Friends of Photography Moves Into San Francisco

Times Art Writer

The funky old Friends of Photography has gone uptown. The 22-year-old association has abandoned its homely digs at the Sunset Cultural Center in Carmel and moved into a smartly refurbished building in downtown San Francisco. Called the Ansel Adams Center, in honor of the organization's most prominent founder, the Friends' new home opened to the public Sunday.

Seen last week--while painters were still at work on the exterior and the building's sign had yet to be delivered--the center seemed to have a lot going for it:

The building is centrally located at 250 4th St., in the Yerba Buena/South of Market district--across the street from the Moscone Convention Center, two blocks from the site of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and within easy walking distance of Union Square.

The Friends' attractive but unpretentious new home looks as though it will work well without a crushing overhead. The center's annual operating budget is about $1.6 million, almost half of which comes from membership dues and sales.

The exhibition program looks promising and the Friends' high-quality publications will continue.

A loyal following of 10,000 members is likely to grow now that there is a proper showcase. All things considered, the Friends seem to have raised their profile with so much finesse, you wonder what took them so long.

Choosing a city, for one thing. The group looked at Los Angeles, Monterey and Carmel, executive director Ron Egherman said, but finally settled on San Francisco because the city allowed them to reach a larger audience while staying in touch with the Bay Area's strong tradition of photography and the Friends' Carmel support base. San Francisco is also the birthplace of Ansel Adams and his home for 60 years.

Raising money also took some time. Including a $250,000 gift from Eastman Kodak Co., the Friends raised $1.2 million during a capital campaign to pay for renovating the building. The finished 14,000-square-foot space, designed by the architectural firm of Robinson, Mills and Williams, consists of five exhibition galleries, a bookstore, a library and administrative offices.

Phase Two, yet to come, is to buy the building and fix up the basement for workshops and educational programs. Phase Three will renovate the second floor and possibly add a restaurant there, according to Ellen Manchester, director of development.

It has taken about five years to realize the first phase of the project, but now the program is under way. The first visitors to walk through the doors will see four exhibitions: a large contemporary show, called "Nature and Culture: Conflict and Reconciliation in Recent Photography"; "Legacy: Northern California's Photographic Heritage," a concise historical survey; "Tracings of Light: Sir John Herschel and the Camera Lucida," featuring landscape drawings made with an optical drawing aid, and selections from the center's collection of Adams' work.

The contemporary and historical mix of shows is typical of what the center will offer in a program of about 15 exhibitions a year. "We will represent photographic traditions along with works that don't even look like photographs. Diversity is the name of the game," Egherman said. The Ansel Adams Center will always have some of its namesake's work on view in one gallery, including the 125 works that Adams gave to the Friends and loans from other collections. The Friends have not collected photography in the past, but the new building has attracted offers of gifts and the policy may be reconsidered, Egherman said.

A more immediate task is to hire an exhibitions director to add to the staff of 14. The schedule of future exhibitions has been planned by administrators, leaving some "holes" for the new chief to fill, Manchester said. Meanwhile, the lack of a permanent coordinator has given opportunities to guest curators.

John Bloom, a San Francisco artist, photography historian and educator, has taken on the most ambitious task--"Nature and Culture," the contemporary show that fills the main gallery and a smaller one. He has chosen extraordinarily interesting material--about 80 pieces by 45 artists. Print by print, the works are so engrossing that they tend to obscure the fact that the exhibition is entirely too ambitious to be coherent.

As Bloom notes in an introduction on the checklist, "Nature and culture embrace the breadth of experience." He narrows that vast field to four themes: recorded effects of scientific culture upon nature; personal or culturally conditioned responses to nature in constructed subject matter; images, language and text as the character of culture; and the reconciliation of nature and culture through mythic or ritualistic forms.

Unfortunately, that scheme doesn't offer much help to the viewer trying to figure out what Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's maquette for a billboard (picturing a puzzled observer, an Indian dancer and a box of white corn meal) has to do with, say, Catherine Wagner's investigations of science classrooms or Eileen Cowin's photograph of a woman watching television in elegant isolation. One of those themes would have been more than enough; four produces confusion.

As the show settles into memory, the concept that rises to the surface is how culture encroaches upon nature. Human beings fill nature with radiation (Stuart Klipper's "Portents in the North: Radiation in Lapland"), burn it (Nic Nicosia's "Real Pictures" of kids idling watching the destruction of a tree), turn it into a commodity (Sultan's and Mandel's "White Corn Meal" billboard) or a specimen (Joel-Peter Witkin's weird stuffed rhinoceros).

A subtext that also emerges quite clearly is that some artists--notably Jo Ann Callis and John Divola--deal with the death of nature by recreating it in their studios, where branches stand in for whole trees and electrically generated breezes have the force of a gale.

"Nature and Culture"--it's fertile territory in need of further exploration and a good deal of cultivation.

Independent curator Debra Heimerdinger organized "Legacy," the historical overview of Northern Californians' contributions to photography. The survey runs from Carleton E. Watkins 1897 landscape, "Cape Horn, Columbia River," to Don Worth's recent, richly patterned still life blending a Matisse poster with a similarly painted background. The adventurous zeal of early explorers, the social conscience of Farm Security Administration photographers and the creativity of contemporary artists are represented in this compressed bit of history.

"Tracings of Light," a fascinating curiosity from the Graham Nash collection, is a historical footnote to the celebration of photography's 150th birthday. The pictures are not photographs but drawings done with a viewing device, called a camera lucida, used in the 19th Century by gentlemen travelers. The "camera's" lens allowed the viewer to see a scene and drawing paper at the same time and to produce meticulous renderings of nature.

Sir John Herschel, a colleague of William Henry Fox Talbot (one of the inventors of photography), did exactly that. Making grand tours of Europe in the best spirit of romanticism, he drew Roman aqueducts and ruins. At home, he recorded Stonehenge as well as English gardens and abbeys. The results are surprisingly lovely and varied in treatment--from spare outlines to lushly worked landscapes. Despite their precision, the drawings provide ample evidence of an artist at work, one who made conscious decisions about such matters as light, contrast and composition. Larry Schaaf and Graham Howe selected the Herschel works.

As for Adams' inaugural show, James and Mary Alinder did the honors. That's appropriate because he is the former director of the Friends and she worked for Adams for many years. The Alinders' choice of about 40 works is a fitting homage, including "Surf Sequences" from 1940 and classic shots of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and aspens.

The opening of the Ansel Adams Center is part of a bicoastal photography museum boom that's taking place this fall and winter. The International Center of Photography in New York opened a new gallery in midtown Manhattan on Friday. The California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside was expected to open this month in a renovated building in downtown Riverside, but the construction of an earthquake-retarding framework has postponed the event until around the first of the year.

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