Photography’s Golden Era 8

October 25th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

The California School Of Fine Arts Makes Art History

Continued from the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 7.”

Snags And Tree Reflections In Lake In Ritter Range, now Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sierra Nevada, 1950 by Philip Hyde. This photograph almost made the "Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts 1945-1955" book. It was the next runner up.

(See the photograph full screen, Click Here.)

The California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, since 1930 has occupied the same campus buildings at 800 Chestnut Street between Jones and Leavenworth on San Francisco’s vibrant Russian Hill. The Russian Hill neighborhood “offers some of the best views of the city, a park at its summit and Lombard, the ‘crookedest’ street in the world,” explains the San Francisco Art Institute’s website:

Founded in 1871, the San Francisco Art Institute is one of the U.S.’s oldest and most prestigious schools of higher education in contemporary art.… At SFAI we focus on educating artists who will become the creative leaders of their generation.… SFAI has been central to the development of many of this country’s most notable art movements. During its first sixty years, influential artists associated with the school included Eadweard Muybridge, photographer and pioneer of motion graphics; Maynard Dixon, painter of San Francisco’s labor movement and of the landscape of the West; Henry Kiyama, whose Four Immigrants Manga was the first graphic novel published in the US; Louise Dahl-Wolf, an innovative photographer whose work for Harper’s Bazaar defined a new American style of “environmental” fashion photography in the 1930s; John Gutzon Borglum, the creator of the large-scale public sculpture known as Mt. Rushmore; and numerous others.

In 1930 Mexican muralist Diego Rivera arrived in San Francisco…to paint a fresco at the school’s new campus on Chestnut Street. Many of the school’s faculty had visited Rivera in Mexico, and the school had a distinguished program in fresco painting.… After 1945, the school became a nucleus for Abstract Expressionism. New York artists Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko taught here, along with David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Nathan Oliveira, and others… The first film course at CSFA was taught by Sydney Peterson in 1947. Jordan Belson, who had enrolled as a painting student in 1944, showed his first abstract film, Transmutations, in 1947 at the second “Art in Cinema” program, co-sponsored by CSFA and the San Francisco Museum of Art. In 1949, an international conference, The Western Roundtable on Modern Art, was organized by CSFA Director Douglas McAgy, and included Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gregory Bateson, among others. The object of the roundtable was to expose “hidden assumptions” and to frame new questions about art.

Renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961, SFAI refuted the distinction between fine and applied arts, and expanded the definition of art to include performance, conceptual art, graphic arts, typography, and political and social documentary. The year 1968 was, as elsewhere in the world, a pivotal year in the history of the San Francisco Art Institute. Among the students at SFAI that year were Annie Liebovitz, who had just begun photographing for Rolling Stone magazine; Paul McCarthy, well-known for his gross but hilarious performance videos; and Charles Bigelow, who would be among the first typographers to design fonts for computers. Alumni Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones (also faculty) were documenting the early days of the Black Panther Party in Northern California, and the photographs were exhibited at the de Young Museum.

CSFA Students In Other Art Departments Reject Photography As An Art

Pirkle Jones was a classmate of Philip Hyde and Benjamen Chinn in the second class of Ansel Adam’s photography department that started in Fall 1947. All three photographers went on to full-time photography careers throughout their lives. Benjamen Chinn continued to work for the Navy as a civilian in charge of the photo lab in San Francisco and on his own made fine art photographs of China Town for many years. Pirkle Jones developed an illustrious publishing career including projects with documentary photography pioneer Dorothea Lange. Philip Hyde’s photographs were central to the development of the modern environmental movement and helped introduce color to landscape photography. These photographers and the others who attended Ansel Adam’s photography program in its early years began their careers when photography was still becoming recognized as an art form and when little market for stock photography existed. Many California School of Fine Arts students became instrumental in the development of the medium. For more information on the work of the many talented CSFA photography students see the blog post, “The Golden Decade: California School of Fine Arts Photography,” or the blog post, “Over 500 People Attend Golden Decade Opening.”

