Photography’s Golden Era 7

September 4th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Classmates Philip Hyde And Benjamen Chinn Talk About Ansel Adam’s Photography Department At The California School of Fine Arts

(Continued from the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 6.”)

San Francisco Emerges As Post-War Art And Industrial Center Of The West

Locomotive Drive Gear Parts, Tiberon Northwest Pacific Railroad Yards, Marin County, California, 1948 by Philip Hyde. This photograph among others in the Black and White I and Photography School Portfolios will appear in the new book, "The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-1955" to be released Tonight, September 4, 2010 at the opening reception at Smith Andersen North Gallery. Also this evening will be a preview screening of the short documentary film, "Looking For My Father Through Ansel Adam's Lens."

(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)

San Francisco flourished coming out of World War II and grew into the financial capitol of the Western United States. In 1945 Bank of America became the largest bank in the world. Bechtel built Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in the early 1960s, and by the 1970s developed into the largest privately held corporation in the world.

Just up the hill from Kaiser, Bank of America, Bechtel, Utah Mining and Construction and others in San Francisco’s financial district, stood the Mill Towers headquarters of what developers called the “enemies of progress,” the Sierra Club. Before the 1950s the Club had only a few thousand members, but in just two decades its numbers soared into the hundreds of thousands.

While industrialists and environmentalists squared off, San Francisco also became the West Coast’s creative center. After World War II, discharged veterans were armed with a new domestic weapon, the G. I. Bill, that promised to pay for their education in the trade school or college of their choice. The Jazz age brought a vibrant night life and music scene to the streets and night clubs of San Francisco. Artists from war-torn Europe and elsewhere settled in the Bay Area. The many military bases funneled young men into industrial development and provided labor for an expanding city.

Writers and artists took over cheap rentals in Marin County from what had been shipyard housing. Abandoned barges in Sausalito were converted into homes with roofs and plumbing. The mingling of painters, sculptors, print makers, photographers, potters, graphic artists, metalworkers and other artists transformed Northern California and the world. It was a great time to be a photographer in San Francisco.

The Legacy And Optimism Of California School Of Fine Arts Photography

At the California School of Fine Arts now the San Francisco Art Institute, painters and sculptors, many who later became famous, taught or attended classes. At the time the California School of Fine Arts was among a handful of institutions in the nation that offered an extensive full-time program in photography. Ansel Adams had founded the first academic department in the country to teach photography as a profession at the California School of Fine Arts in 1945. The importance of the school and its influence on all of photography has lasted well into the 21st Century. Ansel Adams and his lead instructor Minor White from Princeton, hired on recommendation from Beaumont Newhall, helped transformed the dialog around photographic practice to a serious study. Students were trained to be not only technically proficient but thoughtful and intentional about how they approached the world with a camera. To learn more about Minor White’s classroom and his letters to Beaumont and Nancy Newhall and his student Philip Hyde about one of his questions, see the blog post, “Minor White Letters 1.”

Their education delayed by the War, many of the photography students were at least three years older than the typical college freshmen. “Most of us were in the service where our lives were on hold,” said San Francisco born student Philip Hyde. “The War taught us a lot that grew us up fast.” Though Philip Hyde’s 15-20 classmates got along well, he said they never talked about the War. “We were enthusiastic about our new lives and wanted to leave the past behind.” They were serious, yet “happy to be free” and enthusiastic to pursue such an outstanding opportunity in San Francisco, the post-war hotbed for the incubation of young artists. The photography students were all highly dedicated. One student, Al Richter, always carried his camera, even at the parties. Al Richter took pictures of each class member and gave them prints.

“The times were amazing because optimism permeated the country,” Philip Hyde said. “Those were some of the happiest days of my life. I was newly married and pursuing something that I thought was important to do. There was a lot of lightheartedness in class. A few of the guys were wags, you know, they often cracked jokes.”

Who Made The Jokes In Class

“That was John Rogers cracking the jokes,” said another classmate Benjamen Chinn. “I know how to Joke but I don’t talk as much as John Rogers. John was the one that always teased Minor White. Al Richter was quiet but had a dry sense of humor.” With the humor, positive outlook and time spent together, many of the class members became life-long friends. Al Richter and Benjamen Chinn called Philip Hyde after he moved to the mountains for the rest of their lives. They drove the five hours from San Francisco to Philip Hyde’s home in the wilderness in 1958, 1959 and 1961.

