Photography’s Golden Era 6

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

The Early Days Of Ansel Adam’s Photography Department At The California School Of Fine Arts

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

The Minarets From Tarn Above Lake Ediza, Minarets Wilderness (now the Ansel Adams Wilderness), Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, California, 1950 by Philip Hyde. This photograph Ansel Adams said he liked better than his own of the Minarets. Philip Hyde during and after photography school at the California School of Fine Art was invited by his teachers and mentors, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange to exhibit his photographs with theirs in major exhibitions. He exibited on several occasions with Edward Weston in a two-man show, once with Minor White in a two-man show, and in group shows with members of Group f.64. This photograph of the Minarets was chosen for a number of the exhibitions and now resides in national collections such as the Eastman Kodak House and others.

The Dispersion of Group f.64 Members

From Group f.64’s beginnings in the San Francisco Bay Area, members dispersed in various directions, setting out to show the world that this “new” form of photography would not only take, it would become the prevailing form. Today in the Twenty-first century people all over the world study the work of the members of Group f.64 and similar greats of the Modern Era, which lasted roughly from 1930 through the 1950s in the United States.

Many members of Group f.64 left the Bay Area in pursuit of a change in public perception of what made a photograph art. Willard Van Dyke moved to New York and became an avant garde filmmaker believing “film could promote change faster than still photography.” Ansel Adams also spent time in New York and mounted exhibitions of his work there. Edward Weston went to Santa Barbara to be with his son. Many accounts agree that Group f.64 was mainly social and short-lived. “Yet in interviews with these now famous photographers,” Therese Thau Heyman in Seeing Straight: The F.64 Revolution in Photography pointed out,  “In their notes and letters, and in newspaper reviews beginning with the (De Young Museum) exhibition, there are indications that these assumptions are hasty. Hurried notes, a few initials in exhibition lists, and recently discovered letters refer not to one but to a series of shows. Los Angeles, Portland, Carmel, Seattle, and still other sites are mentioned as venues at which the photographs were seen…”

Photography Obtains Status With Other Arts: A Photography Department At The Museum Of Modern Art

In 1940 David McAlpin, a Rockefeller heir and trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, abbreviated MoMA, financed the founding of a department of photography at the museum. A Harvard-trained art historian, MoMA librarian and curator of MoMA’s first photographic exhibition in 1937, Beaumont Newhall was the department’s curator. McAlpin’s gift was contingent on Ansel Adams consenting to be vice-chairman and agreeing to come to New York for six months to advise the launch. Over 500 New Yorkers turned out for the first opening. This was regarded as a large crowd for such an event and Time Magazine asserted that such a department gave photography equal status to painting and sculpture. However, most other press failed to recognize its significance.

Back in 1932, the renowned architect Ted Spencer had first caught the straight photography vision when he attended a Group f64 exhibition at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco and met Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and other Group f64 members. Ted Spencer was president of the San Francisco Art Association, which held the controlling interest in the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. By 1945, the California School of Fine Arts had a prestigious reputation as an art school with painting faculty including Elmer Bischoff, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Ted Spencer suggested to Ansel Adams that they work together to develop a photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Ted Spencer set aside the greater part of the main basement and one of the large studios for the new department. With architectural advice from Ted Spencer, Ansel Adams designed three darkrooms and a large demonstration area. The lowest estimate for the construction came in at $9,500. Following a search elsewhere, Adams finally received $10,000 from the Columbia Foundation and raised another $2,500 for equipment. After many delays and complications, Ansel Adams was ready to teach his first classes. He had already developed the cornerstone of his system for teaching photography that he called, “The Zone System.”

Ansel Adams Refines The Zone System

With the idea of furthering photography as an art form, Ansel Adams first began to teach workshops and classes at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. Other photographers have been credited with its invention, but Ansel Adams named it “The Zone System.” Ansel Adams developed “The Zone System” at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in 1941 and later refined it in early classes at the California School of Fine Arts from 1945 through 1947. The ‘Zone System’ enabled even inexperienced photographers to make quality photographs. Simplified, the ‘Zone System’ is a method for measuring light and dark tones in the photograph’s subject and corresponding values in the final print. Assigning Roman numerals from one at near-white to ten at near-black becomes what Ansel Adams called, “A framework for understanding exposure and development, and visualizing their effect in advance.”

Philip Hyde Writes Ansel Adams For Advice

In 1945, Sargeant Philip Hyde, while awaiting “separation” from the Army Air Corp was stationed at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama. Having heard of Ansel Adams before World War II, he wrote to the master landscape photographer in San Francisco and asked for advice on choosing good photography schools. Ansel Adams replied to Philip Hyde with a four-page letter discussing the pros and cons of various types of training. Near the end he mentioned that he just then happened to be working to obtain funding for the first college-level photography department ever at the California School of Fine Arts. Besides his extensive good advice to the young Sargeant, Ansel Adams wrote Philip Hyde, “This is confidential but…. We are hoping to establish the most advanced and effective photographic school in the country…. Do not be taken with the idea that technique is the only requirement, or that photography can be mastered in a year. It is just as tough as music, architecture, or painting–if it is going to be good.”

