Posts Tagged ‘Photo-Secession’

Photography’s Golden Era 4

March 15th, 2010

(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.”)