Thursday, November 30, 2006
Photography at the turn of the last century was already in the hands of the people. A little more than a half-century had seen a new technology arrive and flourish. The daguerrotype was invented in the 1840s, portrait studios were established in major cities in the 1850s, photo documentation of vanishing cultures appeared in the 1870s, and half-tones were introduced to the daily newspaper in the 1880s. The Brownie box camera was first manufactured in 1900.
Cumbersome, unreliable, highly sensitive and dangerous, photography was a new frontier, and of course attractive to artists. Early “art” photographers sought to master a new technology, but also wanted recognition as fine artists. And so they mimicked the acknowledged “art” of the era—romantic, soft-edged paintings popular at the turn of the century—and thus produced endless dancing maidens, mythological friezes and theatrically-posed subjects.
In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz staged the seminal Photo Secessionist exhibition in New York, denouncing the falseness of those “pictorialists.” He exhibited only photographers who explored the scope of the camera lens and the printing process as a unique medium apart from painting. The art form went from birth to revolution in 50 years.
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Edward Weston first picked up a camera as a boy in Illinois in 1902. He became a portrait photographer for hire, then a successful pictorial “art” photographer. He began to use the camera realistically in 1922, when he met and was influenced by Stieglitz.
Weston moved to Carmel in 1929. He had already exhibited and published widely, but it was here that he created the breathtaking nudes, still lifes and landscapes that brought him international acclaim as a modern artist. Due in part to the images he created of this place, Carmel and the Weston studio became magnets for modern artists worldwide.
Anyone reading the history of photography as an art form comes pretty quickly to the Monterey Peninsula. Edward Weston wasn’t even the first photographer to come here; photographers were part of the thriving colony of artists, writers and musicians amid the rustics and bohemians drawn to the area’s rugged coast, historic adobes and scrub oak-dotted hills.
Perhaps because photography was being developed as a technology at the same time that it was being put to use, photographers were a remarkably social lot. They formed salons and clubs and associations, shared information about new techniques and equipment, gave workshops and held exhibitions. Weston and others discussed ideas with their peers and published pieces on the philosophical and aesthetic foundations of their art. Responding to these ideas, Ansel Adams came to Carmel to work with Weston and then stayed. As their reputations spread, they attracted others, including Imogen Cunningham.
In 1932 these photographers made themselves into a movement: Group f64, named after the smallest aperture in the large-format cameras they used. Stopping down to f64 produces an image with vast depth of field; the foreground just a few feet away appears just as crisp and sharp as a tree on a ridgetop a half-mile distant. Group f64 had a commitment to “straight photography.” Weston was widely quoted as saying: “To photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” The craggy coastline of Big Sur often provided the rock.
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Monterey County photographic art has its Genesis story. Edward Weston, with Adams, Cunningham and others, begat f64. He also begat sons Brett and Cole, each a significant photographer. Cole Weston begat the Sunset Center, and the Sunset, with Adams, Cunningham and others, begat the Friends of Photography, whose exhibitions, publications, workshops and friendships begat international fame for Carmel, Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula as a center for the art form.
The Friends of Photography became the Center for Photographic Arts (CPA). Maggie Weston, Cole’s wife and Adams’ friend, founded the Weston Gallery.
Young photographers came to learn and became assistants to the masters, and many—including David Bayles, Dick Garrod and Ted Orland—stayed, working and teaching and exhibiting. This passel of world-renowned artists selling work locally, long before photography was much collected or exhibited, produced many extraordinary collections, which in time were willed to the Monterey Museum of Art.
Thus was born a fine MMA collection of important photographers, which has been lent to other museums worldwide, cementing the relationship in the imaginations of art lovers everywhere between Monterey County and photography.
In addition to the Sunset Center, Cole Weston begat Kim Weston, himself a renowned photographer who exhibits worldwide and locally—and right now in a show at PK Fine Artifacts. In fact, because of this history, there is no reason to be surprised that at this very moment, within a 25-mile radius centered on the Monterey Peninsula, there are 10 exhibitions that address the span of photography as an art form: its history, evolution and contemporary worldwide expression.