercialized “waffle with too much syrup,” as expressed by master landscape photographer Carr Clifton. The divergence in photography today and its eventual implications can be better understood in the context of the recent history of photography in the 20th Century, in the differences between West Coast and East Coast photography. In particular, people with an interest in landscape photography, will find directly relevant and creatively illuminating, the history of the West Coast tradition, straight photography, Group f.64 and the community of fine artists of many persuasions that flourished on the Monterey Peninsula and in the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II.

The War brought California to power as a manufacturing center. Americans and Europeans came to the state for jobs. With the expanded economy, as the war ended, San Francisco especially, became a hub of creative energy, that combined the talents of artists who had escaped the destruction in Europe, with the enthusiasm of American Soldiers searching for new directions, now that they were released from the armed services and their interrupted lives could begin again. The 1940’s San Francisco art scene gave rise to many art movements and was the convergence for others. The San Francisco Renaissance in poetry and writing with Ralph Gleason, Alan Watts, and Kenneth Rexroth, was the precursor to the 1950s Beat Generation and its writers such as Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The Jazz age peaked in the 1940s and added juice to other art forms. Paris, France had been the world’s center of Modernist painting up until Hitler’s invasion in 1940. Thereafter, Paris Modernists dispersed and went underground until well after the War and many of them escaped to San Francisco and New York City. Both of these cities became centers for Abstract Impressionism, San Francisco became the focal point for the Asian Aesthetic that influenced primarily the visual arts and other forms of expression, while Dixieland Jazz originated in New Orleans, jumped to Chicago and New York and soon flourished in diverse San Francisco as well.

With the convergence of innovation in centers such as New York and San Francisco, it was the ideal time for photography to transform and become recognized as an art form. Photography had not been considered an art until the 1930s and was still rarely accepted as anything more than a rote recording of reality in 1945 when San Francisco native Ansel Adams, California School of Fine Arts Director Douglas MacAgy and San Francisco Art Association Board President Eldridge “Ted” Spencer, began to organize the world’s first fine art photography department. However the story of how photography changed into its own art form, began farther back, with Alfred Stieglitz in New York City and a few of his associates, who inspired certain photographers on the West Coast, who in turn became Group f.64, of whom Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham taught at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, that Philip Hyde attended from 1946 to 1950. The blog posts in this series on the “Golden Era of Photography” will give a summarized history of the birth of straight photography, the West Coast tradition, the founding and cultivation of the photography department at the California School of Fine art, and the early foundations of landscape photography as a fine art.

(CONTINUED IN BLOG POST, “Photography’s Golden Era 2“)

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9 comments

  1. Derrick says:

    I enjoyed that walk back in time, thanks.

  2. Hi Derrick, thanks for stopping by. Let me know what else you would like covered regarding the history of landscape photography and conservation.

  3. Derrick says:

    David, as a historian (and neophyte photographer) myself, I enjoyed the perspective you shared.

    Gotta know where you’ve been if you want to know where you’re going.

    As for future topics….. why would you say that the “Golden Era” was in the past? Some could argue that with all of the technology more or less readily available and affordable today that we are currently in a Golden Era today??

    I’m not arguing the point, but I’d be interested to hear your views on the matter.

  4. Hi Derrick,
    Interesting questions. I didn’t label it the Golden Era. Photo historians and curatiors have called it that because the energy, creativity, optimism and serious commitment of the G. I.s coming out of WW II and looking to get on with their lives meshed with the gathering of the greatest teachers landscape photography has ever seen. At a unique time when there had been no fine art photography before, it all came together in one place and brought forth photography that will endure “forever” if that is possible. Definitely an interesting point you raise about the current day. On the internet there is some synergy, but it seems much less like a coming together of the greatest talents and more like dispersion in a million directions. Photography is transforming faster than ever. The technology is allowing for just about anyone to make a good photograph now and then. However, does that define a Golden Era? The various directions will have to settle out a bit to find out. Also, will the transformations of the medium through PhotoShop and other digital technologies ultimately improve the quality of the best art? Hard to say this soon. I know that Ansel Adams’ silver prints, Philip Hyde’s dye transfer prints and Christopher Burkett’s Cibachrome prints have yet to be matched by ANYONE printing in digital. It will be interesting to see later if the beginning of the digital era will indeed be seen as a Golden Era. I see a lot of sunsets and cliche material. Because many of the big scenes have been done, now museums are collecting mainly quirky, bizzare, experimental stuff. It may be “Golden” or it may be merely the birth of what is essentially a new medium, searching to find itself. Much of what I also see are various ways of changing photographs to look more like paintings or some other related visual art that is not straight photography, but is more like a reincarnation of the pictorialism that held photography back from becoming its own art form. Alfred Stieglitz and the members of Group f/64 in the West set photography free with straight photography. Lorraine Davis, a prominent appraiser with a column in Black and White Magazine, in a piece about the work of Edmund Teske, wrote, “After photography broke from Pictorialism at the beginning of the 20th Century and embraced Modernism, it soon became stuck in the trap of Straight Photography.” Many people believe that the parameters of realism hold photography back, but everyone is free to create whatever they choose. If you paint over old photographs, you move into a different art form altogether, as with many of the new directions in digital. More power to them, but they are not what Ansel Adams and Edward Weston called “pure” photography and they are more experimental than “great” at this juncture, in my opinion. It will be interesting to see what more people think about this subject once I get the word out about this blog. It makes for a fascinating, and worthwhile discussion and hopefully one that is happening everywhere. Tell your friends to comment and tell me I’m crazy, if you like. I would like to hear all sides of it.

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