October 14: Imagine a photography school staffed by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Lisette Model, and Edward Weston. What would that do for your career?
I’m chasing all the photographers who contributed to the 1955 blockbuster The Family of Man exhibition for its entry in Wikipedia and one is John Bertolino (1914–2003) whose bio I just uploaded. He attended just such a school over 1948-1950 in the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute).
You could say that he, like the other students deserved their good fortune and the attention of these luminaries of photography, having recently served during WW2; he was a tail-gunner, a notoriously dangerous way to spend your youth.
1945-55 in photography on the West Coast is aptly dubbed ‘The Golden Decade’ by William Heick (1916–2012) and Ira Latour (1919–2015) in the book on the California School of Fine Arts recently and posthumously published by Steidl in 2016. Both were fellow students of Bertolino at the School and the book was brought to fruition by Victoria Whyte and her husband, Ken Ball who had discovered a folder labeled “CSFA exchange prints” in the darkroom of her father Don Whyte who had attended the California School of Fine Arts where students regularly exchanged prints amongst themselves. Don Whyte’s folder held his collection of “exchange prints.” These prints led them to Bill Heick, Ira Latour and Cameron Macauley (1923–2007), and a 20-year project to discover the other photographers whose work was filed away in Don Whyte’s folder.
Man Playing Mandolin was one of the prints, made when Bertolino toured Italy on completion of his course at the School of Fine Arts. It is typical of his work in isolating a subject, in the manner of an icon, against a background, or with an object, sufficient to create a setting but not to provide documentary context.
Another print of the same image was auctioned from the collection of Dody Weston Thompson who died on this date in 2012, a photographer, and later a writer on photography, who became an assistant to Edward Weston in 1948, and briefly married his son Brett Weston (1952-1955). She went on to work for Ansel Adams and was one of the founders of Aperture magazine.
Though not a student herself at the California School of Fine Arts, Dody had connection to it through the famous teachers, and her work on the exhibition Perceptions of August 1954 at the San Francisco Museum of Art, featuring work by forty-six Bay Area photographers. Six Bertolino photographs were included in the show and that may be how Dody acquired her print (above) which still bears Bertolino’s address on the reverse; ‘551 Chestnut’ a street in San Francisco.
There’s a consistency in this young man’s vision, that eye for the isolated, insulated subject. Here, in his charming and sunny portrait of his aunt this urge to make the object of his gaze singular and outstanding has prompted him to set up a makeshift studio backdrop in a cluttered and overgrown yard. The image subtitle translates “I want a photograph for my tomb” in sympathy with his approach in setting just the most important part of the subject clearly before us, effectively transforming his aunt into an icon. Equally elegiac is his sharply poignant picture of a girl and her suitcase.
Only if one examines the image closely do the surroundings offer any information. There is a tree trunk to the left that remains in the picture only because the edge of the suitcase would be occluded had it been cropped out; thus it becomes apparent that this scene takes place outdoors and in a park. Likewise a figure on the neighbouring bench is truncated to a bare trace at the right hand upper corner, and leaves a vestige of shadow on the ground. Our attention is restricted to the young woman whose face we cannot see, and yet whose details bespeak of a difficult moment in her life; the cheap battered cardboard suitcase fastened with string, the expediently trimmed fingernails, the plait tied up hastily with bobby-pins, and the quite fashionable but worn out sandals, with one heel broken, resting on the littered, bestpattered pavement.
Similarly, this small boy, in an earlier image, is boxed between anonymous, nearly featureless walls in an unnamed location, his shyness evident in his awkward gestures and posture.
The fixation on a single motif results in a near-abstraction in exclusion of any frame of reference in this image of a hand print on a wall that appears to have been the result of someone placing their hand on a board and painting around it, rather than actually making a direct imprint. This primitive mark is accompanied by rich painterly textural markings, multilayered and suggestive.
It is significant that these images from various sources each have been flush-mounted on masonite and unglazed, just as are those in The Family of Man. It’s a modernist form of presentation, a quite avant-garde and spartan means of presentation that gained popularity during this period. It is possible that these mounted prints had been shown at Perceptions, or earlier, at his first show, Italy: Photographs by John Bertolino, M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, September 1952, which then traveled to Italy. By the time Man Playing Mandolin had been selected by Steichen for The Family of Man in 1955, the same picture had been shown twice.
There it appeared (above) in the company of photographs of jazz artists and next to a wide-angle, atmospherically immersive picture by the younger Ed Feingersch (1925–1961). A street-wise New Yorker who had trained with the radical designer Alexey Brodovitch, Feingersch’s approach is typical of the style of photography then being practiced on the East Coast; engaged, true-to-life, socially aware and with narrative intentions. Whilst amongst Bertolino’s work there were more documentary images including those of a newspaper seller and motorbike riders that appeared in Perceptions, it is clear from his signature manner that he considered himself an artist, not a photojournalist.
Despite this auspicious beginning with the best of photographic education, and after his last show at St. Mary’s Mission in San Francisco in June 1957, Bertolini disappeared from the photography scene, and his subsequent activities are anonymous and undocumented.