“Al took his vacation and my vacation didn’t matter, I could take it any time,” Ben Chinn said. “Two or three years in a row he wanted to go up and visit Philip. He did the driving and I just rode along. Al might have had a plan, but I never knew it. He never told me where we were going. It was for the best.” They traveled equipped with 4X5 Baby Deardorffs on wooden tripods. They had a rule that if either one of them saw a picture they would stop and photograph for a while before going on. “Paul Caponigro went with us one of those trips,” Ben said. Paul Caponigro was a photographer friend of Ben’s that he introduced to Ansel Adams, and who subsequently became renowned in his own right.

Ansel Adam’s Approach To Teaching

As founder of the school and teacher of the classes from time to time, Ansel Adams had to find the best way to harness the student’s enthusiasm. He said in his autobiography, “The teacher must guide the student carefully asking if his image says what he wanted it to say and what he tried to visualize as the completed print before the exposure was made. It must be the student’s image, not one imposed upon him.”

“He talked to us in class in such a way, especially when we were out in the field,” Philip Hyde said. Though Ansel did not get into the field with us as much as Minor White or Edward Weston. People have said Ansel’s books are essentially the material he taught in class. Both Ansel and Minor devoted a lot of time talking to us about photography. For Ansel ‘Seeing’ was very important.”

Seeing, Looking, Minor White’s Space Analysis And Other Discoveries

“To me seeing is a process that involves much more than just looking at something.” Philip Hyde said. “It involves analyzing what you are looking at and thinking about what you are going to do, what you are doing it for. When you look at something casually you are not really seeing it. You have to look pretty hard and you have to let your eyes go over it and size it up.”

Benjamen Chinn had been a photographer since age 10. He did aerial reconnaissance photography during the War. Ben started in September 1947 just like Philip Hyde, but left in the middle of 1949 to go to art school in Paris. Benjamen Chinn attended the famous Art School at Sorbonne, University of Paris. He also hitch-hiked all over Europe and in time traveled the world. For many years he worked for the U. S. Department of Defense establishing and overseeing its color photo lab in San Francisco for many years.

Neither Philip Hyde nor Benjamen Chinn seemed to have a firm grasp of Minor White’s famous Space Analysis. Ben said it was one thing he never knew. “On the assignment I did what I thought he wanted. I did a far and near subject. You either had to have the far and near all in focus or focus on the background then focus on the foreground. This identified the space. That is what I thought it was. I am not sure.”

“I don’t have a specific definition of it,” Philip Hyde said. “It is roughly as I say, looking at what is there and deciding what you will include. In doing that you have to look over the space you are pointing at with the camera. The camera and lens are going to select something to capture. We learned to operate the camera to select what we wanted. We learned to take in the whole scene and see what is really there. With some subjects in some photographs my process of seeing was almost instantaneous. The average passer-by doesn’t see everything, not because their eye missed it, but because they didn’t notice it, their brain edited it out.”

This emphasis on careful seeing was a key component of what Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston taught at the California School of Fine Arts. Philip Hyde explained that some of it was verbalized and some of it he received “largely by osmosis.” He said he learned many of his life-long tools of perception through immersion. “I learned by looking at photographs, talking about them and being totally involved with being a photographer,” Philip Hyde said. “Certain details of a scene capture my attention. With some photographs I experienced a recognition that there was something I ought to photograph. Sometimes seeing can be very quick. After the decision to make a photograph, then you can go back over it and analyze and make sure everything is right about your adjustments: how you framed it and so on. After you see the photograph the process continues with deciding exposure and lens settings. When I’m out looking for photographs it is like I am setting up my own interior camera.”

Pre-Visualization, Photography Exhibitions And Student Assignments

Ansel Adams taught students to make a rectangular black cardboard frame cut out to compose pictures at first. The student could put that special film over the opening and even end up with a black and white image. Philip Hyde said this was only the initial phase in working with the camera. “I wanted to use my eyes rather than an artificial piece of cardboard.”

Philip Hyde said Ansel Adams and Minor White generally had no trouble motivating the students. “All they had to do was say, ‘we are going to do this’ and everybody would be ready to do it. If there was a show at the school or at the San Francisco Museum of Art, Minor would send us on assignment to report on the show.” Sometimes these reports were written and sometimes they were given in verbal form, one student at a time to the rest of the class. “With the verbal reports, we were to describe the show and say something about what impressed us and what we looked for and what we thought the show meant. Sometimes we would describe a picture we particularly liked and explain what about it interested us. There was a lot of that kind of analysis. That was one of the ways we learned.”

