Paradise found, lost, photographed

For good and for ill, photography has played a major part in making California seem real.

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"Everything worth photographing is in California," Edward Weston once said. His observation, however exaggerated, points up one of the distinguishing features of California photography: It began out of the need to depict a unique place.

From its beginnings to the dotcom boom of our day, California has seemed to offer people a chance to make more money and enjoy more freedom than they could back home, together with a chance to live in a natural paradise. The California Gold Rush of 1849 was the first major historical event to be fully documented by photographers; daguerreotypists as well as gold miners could hope to make rich new lives.

Sustaining the state's rapid economic development called for investors and ever-more new settlers. Both could be attracted by photographs. Individual Californians wanted pictures of themselves and their communities, not least for faraway relatives. For good and for ill -promoting both investment and conservation - photography has played a major part in making the place seem real, whether as America's Garden of Eden or, more recently, as a once-paradisaic landscape ruined by greed.

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This remarkable story is the subject of "Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography, 1850 to the Present," an exhibition organized by the Oakland Museum of California. Selected from the museum's own preeminent collection, it presents 200 works, most of which were originally intended as art. Others were done as unpretentious documentation, or even as snapshots.

The earliest panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley lent themselves to both high-mindedness and economic exploitation. In historical fact, such photographs were used to argue in favor of establishing our national park system, but dreams of pristine natural beauty have also led many an outlander to invest or settle in California. America's one-time Eden is now its most populous state, beset by electric-power shortages and environmental degradation, but still offering visions of breath-taking natural beauty.

As the years passed, photography changed to reflect new perceptions of the world. By the late-19th century, science and technology - which had given us the locomotive and the steel mill, as well as the camera - could no longer be seen as unqualified blessings. So-called pictorial photography, characterized by blurry focus and wistful moods, was a genteel protest against the realities of unchecked industrialism. In California, where checks on that trend were almost nonexistent, photography perhaps played a larger role than elsewhere. Such pictorialists as Arnold Genthe and Johan Hagemeyer contrived to photograph even crowded San Francisco as if little had changed since the Middle Ages.

The more optimistic 1920s brought a reaction against soft-focus genteelism. As with modern architecture's refusal to blur the underlying geometric shape of a building with ornament, such California photographers as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham celebrated nature by photographing it in sharp focus, as if its forms were eternal.

But the need to document history reasserted itself during the 1930s; Dorothea Lange's poor migrant workers became as classic an expression of life in California as Ansel Adams's mountains.

All of these photographers worked with the camera as a tool, a surrogate eye; photography was not a force in itself, to be investigated by photographers. Today's California, long established as a center of the film and television industries, can no longer ignore the effect of its own images. Much of the state's recent artistic photography explores the implications of picturemaking itself. Against that background, Lynn Hershman's woman in high heels, with a TV set for a head, is an almost quintessential expression of the idea that we all, to a greater or lesser extent, are forming ourselves out of other people's pictures.

"Capturing Light" is at The Oakland Museum of California through May 27. A national tour is planned, with venues to be announced.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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