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A Few Notes On The Jewel City Exhibit Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

23 November 2015

Yesterday we dropped by the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to take in Jewel City, an exhibit of some of the art displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The show runs through Jan. 10, 2016.


The exhibit reinforces the concept of the Exposition as a World's Fair with works of art from all over the world, including German paintings that were World War I booty.

But it also demonstrates the tenuous claim photography held on the art world, where prints were displayed apart from the paintings in the crowded Fine Arts rooms.

Even at the de Young exhibit, the small room of photographs is easy to miss. It's in the corner behind a large wall. Keep an eye out for it because it contains at least two jewels:

  • A very old image by Imogene Cunningham of Eve Repentant (well, not quite that old).
  • A rare William Dassonville Figure Study. Although the accompanying placard doesn't hint at it, Dassonville was a very important figure in San Francisco photography, inventing and manufacturing his own paper and instructing the young Ansel Adams in the art.

You'd be forgiven for thinking the Cunningham a Dassonville and the Dassonville a Cunningham.

But there's another photo worth admiring that isn't in that room.

The 13 year old Ansel Adams was given quite a gift in 1915 by his father who presented him with a year-long pass to the Exposition and, to go with it, the year off school, too.

Adams remembers the deal in his An Autobiography:

In 1915 my father gave me a year's pass to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal), which would be my school for that year. He insisted that I continue my piano and study literature and language at home, but I was to spend a good part of each day at the fair.

If you aren't in too much of a hurry when you first enter the exhibit, turn right and you'll be rewarded with one of Adams' earliest photographs. It's a view of the Palace of Fine Arts itself in 1915.

It's a curious image and the placard again isn't much help in resolving the curiosity. But it might not be a contact print (it's not small and it's out of focus). One wonders.

It's a bright image and you might not make much of that until you get to the photography room and wonder why all of those photographs were printed so dark they are almost impossible to read.

In his autobiography, Adams doesn't mention taking photographs at the Exposition but he does mention frequenting the amusement area of the Zone, the YMCA cafeteria and one last ride on the roller coaster "with disastrous gastronomic results" after a binge at the cafeteria.

Then there is this anecdote:

On occasion when I was late coming home, I would make for the exits through the backyards of the Zone to the nearest streetcars. On one such evening my path crossed a group of shabby men. One, with a hooked nose and sardonic grin, had rolled up his sleeve and was injecting himself with a huge syringe. I was badly frightened and I rushed through the nearest turnstile and jumped on the first streetcar I saw. It happened to be going in the wrong direction, but no matter; I felt I had escaped some awful, threatening situation. I got home quite late and very distressed. My father asked me what had happened. I blurted out the horror of the experience, but my father simply said, "He must have been a drug addict -- you should feel very sorry for him." This clarifying charity eased my spirits.

If you want to know more about the Exposition, see our Friday Slide Show of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which actually presents three slides shows including vintage white boarder cards, color postcards and monochrome photo cards of the era.


While Jewel City takes up the entire lower wing exhibit space and, as is the practice these days, concludes with a gift shop, save a little energy for The Worden Exhibit upstairs off the main lobby in the photography room.

Worden worked for the official photographer of the Exposition and was famous for his floodlit night scenes after the rain. He also won a medal of honor at the Exposition for his photography.

Our review of The Worden Exhibit includes a slides show of his images, as well.

The paperback accompanying the exhibit happens to be on sale now at the Museum book store. The register database wasn't aware of that yesterday, but there's a nice big sale sign on the stack of books you can use as evidence if charged otherwise.

Incidentally, while photography is not permitted in Jewel City, it is permitted in The Worden Exhibit.

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