Hand in Hand

June 7, 2020 § Leave a comment

Ruth Bernhard | Hand in Hand (1956)

HANDS WERE OFTEN an important subject for Ruth Bernhard, the world-renowned photographer who lived in our neighborhood for more than 50 years. She took this photograph in 1956 after attending a Sunday service at the Fellowship Church on Russian Hill.

HOW IT HAPPENED: I knew no one in the photo community when I arrived in San Francisco in the early 1950s, but I was invited to one and then another of Ansel Adams’s many cocktail parties and through those parties I got acquainted with the community.

There were so many interesting photographers in San Francisco at that time! Several of them developed a group called the San Francisco Photographers’ Roundtable. There was Jerry Stoll, who really was the star of the group, and his wife, Gini Stoll Harding, who became a lifelong friend. Other photographers in the group were Phiz Mozzeson, Jackie Paul, Miriam Young, Paul Hassle and Pirkle Jones and his wife, Ruth Marion Baruch. They met in the Stoll studio to share their work and got the idea to have an exhibition on a theme, suggested by Dorothea Lange. It was decided that photographers had to use new pictures all taken for an event that was called “San Francisco Weekend.” They sent out a call to photographers all over the city. I heard about it and went over to the studio on Potrero Hill and introduced myself to Jerry and Gini.

Now, I never go out with my camera and wonder what I am going to photograph. I never do that, ever. But when Dorothea Lange said we had to, I did. That walk resulted in three photographs, including Hand in Hand (above) and Mr. Reilley (below).

These photographs hung in the San Francisco Arts Festival in 1956. There were about 10 of us in the show. Dorothea was the advisor and Imogen Cunningham, Nat Farbman, who was the senior editor of Life magazine, and I were the jury. Everyone pitched in and worked for the exhibition, which won top honors at the festival. Gini and Jerry were so proud because we photographers were considered only “button-pushers” in those days.

— Ruth Bernhard

Ruth Bernhard | Mr. Reilley (1956)

John Sloan meets Duke Ellington

August 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

FIRST PERSON | D. A. PENNEBAKER

I WANTED to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and its packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like John Sloan’s New York City paintings, and I wanted it to go with my Duke Ellington record, Daybreak Express.

Read more

UPDATE: Pennebaker film archive looking for a home
RIP: D.A. Pennebaker dies at 94

Straight to the gut

April 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

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Tina Modotti | Roses, Mexico (1924)

IT ALWAYS SEEMED a bit incongruous, at the very least, to walk into Susie Tompkins Buell’s penthouse atop the 2500 Steiner Street tower in San Francisco — a full-floor flat with 360-degree views of the city and the bay — and be confronted by images of the Depression.

She was a serious photography collector for decades, and the collection she built has been called “one of the finest and most select collections of photography in private hands.” Back in 1996 she said: “I wanted to collect photos with real social significance — I didn’t want to collect just pretty flowers.” And she did, acquiring straight-to-the-gut images by Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and other revered photographers, just as photography was becoming a more respected and collectible art form. She helped to make the market for fine art photography.

Now her collection has been dispersed into other hands, in other neighborhoods.  On April 4, the Phillips auction house in New York offered 58 images from her collection, including these three by Tina Modotti. View the collection and the auction results here.

Read more: “Susie Tompkins Buell: A Collector’s Story

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Tina Modotti | Woman Carrying Olla (1926)

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Tina Modotti | Campesinos (1926)

Seeing light

June 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

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Ruth Bernhard | Doorknob (1973)

Seeing light is a spiritual experience for me. I saw the exciting sprays of light from the glass doorknob in my apartment. Here I was with a perfect subject and the light would change before I could do a picture. The following day was overcast, and so was the next. The sun finally shone, but not on the doorknob.

Determined, I decided to mark the calendar for one year from the date when I “saw” the photograph, the 11th of May. A year later I was ready and everything happened as planned. I couldn’t have been happier.

— Ruth Bernhard

Our little village

November 23, 2017 § 4 Comments

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Photograph by Barbara Wyeth

I’D RUN INTO Lois a couple of Saturday mornings ago at the Fillmore Farmers Market, near the bright orange persimmons and deep red pomegranates glowing in the morning sun. She was sporting her usual warm smile. We’re both part of a group that has been walking together for 25 years at Crissy Field early on Saturday mornings and has coffee together afterward. Lois’s husband Richard usually came down on his bike for coffee, then rode over afterward for his weekly volunteer gig in the Presidio. Lois and I chatted for a minute at the market. I was buying fuyu persimmons. She asked: “What are those?” Then: “How do you eat them?”

When we got back after a week away, there was a phone message from Diana, the organizer, with her husband Gary, of the walking group. Richard was suddenly very sick. So I got fuyus at the market to bring as a get-well gift. But it was too late. Richard had died — on Saturday morning, about the time of our coffee hour.

