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“)