San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 13

December 5th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Summer School 1946 With Ansel Adams

Description And Outline

(Continued from the blog post, “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History, Part 12.”)

Cumulus Clouds Over Indian Valley, Northern Sierra Nevada, copyright 1948 Philip Hyde.

Summer School, as Ansel Adams referred to it, first started in 1946. The course ran for six weeks of intensive instruction based on the regular day school in photography at the California School of Fine Arts now the San Francisco Art Institute. Minor White first taught with Ansel Adams in the Summer of 1946 with students including Philip Hyde, Benjamen Chinn, William Heick, Ira Latour, Pirkle Jones, Ruth-Marion Baruch, Don Whyte, Pat Harris, David Johnson, John Rogers, Al Richter, Bob Hollingsworth, Walter Stoy, Helen Howell and others.

In preliminary descriptions of the course for the CSFA School Board, Ansel Adams suggested: “It should be considered as part of the full day school year rather than… supplementary…” The Summer Session became what Ansel Adams described as “a ‘screening course’ for the main student body of the day school.”

Ansel Adams further described the proposed course:

It should be made very intensive and should reveal within its six weeks span the abilities – or lack of them – of the students. Only those should be admitted who have definite intention to take at least the first year of the main school sessions. The exact topics to be considered in the summer school will be basic but of course should not be too extensive. The first summer school period in 1946 will enable us to clear up various ‘bugs’ in the studio, lab, and general operation. The summer school of 1947 should be designed, I believe, as a buffer course to enable the regular day students to perfect their work and to round out missing or weak aspects of their knowledge.

Outline Of Ansel Adams’ Summer Session 1946

Department of Photography

California School of Fine Arts

Day School:

Week 1


1:            Organization, outline of study and general assignments, etc.

2:            Functions of the Camera and Lens

3:            Demonstration of above

4:            Photographic Visualization

5:            Demonstration

6:            Basic Photographic Esthetics

Week 2


1:            Resume of Photographic History and Esthetics

2:            Philosophy of Exposure and Development of the Negative

3:            Demonstration Including Darkroom Mechanics

4:            Demonstration Including Orthochromatics

5:            Problem: demonstration-Visualization through execution

6:            General Discussion

Week 3


1:            Presentation of a photographic problem  (1st assignment)

2:            Execution of the problem – exposure and development of the negative

3:            Printing

4:            Demonstration

5:            Printing of the negatives of the above problem

6:            Discussion and criticism of problem-assignment results

Week 4


1:            Elements of photographic Composition

2:            Presentation of 2nd Photographic Problem (2nd assignment)

3:            Field or Studio work under direction

4:            Printing under direction

5:            Toning of prints

6:            Discussion and criticism of second assignment

Week 5


1:            Expressive fields of photography

2:            Presentation of the 3rd Photographic Problem (assignment)

3:            Field or Studio work under direction

4:            Mounting and spotting of prints (presentation)

5:            Philosophy of Artificial light in photography

6:            General Discussion and criticism of assignment 3

Week 6


1:            Assignment using artificial light and analysis (4th assignment)

2:            Assignment: Three interpretations of the same subject (5th assignment)

3:            Minor darkroom techniques (reduction, intensification, bleaching, etc.)

4:            Survey of contemporary directions in photography, Critical basis.

5:            Resume of philosophy of technique

6:            General discussion, exhibit work and criticism.

Four periods devoted to work in addition to the six periods outlined above are required. The exact assignments will be worked out well in advance. An emphasis on regional subject material to be maintained throughout. Full demonstration of all work required. Laboratory assistants will be on constant duty five or six periods out of the total of 10 periods per week.

(Continued in the blog post, “San Francisco Art Institute Photography History 14.”)



  1. Sharon says:

    I feel like my grandfather who was born in Indian Territory and always kidded that he went to school one day in his brother’s place. 🙂

    What a wonderful place that must have been to study.


  2. Hi Sharon, it would have been an incredible experience, wouldn’t it?

  3. pj says:

    I can’t even begin to imagine the creative energy that must have been generated there…

    It would have been an incredible experience indeed.

  4. Thank you, PJ. That curriculum combined with that staff and students in their post-war enthusiasm, optimism and sheer joy at being set free from the service, you can see why an unprecedented level of fine photography and photographers came out of that first decade while Minor White led the program.

  5. pj says:

    You’ve used the term ‘photography’s golden age.’ It’s true — some of America’s greatest photography came out of that school. It’s influence is staggering.

  6. Thanks for the confirmation and nod, PJ.

  7. Jim says:

    Compare the depth of that curriculum and general serious mentality of the day to today’s casual approach to photography. Back then, one had to have a mastery of the mechanics and an artistic vision. Sadly, I think for many, many people, the ideal modern curriculum would look like this:

    Period 1: Buy “professional” DSLR camera

    2: Set camera to “Program” mode

    3: Print business cards for your new photography business

    There will always be those who, whether formally educated or self taught, will take the long journey to a higher understanding and mastery of the art. I think this post really underscores the chasm between the roots of photography and the direction it’s going in now. Simply my opinion, of course.

