Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography, 1850–2000

California and photography have been linked from the beginning. The state burst onto the national consciousness just as photography became commonplace, and the two have always enjoyed a unique relationship. Much of what we think of as great American photography is, in fact, Californian. Open any survey of world photography and the names leap out: Carleton Watkins, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham. What is it about the region that saw the rise of such a remarkable group of artists over such a long period of time? Is there a common thread among these names, aside from the obvious trait of working within the state’s borders? In short, what makes California photography Californian?

The phrase “California photography” immediately calls upon visions of Yosemite and Point Lobos. But other parts of the world boast spectacular landscapes. Perhaps the commonality lies more in the nature of the California mind, and in a sense of California as a place of fantasy, a place with a spirit of adventure and an unusual willingness to bend artistic canons.

It now seems appropriate, given the way we think of California, that photography should arrive in the region during the frantic days of 1849. Gold Rush California was a notoriously-peculiar place, free from traditional social restraints, a multicultural jumble where ordinary moral standards were more or less ignored. Daguerrotypes from this period are nearly stereotyped in their determination to depict the region as a wild and fabled place populated by frontiersmen.