Photography’s Golden Era 4

March 15th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

(CONTINUED FROM BLOG POST, “Photography’s Golden Era 3.”

Early Influences on Philip Hyde Before Photography School: Leland Hyde, Modernism, Rural Europe, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Group f.64, Ansel Adams and Western National Parks.

Tomales Bay, Point Reyes, Marin County, California, Oil on Canvas, circa 1925 by Leland Hyde.

In the first third of the 20th Century, Modernist Painting came into prominence. It had swept from Paris across the Atlantic in 1913 with the Armory Show in New York. However, the Beaux Arts classical approach that had influenced architecture and art across the US, remained the dominant form and the preferred way of teaching until the student uprisings of 1932. Student activism at the University of California, Berkeley and on other college campuses, led to a shift away from the traditional Beaux Arts methods of teaching. At UC Berkeley in particular, the uprisings instigated a search for a Modernist architect to take over the design program. Modernism waxed and waned but eventually took hold.

In the visual arts, the Modernist movements—Dadaism, Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism had faded from public notice and moved into private drawing rooms in the late 1920s and early 1930s. For a time, the new forms were of less interest to the American people. Isolationism and concern over domestic issues brought on the development of American Regionalism, whose proponents often painted the rural countryside. Philip Hyde, age 11 in 1932, had yet to use a camera, but his father Leland Hyde’s favorite subject to paint was nature. He took his family camping in a lean-to tent in the National Parks of the West such as Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone. In 1932, Leland and Jessie’s children, Betty, Davey and Philip, first looked down from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and Philip in particular began to dream of some way he could spend his life in the outdoors.

Photography at the time until 1932 and after, was dominated by pictorialism, based on special effects and techniques that altered photographs to resemble paintings. However, straight photography as led by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others eventually took over the medium and became the core of Modernism. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and five other talented California photographers founded Group f.64 in protest to the pictorialist photography that was then broadly exhibited by museums, galleries and camera clubs, as well as widely published in periodicals because it resembled paintings. Academic painters and the art establishment, thought their livelihood might be lost to photography and therefore had for years refused to consider any form of photography art, but in time they for the most part tentatively accepted pictorialism.

Alfred Stieglitz first founded the Photo-Secession society as a pictorialist group. Alfred Stieglitz circulated in the heart of the modern art scene in New York City and followed the European Impressionist Art movement. Many of his most famous photographs were in the pictorialist tradition. They were blurry, atmospheric and employed at least partial soft focus. He usually did not soften the focus in his whole image, but subscribed to the “naturalist” theory that emphasized a photograph’s primary elements by letting background or less important elements remain out of focus, as it was thought the natural human eye did.

European Impressionists painted the steam engine as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution and of the modern city. Alfred Stieglitz in turn photographed steam engines. Alfred Stieglitz never used a special soft focus lens, but used snow or other weather conditions to soften his images and add atmosphere. All along Alfred Stieglitz used real world conditions to create pictorialist effects, rather than the manipulations that were typical of most pictorialist photography. He was the master of capturing real life moments. In the early 1920s, Alfred Stieglitz began to leave behind the idea that photographs need to look like paintings to be art. He had led the movement to have photographs exhibited besides paintings, but his photographs looked more and more like camera work than brush work. He did not cover up that he had changed his outlook. He instead instigated a revolt against pictorialism.

Even before West Coast photographers formed Group f.64, Alfred Stieglitz had started promoting what he called Straight Photography. More on Straight Photography and Group f.64 in the next blog post. Also see the previous blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 3” for more on Alfred Stieglitz. Beaumont Newhall wrote in the Foreward to Seeing Straight: The F.64 Revolution in Photography that by the time of the founding of Group f.64, pictorialism “had long been abandoned by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and other members of the Photo-Secession society.”