Philip Hyde was honorably discharged in December 1945 and made it home to San Francisco by Christmas. Philip Hyde briefly met his future wife and life-long traveling companion, Ardis King at a New Year’s Eve Party in San Francisco. They did not see each other again until the Fall of 1946, when Philip Hyde took several classes at the University of California Berkeley through a twist of fate. Ansel Adams taught a one-month course at the California School of Fine Arts in January 1946 and a Summer Session from June 24 through August 2. The first regular semester day class was to start in September 1946.

Philip Hyde Looses His Place In Class But Gains His Life Long Companion

Philip Hyde attended the Summer Session at the California School of Fine Arts instructed by Ansel Adams. Philip Hyde was waiting eagerly for the full-time Fall photography class. However, a surprise was in store. “Nearly 500 students applied to the photography program,” wrote Jeff Gunderson in The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts. “The capacity of the laboratory facilities limited the number of students to 36.” Philip Hyde had written and applied early but due to some mix-up in his paperwork or confusion over the date of his application, Ansel Adams had to write to let him know that he “headed the waiting list” for the next regular semester day class to start the following Fall 1947. Philip Hyde would have to wait a year to start photography school. He was upset at the time but Minor White suggested it was an opportunity to get some broader education using his G.I. Bill.

Philip Hyde applied to U. C. Berkeley and took a design class, a painting class with the famous Japanese painter Chiura Obata and several other classes over two semesters. He also ran across Ardis King again, who was studying for her teaching credential. They eventually were married in June 1947 (More in a future blog post and in the book.) “If it weren’t for the mix-up at CSFA,” Dad said. “I never would have become acquainted with my future wife. Thus the year he waited to go to photography school became one of the happiest years of his life. However, when he joined the second regular class in September 1947, something else had changed.

Ansel Adams Leaves Minor White In Charge Of The New Photography Department

In 1946 Ansel Adams received his first Guggenheim Fellowships to photograph national parks. During the Summer Session he trained photographer Minor White, imported from Princeton, to take his place as lead instructor. This freed Ansel Adams to hit the road. Ansel Adams taught the first three weeks of the course in the Fall of 1947 and then left for Death Valley and on to the Southwest to make landscape photographs. Minor White was left with a somewhat disgruntled crew of students who had expected to learn directly from Ansel Adams. However, the students soon realized that Minor White was a superb teacher and took their studies far beyond mere technique. Philip Hyde knew Minor White had much to offer as a teacher because he had seen Minor White and Ansel Adams work together in the 1946 Summer Session. For more about Minor White’s teaching and Philip Hyde’s participation in class read the blog post, “Minor White Letters 1.”

Minor White wrote of Ansel Adams in Memorable Fancies, “This morning in his class at the California School of Fine Arts the whole muddled business of exposure and development fell into place. This afternoon I started teaching his Zone System.” Ansel Adams wrote of Minor White in his Biography, “After seeing his photographs and observing his teaching of the students over the space of a few weeks, I quickly recognized that Minor White was a remarkable photographer and a potentially great teacher.”

Despite mutual respect the two men often had opposite views. Ansel Adams said that the craft of photography could be taught but that the art of seeing was not expressible or teachable. Nor did he believe photographs should be psychologically analyzed. In contrast, Minor White had learned Freudian analysis from the eminent art historian Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University. Minor White taught what he called Space Analysis. Benjamen Chinn, Philip Hyde, Bill Heick, David Johnson and what ended up being about 11 other photography students started the second full-time day student class in Fall 1947. Benjamen Chinn said that the students teased Minor White, accusing him of picking subjects out of the morning newspaper and analitically relating them to photographs. Though their approaches differed, Ansel Adams and Minor White developed a mutual respect and became good friends as can be readily seen in their letters to each other. Both instructors and students benefited from the lively interaction of the conflicting perspectives of the two master photographers. For more information on the photographers of the Golden Era see the blog post, “The Golden Decade: California School Of Fine Arts Photography.” This series continues with the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 7.”

Related Posts On Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston

Ansel Adams Photo Plates From Garage Sale Worth $200 Million

Summertime: Yosemite National Park

Hype (Over Ansel Adams Negatives)

Tax Consequences of the Mother of All Yard Sale Bargains ($200 Million for $45)



  1. Thank you, David, for another great article. I enjoyed this very much.


  2. Thank you, Sharon. Yeah, this post seems to be getting excellent traffic but no comments until yours. There is just no telling, no rhyme or reason to it as far as I can see yet.

  3. It’s summer! That changes things.

    I can’t read enough about this era of photography. I appreciate how thoughtful the photographers were of that day – they seemed to know the impact they were having on the art.


