A historical view of California photos 

Photography was invented in 1837 and came into widespread use in the 1840s. California became a state in 1850. You could say they grew up together.

“The View From Here,” an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art running through June 27, outlines how the Golden State and some of America’s most famous (and most underappreciated) photographers influenced each other as they developed.

Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography, says, “I like to think of it is as this interesting symbiotic relationship. It’s because of photography that people learned about California from the beginning.”

Some 275 photos divided into nine eras illustrate how photography has been used for different purposes at different times: as propaganda to counteract the lawless reputation of the new, fast-growing city of San Francisco in the 1850s; reverent testaments to natural monuments by Ansel Adams and other Depression-era artists; experimental work from the 1960s; or to document scarred landscapes and suburban sprawl in the 1980s and ’90s.

The exhibit gives well-deserved credit to heavy hitters such as Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. Yet O’Toole says that while sifting through SFMOMA’s photo archive — notable for having among the largest collection of California photographs anywhere — she dug up some lesser-known artists, too.

“I was really surprised at how many fantastic photographers have come from California or have lived here, who’d never been shown, who people had never heard of,” she says.

One was Paul Hassel, a businessman from Chicago who taught at the San Francisco Art Institute without leaving much of a record. It turns out he’d been a student of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, among the most innovative photographers of the mid-20th century.

O’Toole says, “Hassel died in 1964, before the photography market picked up, and just slipped off the radar.”

But a few of his photos remain. One, “San Francisco,” blends a removed geometric formality with a lingering, near-voyeuristic gaze at human gestures.

It’s a rich summary of conflicting attitudes of the 1950s, gracefully and diplomatically packed into one image, and a prime example of what this exhibit reveals to visitors: precisely articulated individual viewpoints, filtered through the individual lenses of California’s photographic artists and through the historical contexts in which they worked.

The View From Here
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco
When: Show runs through June 27; 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, except until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; closed Wednesdays
Tickets: $15 general, $9 seniors and students; free for children under 12 and first Tuesday of each month
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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