A new film by the Monterey Museum of Art pays tribute to the Peninsula's great photographers.
Thursday, February 7, 2002
Photo: Edward Weston, shown here in Ira Latour's 1950 portrait "Edward Weston, Carmel", figures prominently in The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy.
Of the many creative people who made the Monterey Peninsula their home, at least for a time, it is the photographers who have had the most far-reaching influence. Some of the writers became well-known, and a few of the painters'' reputations ranged beyond the Bay Area, but Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Brett Weston and many of their students defined a school of thought that has helped shaped not just photography but art in general.
The Monterey Museum of Art, in association with the University of California at Santa Cruz Extension-Art and Design, recently paid homage to these photographers in a 56-minute film titled The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy. Narrated by Jack Lemmon in one of his last projects before succumbing to cancer, the film explores how, elbow-to-elbow with painters and writers, these impassioned photographers produced great works while popular society remained oblivious to them.
Produced by Mary Green and Tracy Witherill, filmed by Steve Rosen and Terri DeBono, scripted by Steve Hauk and designed by former Monterey Museum art director Marc D'' Estout, the film is a local labor of love for the genius that sprouted up along these shores. This is actually the second effort from this team; five years ago they made the first film featuring regional artists, Time Captured in Painting: The Monterey Legacy, also narrated by Jack Lemmon.
According to script writer Hauk, "We wanted to move people. These people didn''t work in a vacuum; the creative fervor among so many was incredible when you think about it."
The film opens with footage of the sculptural rocks of the Peninsula and tracts of trees and hills as they roll toward the sea. Lemmon''s voice-over, thin, sometimes wavering, but earnest and articulate, introduces the viewer to the region and its photographic legacy. Edward Weston arrived in the ''20s after moving artistically from the affectations of pictorialism and geographically from Tropico (now Glendale, Los Angeles County). He aimed his camera at simple things--vegetables, kitchen utensils--or at the rugged shore so full of eroded forms and twisting, windblown plant life. He made pictures using sharp focus, the beginning of "straight photography."
Ansel Adams enters the story. Adams'' personality, detail-oriented and exhaustively enthusiastic, brought him to the fore of progressive photography in the mid-''30s. With Willard Van Dyke and Weston, he founded the "f64" group, and together they pursued the loose philosophy of straight photography; they closed their apertures to f64 to gain the greatest depth of field so that a picture''s myriad details, however far away, would be in sharp focus.
This was heady stuff for the time, and the film neatly captures the f64 group''s impact on the art world. In one segment, Frances Baer recounts how her husband, Morley Baer, first drew inspiration from Edward Weston and moved to the West Coast from Chicago. Wynn Bullock, too, is given time as an innovative thinker, a philosopher-scientist- photographer who brought to photography a metaphysical angle that was strangely compatible with the straight photographers. Students of these greats talk about the influence of their mentors. Al Weber, Henry Gilpin, Richard Garrod, John Sexton, Huntington Witherill all shed light on these "roots of California photography."
Simply put, what the film makers have done, through careful splicing of interviews, is bring to life these photographers and the time in which they lived.
"I am a great believer in interviews as a style of documentary film making," says Rosen, the film maker. "You have to have the people who lived it. When you do, you are that much closer to the essence of things."
And the essence of this film is deep respect. Viewing it is a learning experience for the uninitiated and a heartfelt reminder for those familiar with the Peninsula''s photographic legacy that one of the century''s most notable art movements began here, on these very rocky shores.
The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy is available at the Monterey Museum of Art gift shop, 559 Pacific, Monterey. 372-5477.