August 6, 2013
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I took some of my students on a field trip to the de Young Museum this past week with the express aim of viewing the Rose Mandel exhibition of photographs that is up until October 13, 2013. I had never seen any of Mandel’s work before viewing the show and frankly, had never heard her name come up in either the broader history of photography or discussions about the local San Francisco Bay area artistic milieu. I was delighted however to get to see this collection of images for the first time and learn more about Mandel’s life and work (1910-2002). This survey of the photographer’s oeuvre was in conjunction with the Richard Diebenkorn exhibit also on display, and while most of us are readily familiar with the painter’s imagery, his friend and colleague Mandel was much less widely known to the larger Bay Area audience.
It may be that Rose Mandel’s name has slipped into some obscurity, which makes the de Young’s retrospective of her work all the more valuable some 60 years after her first exhibition there, but the artist was firmly rooted in the high Modernist photographic tradition. As an émigré from war-torn Poland, Mandel was forced to give up her practice as a child psychologist and start anew upon being naturalized in San Francisco in the late 1940’s (after several years of residence in the U.S. previous to that date.) The lingering impact of her homeland’s state of devastation and emotional resonance is visible in her work, even though at first many of the pictures seem to be mere formal abstractions. As a pupil of Ansel Adams, Mandel was able to adapt her printing and large format capture technique to that of her teacher, but rather than simply mimicking Adams’ dramatic landscape iconography, Mandel instead chose to merge these aspects of her craft with a more probing and psychologically intimate vision of everyday life. The great majority of the pictures in the exhibition are contact prints (primarily 4 x 5″) and the small scale and beautiful textures of the non-enlarged negatives creates an experience for the viewer that goes beyond pure, F.64 straight photographic principles. Her use of extreme soft focus surrounding a point of clarity as well as her concentration on reflections as subjects establishes a link between her work and that of the Surrealists as well as other artists who provoke us to go beyond mere visual recognition of objects, but instead to exercise more mental acuity in its deciphering.
Besides a strong presentation of the photographs (one wall of roughly 40-50 images contained the small 4 x 5″ contacts framed and arranged in a typological format) there was also the inclusion of some of Mandel’s personal documents and other written correspondences. Of particular note were the response she received on Museum of Modern Art letterhead from John Szarkowski (that institution’s renowned photography curator) regarding his enthusiasm in requesting to purchase one of her prints for the standard rate of $25 but also Mandel’s typewritten Guggenheim fellowship application that she authored in the 1960’s. The photographer did win the fellowship and it was a remarkable example of how times have changed in the professionalism of the artist and their personae. The one paragraph long proposal contained numerous “x”-ed out typos and could not have more simplified in its description. Mandel had already by that point been given prestigious exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as having work in the collection of several other museums, but the stark directness of her application to make a body of work on the people and places of Berkeley, California clashes with the hyper-verbal artistic theory and vocabulary that is so omnipresent in the universities of today. It was therefore rather refreshing.