Photography’s Golden Era 11

May 26th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

California School of Fine Arts Fall 1947 Photography Class

(Continued from the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 10,” about the California School of Fine Arts Photography Department application questions.)

Windswept Pass And Clouds, Yosemite High Country, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, California, copyright 1949 by Philip Hyde.

(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)

“In the early classes with Ansel Adams, we were with him all the time, day and night,” said Ira Latour, photographer and a co-author of “The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts 1945-1955.” Ira Latour enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, in the first classes Ansel Adams offered in 1945. Ira Latour also took the first full-time class that started in the Fall of 1946.

“We were in class with Ansel and in the field with him,” Said Ira Latour. “In the evenings we either printed in the darkroom or got together at Ansel’s house in San Francisco.” The Summer Session 1946, besides being an intensive round-the-clock photography experience, was also an opportunity for students to either show they were ready for the full-time professional training classes or were to continue in the evening classes for amateurs that served as a basis for a semi-professional training.

By September 1947 there were 20 full-time students for the new fall professional class. Nearly all of the students in the Fall 1947 photography class were World War II veterans enrolled using their G.I. Benefits. Ansel Adam’s photography department at the California School of Fine Arts had been inundated with applications from soldiers recently discharged from the armed services. The 20 full-time students selected out of hundreds that applied were as Minor White described them, “Full of plans after the long futility of no planning; older, most of them experienced in photography… and in school because they chose to be.”

The Class Of 1947’s Major Names In Photography

In his book “The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts,” Jeff Gunderson wrote that the majority of these students had learned photography in the armed services. He added that the Fall 1947 Class included an African American student, David S. Johnson, later famous for his Jazz era photographs of San Francisco’s Fillmore District, two Chinese American students, Charles Wong and Benjamen Chinn, who both became noted photographers. The class also included celebrated documentary and portrait photographer Pirkle Jones, who worked with Dorothea Lange, as well as Pirkle Jones’ future wife who also became a well-known photographer Ruth-Marion Baruch. In letters to Ansel Adams, Minor White praised the work of a number of students, in particular the nature photographs of Philip Hyde and the portraits and natural scenes by Bill Heick. Don Whyte, Ira Latour, Bob Hollingsworth, Helen Howell, Pat Harris, Walter Stoy, John Rogers, and Al Richter all started at the California School of Fine Arts in the Fall 1947 photography class and went on to become prominent photographers in the West Coast tradition.

Who Were The Advanced Students And When Did The Students Socialize?

Philip Hyde later said that some of the students started the class with more advanced photography skills than he did. He said that the more advanced students headed out into the field right away. “Some were more interested in taking pictures of people and some more interested in the outdoors,” Philip Hyde said. “Each student’s preferences were indulged fully. Ben Chinn and many others were independent types. Ben had been photographing since he was 10 years old.”

Benjamen Chinn concurred that many students were more advanced, but did not include himself in that group. He said that Philip Hyde had taken photography classes since high school. He pointed out that Philip Hyde went to Polytechnic High School, a technically oriented high school. Benjamen Chinn also said that Philip Hyde took photography classes at San Francisco City College. The student-instructor Bill Quandt and Benjamen Chinn had both been photographers at Gabriel High School and at San Francisco City College as well. Benjamen Chinn gave more background and explained why he did not get as much feedback as some of the other students:

The rest of the students sometimes would gather around and B. S. about photography and what they photographed. I had my own darkroom. Usually I attended class then came home and did my own work. So, I never knew, I never had any feedback on my own photography from Minor or Ansel until after I turned my work in. I never did know how I was doing. Philip, your dad, only lately told me, maybe 10 years ago, that the people in class would talk about me and wonder what I would come up with for my assignment. I did everything at home. They never knew what I was going to do. They were always interested. They were surprised when I turned in my assignments or they saw my prints at the print exchange parties. The print exchanges were the only times when Minor and Ansel and some of the other instructors saw my work.

Benjamen Chinn explained further about student efforts to understand Ansel Adams’ concepts and how it brought them together:

Maybe I would just skip and go home. Another classmate, George Wallace, and I became friends when Ansel was giving the zone system. It was very, very complicated. George and I and anther guy by the name of Jerry Seward had engineering training. George Wallace was an engineer for US Steel. The way he got into photography was that his family owned US Pipe and it went down after World War II. George made a deal with his brother to sell him his share of the company. George offered his brother $500/month plus his brother would also pay for tuition for him at photography school. Because of his technical and engineering background George sort of understood what Ansel was talking about. Ansel talked about graphs and exposure care, exposure relationship with density, and a lot of people didn’t know what he was talking about. Somehow George Wallace knew, I don’t know how he knew that I could not understand it. I invited him home to my darkroom and we discussed it among the three of us, including Jerry Seward. We talked about the problem of how to explain it to other students. We also used to get together with other students at homes. The student-teacher Bill Quandt used to get the students to go down to North Beach to a cafe called Vesuvio. It was right across from the Save Right Book Shop. We used to get five cent beers and hang out. Now we have all known each other for 60 years or more.