Photographs such as Alfred Stieglitz’s “Steerage,” of working class people on board a ship, marked a new direction for Alfred Stieglitz’s and brought in what became known as the Modernist vision. Edward Weston, who had begun as a pictorialist, destroyed all of his early negatives. Modernist photography discarded the romanticism of the pictorialists and looked deeply into commonplace subjects for hidden beauty. Straight photography and the Photo-Secession decried soft-focus and sought sharpness and precise detail. The Modernists minimized darkroom manipulation, though even Edward Weston, who primarily printed contact prints, was known on occasion to dodge and burn prints, thereby lightening shadows and darkening highlights.

Most agreed with Beaumont Newhall when he named Edward Weston as the spritual leader of Group f.64, even though the independent Edward Weston did not found Group f.64, or pay much attention to its operation. Edward Weston lived a simple, unadorned lifestyle and made fundamental, elegant photographs of common and natural subjects such as garden vegetables, nude poses of his wives and lovers, and western landscapes, particularly those in California and around his home in Carmel. Point Lobos State Reserve was Edward Weston’s favorite outdoor place to photograph. Point Lobos is the perfect example of a straight photography location. Its scenery is not dramatic, not colorful or spectacularly beautiful. Point Lobos has a subtle, hard to define beauty that can only be discovered by looking closely, by getting to know the place, and by creatively framing common appearing rocks, trees, grasslands and beaches.

As Edward Weston did with photographs, Leland Hyde, in the same era and before, depicted the natural scene with oil paintings and pastel sketches. Leland Hyde’s painting style had elements of rural regionalism but he clearly disagreed with one of the primary representatives of the movement, Thomas Hart Benton, once a student in Paris, who wanted to rid America of what he called “the dirt of European influence.” However, Leland Hyde did agree with the social activism and politics of the New Deal that sought a public and useful art. In America, as the 1930’s opened, the merits of  Modernism versus more traditional figure painting became a heated debate. Leland Hyde dreamed of studying in Paris at one of the world’s most famous and selective art schools, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. He wanted to explore the various forms more deeply, knowing that his course of study would primarily be rooted in classical training but would also incorporate elements and whole courses on the Modernism that flourished in pre-war Paris.

When Jessie Hyde’s favorite uncle passed away, with the family’s sorrow came a blessing: Uncle George Hair left the Hydes a small inheritance. At the height of the depression, Jessie wanted to be practical and buy a house, but Leland Hyde saw it as his chance to go to art school in Paris. L’Ecole des Beaux Arts had offered free tuition since the 17th Century but the application process had always been extremely difficult and competitive. Leland Hyde quietly applied and when he was accepted, Jessie quit arguing for more conservative uses of the money. She told him to go to Paris and enjoy. She would stay in San Francisco and keep the children in school. However, Leland Hyde would not hear of it and insisted that the entire family come with him to Europe. Philip Hyde was 11, his brother Davey only five years old and his sister Betty was 15.

European Countryside, Alps, Pastel Sketch, 1933 by Leland Hyde.

Paris, the capital of Modernism, had a profound impact on the young Hydes and affected Philip Hyde’s photography later. They learned French and listened and watched their father work and talk about his assignments in the evenings at home in their rented artist’s studio-flat. Modernism became a part of Leland Hyde’s work and he incorporated classical training with the new directions in art just as he had imagined. Philip Hyde watched his father paint in the field and listened to him expound at the dinner table about the lectures and class projects from L’Ecole. After school let out, the Hydes bought a car and drove around the European countryside while Leland Hyde painted. They spent three days of the trip on the celebrated French Riviera, where even during the Great Depression, August was the peak tourism month and crowds overran the coast. This was Philip Hyde’s first realization that he preferred wilder places such as the French and German rural countryside and the Austrian Alps where his father also found the most joy and more opportunities to paint what he liked.

When Leland Hyde took his family back to San Francisco, he took fine art painting commissions, hung art exhibitions, entered contests, designed and painted furniture, drew plans and perspective drawings of government buildings and huge factories. He developed a fine reputation as a furniture designer, builder and finisher, a fine art painter and industrial designer. Dad said that his father was gainfully employed the entire Great Depression and the family of five never went hungry. Dad said there were a few slim dinners of perhaps a can or two of food, but they never went hungry, even though Leland Hyde worked solely as an artist. This example of success in following an artistic calling during the worst of times, kept Philip Hyde going in tough times later and gave him the faith and work ethic to become a full-time landscape photographer, a choice even Ansel Adams thought economically unsound for even the most talented photographer in the 1950s.

