‘It was the truth’

October 1, 2017 § Leave a comment


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


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


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

John Sloan meets Duke Ellington

September 10, 2014 § Leave a comment


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.

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UPDATE: Pennebaker film archive looking for a home

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

Adieu Michelle Vignes

October 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

THE MESSAGE CAME from a neighbor via email on October 3. “Tonight about 8 we heard sirens, then a fire engine and an ambulance pulled up in front of Michelle’s house,” he wrote. “After 5 minutes or so they carried her out to the ambulance, which quietly drove away.”

Two days later, on October 5, 2012, photographer Michelle Vignes died, and the Bay Area photography world lost one of its shining stars.

Vignes came to San Francisco in the mid-1960s from France, where she had worked with legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. She photographed many of the seminal moments of the era: the Black Panthers, the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, rock bands at the Fillmore Auditorium, the final flourish of the Oakland blues clubs. She photographed female prisoners, Playboy bunnies and church ladies seized by the spirit.

“It’s a mystery, a photograph,” she told an interviewer. “It’s like having an orgasm in a way. When it’s right — the feeling of taking the right picture at the right time in the right composition — it’s a joy.”

A community memorial in celebration of her life will be held on Saturday, October 27, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

EARLIER: “Shooting from the inside

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