Vesuvio Cafe And The Rise Of North Beach As  A Hip Artist’s Hangout

Benjamen Chinn held that the lifetime friendships that developed in photography school started with discussions about photography, efforts to solve homework problems for class and otherwise just enjoying each other’s company down at Vesuvio. At Vesuvio they sometimes drank beer or other alcoholic beverages, but just as often they had sodas or something to eat. North Beach in the late 1940s and early 1950s already had become an interesting part of town with artists, musicians and the beginnings of what would become the epicenter of the beat generation on the West Coast.

By the mid to late 1950s, just down off Russian Hill where the California School of Fine Arts would soon become the San Francisco Art Institute, many beat generation writers such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg made their homes in North Beach. Today the North Beach neighborhood “overflows with independent literature cafes, old-world delicatessens, jazz clubs and gelato parlors,” reads the San Francisco Art Institute website. Besides the cultural experience of North Beach that developed after World War II and is still thriving today, “Close enough to hear the sea lions barking at Pier 39” is Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco’s most visited neighborhood.

As far as developing a vibrant art culture like New York City, San Francisco was just starting to blossom after World War II. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, SFMoMA, did not have much space. “They were located on the third and fourth floors of the Veterans Hall,” Benjamen Chinn said. “They didn’t do much for photography then yet.”

To read more about the forthcoming book, Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-1955, and the special exhibition to honor Golden Decade photographers see the blog post, “The Golden Decade: California School of Fine Arts Photography.”

This series was to continue in a blog post called, “Photography’s Golden Era 12,” but the series will take the new title “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History.” The next post in the series can therefore be found under the name, “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History, Part 12.”

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13 comments

  1. pj says:

    This is the generation of photographers that influenced me the most, and these glimpses into those days are fascinating to me. What a vibrant and exciting time and place it must have been.

    Thanks David — I really appreciate this series of posts and your look into the inner workings of this ‘golden era’. I hope to see many more.

  2. Hi PJ, thank you for reading this blog post series and for your insightful comments over the course of the series of posts. There will be many more blog posts on this topic to come. I have all of my father’s class notes and assignments, not to mention the vintage black and white prints that were made to fulfill the assignments.

  3. pj says:

    Glad to hear it. Your father’s notes and assignments and prints sound like quite a treasure chest…

  4. Thanks again, PJ. I agree with you that it is a fascinating subject. Besides Dad’s materials, I also have interviews of some of his classmates that I have already done and a few more I plan to do.

  5. Greg Russell says:

    This is really interesting, David. When I compare the “school” and the “community” then and now, I see huge differences. The advent of digital photography and the internet has really changed things, hasn’t it?

    One thing that concerns me a little about the “now” is the lack of that camaraderie–getting together physically, sharing work, ideas, and visions. In a world where social media leaves everyone competing for attention, jumping up and down, and saying, “oh oh oh pick me pick me” its difficult to produce a true creative culture.

    That said, I’m grateful for the growing group of photographers in our blog circle. While we’re not physically together sharing ideas, the competition isn’t there, leaving a relaxed environment.

  6. Hi Greg, I appreciate this contribution. Yes, technology has changed, logistics of getting together has changed, but as you also point out, we are still creating the same kind of creative mastermind group. We are developing an open, yet tight, community, all pulling for each other. It may not be quite the same, but it is exciting nonetheless. The sky is the limit.

  7. Nancy E. Presser says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for painting such a rich picture of what life was like for the pioneers of landscape photography. Your interview with Benjamen Chinn must have been fascinating, as the pieces you have shared here are great. Thanks for sharing,
    Nancy

  8. Hi Nancy, I appreciate you taking time out from being a single mom and business owner to read these blog posts.

  9. Sharon says:

    I echo everyone’s sentiments. Your dad and others of that time laid the groundwork for this time. Now it is important for us to continue building so the next generation can look on our work with respect.

    Sharon

  10. Hi Sharon, thank you for your good point about future respect. Many landscape photographers today think more about what they will earn in terms of money. As a full-time photographer, my father of course had to consider making sales, but he never sacrificed artistic values to do so. None of his contemporaries would consider such a sacrifice either, though they certainly did very well. At least one of them became a millionaire and a few of the others may have come close.

  11. Mark says:

    I always feel like I am opening a window into photography history when I visit here. Great stories David. Must have been quite a group to hang out with.

  12. Hi Mark, I appreciate your visit. My father was newlywed and considered that era the best time of his life. However, whenever he was asked which of his photographs he liked the best, he answered, “The next one.”

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