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The Way We Looked 

Photographs that invite us to rediscover the city we inhabit

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
Every Bay Area resident I have ever met who has lived here for more than a couple of decades likes to talk about the old San Francisco, pining after it as some urban Eden. Gallery owner Scott Nichols is no exception. Arriving here from the solarized climes of Palos Verdes in a VW camper one foggy day in 1974, he parked by Muir Beach Overlook and wondered why anyone would live in a place so wet and rainy. But when the weather cleared, he began to see why. And his current photography show, "Views of San Francisco From the 1860s to the Present," featuring works by such artists as Ruth Bernhard, Carleton Watkins, Willard O. Worden, Ansel Adams, and Peter Stackpole, is a valentine of changing cityscapes, full of nostalgia and epiphanies.

And for recent East Coast transplants like myself, these images do something more. Like a well-crafted documentary, they dramatically portray the historical and natural forces that have transformed the city's shape and character: the Gold Rush, the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Depression, and the post­World War II economic boom. Artistically, Nichols' selection is no less compelling: The show reveals the diverse and influential strands of West Coast photography as it has developed from the Civil War to the present. Among the nearly 50 pieces are works by early pictorialists, social documentarians, and the influential Group f. 64 school, including Edward and Brett Weston, as well as examples of more contemporary trends.

At 97, Ruth Bernhard is a revered artist best known for her still-life photography and images of naked female torsos. Ansel Adams once called her "the greatest photographer of the nude." She joined the San Francisco Photographer's Roundtable shortly after moving to the city in the early 1950s; at the suggestion of social documentarian Dorothea Lange, the group was invited to contribute to a show centered on the theme "San Francisco Weekend." As Bernhard recalls in Margaretta Mitchell's study of her, Between Art and Life, "I never go out with my camera and wonder what I am going to photograph. ... But when Dorothea Lange said we had to, I did." And in Children Reading Comic Books, Chinatown, she captured a remarkable street scene of kids in a doorway as they enter, with rapt expressions and intensity, the imaginary worlds of their storyboarded texts. A departure from her studio work, this excursion into urban life yielded a cinéma vérité­like spontaneity evident in another group of her 1956 photos, this one involving tram scenes.

Cable Car, San Francisco, which, like the Chinatown photo, has never before been exhibited, portrays an urban comedy of manners: Two prim San Francisco women, one with elegant white gloves and a pillbox hat, the other nervously closing her purse, stare with disapproval and apprehension at a young blond-haired child bathed in sunlight as she runs onto the porch of a cable car perched atop one of the city's steeper hills. Beside her, a lanky conductor with his belted coin changer stares indifferently past the women. The photo is a compositional masterpiece, with its sharp focus, high contrasts, and cannily observed body language and expressions.

Bernhard's portrait Melvin Van Peebles, Cable Car Gripman is no less eloquent. Bernhard shows the handsome, statuesque figure in his mid-20s, intently focused and impeccably uniformed with a leather jacket, gloves, French collar, tie, and medallioned motorman's cap. As Van Peebles wrote about the photo in The Big Heart, a book that marked his publishing debut, "Finally one day you're on your own and you're as proud as the captain of a new luxury liner." (The multitalented Van Peebles would go on to be a street performer in Paris, a crime reporter, an author of five novels, a screenwriter, a Broadway musical composer, and one of the first African-Americans to be courted by Hollywood to direct a feature for a major studio. The film was Watermelon Man, a 1970 cult classic satirizing race relations in America.)

The exhibit also represents the varied trends of West Coast photography. Among its historical photos, Willard O. Worden's Grant Street, Chinatown (1900) exemplifies the pictorialist tradition popular in the early decades of the 20th century. While art historians like to underscore the impact of photography on the impressionists, this photo, with its urban nightscape of luminous porches lit by paper lanterns, shows a converse interest among early-century photographers in painterly atmospherics: The scene's moody luminosity reveals the influence of Turner, Ryder, and the 19th-century British watercolorists who favored moonlit seascapes and exotic, nocturnal scenery. In a no less romantic vein, the hand-colored, anonymous Golden Gate (1900) depicts sunset over the expansive waters between the Headlands and what is now the Presidio, a dreamy reminder of how the Golden Gate appeared before a bridge spanned it.