  4. Hi Sharon, thank you. Yes, in the summer perhaps sources of traffic other than photographers, are good thinking. Time to build up the other communities of readership. Photographers are out photographing. Your point about the photographers of the Golden Era being very aware of how they were impacting their art is insightful. There were a lot fewer photographers and photography was not recognized as an art. Therefore, everything they did had to be well-thought through. I have noticed and even written about on this blog, a few of the many photographers in the recent past who photographed all the time during the evening or early morning when the light was red. Many of them began using either Velvia film, which had its good and bad points, or they over-saturated their images anyway. There is a whole generation of photographers who were influenced by these photographers and it shows in a change in the overall look of much landscape photography. My father set out to show nature as it was, not to capture it at its most exaggerated moments. Yes, it is all about the light, but people that shoot everything in the reddest light possible are repeating a cliche, “Copying the copiers” as Carr Clifton puts it. You can definitely tell the difference between the generation that was influenced by color landscape photographers like Dad, Eliot Porter, William Neill, William Garnett, those who shared the beauty of subtlety, variety, shape and form, rather than the same pretty pictures of sun-drenched mountain tops, arches and lake reflections over and over. Also, the most important note about this is that those influenced by the more subtle approach either the first influenced generation or those they are now influencing are the ones whose work more often is found in museums and top galleries. The over-dramatized work may sell well in tourist areas, but not with the discerning fine art photography collector.

  5. pj finn says:

    I’ve been on the road myself for about a week now and haven’t had much time for keeping up on the blogs. I’m sitting in SF right now and just wanted to post a quick reply to you.

    Once again, a very interesting and worthwhile post David. I’ve read much about f64 in Adams and Weston’s writings as well as elsewhere, and have always admired the approach of those pioneers of photography as art. It’s truly fascinating to read your perspective on them as well as about your dad’s involvement. From what I see, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, it appears that your dad was very much a bridge between the Adams/Weston/Strand/White generation and a younger generation of photographers. No?

  6. Hi PJ, thank you for the comment and excellent question. Dad never set out to be the bridge. Even after he was teaching workshops regularly, he never thought of himself as an influence or even a teacher. He resisted the concept of gurus in any endeavor. He never even liked the word “influence” applied that way. At the Center For Creative Photography in Tucson, I even found an exchange of letters between Dad and Edward Weston where they agreed that the word “influence” is not a good label for what a young artist learns from an older one. The irony is that a generation of photographers who are now literally the who’s who of landscape photography, have either written or said that they were “influenced by Philip Hyde.” What I was saying above, is that you can see it in their work. You can sense it in the feel of their websites. You can hear it in the way they talk about photography. They believe in living or at least becoming close to the land, in letting the land speak, in showing nature in her many guises and moods, not imposing their ideas and pre-conceptions for photographs on the land, and not limiting photographic vision to certain times of day when the light is “magical” or to subject matter that consists of the “roadside landmarks” and well-worn cliches. These people are now thankfully influencing a whole new batch of landscape photographers that I observe coming up with good taste. People who took workshops from John Sexton, for example. These are the people whose work is most often found in the best museums and galleries. What I also see at the same time are certain landscape photography masters that were able to make epic photographs, such as Galen Rowell and others. Galen Rowell did something unique, he mountain climbed, he invented the genre of adventure photography. His work was superb. However, I am not so sure about the photographers who try to do what he did. I think they often end up with oversaturated images, predominantly of alpenglow mountaintops that everyone else has since done repeatedly. Several other types of images that Galen Rowell often did first, others have now done over and over. That whole direction of super-dramatic, pretty pictures that are all made around sunrise or sundown has now become cliche and more likely to be found in certain galleries of certain photographers who sell millions of dollars of prints of the same pretty pictures to tourists who are easily wowed, but the photographers work is easily forgettable and not pursued by serious photography collectors.

  7. Of course, there are always the very few who are truly great in any era. Then there a bit more who are good and many, many who are fair, mediocre and bad. The same can be seen in any art form.

    I think the danger in relying too heavily on techniques such as “super-dramatic, pretty pictures” as you said is that you can possibly take the viewer out of the picture. You can make it impossible for them to be a part of the experience. Then you are producing interior decorations rather than art. (This is my opinion only. I believe there is the need for some reaction other than just the artist’s to make something art. I know others who post here believe that art is in the eye of the artist only and I respect that point of view, even if I don’t share it.)


  8. Hi Sharon, thank you for your interesting observation about the good, the bad and the ugly in landscape photography and art. It is true that some believe that art is mainly, or even only, in the eye of the creator. According to my friend Dennis Flynn, an artist who also taught at the collegiate level, this is one of the claims of some artists and art officionados: the only art that is the true art is made for the artist alone. However, even if you were to agree with that way of looking at it, which I don’t, but if you did, the believers in this philosophy are usually not the ones who make all the over-saturated photographs. The hopped-up images are made that way precisely because the creator thinks someone else will be looking and buying the print because it is somehow prettier. Plenty of people are fooled by this. To match all the bad art, there are the majority of people who know nothing about art. What is that saying about two suckers born a minute and two over-saturated digital print Photoshop manipulators to take them?

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