While the Hyde family was in Europe, a meeting and an exhibition that would change photography forever was taking place back in New York City. On their way home from Europe to San Francisco, the Hydes passed through New York City at about the same time that Ansel Adams traveled there for his first New York exhibition at the Delphic Studios. Philip Hyde and Ansel Adams did not cross paths until over a decade later, when they met at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1946. Philip Hyde first saw Ansel Adams’ prints at the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island just before the War. However, earlier in 1933, a meeting that would affect all of photography occurred when Ansel Adams came to New York on a pilgrimage to meet Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer whose life and work Ansel Adams most admired. Ansel Adams said that when he told Alfred Stieglitz of his concept of visualization, Alfred Stieglitz “responded with his explanation of creative photography.”

Ansel Adams’ definition of visualization became one of the cornerstones of the training in photography that Philip Hyde would participate in later. Ansel Adams wrote in Modern Photography magazine, “The photographer visualizes his conception of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique—aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical.”

Alfred Stieglitz’ replied to Ansel Adams’ statement on visualization with the same explanation he had given someone questioning the validity of art produced by a camera. A patron asked Alfred Stieglitz whether a “machine could be creative?” Alfred Stieglitz replied, “I have the desire to photograph. I go out with my camera. I come across something that excites me emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically. I see the photograph in my mind’s eye and I compose and expose the negative. I give you the print as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.”

This process as described by these two primary teachers of photography, turned out to be vaguely familiar and readily understandable by Philip Hyde a dozen years later. Perhaps this had to do with a similar process that he watched over and over throughout his upbringing and in extended duration and repetition, during his boyhood months in Paris, the World’s hub of Modern Art, and throughout his travels in the countryside of Europe, with his family, watching Leland Hyde paint the natural scene. Thus, in the early 1930s, while Alfred Stieglitz and Group f.64 transformed photography and the west coast tradition was born, Philip Hyde started his training in composition and seeing, and began forming his early feelings about wild places that became the heart of his life and work. Ultimately, all of these influences and others we will explore in this blog, helped shape landscape photography. What influences do you know of? What are your feelings and thoughts about the beginnings of straight photography?

References:
Interviews of Philip Hyde by David Leland Hyde 2002-2005
Seeing Straight: The F.64 Revolution in Photography by Mary Street Alinder, Therese Thau Heyman, and Naomi Rosenblum
Ansel Adams: A Biography by Mary Street Alinder
Get the Picture” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Art Across the Ages DVD Series by Ori Z. Soltes, The Teaching Company

(Continued in the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 5.”)

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16 comments

  1. Derrick says:

    Thanks for all the information! I imagine some of that had to come from your dad as well? Something you were able to save from your oral histories with him?

    Great stuff, really. Lends a lot of credence to the concept that folks who have a background in painting make wonderful photographers.

  2. Very good point, Derrick. Yes, definitely, some of the information in this blog post came from my interviews of Dad. I just added them as a reference at the bottom of the blog post, thank you. At CSFA, Dad and his classmates in the photography program were required to take courses in painting, sculpture or one of the other disciplines. Dad also took a course at UC Berkeley taught by the famous Japanese painter Chiura Obata. Dad took the class with my mom, who was very artistic and had training in interior decorating. The two of them were just getting to know each other and had a great time painting and talking about painting together. This kind of training Dad said helped him learn how to see. A knowledge of other arts is a huge asset to photography and part of what made Alfred Stieglitz so good. Studying other arts was never looked down on, but always encouraged by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and the other great masters. What was looked down on, if I can say it that way, was making photographs look like paintings, as the pictorialists did. Pictorialism on the West Coast was further looked down on because it was mainly practiced by amateurs and camera clubs in the West.

  3. Derrick says:

    I wonder why so many folks who claim to be great photographers (some of whom teach) never mention that kind of background and are more concerned with f stops and photoshop…. and less concerned with seeing?