I remembered an artist friend’s fondness for photographing fuyus, so we stopped by the neighborhood flower shop where she works to pick up a card she made of one of her photographs. It turns out she’d made two: of a single and a double. Yesterday, on Thanksgiving eve, a neighbor and I walked down to Richard and Lois’s flat near Union Street and left a bag of fuyus, with the photograph of a single, on the doorknob for Lois. On the way we dropped the card with the double through their mail slot for Gary and Diana, who brought us all together.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for good friends, especially those who live and work nearby in our little village — and for beautiful photographs beautifully printed onto beautiful cards, perfect for my bittersweet purposes.

P.S. This morning, I got an email from Lois: “Did you know? The farmers market now delivers! I got some beautiful persimmons delivered right to my front door.”

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Photograph by Barbara Wyeth

‘It was the truth’

October 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Walker Evans | Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama (1936)

WALKER EVANS’ best-known photographs were made during the Depression. Made using a large-format camera and long exposures, these portraits were true collaborations between photographer and subject. They powerfully captured the deprivation of the time — and the dignity of those who lived through it.

This image of Allie Mae Burroughs, a sharecropper’s wife from Alabama, is both a portrait of a specific person and a classic symbol of the Depression. Devoid of any context, this simple, iconic image could be of any poor woman, from any decade.

In the Walker Evans exhibition now at SFMOMA, you can hear Allie Mae Burroughs’ deeply southern voice, complete with subtitles, from an interview recorded in the 1970s. She said of what Evans captured in this famous portrait: “It was the truth.”

Before the Golden Gate

September 29, 2017 § 1 Comment

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Ansel Adams | The Golden Gate Before the Bridge (1932)

“ONE BEAUTIFUL STORM-CLEARING MORNING, I looked out the window of our San Francisco home and saw magnificent clouds rolling from the north over the Golden Gate,” Ansel Adams wrote.

He grabbed his new 8-by-10 inch view camera and drove to the end of 32nd Avenue at the edge of Sea Cliff. He dashed along the old Cliff House railroad bed “to the crest of a promontory.”

“From there was a grand view of the Golden Gate and the wonderful evolving landscape of clouds,” he wrote. “I have been after that for 10 years, and at last got a really satisfactory plate.”

The only known mural print of this image was auctioned at Bonhams on October 2. It sold for $162,500.

What about SFMOMA?

May 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

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In the inaugural Art of Northern California exhibition, three Thiebauds and an Arneson.

SO WHAT ABOUT San Francisco’s extravagant new Museum of Modern Art? Well, it’s big, that’s for sure. And there is much to recommend:

• Photography gets respect. There are hundreds of photographs in dozens of galleries — almost the entire third floor and more. The “California and the West” exhibition is terrific.

• California art gets greater prominence, including a three-part “Art of Northern California” inaugural exhibition.

• The highlights of the permanent collection — Matisse! Rivera! — still have pride of place in the still-grand second floor galleries.

•  Unlike much of the Fisher Collection, which will appeal to some more than others, the Calder sculptures are a delight, especially in front of the living wall.

Mostly the new building works. It is a huge cruise ship beached between the Mario Botta building (a relic from all the way back in 1995) and Timothy Pflueger’s magnificent Art Deco backdrop from the 1920s. But it is functional — and it has beautiful wooden stairs and windows framing views of the city.

Two complaints about the architecture:

• Botta’s beautiful entry has been eviscerated and replaced by a vast empty space with the kind of lean-to staircase that might take you over the dunes onto the beach. A crime.

• And the magisterial enfilade of galleries marching across the front of the second floor has been blocked off to create separate spaces, presumably. Surely this is not permanent.

Go and visit. There are much worse things than another new museum in town.

MORE: “Transforming SFMOMA

Both nourished and wounded

April 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

A new book celebrates Paul Kwilecki's photographs.

A new book celebrates Paul Kwilecki’s photographs of his hometown.

PAUL KWILECKI was born in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 1928 and died there in 2009. In between, he raised a family, ran the family’s hardware store, and taught himself how to use a camera. Over four decades, he documented life in his community, making hundreds of masterful and intimate black-and-white prints.

Kwilecki developed his visual ideas in series of photographs of high school proms, prison hog killings, shade-tree tobacco farming, factory work, church life, the courthouse. He also wrote eloquently about the people and places he so poignantly depicted, and in this book his unique knowledge is powerfully articulated in more than 200 photographs and selected prose.

Paul Kwilecki worked alone, his correspondence with other photographers his only link to the larger art world. While Kwilecki ranks among the most important American documentary photographers of the 20th century, he is also one of the least well known. “Decatur County is home,” he said, “and I know it from my special warp, having been both nourished and wounded by it.”
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A photographer comes home

March 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

PHOTOGRAPHER David Johnson recently returned to Fillmore Street in San Francisco to talk about his new book, A Dream Begun So Long Ago. Johnson came to the Fillmore in 1945 and photographed the neighborhood and its residents, celebrated or not, for decades.

EARLIER: “Photographer made his mark on Fillmore

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