The Past and Present
San Francisco/Joan Murray
The Mother Lode: Then and Now is the subject of the current show at the Focus Gallery. It contains contemporary images by Bay Area photographers George and Jo Ann Aiello and a varied selection of nineteenth century photographs, most of which are copies of prints from the Bancroft Library at the University of California, the California Historical Society, the California State Library in Sacramento and the California Society of Pioneers. These photographs are augmented by a selection of daguerreotypes lent by the Oakland Museum, the California Historical Society and private collectors Dr. Robert Shimshak and this writer.
While the initial Gold Rush in California lasted only a few years, the romanticized story of the era is a beloved part of California history. George and Jo Ann Aiello have made a project of photographing the historical sites and fast-disappearing remnants of pioneer culture to record the sense of the place and the life which was once there.
I must admit that I approached the show with some trepidation. Recorders of the historic areas of California are numerous, and their work is generally a fulfillment of the Camera Club Ideal! I was, however, instantly won over to the work of the Aiellos. Throughout their body of work is a concern for mood. There is such a displacement of time that one does not think if their imagery as contemporary. Their studies of interiors are particularly forceful. In a gentle, low light situation, there is no sense of recording today. Instead we are allowed to move back in time, to sense what it may have been like to enter the Bayley House in 1850, to wonder whom we would have met at the top of the pictured stairway.
Robert Bartlett Haas, former director of arts and humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote as an introduction to the prospectus for the Aiello's project that "The area itself has been called 'more appealing than fiction; more romantic than history'. Once the scene of the brawling camps for the great mines, it retains today, 130 years later, the nostalgic traces of those extraordinary times and a sense of history, the reality of which is about to slip away from us."
"The Aiellos are valiant and sensitive recorders of 'The Land of Glittering Dreams'. Their images encompass its regional landscapes, the architecture which pioneers brought to it, the interiors in which they came to live and the tender evidences of the daily life of times past."
The copies of the photographs from the period are somewhat disappointing. A reproduction of a Carleton E. Watkins print cannot compare with the original, or even more, the photographs of early California daguerreotypes from the Zelda Mackay collection at the Bancroft Library only excite us to want to see the original. However, many of the prints have not been shown before in any form (the Mackay daguerreotype collection is only displayed at the Bancroft in copy prints!), so one must be grateful to Helen Johnston, owner of the Focus Gallery, for making some of the imagery available at all. Johnston has enlivened this section of the show with portions of letters that reflect widely varied aspects of life in the Mother Lode. One letter reflects the great loneliness: "Dear Weltha, I what you to write every Steamer, for I am so lonesome...." Another reveals the attitude toward a citizen of the area: "There is little news unless you want to know that Madame Hunter, the notorious proprietress of the Robbers Den on Dutch Ravine in Placer, closed her worse than useless career recently. The coffin was six and a half feet long, three and a third wide and over two feet high....," from Talman H. Rolfe to Samuel Rolfe, July 8, 1857.
The daguerreotypes of the period are fascinating to me, as anyone who reads my articles is well aware. In their silvered surface they hold the great sense of having been there, the scene was right there, the same silvered plate was there. The scene was transferred by light to the surface of the daguerreotype, and has remained there for all these years. Surely in that transmittal of real to silvered surface, some remnant of the spirit of scene and person may still exist?
Dr. Robert Shimshak has on exhibit two half-plate daguerreotypes, one of a mining camp in Amador County, the other of one of the miners at the camp, Dennis A. Phelan. A whole-plate daguerreotype from the California Historical Society shows a group of nine miners with shovels, tools and sacks of gold posing for a group photograph. The Murray group of images includes a horse drawn express wagon, four "western types" apparently reading a map together, a group of three gamblers and a study of James D. Parker, a miner who posed for his daguerreotype by one of the R.H. Vance Galleries' daguerreotypists, undoubtedly one who traveled to the mining areas with his photographic equipment in a horse drawn studio.
The entire exhibition is really a statement of how this portion of California's history has been seen and recorded since the camera came to California with the gold miners. What we know of the period, other than artifacts and written description, is here in the gallery to be experienced. It is an interesting concept for a show, bringing out of public and private collections largely unseen images to be exhibited with a body of contemporary work about the same era and places.
It's a thoroughly enjoyable show.
Copyright 1979 Artweek Volume 10, Number 15, April 14, 1979
Copyright 1997 - 2012 Jo Ann and George Aiello. All Rights Reserved.