Sonya Noskowiak: A Groundbreaking but Forgotten Photographer

April 6, 2015

 Sonya Noskowiak,  California Landscape  (detail), 1937. (Courtesy Weston Gallery, Carmel)

Sonya Noskowiak, California Landscape (detail), 1937. (Courtesy Weston Gallery, Carmel)

When Sonya Noskowiak first expressed interest in photography, her boss, photographer Johan Hagemeyer, wrote in his diary this dream was a joke. But Noskowiak would later become a central figure in one of the great art movements of the century. Unfortunately, little is known today about the artist — most written about her relates to her relationships with men like Hagemeyer and, more prominently, photographer Edward Weston, whom she dated for several years. We are lucky, however, that hundreds of Noskowiak’s prints still exist, many of which are housed at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. With this archive, it is possible to construct a robust, if incomplete, picture of Noskowiak’s life and art.

Noskowiak was born on November 25, 1900, in Leipzig, Germany to Polish parents. She spent most of her youth in Chile, with time spent in Panama, before her family moved to the United States when she was about fifteen She bought her first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when she was sixteen years old. At age nineteen, Noskowiak moved from Sacramento to San Francisco and enrolled in secretarial school. When she was twenty-five, Noskowiak began working as an assistant in Hagemeyer’s summer studio in Carmel, one hundred miles down the misty California coast. Her interest in photography blossomed during this time.

In 1929, Noskowiak met Weston in Carmel. They began dating almost immediately – soon she was his studio assistant and occasional model. Weston first taught her to spot photos, the process of touching up minor flaws in prints. He gave Noskowiak her first professional camera, but provided no film. For several months, Noskowiak worked alongside Weston, pretending to photograph while he taught her the mechanics of photography. In a February 1930 entry from Weston’s diary he mentions three of Noskowiak’s first negatives: the hands of Weston’s son Neil, the back of a chair and a halved red cabbage. He loved the work.

Weston himself had photographed produce for a few years, but the idea of altering the subject — such as slicing it open — was novel and intriguing. That year he created several works inspired by Noskowiak’s early negative, including Red Cabbage Halved, Red Cabbage Quartered, Kale Halved, Artichoke Halved and Onion Halved. Though emphasis is often placed on Weston’s influence on Noskowiak, Weston respected Noskowiak as an artist, and her influence on him, at least in this instance, is evident.

Group f.64

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, fine art photography was defined by pictorialism, a style that enjoyed aesthetic merit but was fundamentally self-conscious. In response to claims that photography was not an art form, but rather scientific documentation, pictorialists aimed to replicate the styles and principles of established fine arts. Pictorialist photographs are dreamlike and vaporous; some are difficult to distinguish from paintings or engravings. New York–based photographer and promoter Alfred Stieglitz was the grand poobah of pictorialism, and both Hagemeyer and Weston were once among his many acolytes. In the mid-1920s, Weston and others began to turn against both pictorialism and Stieglitz.

Many Californian photographers suffered from feelings of provincialism; a concern that grew with the advent of “straight photography” on the West Coast. Eschewing the romanticism of pictorialism, proponents of straight photography embraced the medium itself, including its limitations, and hoped to show subjects “as they were.”1

A party on October 15, 1932, at 683 Brockhurst Street in Oakland, proved to be a pivotal moment for the burgeoning art movement. Photographers Willard Van Dyke and Mary Jeannette Edwards rented the building from Anne Brigman, a former pictorialist, and used it as a studio and gallery. In addition to Van Dyke and Edwards, Noskowiak, Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Mary Jeannette’s father John Paul Edwards, and Preston Holder attended the party.2

As the night wore on, the photographers shared recent prints and discussed the struggles of Western photographers: their search for independence and recognition. With Van Dyke and Adams leading the charge, the partygoers founded Group f.64, dedicated to sharp-focused and detailed photography. The name refers to the smallest aperture available on large format cameras; the use of which creates crisp, highly-focused images. The group’s original members included the photographers at the party, minus Mary Jeannette and Holder, plus Henry Swift, a student of Weston’s.

The group secured an exhibition at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, but they were given less than a month to prepare for the opening. In addition to the group’s core members, Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, and Edward’s son Brett Weston were invited to show their work. Hagemeyer declined an invitation to participate. The exhibition opened on November 15, 1932 and only ran through the end of the year, but it made a lasting impact on photography.

