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Picturing California : A Quick Trip through a Century of Landscape Photography

September 03, 1989|BILL BARICH

"EVERYTHING WORTH PHOTOGRAPHING is in California," Edward Weston once wrote, sweeping away all the other states with typical decisiveness.

The first professional photographers who brought their cameras to California were employed, for the most part, by a government survey team or by a railroad company. They were hired to make a visual record of natural resources, and of planned routes of transportation, but the landscape was so spectacular that they couldn't resist doing some free-lancing on the side. California was still a frontier, in the process of being settled, and the demand for images of it was high. What the public craved most was a demonstration of the new territory's superior scale and its open space. Mountain ranges, cataracts, a glittering expanse of sky: in essence, the Big Picture, a precursor of special effects and 70mm film. It's no accident that human beings were often portrayed as a dwarf species, posed in front of redwoods, or on a precipice overlooking a gorge.

It was common in those days for a photographer to manipulate nature for aesthetic reasons. One pioneer, Carleton Watkins, routinely dug up ugly stumps with his spade. In his studio, the eccentric Englishman Eadweard Muybridge fiddled with the look of clouds; in the field, he cut down trees by the score. It's tempting to accuse these photographers of cheating, but it wouldn't be fair. They were just trying to manufacture a sense of wonder that corresponded to their own. Without a human being to act as its filter, a camera can be too cold, too analytical. With some judicious tinkering, a gifted photographer could mask nature's imperfections and create a much grander (and much more marketable) version of the mountains. In terms of photography, then, we should admit that California has always been something of a fiction, right from the beginning.

ANSEL ADAMS' FIRST CAMERA was a Kodak No. 1 Brownie. He got it for his 14th birthday, in 1916, and took it along on a family vacation to Yosemite, where he discovered a subject that was complex and sublime enough to occupy him for a lifetime.

To some extent, Adams would repeat the journey of Watkins and the other pioneers, but he had different problems to solve. California wilderness wasn't virgin territory anymore. By 1920, there were cars, tour buses and gift shops in Yosemite Valley, and a photographer had to cut through 50 years of platitudes, poetry and snapshots to find an original vision. For Adams, this meant lots of waiting, sometimes in storms, sometimes in zero-degree weather. He did not crop or retouch his pictures, so he had to get them exactly right. He was making, rather than recording, an image, isolating an indispensable view from the clutter of disposable ones. More than anything, he tried to be accurate.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Adams and another California photographer, Edward Weston, were at the forefront of landscape photography in the West. Weston discovered patterns in the land, drawing the viewer's eye to the feminine curve of a hill against the flat surface of a bay, to a swatch of bark that had the texture of recently tilled ground. Both photographers influenced how Californians felt about the mountains and the coast. For both men, nature was an article of faith, and they labored to show it simply, cleanly and sympathetically. They had intelligence and moral purpose, and this gives their pictures a quality of affirmation, even though human beings are so often missing from the frame.

Where did all the people go? Some critics didn't approve of their absence, most notably the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson. The world was falling apart, he said, and Adams and Weston just took photos of rocks. Their interest, they might have argued, was in the timeless, the eternal; they were pursuing symmetry and order, not suffering and pain.

An attitude like that wouldn't do for Dorothea Lange. She couldn't pass by a scrap of land without registering its political implications. Her tendency was to include, not to exclude. "Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs," she once said. "But to be good, photographs must be full of the world."

In the 1930s, Lange was drawn into a commitment to the disadvantaged. She began a collaboration with an economics professor named Paul Taylor, doing reports for state relief agencies and then for the federal Farm Service Administration. Lange produced her famous photographs of migrant workers, tar-paper shacks and disposessed families. In her pictures, the land frequently has elements of beauty, but the beauty is about to be compromised, exploited or stripped bare.

BY THE 1950S IN LOS ANGELES, real estate speculators were buying up the orange groves, and paved roads ran everywhere. The Los Angeles basin was becoming a metropolis, with little boxes from Silver Lake to Orange County, and almost every trace of its past, including its topographical history, was being erased.

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