Living on the West Coast, but neither geographically or stylistically completely of the West Coast, Jack Welpott has produced a widely-ranging body of personal work. For almost fifty years he has exerted a powerful influence on photographic art through his teaching at San Francisco State College and elsewhere.
Jim Kasson interviewed Jack at his home in Inverness, California.
JK: When was the first time that you said to yourself, “I’m a photographer”?
JW: I had an uncle who was bigger than life. He sang in a band. He had his own radio show. He drove fast cars. He dated showgirls. He made photographs. As a kid, I looked up to him as an incredible creature.When I was nine years old he took me into a makeshift dark room in the basement of my grandmother’s house in St. Louis, Missouri, and he did something that totally blew my young mind. He took a piece of plain paper, and put it into a tray with some liquid, and a photograph came out. It was like a magic trick. That got my attention.
My father was an avid snap shooter, using a box camera for taking family pictures. He gave me a small version of his camera but didn’t give me any film; it was the depression. I went around pretending to take pictures. We were in my grandmother’s backyard in Saint Louis, and my father put my grandmother, my aunt and my mother in a nice little row and he got ready to take a picture. I was next to him with my little camera, and I clicked the shutter an instant before he released his. The ladies heard my click and they thought the picture was taken. They started cracking up and walking towards the camera, and my father released his shutter just an instant later. At the time, my father thought I had messed up the picture. In those days, families would get together on Sundays and look at drugstore snapshots. The next Sunday there was a sensation because instead of the typical family group, here were these laughing, walking ladies. It turned from a disaster into a triumph for me.
These things steered me into an interest in the whole photographic process. Somewhere along the line, when I was 11 and 12, I acquired a little plastic camera. I could get a roll of film now and then. I was taking the film to a drugstore and waiting a week for the pictures. In 1936, the first issues of Life Magazine showed up at my house. I couldn’t touch Life until my father got done with it, but when he was done I would look at it. These pictures of the photographers with Leica cameras around their neck fascinated me. Life took me a step away from the idea of doing snapshots of my dog. And then another thing happened. A college student who had a darkroom invited me in to watch him making photographs and he loaned me a miniature Rolleiflex. It was the same as the bigger Rollei but it took 127 film.I’ve wondered ever since why a guy would loan such a fancy camera to a 12-year-old kid. I started making photographs around junior high school. I entered a contest and I won. I didn’t win much but I won.
Now that I look back on it I think that was the time. That sealed my fate; you don’t let a 12-year-old kid win a contest. That ruins him. After that, photography became a big part of my life. When I was about 14 or 15, my uncle gave me his Kodak Recomar, which was an early 2 1/4 by 3 1/4 view camera, designed by Nagel and made in Germany by Kodak AG. It was a very sophisticated little camera for the time. My father built a makeshift dark room in the basement of our house. The darkroom had nothing in it but a shelf and a little ruby bulb safe light. I told my father I needed an enlarger. He had a friend who was a plumber. This plumber took some sheet metal and built a housing with a light in it, and we put some diffusion glass over the place where the negative went and it was fastened on a pipe stand that a plumber would use. The plumber devised a way I could slide the Recomar onto the enlarger to be the lens and the focusing rail. I had 5 x 7 trays, and I was thrilled to be making little 5 x 7 prints.
JK: When did you decide that you could make your living as a photographer?
JW: At 19 I was drafted into the service. I did signals intelligence during the war. When I came back I used the GI Bill to start at Indiana University. I got down my old Recomar and I also acquired a 2 1/4 by 3 1/4 Speed Graphic with a flashgun. I realized that I could make some money photographing fraternity and sorority dances.I started with the Speed Graphic, peanut flash bulbs and film packs. There were dances every weekend and in those days they had full bands. I would ask the bandleader to make an announcement that the photographer is here and he’s photographing couples over in the corner.The couples would line up and bang, bang, bang, I’d take the photographs. I would pull the tabs on the film pack and I had a white pen to write details on the back of the tabs.I didn’t tear the tabs off so I could keep track of what data went with what negative. On some nights I could hit two dances. I would go up to the band leader and say, “Tell them I’m here,” and they’d line up. Then things would drift off and, I wouldn’t get any business for awhile. So I’d rush off to another dance. It was usually just a block or two away, I’d go up to the bandleader, tell them that the photographer’s here. When that ran dry I’d go back to the first dance and tell the bandleader to tell them: “We’re in luck; the photographer’s come back.” And so I’d get a few more. On some nights, I put $200 in my pockets.
I went home in the darkroom and stayed up all night processing film and making 5 x 7s. I would lay all the prints out on the basement floor to dry. About 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning I could put them in the folders. Delivery was always easy because almost all went to a fraternity or a sorority.I would drive to the fraternity or sorority and tell the president of the house, “I’ve got the photographs of your folks.” And then I’d go home and crash.
