My family regularly visited Mendocino when I was a child and I remember it with great fondness. Chances are that even if you’ve never been, you’re familiar with it too: Mendocino has a long history of standing in for New England in television and movie productions. Remember the Angela Lansbury vehicle “Murder She Wrote?” That’s Mendocino. Remember the 1966 Norman Jewison/Carl Reiner film “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming?” It is too.
While Mendocino, the bucolic town, has been popular with the entertainment industry, Mendocino, the coast, has been popular with artists, particularly photographers. (While I’m sure there must be a few paintings of the place, I can’t think of even a very minor example.) The first photographer to head up to Mendocino from nearby San Francisco seems to have been Carleton Watkins. He visited the area in 1863, his first photographic trip after creating a national sensation with a series of photographs of the Yosemite Valley. It’s not clear why Watkins went: He may have gone on his own account, but possibly he went to make photographs commissioned by a lumber company.
Watkins shot 55 mammoth plates on his first Mendocino trip (all but a couple of which are available via Calisphere), nearly 100 stereographs, and likely an unknown number of medium-format views. These pictures, which mix beautiful (and beautifully composed) vistas with logging and milling scenes, make up one of Watkins’ most influential bodies of work. Among the contemporary photographers who has found them important is Edward Burtynsky, whose use of beauty as a strategy with which to critique industry was motivated by Watkins’ Mendocino work. (Dorothea Lange also came here to chronicle the timber industry.) [Image at top: Carleton Watkins, A Coast View, Rocks (No. 1), Mendocino County, 1863. Collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berekeley. Via Calisphere.]
Watkins also turned his camera away from the coast to photograph Big River, which runs from a coastal range into the Pacific Ocean just below the bluff on which the town of Mendocino sits.
Carleton Watkins, Big River from the Rancherie, Mendocino, 1863. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
After Watkins came others. Among the first was Eadweard Muybridge. In 1871 the federal government’s Lighthouse Board hired Muybridge to photographically document every lighthouse from the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula to San Diego. Philip Brookman, the curator of the 2010 Muybridge retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, called them “some of his most luminous and meaningful landscapes.” Among the lighthouses Muybridge photographed was one at Point Arena in southern Mendocino County. The Lighthouse Board tasked Muybridge with creating “two photographic prints” of each lighthouse, so presumably they’re out there somewhere. I could only find two stereographic views, of which this one, which isn’t great, is the best.
Eadweard Muybridge, Point Arena Light-house looking Northeast, First Order Fixed Light, 156 feet above Sea Level, 1871. Collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, via Calisphere.
It wasn’t just the 19th-century photographic pioneers who traveled up the coast from San Francisco to Mendocino. Edward Weston made some wonderful pictures in Mendocino. Weston’s Mendocino pictures typically feature more land than Watkins’ pictures do, and thus emphasize the dramatic way in which the land runs toward — but not down to — the Pacific Ocean. The Center for Creative Photography has a great 1937 example, but because it obscures it with a preposterously lame watermark, I won’t reproduce it here.
Ansel Adams, a devoted Watkins fan, tried to find new views in Mendocino too. Like every other photographer who’s been to Mendocino, Adams certainly took coast views — and even prettied up some of the timber industry-focused photographs that Watkins and others took in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While it’s not clear that Adams knew about Watkins’ Mendocino views, I rather suspect he did. Instead of trying to re-make Watkins’ pictures, Adams tried to find his own Mendocino thing.
Ansel Adams, House, Stumps and Pasture, Mendocino, California, 1960. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Ansel Adams, Tree, Point Arena, California, 1960. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I suspect Robert Adams may have seen that one.
Imogen Cunningham looked away from the sea too.
Imogen Cunningham, Self-Portrait, Mendocino, 1971, 1965. Collection of the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Ariz.
Two other prominent California-based photographers made significant work in Mendocino, but I couldn’t find examples of their Mendocino online: Minor White and Wynn Bullock. Sorry.
Readers are invited to add other favorites in the comments!