In 1945 when word passed around the California School of Fine Arts that Ansel Adams was starting a photography department, the other departments flew into an uproar. Ansel Adams described it in his Autobiography:

The painters, sculptors, printmakers, and ceramicists arose in wrath and protest; photography is not an art, they claimed, and had no place in an art school. Besides, the other artists insisted they had insufficient space as it was. Ted Spencer (Previous CSFA President, Head of the Board, and President of the San Francisco Art Association) was really provoked but he stood fast. He knew photography is an art form and he was determined that it become part of the school curriculum. I was very unpopular around the school until it became obvious that my basic teaching in that medium, in both craft and aesthetic direction, was agreeable and progressive.

However, even then objection sometimes bubbled just beneath the surface, particularly in the painting department, where both students and faculty continued to conspire against the new department. These objections and malicious undermining finally softened as talented photography students began to take courses in other departments and excel. The students became acquainted and the ice began to melt. Besides, the photography students were bringing the school new recognition in exhibitions around San Francisco at some of the best museums and galleries.

Ansel Adams Plans “The Best Photo School In The U.S.”

Ted Spencer, besides being president of the San Francisco Arts Association, was a renowned architect. He helped Ansel Adams brainstorm and lay out the photography department. Ansel Adams had many other allies including the influential art barron, Albert Bender. Albert Bender helped some of the students and graduates with what became a prestigious Grant In Aid. Philip Hyde was one of the first two recipients of the Bender Grant. More on the Bender Grant in future blog posts. In Jeff Gunderson’s essay on the beginnings of the phtography program in The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts, he said that Ansel Adams “did not want to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed while teaching at the Art Center in Los Angeles” in developing the California School of Fine Arts photography department and curriculum. Jeff Gunderson wrote about and quoted Ansel Adams describing his plans:

He stressed “personal contact with the instructor,” which he thought “more effective and stimulating than continuous, routine, group instruction.” Consequently he strongly recommended that the department “be based…on a music conservatory plan…with lectures, demonstrations and exhibits,…required reading, and personal instruction and assignments.” These lectures would serve to “orient the entire school” not just the photography students, “toward understanding…good photography as an important element of contemporary life.” Adams stressed that the history of photography needed to be incorporated into the “general course of art history offered to all students” and that the photography faculty would be prepared to contribute the necessary lectures and illustrations.” To increase income and publicize the department, he proposed “evening classes for amateurs” that could be offered “as an interesting inducement to the general public.” Adams recognized that the venture would consume much of his time, and he was driven to complete other extracurricular projects, including a “series of 6 books on technique for Morgan & Lester” that would eventually include Camera and Lens, The Negative and The Print.

In 1945 as the first of the G.I. Bill students began to pour in recently liberated from World War II, CSFA finances boosted enough that the CSFA Board gave Ansel Adams the go-ahead to teach one eight week course and two four week sessions. By January 1946, a full-time session “for advanced amateurs and professionals” began with a maximum capacity enrollment of 36 students that continued in the Fall as the first full-time class in the department.

Philip Hyde, who was scheduled to begin the full-time class in the Fall of 1947, attended the Summer Session in 1946. Students anticipated this Summer Session because Ansel Adams had written that it would be a special class that would allow the school to “clear up various ‘bugs’ in the studio, lab and general operation.” It would also serve as a “screening course” for the next entering class and should be “very intensive and…reveal with its 6 weeks’ span the abilities—or lack of them in the students.”

Benjamen Chinn Talks Skills And Photographic Prints

Benjamen Chinn later remarked that Philip Hyde had been much more experienced as a photographer than he was when they started together in the Fall of 1947. This is surprising and possibly part of Benjamen Chinn’s modest nature to describe Philip Hyde that way because Benjamen Chinn had taken photography when he attended Galileo High School, which today is known as Galileo Academy of Science and Technology. Benjamen Chinn knew Bill Quandt from his high school photography classes. Later, beginning in 1947, Bill Quandt assisted Minor White as instructor of photography at the California School of Fine Arts. Benjamen Chinn had also taken photography at San Francisco City College and had been a photographer for the Navy during World War II. Philip Hyde took photography at Polytechnic High School and at San Francisco City College before the War but never met Benjamen Chinn until Fall 1947 in class at the California School of Fine Arts.

