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Photo Synthesis

From Glacier Point (circa 1905)

September 24, 2006|Colin Westerbeck

"Yosemite: Art of an American Icon," Part I, is on view at the Autry National Center's Museum of the American West in Griffith Park through Jan. 21, 2007.

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William Dassonville's pictures first attracted notice at the California Camera Club Exhibition of Industrial Arts in 1901. Today, the phrase "industrial arts" sounds quaint and seems an odd pigeonhole in which to stick photography. Yet it was as an inventor and entrepreneur, rather than as an artist, that Dassonville made a unique mark on photo history. In 1924, he began manufacturing a photographic paper he called Charcoal Black. By using exotic papers, pictorialists could--in the terminology of the time--"ennoble" their photographs. Even Ansel Adams used Charcoal Black in his youth.

The paper resulted from experiments Dassonville had begun years earlier, printing photographs on Japanese tissue. As his eccentric view of Yosemite from Glacier Point demonstrates, it was not only the materials of Japanese prints, but also their compositional values, or notan, that impressed the San Francisco photographer.

The exhibition title refers to Yosemite as an icon, and Dassonville's picture is definitely an iconic one of the West. It uses the radical borders and silhouetted forms of Japanese art to create an image of a place fringed by mountains and towering pine forests, yet vastly blank in the center. It's Big Sky Country, a landscape that is, like drifting clouds, empty and ever-changing.

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