  8. Hi Jim, thank you for your comment, which unfortunately is true in my opinion too. One asset we have today that many people take for granted without knowing how much difference it makes, is having a back on the camera that instantly shows you the photograph you just made. Without this feature, in the film era, we had to wait much longer to see our results and make adjustments and corrections. Many photographers today assume they are better than Ansel Adams, my father or any of the pioneering masters. If there is any truth to their arrogant perspective, it is entirely based on technological advantages, certainly not artistic merit or talent. With the instant review feature alone, the learning curve for all levels of aptitude in photography shortens dramatically. Also, it is much easier to learn and do the fine tuning necessary to improve an image when you can review it in the field before and after making another image. This in and of itself alone can account for a significant improvement in the overall quality of photographs, if there is such a thing today over yesterday’s photography before post-processing.

  9. Derrick says:

    What a learning experience that must have been. I love the language…. “criticism” …. Of the students work! Are we allowed to use that word in relation to photography today without coming on like a royal ass?

    There is that golden age debate again!

    I sat in on a nice lecture this weekend where the presenter had a quote that said “never before have we had so much brilliant photography than today.” followed by “never before have we had such bad photography as today.”

    Ya’ll have fun, I’m off to desert country.

  10. Hi Derrick, thank you for your input. That quote is priceless. Ansel Adams was famous for his “criticism” of student photographs. From what my father and others fortunate enough to participate said, what Ansel Adams did was the complete opposite of the more negative derivations of the word that many people today overemphasize.

  11. Greg Russell says:

    I really like the part about being able to quickly discern whether the students had the ability to be admitted to the program or not.

    This is really interesting, and I imagine it would have been amazingly inspiring to be a part of this movement.

    I think now we call it constructive criticism. 🙂 Even that isn’t always welcome, but in my experience is a very valuable tool in becoming a better photographer…

  12. Hi Greg, good points. I’m sure it improved the overall caliber of photography and the type of photographers attracted to the photography school to raise the bar on entry to the full-time day class. “Criticism” is important and if it is done in a supportive, positive, yet also exacting way, as Ansel Adams did it, it can be one of the best teaching tools ever. Not to mention the benefit to the photographer as you point out.

  13. Steve Sieren says:

    That’s very interesting to see the classroom itinerary for the six weeks.
    I like the Week 6 Period 2: Assignment: 3 interpretations of same subject 5th assignment. Gives me an idea or assignment to oneself to do that every time we shoot an icon!!

  14. Hi Steve, that’s a good idea, especially with icons. Isn’t that what you usually do with most subjects anyway though?

  15. Steve Sieren says:

    Honestly no, sometimes there isn’t always enough time. If I’m light painting or the light is changing quickly I only get 1 or 2. Sometimes composing can take a long time but for the most part yes a few takes is common. Maybe a better idea when shooting an icon is to copy it then try 3 different takes on it.

  16. Gasp, ahem, uuuhhh, copy it? What? Is that Steve Sieren? The maker of his own icons? Well, (more hemming and hawing) I hate to admit it, but I’ve tried to go out and copy some of my dad’s icons, not for the reasons that many photographers do it though. I did it to get inside his head photographically and learn more about him because I’m writing about him. However, without taking a reproduction of the photograph itself with you, it is actually not that easy to do, especially trying to match a large format view camera film photograph using 35 mm digital with different lenses and no bellows to tilt and so on. Probably the three DIFFERENT takes is the best idea.

  17. Steve Sieren says:

    I’ve been to Zabriskie Point, Valley View, and a certain bend on the Owens River. In fact I have a reflection shot of Ellery Lake that would make you say hey wait a minute my dad has a shot just like that. I think everyone has copied an image or at least the main subjects if they have had them readily available. It’s a way of learning but eventually you will realize you can’t be too proud of a copy. John Fielder of Colorado made exact copies of many views of Rocky Mountain National 100 years later as a looking back project. I’ve seen the book, I didn’t read but I wondered if he used lithographs to do it. I guess there is some talent involved in creating a copy so cheers those who are good at it.

    I sure wouldn’t mind getting a shot of the Legend of the Holy Cross, made famous by one of the photographers of the 1800’s.

    We have different tools to increase the depth of field and a tilt shift lens will correct some problems with perspective but yes not as much as the LF camera. Jack Dykinga has a technique with the same combination that he openly shares. I’m surprised I haven’t seen any photographers regurgitate it as their own technique yet.

  18. Oh man, where do I sign up! What an exciting situation that must have been. Unfortunately, I think the comments to this point regarding the level of education these days compared to those are pretty much spot on. And I think a lot of the photography we see today is a good indicator of that. Those who work and study the craft are producing some really phenomenal photography while those who take short cuts and set their camera to ‘P’ as Jim mentions are not.

  19. Hi Steve, I like how you define one factor that makes a difference between the schlocky pictures churned out all over and quality fine art photography.

  20. Hugh Sakols says:

    Ok I too agree with Jim. However you really can make fabulous prints using a digital camera.
    a. buy a consumer dslr
    b. shoot in raw
    c. use your histogram
    d. dodge and burn using photoshop
    e. make sure you understand color management and have a profile for the paper you are using
    f. hit print

    Oh and sign me up for the six week course. I’d love to learn something like Platinum Printing using an 8×10 camera.

  21. Hi Hugh, your list makes digital printing seem fairly simple, but some of those steps take significant skill to do well, probably just as much as the old darkroom printing, which I believe was only with silver at CSFA, but often from 8X10 negatives. In those days Dad used 8X10, 4X5 and 5X7 original film.

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