The Summer 1946 course, besides Ansel Adams, had two established Bay Area photographers on faculty, both Group f64 members, Imogen Cunningham and Alma Lavenson. Minor White first joined the class as a student on July 5. Ansel Adams had hired Minor White to take his place as lead instructor. “The whole muddled business of exposure and development fell into place,” Minor White wrote of his experience in the first class he sat in on. “Sitting up in class my problems…cleared up pronto!… The theory was crystalline clear…and I was out in the afternoon helping kids trying to do it. I think they probably knew more about it than I did; but some of them knew less, so I talked to those.” To read more about Minor White’s teaching and how he and Philip Hyde inspired each other see the blog post, “Minor White Letters 1.”

“Ansel was interested in good fine prints like his own,” Benjamen Chinn said. “He was a fine pianist. I always maintained that his piano playing was even better than his photography.” Benjamen Chinn’s print collection included those by Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston but not Ansel Adams. “I wasn’t collecting then,” Ben said. “I didn’t realize his prints would go up in price that much. Of course now all photographs are going up.” Benjamen Chinn pointed out in 2005 that many collectors are now collecting prints from the first ten years of Ansel Adams’ photography program. Richard Gadd, Director of the Weston Gallery in Carmel, said in 2009 that the late 1940s and early 1950s have been overlooked by collectors and are now getting more attention. A well-known Bay Area photography collector specializes in collecting photographs by California School of Fine Arts students. Benjamen Chinn said that this collector published a catalog of the work of most of the early California School Of Fine Arts students.

“They priced each small print at $3,000 or $2,500 and up,” Benjamen Chinn said. They usually collect from estate sales. They got three or four of my prints from a classmate’s collection. When she was moved to a home they cleaned out her place and found some of the exchange prints. A lot of people had Bill Quandt’s prints and they got his originals too. I’m sure they didn’t pay much for them. After they found out who I was they asked me to go up to where they lived in the Mission Street area in San Francisco and sign their prints with them. They showed me some prints of mine, and many others. They probably got the whole estate for $500. The people didn’t know what they had. They just wanted to get rid of the stuff quickly.”

In future blog posts in this series look forward to reading about student gatherings and print exchanges in various homes, at Ansel Adam’s house and at Vesuvio’s in vibrant North Beach, about the unusual questions on the California School of Fine Arts photography school application, more about Ansel Adam’s Zone System, how students would wonder what Benjamen Chinn was doing for his assignment as he worked at home, classes with Minor White, a field trip with Edward Weston, how the Bay Area art culture began to blossom and much more. For more about Edward Weston not in this series see the blog post, “Edward Weston’s Landscape Philosophy Part 1.”

Continued in the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 9.”



  1. pj says:

    I’m enjoying this series greatly David. With so many artists we now look back on as masters passing through the school, both as students and instructors, the energy and intensity of the place must have been through the roof. What a stimulating experience it must have been.

    Though I’ve read a little about the school, mostly Adams’ and Minor White’s accounts, I wasn’t aware of the connection with the Abstract Expressionists. Thanks for passing that along.

  2. Hi PJ, glad you are enjoying the series. It is helpful and kind of you to speak up and let me know what is meaningful to you. My dad touched on some of the great painters who taught or attended CSFA in his “Notes On A Life Of Photography” in “The Range of Light,” but besides that hardly any of the other photographers or anyone else has ever mentioned much about the talent associated with the school other than the Group f64 photographers. I just one day started reading the San Francisco Art Institute website and was blown away. I feel this information is important background to put in perspective the impact on all of art that the school has made in general, not just in photography. It is a refreshing discovery and directly affects the photographers because students in my Dad’s class were required to take several courses elsewhere in the school. Dad took sculpting and abstract painting and learned much from both. He thought it helped him in his seeing as a photographer.

  3. I had never heard of Benjamen Chinn before. Thank you for the introduction, David.


  4. Hi Sharon, thank you for the comment. Ben was an amazing man. Not only was he a great photographer, he had a wry, but generous sense of humor. He and my father and a number of others in the class were continually playing practical jokes on each other and everyone else. I have a lot of stories about Benjamen Chinn and stories about he and my dad and the others together. The funny thing is that in most of the photographs you ever see of Dad and Ben together or with others, those in the photographs were laughing their heads off, because some kind of clowning around was in progress. They were both very serious about photography but they sure could joke too.

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