The iconic Photography West Gallery in Carmel is one of—if not the only—galleries in today’s digital world exclusively devoted to film photography. Founded by Carol Williams 40 years ago, and directed by her daughter, Julia Christopher, its redwood walls are illuminated by handmade originals from legendary masters of photography. Luminous rare gelatin silver landscapes by Ansel Adams, an intimate 1931 platinum portrait of Frida Kahlo by Imogen Cunningham, underwater nudes and sinuous sandscapes by Brett Weston, shadowy torsos by Ruth Bernhard, vibrant color Cibachromes of the American West by Christopher Burkett, and haunting split-toned gelatin silver photographs of churches and wetlands by Roman Loranc are just some of the treasures in the intimate space.
“Now, more than ever, people really appreciate what we show at the gallery,” says Director Julia Christopher. “All of the gallery photographers, with the exception of Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, were alive when we opened in 1980. We remain enthusiastically committed to supporting contemporary photographers.”
When Carol Williams founded the gallery, it was almost like a co-op, with Williams giving 80 percent to the artists and consignors, which she quickly learned was unsustainable. Her generosity, openness to reviewing portfolios by unknown newcomers, combined with Weston’s professional artworld connections, resulted in a stellar ongoing exhibition schedule.
“Meeting Brett Weston resulted in a mutually life changing friendship,” Williams says. “He was already acknowledged as the child genius of American photography when we first met in early 1980; Brett was 69 and had pursued a career of more than 55 years. I was amazed how supportive he was of my idealistic dream to launch a new Carmel photography gallery in my twenties, but he helped find the location, offering his final three portfolios for our grand opening (500 people lined up around the block!) and we collaborated closely for 13 years, mounting several one-man exhibitions, and producing publications and books together until his death in 1993.”
Although the gallery predominately displays black-and-white photography, it was the first to exhibit Christopher Burkett, widely referred to as the Ansel Adams of Color.
“He spends 80 hours a week laboring in his darkroom,” Christopher says. “His photographic paper (Cibachrome), film and chemistry were all discontinued, so this work is now considered a historical process. In addition to creating spectacular photographs, Burkett’s goal is to recreate the actual experience of being in nature, which he feels can only be achieved with this unique combination of film and photographic paper.”
Photography West has also published 11 award-winning books featuring the work of the artists it represents.
“Our first book, “A Personal Section,” won Photography Book of the Year, and edited by Brett, provided us the creative freedom to showcase unpublished images,” says Williams. “He often told me that I was the only person he trusted to edit his work. After inviting me to Ansel Adams’ 80th birthday party, I reciprocated by hosting his 80th gala at Stonepine. Brett began burning negatives that year, because he felt fiercely that future generations should view his photographs exactly as he created them with his own hand.
“So, Brett sought to preserve the visual integrity of his original photographs with that controversial gesture, initially announced in 1958 and sworn to implement when he turned 80 in 1991. Brett’s unwavering passion for the integrity of straight photography inspired me to dedicate a room in the gallery to him after his death and Photography West today remains a sanctuary exclusively devoted to film photography, each original created in classical wet darkrooms by the artist’s own hand.”
Works in the gallery are primarily from medium and large format film, reflecting the techniques of the famous group f/64.
“F/64 is the smallest aperture with which you can get everything in the frame in focus from front to back,” Christopher explains. “The human eye can’t do that. The idea is to create a form of ‘super-realism,’ and give people the opportunity to see in perfect focus.”
In a world of Instagram filters, it’s important to Christopher, who is a photographer herself, to educate visitors to the intricacies of the techniques required to create the works on the walls.
“When you make a photograph (with photographic paper from film) in a wet darkroom, it’s literally created blind. In turn, it’s physically impossible to make the same exact one twice, which is what makes photography a ‘fine art’ medium. It is my job as a gallerist to be just as particular about darkroom craftsmanship as I am about artistic composition,” Christopher says. “Photography is the only art medium created from light. That is what photography is all about—light—and it is my privilege to share that light with others.”
Photography West Gallery is located on Dolores, one SE of Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea. For more information, call 831/625-1587 or go to photographywest.com.