The acceptance of photography as a legitimate medium for fine art was a highly controversial issue in the early part of the 20th century. The ease of taking a photo, the commonplace subject matter and the attempts to "copy" paintings were all off-putting detractions for artists of more traditional disciplines, and for audiences of that time. Many of the photographers that we now revere as artists (Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange, Lewis W. Hine) fought the good fight by refining their craft and demonstrating that photography could achieve a level of expressive power equal to any other media.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a central premise of all the fine arts, including poetry, is not just to equal but to transcend words. A work of art is a masterpiece in any media if it has the power to engage us quickly, then hold our emotional regard forever.
It may come as a surprise that one of the great photography collections in the United States, which chronicles the ascendance of the medium to a fine art, originally had its home here in Humboldt. A small portion of it is on display right now at the Morris Graves Museum. My own introduction to the Humboldt Group Collection happened when I stumbled upon its show of Edward Weston photographs at the Graves in 2008. I immediately assumed it was a traveling exhibit from San Francisco or New York. It was not.
Dave Swisher, curator of the collection, filled me in with a bit of history: "Patrick O'Dell, whose father was the editor of the Humboldt Beacon newspaper, became very successful in his own right by publishing one of the first satellite TV guides in the 1980s. This allowed him to pursue his interest in collecting fine art photography as well as other art forms such as original Audubon prints. Over the past 30 years the collection has grown to several thousand photos from Atget to Mapplethorpe."
"The Iconic Image," the show from the Humboldt Group Collection currently at the Graves, consists of 21 of Dave's personal favorites. It includes truly iconic photos by all of the photographers listed in the first paragraph -- a 1940 Yosemite print, "Monolith," by Ansel Adams alone is worth a visit. The original prints of images like Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," Edward Weston's "Pepper #30" and Brett Weston's "Canal, Holland" are simply stunning. See them soon. The show is only up until March 6, the day after Arts Alive!
Other prints from the Humboldt Group, by the contemporary photographer Michael Kenna, are on view until March 10 at Swanlund's Camera, 527 F Street. The shop's owner, Joaquin Freixas, extends a warm invitation to visit the F Street Foto Gallery on the mezzanine any time during regular store hours.
Also at the Morris Graves Museum is the 25th Annual Images of Water Photography Competition, juried by Nicole Jean Hill. This show shines with examples by some of the best photographers in the area. Congratulations to 1st 2nd and 3rd place winners Scott Burgess, Johanna Mauro and Meredith Aldrich, and to Todd Vorenkamp for Best of Show. My own faves: William Pierson, Marie Raphael and Hal Work. The exhibition runs through March 13.
That great little coffeehouse, World Cup (1626 F St. in Eureka), is showing photos by Paul Krakow who meticulously fabricates intimate maquettes of local scenes for his hand-tinted photos.
Also included in the show is a very special photo by Robert Daugherty. The Daugherty Violin Shop is right next door. Robert and his son Geoff, masters of the repair and restoration of stringed instruments, share a lifelong love of music and playing jazz bass. Robert carried his camera with him to many of his gigs with top musicians in New York during the 1960s and has a treasure trove of performance portraits that he has recently begun to subject to the magic of Adobe Photoshop.
"I've had this one photo on my mind for 40 years but with wet darkroom processes it was impossible to bring out the details without completely destroying the blacks or over-shooting the whites," said Robert. "But with digitizing, I've been able to pull it all together and realize an amazing moment that happened at the TV studios of WNET (New York) in 1970." The shot is of the talented jazz band leader and arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi, seen across her grand piano. Perfectly framed in the background, on an adjacent TV studio set, is Allen Ginsberg having his portrait painted by Elaine de Kooning! Let's hope for a major show of some of Daugherty's other greats: Carmen McRae, Sonny Rollins, Roland Hanna and more.
And on the BEAT:
Piante Gallery welcomes the Los Angeles mixed-media artist David Leher.
The Ink People's annual Element Show is "Fire" at the Adorni Center. Its reception runs 6-9 p.m. on Arts Alive! night.
First Street Gallery deserves a (re)visit to see what Lush Newton and David White have been up to in "The Back Room," and for David Olivant's highly accomplished mixed media works up front.
Online: Check out the websites of The Redwood Camera Club and Eureka Photoshop Users Group (EPUG) to keep up with the latest on photo happenings and resources in our area. Remember that northcoastjournal.com will have links to the websites of most of the people and organizations mentioned in this column, along with an extended gallery from the Humboldt Group Collection show. It's also a place where I want to encourage readers to post comments. The art scene in our area is energetic enough to warrant a lot more coverage. One way to make that happen is to post your own take on a current exhibit to inform me and other readers.
Lets keep "arts alive!" all month long!
OK. I think we're over a thousand words.