Not for the Eye to Miss: The Golden Age of Photography

David Johnson

Featuring an exhibition and book, The Laguna Art Museum, will be hosting one of the most important exhibitions of photography seen in the Southern California area in many years. Opening in the Henry Segerstrom Gallery, February 19, 2017, The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-55 is an exhibition that gathers together many of America’s most celebrated photographers. The Golden Decade shares the wealth of culture and ideas, beauty, and an important California legacy.

John Upton, Point Lobos near Carmel, CA, c. early 1950s. Courtesy of John Upton

The exhibition is accompanied by a book of 375 images edited by Victoria Whyte Ball and Ken Ball. “The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-55”, features William Heick, Ira H. Latour, and C. Cameron Macauley, former students of Ansel Adams and Minor, White, who began planning this book many years ago. The plan was to focus on the years 1945 to 1955 at the school. Coinciding with this book effort was a bequest of negatives and contract prints from Don Whyte to his daughter Victoria Whyte Ball and her husband Ken Ball. The book project sparked this eventual curatorial project that evolved from this team’s efforts, examinations, and compilations of an extraordinary body of photography, illustrating a cultural history of California seen through the lenses of Doreatha Lang, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, among many others.

E. Weston and W. White, 1948
Edward Weston and Minor White, 1948.

To revisit this history of Northern California just after World War II, is a reminder of how California has now taken over the lead from European Modernism. A fact that is contextually seen every day in the dynamic international art world. After the war, the California School of Fine Arts laid the groundwork for bringing Abstract Expressionism from its birthplace in New York to the West Coast. As a development of European Modernism, the school recruited many prominent Abstract Expressionists such as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Clay Spohn. Because of this acclaimed roster, the school flourished as a center for Abstract Expressionism for many years thereafter. In 1946, it drew Ansel Adams to establish the fine art photography department at the school, one of the first departments of its kind in the United States. With Adams at the helm, he recruited cutting-edge photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Lisette Model, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, and Homer Pagel and other pioneers of avant-garde photography. In a further development in 1947, Sydney Peterson started film courses at the school. All this synergy lead to an international conference in 1949 called the Western Roundtable on Modern Art, that included Arnold Schoenberg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Duchamp and others. The hope of the conference was to exposure hidden assumptions about art while uprooting obsolete ideas.

Stan Zrnich, Go Shadow.
Stan Zrnich, Go Shadow, 1952. Courtesy of Stan Zrnich

By the 1950s San Francisco’s North Beach had become the West Coast magnet for the Beat Movement. A distinctly Californian modern art soon emerged that fused abstraction, figuration, narrative, and jazz. New ideas and new materials were encouraged but photography remained a strong and innovative core of the school. Renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961, SFAI rejected the distinction between fine and applied arts and promoted an expanded vocabulary of art-making that hybridized many practices including performance, conceptual art, new media, graphic arts, typography, and political and social documentary, all practices that included a lot of photography. Annie Leibovitz began photographing for Rolling Stone magazine while still a student there and alumni Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones exhibited their photographic documentation of the early days of the Black Panther Party at the de Young in 1968, subsequently publishing a book on the subject and exhibiting their photographs in many museums in the United States.

Now the Laguna Art Museum has an opportunity to display a part of this extraordinary history as seen through several of the photographers that formed, not only the reputation of the school but added to the American experience. The entire project is a culmination of far-reaching efforts by many historians, publishers, and printers, who have illuminated this decade of photography into a valuable book and exhibition, offering a special glimpse into California’s progressive cultural history.

Last Saturday, January 21 a book signing was held in the lobby of Bonham’s in Hollywood, California to celebrate the publication of The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-55, published by Gerhard Steidl from Gottingen, Germany.

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Bonnie Rychlak
Bonnie Rychlak

Bonnie Rychlak is an artist, curator and museum consultant. She is the former curator and studio assistant for Isamu Noguchi, his museum, and foundation. As an artist, Rychlak has presented her work in numerous solo and group exhibitions. She received a grant from National Endowment for the Visual Arts, a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation at the Bellagio Study Center, and The Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome. Most recently she received a residency at the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy.

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