Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Photographing Yosemite: Rondal Partridge's Pave It and Paint It Green

Rondal Partridge, Pave It and Paint It Greensigned gelatin silver printc. 1965 
Gift of Rondal Partridge / California Historical Society
Beginning in his early twenties, Rondal Partridge operated the renowned photographer Ansel Adams’ darkroom in Yosemite Valley. From 1937 to 1939 he helped produce prints of Adams’ idealistic Yosemite photographs for tourists. Thirty years laterduring an era of political, social, and environmental awareness and upheaval—he captured tourism’s impact on the park with his best-known photograph, Pave It and Paint It Green. Today it is a reminder of the fragility of our National Parks and the imperative that we always preserve them. 

As a tribute to Rondal Partridge, we offer an essay by Shelly Kale—published in the California History journal by the University of California Press in association with CHS—about a man and the image that captured not only his spirit but that of a generation.

Pave It and Paint It Green

I don’t have any preconception of what is valuable as a photographic subject. A view, a snake—I never know what will catch my eye. I shoot it, print it, and wait for fashion to catch up with my eyes.
—Rondal Partridge, 2002 (1)


When Rondal Partridge (1917—2015) took this photograph of a congested parking lot in Yosemite National Park, it was the impact of tourism that caught his eye. “I went to Yosemite with a producer from KQED to make a film,” Partridge recalled in 2002. “All he saw was falling water, tall cliffs, and happy people…I saw congestion, destruction, erosion.” (2)

Partridge was the son of the renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883—1976) and in his younger years assisted the celebrated photographers Dorothea Lange (1895—1965) and Ansel Adams (1902—1984). As photographs curator Jennifer A. Watts noted, in the 1960s and 1970s Partridge was one of “a new generation of up-and-coming photographers” who were “redefining photography’s function in Yosemite…This new school of photographers discovered and depicted a Yosemite unimagined by Adams. They framed their shots on the valley floor rather than the craggy vistas favored by Adams.” (3)

Unlike Adams’s emphasis on Yosemite’s purity, Partridge saw the interrelationship between the park’s human imprint and its natural beauty. In his photograph, the sprawl of cars across the foreground and the majestic Half Dome framed by trees seem to have equal billing. Partridge, art historian Sally Stein observed, “resisted compartmentalizing nature as a thing revered for its very apartness. Rather, in his view, we are part of nature and, for better and worse, it is yoked to us.” (4)

As “photography’s ‘grand laboratory,’” Yosemite has inspired photographers since Charles Leadner Weed (1824—1903) entered Yosemite Valley in 1855. The 1861 images of Carleton E. Watkins (1829—1916) had far reaching effects: they provided the visual evidence for Yosemite’s preservation that led to passage of the 1864 Yosemite Grant Act. That piece of legislation set aside the Yosemite Balley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for protection by the State of California “inalienable for all time,” paving the way for our national park system. (5)

Following Watkins’s lead, generations of landscape and tourist photographers alike focused their lenses on Yosemite’s geological wonders and inspirational splendor. But like the painter Chuira Obata (1885—1975), whose artworks of Yosemite in the late 1920s brought a fresh perspective to the park’s visual record, Partridge broke with this traditional approach. And like Eadweard Muybridge (1830—1904), whose daring feats over the landscape to reach the best viewpoints produced astonishing photographs of Yosemite, Partridge was intrepid. At the Camp Curry parking lot, “I got up on the top of the car and took the shot and was blasted by a bullhorn from a ranger. He demanded I get off the car. He wanted to arrest me, and I said I refused to be arrested. I convinced his supervisor that I had obtained permission to photograph, and that I could shoot from wherever I wanted.” (6)

By the mid-1960s, when Partridge trained his camera on Half Dome, the automobile’s destructiveness was apparent. As National Park Service historian David Louter recounted, one critic observed that the automobile “had brought more downgrading changes to Yosemite Valley than the previous five thousand years of erosion. Each day it was cramming a medium-sized city into a valley meant for a hamlet.” (7)

As the decade ended, the motto “Parks Are for People” was a rallying cry to address the problem. In 1980, automobiles were recognized in the National Park Service’s General Management Plan as “the single greatest threat to enjoyment of the natural and scenic qualities of Yosemite.” (8) Each year, the plan noted, approximately thirty miles of roadway accommodated a million trucks, cars, and buses. Decades later Partridge would state, “Automobiles are a main concern of mine. They’ll cover the world ten feet deep in the next fifty years. I have dozens of photographs of parking lots.” (9)

Today—as we mark the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service and evaluate the success of its conflicting mandates, use and preservation—automobiles are still at home in the Camp Curry parking lot. (10) As Yosemite photographer Howard Weamer described, “The lot is slightly more organized now, with parking in rows perpendicular to the camera, and always full.” (11).

Would Partridge have found the accommodation worthy of his camera’s eye?

NOTES

1. Elizabeth Partridge and Sally Stein, Quizzical Eye: The Photography of Rondal Partridge (San Francisco: California Historical Society Press, 2003), 134.
2. Ibid., 136.
3. Jennifer A. Watts, “Photography’s Workshop: Yosemite in the Modern Era,” in Yosemite: Art of an American Icon, ed. Amy Scott (Berkeley: University of California Press in Association with the Autry National Center, 2006), 129–130.
4. Sally Stein, “‘Everything but the Grand Gesture’: Tradition and Irreverence in the Photography of Rondal Partridge,” in Partridge and Stein, Quizzical Eye, 24–25.
5. Watts, “Photography’s Workshop,” 115; Thirty‐Eighth Congress of the United States of America, An Act Authorizing a Grant to the State of California of the “Yo‐Semite Valley,” and of the Land Embracing the “Mariposa Big Tree Grove,” June 30, 1864, http://www.outpost-of-freedom.com/library/Yosemite_Park_June_30_1864.pdf.
6. Partridge and Stein, Quizzical Eye, 136.
7. David Louter, Windshield Wilderness: Cars, Roads, and Nature in Washington’s National Parks (Seattle: University of Washington Press), 21.
8. U.S. Department of the Interior, Yosemite National Park: General Management Plan, Visitor Use/Park Operations/Development (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 3.
9. Bob O’Brien, “A Vision Sustained,” National Parks 76, no. 5–6 (July/August 2002), 44; David T. Page, Yosemite and the Southern Sierra Nevada: An Explorer’s Guide (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press), 67; Louter, Windshield Wilderness, 176; Partridge and Stein, Quizzical Eye, 137.
10. With the 1916 Organic Act, Congress authorized the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” See “Robin Winks on the Evolution and Meaning of the Organic Act,” The George Wright Forum 24, no. 3 (2007), http://www.georgewright.org/243winks.pdf.
11. Howard Weamer, e-mail message to the author, October 16, 2015.

Shelly Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society. Formerly Managing Editor of California History, she has held editorial and administrative positions in academic, museum, educational, electronic, and trade and mass-market publishing.
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This article originally appeared in Spotlight, a feature of the California History journal (Vol. 93, #2), published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. Conceived by former journal editor and historian Janet Fireman as a last-page photographic feature that itself would evoke a lasting image for journal’s readers, Spotlight draws from CHS’s vast and diverse collection of California photography and photographic history.
California History, Vol. 93, Number 2, pp. 64–66, ISSN 0162-2897, electronic ISSN 2327-1485. ©2016 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.


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