  4. Thank you Derrick. You have a knack for instigating discussion, and now you are opening a basket of leaping frogs. Without knowing each individual teacher in each situation, taken out of context, it is hard to speculate, but just for fun, I will anyway. There are many possible reasons, most of which are not as dubious as might be expected. From what I have observed, most of the best teachers would much prefer to teach more advanced courses on seeing and philosophy, but they are held back by students who are trying to become masters of the medium without having taken the time to master the tools. You may not relate to this, having been a camera aficionado first. Some say that vision cannot be taught. I had a discussion about that with Richard Wong and others in the comments on the blog post, “The Hidden Brett Weston.” Among other things, in those comments I mention that even the training at CSFA was mainly technique. This probably goes back to the idea that learning the basics and repeating them is most important and all you need, the rest takes care of itself. I’m not implying this is what I believe, just part of my observations. Personally, I might be put out if I signed up for a workshop to learn from a master photographer and he or she talked mainly about Photoshop or even shutter speed, unless that was the advertised purpose of the class. Sometimes, even the best photographers, who also teach, don’t really know how they get the photographs they do. Or even if they are in touch with their process, they don’t know how to articulate it and find it easier to stick to basic techniques that more people can easily understand. My father struggled with putting into words what had taken him a long time to learn, but he was very good at giving constructive feedback on student prints. Which brings us to possibly the best reason: I believe seeing can be taught, but it cannot be taught in a two week workshop. There are probably other reasons, but I will leave it there for now.

  5. Richard Wong says:

    Those are some really awesome paintings by your grandfather, David. That Pt. Reyes connection really goes far back in your family!

    In regards to Derrick’s comment, I think the reason why some photographers market themselves that way is because it is much easier to impress someone with no photography experience than someone who has some experience but is looking to advance. It’s a numbers game.

    Also another thing is that, a great photographer doesn’t necessarily make a great teacher and nor does a great teacher necessarily make for a great photographer.

  6. Thank you, Richard. My grandfather produced some great paintings, didn’t he? L’Ecole des Beaux Arts was the most prestigious art school in the world at the time and is still, besides being the oldest and possibly the best. L’Ecole’s classical based training, with the latest trends added after the classical techniques are mastered, is the model on which other art programs around the world are based. The Hydes moved from San Francisco to San Rafael in 1925 when Dad was four years old. This made it easier for Leland Hyde to take his kids to explore, while he painted landscapes in places like Point Reyes. San Rafael was the first time Dad connected with nature and realized that he preferred a wild setting to the city. I appreciate your perspectives on teaching. As we have each mentioned before, teaching the history of photography is important too. Though, even if a new outdoor photographer went to art school and learned the history, he or she would not learn it from the slant she likes or study the artists that might most interest her, but she can educate herself with or without going to an expensive school by reading and studying the lives and works of the best.

  7. Abi says:

    Thanks for your post about photography. I would have to say that this is one of my favorite art forms, just because it captures reality in a permanent image. Ansel Adams is a blessing to the profession.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Abi. I agree about photographic art and Ansel Adams. He made a big difference for many influential photographers and for the whole medium, perhaps even all art.

  9. Abi says:

    You’re right about that, David. I don’t think that I know of a better black and white photographer. His expression is unparalleled! I only wish I was 1/10 as good as he.. :)

  10. Abi, I admire your attitude. You’re probably way closer than most these days. I’ve heard or read about a number of photographers today that have the audacity to claim they are working like Ansel Adams, walking in his footsteps, or even much better than him. While I do believe that once in a while an image is made that outdoes what Ansel did, especially in color, few to none of the contemporary digital photographers have any inkling of the dedication and tireless commitment to quality that Ansel Adams had, or that any of the handful of other pioneer large format landscape photographers like my father had. I don’t think anyone ever worked as hard as Ansel Adams did, or had his level of technical understanding, spiritual connection to the landscape, utmost integrity in everything he did, or leadership and advocacy for the medium. As has often been said, “There is only one Ansel Adams.” Imitations, comparisons and associations if not based on real events are just cheap marketing gimmicks.

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