The show included 80 works from eleven artists. With the exception of Weston, who had established prices to uphold, the artists sold prints for $10 each (equivalent to $170 today). Noskowiak displayed nine works, including Cactus, Calla Lily, Hands, Kelp, Leaf, Palm Blossom, Water Lily Leaves, and two pieces titled Sand Pattern. Because much of Noskowiak’s work is not definitively dated, this list gives some insight into the nature of her early work. The selection is almost entirely devoted to close-up botanical photographs. Landscapes and portraits, which would later become defining elements of Noskowiak’s practice, were absent from this inaugural show.

A 1930 photograph titled Kelp, possibly the one from the de Young exhibition, focuses on the base of a kelp plant. The roots resemble bubbling metallic worm-like forms. The wrinkly texture of the kelp’s surface is clearly visible. Kelp is an intimate study of an object not readily identifiable save for its title, a characteristic of many works of straight photography.

Another photograph, Calla Lily (1932), also possibly shown at the de Young, demonstrates Noskowiak’s thoughtful treatment of light. The flower’s milky white spathe is set against a vacuous black background. The flower appears as if floating, but the light falls on the veins of the leaves, grounding the luminous spathe.

A work titled Sand Pattern (1932) looks like aerial photographs of the Sahara or a satellite image of some uncharted Martian desert. Tentacles of sand stretch out in all directions as if they’re grasping for a nearby oasis. The sand resembles the aluminum powder found in an Etch A Sketch, almost shimmering. In actuality, the patterns might cover an area no larger than a footprint, possibly on a Carmel beach.

In her recent book Group f.64, Mary Street Alinder, a scholar and former assistant to Adams, concludes that the de Young show was considered unimportant by the news media. More press was given at the time to the de Young’s concurrent Horse Show, which included paintings by Édouard Manet, bronze horses from Persia and vases from Greece. Group f.64’s exhibition was nonetheless reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, The Argonaut, the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, Camera Craft and The Wasp News-Letter. These reviews ranged from negative to tempered to positive. Writing for The Argonaut, Junius Cravens called out Noskowiak’s Palm Blossom as among the stronger works in the show. In his unforgiving review in Camera Craft, Sigismund Blumann remarked, “Perhaps a generation or two of nothing else and a latter-day Soviet training will inure us to this novelty.”

Early Success

In the summer of 1933, Noskowiak, Weston and Van Dyke traveled to New Mexico to shoot the scenery. At least two of her photographs can be attributed to this trip. In both, Noskowiak pulls a bit away from her subjects and, if not landscapes, creates something approaching landscapes. Cottonwood Tree – Taos, New Mexico pictures a bare cottonwood tree cropped close, but not nearly as intimate as Kelp and other early works.

Ovens, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico (1933) is an even starker change from Noskowiak’s previous work. Of her dated photographs, this is among the earliest to focus on human material culture. Shot at the ancient Taos Pueblo, three adobe horno ovens foreground the image. Noskowiak may have struggled with the awkward and alternating natural light on the adobe house in the background, but she would eventually master the angles and planes of architectural structures.

The photographic results of the trip impressed Van Dyke and Adams enough to declare Noskowiak one of the nation’s top female photographers. Later that summer, she was given her first solo show at Denny-Watrous Gallery in Carmel. The exhibition included a series of landscapes from New Mexico.

In November, Noskowiak held another solo exhibition at 683 Brockhurst. Between 1933 and 1940, she participated in a number of Group f.64 exhibitions, including shows at the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego, Fresno State College, Mills College Art Gallery, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Seattle Fine Arts Museum and the Golden Gate International Exposition.

Group f.64 Dissolves

Noskowiak and Weston broke up in 1935. Group f.64 disbanded by the end of the same year. Writing from and about this time in Noskowiak’s career grows increasingly scarce, but exciting work followed and her practice continued to develop. That same year Noskowiak moved to San Francisco and opened a portrait studio on Union Street. In 1936, she was among eight photographers hired by the New Deal–era Federal Art Project to document California during the Great Depression.

This appointment coincided with, and possibly heightened, Noskowiak’s interest in landscape photography. One remarkable photograph from this body of work is an undated and untitled image of the Mendocino coast. The Pacific Ocean is seen in the background as waves crash on the shore. The weather appears calm and the sky is clear. A patch of burned forest greets viewers on a placid day. Closest to the viewer is a skinny trunk, burned almost to disintegration. The image benefits from a wider angle than Cottonwood Tree, juxtaposing the majesty of the Mendocino coast with the grim aftermath of fire. The lighting, while not as dramatic as Calla Lily, gives gravity to the scene.

