Northern California photographer Rondal Partridge

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Onstage (at a 2008 showing of his daughter’s documentary about Dorothea Lange), Rondal Partridge [1917-2015] showed an impatience with cant and showed no inhibitions about saying what he thought, even if it undercut what his daughters had said. He firmly maintained that photography is documentation, not art, though explaining that this certainly did not mean photographs could not be beautiful.

At the time, I thought he was presenting his own view. Having looked through his daughter Elizabeth’s selection of more than a hundred of his photographs taken across the span of about seventy years (Quizzical Eye, 2003), I’ve decided that he must have been presenting Lange’s position.

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He accompanied Lange on expeditions photographing migrant workers during the Great Depression and photographed her and Ansel Adams (with whom he was apprenticed before Lange; both were friends of his parents Mills College art professor Roi Partridge and photographer Imogen Cunningham). In the Q&A Rondal said that he was gravitating to the view that Adams was a “pictorialist with sharp edges” (the sharpness of images was central to the f.64 group centered on Adams).

Be that as it may, many of the landscapes included in the book look like Adams’s photograph, with the very notable exception of one of Half Dome in Yosemite (the prototypical subject of Adams photographs) shot across an overflowing parking lot on the Yosemite Valley floor.

One Rondal Partridge leitmotif is automobiles blighting California, and he has very deliberately documented pollution as well as documenting the migrants of the Depression and spending the World War II years as a Navy documentary photographer.

I like his pictures of artists, both candid ones and posed ones. — and plate 57 which was a “hold that position” one of Lange. My favorite is a mid-1950s portrait of Odetta with her head rested on her guitar and looking dreamily off (plate 36).

Partridge’s work also includes some self-portraits that I would call “surrealistic” and some as far from “documentation” as the experiments of, say, Man Ray. The photos of flea market displays with the photographer’s shadow and the dead birds on a plat with onions or in a cordial glass (plates 92-93) are somewhere between surrealism and abstraction, Partridge’s still-lives strike me as being as composed as those of Edward Weston (whom Partridge also knew from childhood on). And the strikingly composed shots of buildings (especially plates 52-55) are surely works of art (even if also of “documentation”). The buildings are in sharp focus (though the distant hills, etc. are not).

In addition to the splendid printing of Partridge photographs, there are essays by his daughter Elizabeth and by Dorothea Lange’s son Daniel Dixon that bear on living with/around Partridge’s passion for photography, and a fine overview of Rondal Partridge’s anti-careerist trajectory as a photographer by photography historian Sally Stein.

 

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(Partridge’s most famous image, Yosemite’s Half Dome across a parking lot in 2965)

Both pictures and text are engaging and unpretentious. Now I want to see Meg Partridge’s documentary films about her father and her paternal grandmother!

 

©2008, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

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