Two 1870 albumen prints by the remarkable Carleton Watkins (View Towards Alcatraz and View Towards Telegraph Hill) are part of a 10-part series of panoramic views documenting the bay and the city. Watkins arrived in San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush, when photography was in its infancy, and his panoramic vistas of the west, aimed primarily at Europeans and East Coasters, were prized for their immediacy, rich detail, and visceral effect. His vision captured a then-exotic, untamed west and had a social and political impact as well: His majestic photographs of Yosemite helped turn it into a national park. No less important was his documentation of hydraulic mining in the Sierras and the radical erosion and mudslides caused by this environmentally devastating technique of extracting gold.

Watkins' ability to entice viewers into a scene is evident in his 1866 print The Cliff House and Ocean Beach. In it, his signature compositional techniques -- including deep-space perspective (highlighted by the thin cable extending out to the lighthouse) and subtle detail (the horse-drawn cart on the beach) -- lend a sophisticated, modernist aura to his work.

The George R. Lawrence Co.'s toned photogravure From Captive Airship Over Folsom Between 5th and 6th shows a San Francisco in ruins after the great earthquake and fire had leveled much of the downtown area. Captured from a blimp on May 5, 1906, only 10 days after the cataclysm, the city resembles Hiroshima after the atomic bomb destroyed it. It is an apocalyptic scene, a reminder of the fragile terrain we inhabit. Artistically, this bird's-eye view -- with its panoptic and bubble-shaped imaging -- gives a surreal edge to the devastation below.

Peter Stackpole's Bay Bridge Construction provides a fine example of the Group f. 64 school (the name refers to one of the smallest available apertures on a large-format camera) that revolutionized photography in the 1930s. Their use of sharp focus, high contrast, and tonal gradations in carefully crafted black-and-white contact prints marked a radical break from the established school of West Coast pictorialists. Their work brought a modern, abstract look to photography.

Stackpole, who established himself in his early 20s with a series of photos documenting the raising of the Bay Bridge, was soon hired as one of Life magazine's first staff photographers. In this image, he presents a dramatic view of the city's waterfront as seen through a cable saddle in one of the then-unfinished Bay Bridge towers. High above the city, the saddle suggests the hump of a roller coaster ride and resembles the top of a playground slide. This precarious perch fills most of the frame of the composition, so the viewer looks down on the waterfront; there, one of the unfinished bridge's truss-shaped towers sits on a barge, waiting to be moved as the next span of the bridge is completed and connected by suspension cable to the saddle. Stackpole uses this dizzying aerial perspective to great effect. Between the saddle and the water below, there is only a strand of rope to cordon off the void and keep the viewer from visually falling into the picture.

At the opening, Nichols, who spent seven years collecting photographs for this exhibit, recalled how the city first looked to him, pointing to the show's last work, a black-and-white image, smaller than a postcard, of a couple leaning against the hood of a Chevrolet Bel Air sedan. In this anonymous gelatin print (Golden Gate Bridge, 1956), the amorous pair look out from a Fort Mason pier toward the great span suspended in shrouds of mist. Their car is one of those bulky, chrome-fendered, galvanized-steel wonders from the early 1950s that everyone likes to photograph in Havana. Yet here the classic auto has all the elegance of a riverboat at rest in a Zen monochrome landscape. As in some antique Oriental fan painting, the artist has rendered infinite space in miniature. The picture is all the more striking because we are used to expansive images of this familiar San Francisco scene, perhaps the city's most photographed space, captured with wide-angle lenses, aerial perspectives, and whatever else works to inspire Pacific vertigo.

Avoiding such visual gimmickry, this modest image, with its diminished scale and retro atmosphere, makes the scene new again, inviting the viewer, perhaps like the couple, to see this Golden Gate vista as if for the first time. The print is one of many gems in this remarkable show whose bay views, historical photos, and street-life portraits invite us to rediscover the city we inhabit. It is no Eden, but the landscape around us can look like a close facsimile.

About The Author

Carl Nagin


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