ART REVIEW : ‘California’ Photos: Peaks, Valleys


A million pictures have been taken of every California cliche, many of them by some of the better photographers around. Beaches, mountains, national parks, palm trees and parched landscapes all have preoccupied the likes of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, William Garnett and Richard Misrach as much as they have obsessed just about every guy who has come here on vacation from Iowa with his handy Brownie, Instamatic or, today, Minolta.

But though the artistic side of Weston’s or Adams’ pictures certainly makes the images more interesting than Joe Iowa’s snapshots, even the best such landscape photographs have become devastatingly timeworn by now. A whole show of these is just boring.

Which is the problem with “Picturing California: A Century of Photographic Genius,” a survey of 99 California landscape photographs made between 1851 and 1987.

For the most part, the prints in this show at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego’s Balboa Park were culled from the permanent collection of the Oakland Museum, though a small selection was added by the Museum of Photographic Arts.


Fitting the subject, some classic photos by the masters of the subject are included. Works by Carleton E. Watkins and Edward C. Curtis, for example, are highlights of the historical prints; Weston’s and Adams’ pictures stand out among the classic near-abstract close-ups. But for each of these major works, a handful of near-remakes by followers are included--enough to make one view of the ocean indistinguishable from another, and to make the cliffs begin to blur with the sand dunes.

Surrounded by such pictures, the oddball image with a portrait or two becomes much more exciting than it might otherwise seem. Happily, the definition of landscape photography is somewhat broad here, and a number of offbeat prints spice up the mix.

A fairly strange, though not outstanding, picture by Diane Arbus called “Bishop by the Sea, Los Angeles,” from 1964, looks pretty exciting in this context, for example. Its subject is a female bishop with a crazed look on her face; clothed in a long, flowered gown she holds her decorative cross aloft, a sharp contrast with the placid sea behind her and the equally placid pictures surrounding.

Despite the theme of the show, people make these images work: Anne Brigman’s striking, misty image of a nude woman sitting in a tree, her body like an extension of the wiry branches, for example, enlivens the photographer’s romance with nature. Likewise, Robert Frank’s “San Francisco,” 1956/1977, which shows a view of the city from a hillside park, finds its spark in a hostile couple portrayed in its foreground. Their bodies facing away from the photographer, the man and woman look back at him with genuine annoyance, clearly upset by the intrusion into their time together.


Such pictures portray an intimacy of exchange between photographer and subject, and an honesty of feeling that seems mostly lacking here, where all character and individuality have been shunned in favor of pristine clarity.

It’s not that the masterpieces of California are any less important than they once were, but this kind of show has diffused their power.

The power of overkill is brought home most strongly, perhaps, by one of the funniest pictures in this extensive exhibition. In his “Yosemite National Park,” done in 1980, Roger Minick stood at the edge of one of the most scenic views of that popular tourist attraction. Just in front of him--placed front and center in his otherwise trademark California landscape--he included a rear view of a woman wearing a standard tourist’s scarf purchased from a Yosemite gift shop. On the scarf, we see the falls. And there they are in the distance, too, a parallel between fact and fiction, romance and, well, romance-overdone. In a paradoxical twist, it is the gaudy images on the scarf that are compelling, not the “real” thing beyond.

Minick’s clever comment on just how canned some pictures of California have become is a perfect antidote to “Picturing California,” and a sad comment on this sort of survey.


“Picturing California: A Century of Photographic Genius” continues at the Museum of Photographic Arts through Feb. 9. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 9 p.m. Closed New Year’s Day. (619) 239-5262.