For information on a unique exhibition opening tonight of the CSFA photographers from this era go to the blog post, “The Golden Decade: California School of Fine Arts Photography.” For more on the landscape photography of Edward Weston see the blog post, “Edward Weston’s Landscape Philosophy Part 1.”

Continued in the next blog post in the series, “Photography’s Golden Era 8.”

References:

Taped Interviews with Philip Hyde

Taped Interviews with Benjamen Chinn

Community of Creatives Website

Smith Andersen North Gallery Website

The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts by Stephanie Comer, Deborah Klochko and Jeff Gunderson

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12 comments

  1. pj says:

    Over the years I’ve read about this school in various writings by Adams and Minor White, among others.

    Minor White was a fascinating character. It seems to me his work went off in a little different direction than Adams and Weston and your father. He seemed to work in a more poetic and philosphical manner, if those are the right words, but it was very interesting.

    I can only imagine that being enrolled in that school was a very intense experience.

  2. Hi PJ, thank you. Sounds like you have read some about these famous photographers who influenced all of photography. You probably know that Minor White was into Carl Jung, psychology, metaphysics the I-Ching and other esoteric studies. He was a colorful character. He contended, as many philosophers do, that photographs and the world around us are reflections of inner processes and he taught accordingly. Ansel Adams was also a spiritual man, some have said even a mystic, but also emphasized technical development and aptitude. Edward Weston was a quiet, serious white-hot fire of intensity, but also simple and practical in his lifestyle and teaching. Each of them had a widely differing approach from the others, but each had their way of teaching students to see far beyond the obvious, look deeply and find what was below the surface.

  3. Julie Rorden says:

    Every opportunity I have to learn from a master is highly treasured. I am grateful to those willing to share their knowledge and experience. Thank you!

  4. I wonder if the Al Richter mentioned here is the same Al who was a friend of my mother’s. The era would be right. He was a wonderful photographer and I treasure the pictures he took. He photographed my parents’ wedding. Here’s a sample image with him in it: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmhitzeman/720883156/

  5. Hi Judy, thank you for your participation and the link to the photograph. I’m guessing you aren’t sure whether your Al Richter went to the California School of Fine Arts under Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston. Can you find that or any other information about your Al Richter and his photography training? That would give us confirmation. The young man depicted in that photograph looks as though he could be the same Al Richter but younger, but I am not a very good judge because I never met him. I was not born until 1965. I have seen quite a few photographs of the Al Richter who went to photography school with Dad. However, I would have to ask one of he and Dad’s living classmates to be sure. The next time I talk to one of them I will look into it. In the meantime, let me know if you find out more information on your end.

  6. I checked with a friend of my mother’s who had dated Al, if it’s the same Al, in the 1940s. She said “it sure sounds like Al” in regard to him carrying his camera everywhere. (“Everywhere we went he carried his equipment with him, including a tripod.”) What does not match is Benjamen Chinn’s recollection of Al driving to the mountains. My mother’s friend said that he did not drive due to his having epilepsy. She also said that she thought he had arrended U.C. Berkeley, which is stated in his bio from the Golden Decade exhibit. The image of Al Richter in poster from that exhibit does look like the Al my mother knew. The bio also seems to fit what little I know about him.

    I have added Al’s name to the Flickr images I have posted that I know are his, including many with him in it. I remember Mom saying that he used a timer on his camera to get in many of the shots at parties. Perhaps between your Dad’s friends and my Mom’s, we can get confirmation.

  7. Hi Judy, thank you for your follow-up comment. As you say, it does sound like the same Al Richter. I will have to check with Benjamen Chinn’s family because I remember Ben saying that one of them or both of them didn’t drive. I don’t think Ben drove and maybe Al didn’t either. Maybe that’s why they brought their mutual classmate John Rogers with them up to visit my parents one time and they brought someone else another time, as far as I know. All of that was before my birth in 1965. I didn’t meet Benjamen Chinn until 2002 and never met Al Richter or John Rogers or several of the others who ran together. It’s great that you added Al Richter’s name to the Flickr images that you know are his. I would be very careful about posting his photographs. I am not sure who owns the copyrights to Al Richter’s images. I believe he left his entire collection to Benjamen Chinn, which would mean that the copyright holders are now Ben’s heirs who have a distinct interest in photography, at least one of them being a professional photographer. They are also interested in developing Ben’s work and the work of his other classmates whose negatives and prints Ben had in his collection.

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