Another untitled image looks out on the San Francisco Bay as thick clouds fill the sky. Several piers along San Francisco’s Embarcadero jut into the Bay, calmer than the waters outside Mendocino. Yerba Buena Island, Treasure Island and the East Bay are in the distance. The newly-built Bay Bridge briefly enters the frame before disappearing into Yerba Buena Island. Improving on her earlier work, Noskowiak demonstrates a deft handling of lighting and architectural elements.

Commercial Waork

Like most photographers of her time, Noskowiak engaged in commercial work and commissions to make a living. She was a prolific portrait photographer, an art she learned in Carmel. Alongside family members, friends and wealthy individuals whose stations in life are lost to time, Noskowiak photographed many prominent figures of the day. Her subjects included painter Jean Charlot, dancer Martha Graham, composer Edgard Varèse, teenage violinist Isaac Stern, and writers Langston Hughes and John Steinbeck. Her most well-known portraits are two of Steinbeck, among the few taken of the author in the ’30s before the bestseller The Grapes of Wrath won him the Pulitzer Prize. These portraits are still widely used, often without acknowledging the photographer.

It is believed Noskowiak ceased making fine art work in the mid-1940s, but she continued working in commercial photography through the early 1960s. She created images for manufacturers of lamps and stoves, as well as for architects. Much of this work is beautiful, technical and creative. One noteworthy photograph depicts a woman standing on a staircase landing, looking through a glass block wall. The photo is not Noskowiak’s typical subject matter — the minimal, orderly image resembles editorial work — but the artist’s touch is present. Black and white clash together in the service of an enchanting image. The woman wears a long black dress that drapes to the floor. Light glares through the glass wall, calling attention to the subject’s jaw line, the muscles in her arm and the folds in her blouse and dress. The architectural elements fold into one another, framing her figure.

Noskowiak’s Legacy

In 1965, Noskowiak was diagnosed with bone cancer. She no longer practiced photography, but she lived another ten years until passing on April 28, 1975, in Greenbrae, California. It is difficult to determine exactly what Noskowiak’s influence on photography has been. Group f.64 profoundly shaped photography in the twentieth century, pulling it away from a reliance on other art forms.

During her time with Group f.64, Noskowiak was in close contact with her contemporaries and her work was well regarded. In exhibitions, her photographs likely influenced colleagues along with aspiring photographers. Yet when Noskowiak and Weston separated, her photography was no longer discussed, even though some of her strongest work was created during that time. Richard Gadd, director of Weston Gallery in Carmel, nonetheless believes that, as an independent female photographer in the 1930s, she was influential in helping forge a path for younger photographers.

According to Gadd, Noskowiak didn’t make more than a handful of prints from a single negative because there weren’t enough sales to justify it. There are a half-dozen or fewer prints of any given image, he estimates; many are held in private collections. Because of this scarcity, Noskowiak’s work infrequently shows up in exhibitions or at auction.

In recent years, however, Noskowiak’s work has been included in group shows at Weston Gallery, Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco, the Monterey Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. In 2011, Noskowiak and Brett Weston shared a two-person exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum. Eight of Noskowiak’s works are currently on view at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania, alongside Cunningham and other female photographers. The exhibition, Weston’s Women, appears to consider the accomplished artists primarily as they relate to Edward Weston.

It’s not necessary to view large museum exhibitions or establish a lineage from prominent photographers to Noskowiak in order to appreciate her work. Noskowiak’s photographs offer access to the career of a talented artist and craftsperson and a fascinating glimpse at a transformative time in art and American history.

Notes

  1. It’s believed the term “straight photography” was coined by Japanese-German poet Sadakichi Hartmann in “A Plea for Straight Photography,” a 1904 review in American Amateur Photographer of an exhibition of pictorialist photographers (including Stieglitz) called Photo-Secession.
  2. The exact date of the party comes from Mary Street Alinder, who in 2014 published the most comprehensive book on Group f.64 to date, Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography. Alinder believes Cunningham’s husband Roi Partridge and Adams’ wife Virginia Adams were also in attendance.