JK: At the same time you were a student.
JW: That brings up a point: a student of what? When I came out of the Army, like most guys, I didn’t have a clue to what I wanted to do in life.All I knew was how to copy Morse and Japanese code. The University was suddenly overwhelmed with incoming veterans. Before the war Indiana University had about 3,000 students and overnight it went to more than 12,000. It was so crowded they had a hard time accommodating people. I couldn’t get a faculty advisor; instead I got a graduate student.This guy sat down with me and said, “What do you want to do?” I said: “Gee, I don’t know. I’m interested in music.” He said, “You don’t want to go into music. You’ll wind up being a tuba teacher in a high school.” It didn’t take me long to decide that I didn’t want to be a tuba teacher in a high school. He said “What else?” Both of my older brothers had gone to business school so I said business for lack of any other thing coming to mind. So I was in business school. I had a friend named Joe. He’d been in the Battle of the Bulge. He was seriously wounded and he was a big mean guy and he had been through hell in Europe. He was the poster child for the rough, tough vet who would not take anything from anybody. We were buddies and he was an amateur photographer. He said to me one day, “Hey, they got a new guy over in the art department who’s teaching photography. Maybe we should take an elective photography class.” That sounded like a good idea so I went over there. I even took some of my lovely images with the blue ribbons on the back. The guy turned out to be Henry Holmes Smith.Henry looked at my work and he said to me, “Well I guess you can take beginning photography.” I was insulted. I thought: “I’ve been making photographs since I was 12 years old. I’m better than that.” I didn’t say that to him.
JK: He wasn’t talking about craft, was he?
JW: I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I was insulted. I thought, “What the hell, I’ll enroll in that class.” That was an eye opener. Henry was from the Bauhaus. He had all these wild theories and we couldn’t figure out what the hell he was talking about. Joe took the course too.We’d sit up nights talking. “What does he mean by this or that or the other thing?” He had us doing things that were done in Bauhaus. Experimental approaches to photography, translucence, transparency, and opacity, not sheep on a hillside.We wondered if he was nuts. He would take us out onto the campus and there’d be a blank wall with a pipe coming out of it. Henry would gather us around, and he’d point to the pipe and he’d say, “What does that imply?”
At the end of the semester I happened to be near Henry’s office and Joe was standing in the door screaming at Henry and using all the language he had learned in the foxholes just mad as hell at Henry Smith. Joe turned around and said to me, “I’ll never take another class from that son of a bitch,” and he walked out.
I enrolled again and in the next class I’m sitting there and who slips into the chair beside me but Joe. I told him, “I thought you said you weren’t going to take another class from this son of a bitch,” and sheepishly he said, “I don’t know what the hell it is but this guy’s onto something and I want to find out what it is.” So Joe stuck it out too. Henry became my mentor and he turned my head around and put it on backwards.
I was exposed to all these ideas that were counter to what was happening to me in business school. Art students don’t think like the people in the business school.I just plodded ahead with my business school courses. I began in business school being on the Dean’s List, making straight A’s. Once I met Henry that went downhill until the last semester I was probably all C’s. If you were graduating from the business school, you were supposed to put on your suit and tie and be interviewed by the recruiters from NBC, General Electric, Standard Oil, and all these big companies. Each of these guys was in somebody’s office interviewing and you were supposed to sign up for an interview with whatever company you wanted to talk to. I spent two days walking around that place looking in at these guys who were doing the interviews and thinking to myself: “Do I want to talk with that guy? I don’t want to talk with that guy.” My friends in business school were coming out saying, “Hey, I got a great job with Standard Oil at $900 a month,” which was good pay in those days. I could not walk through any of those doors.I didn’t feel particularly good about it, but I couldn’t do it. I knew people who were working for the University in a photo lab, which was right across the street from the business school.I walked over to the photo lab and told them I’d like to hire on as a photographer. They said, “Sure.” So I went to work for Indiana University as a photographer at about a third of what I would have gotten if I had done one of those interviews. This meant two things: I made my living off of photography for 10 years working for the University and I got breadth I wouldn’t have gotten on my own. You did what came across the desk, so I did everything. I photographed celebrities. I did receptions. I did campus life. I did architecture. I did book illustration for people doing books. I did work in the science labs.It also put me into Henry’s clutches for 10 years. I was always hanging out there, taking classes from him. He taught some very special classes sometimes. He would let me help out teaching; when it came to describing how an enlarger worked, he’d say, “Jack, tell the class how it works,” and I’d do it.
JK: When did you decide that you were an artist?
JW: As time went by, I became increasingly disenchanted with the lab. There were about eight photographers working there.I had gone from a position of being a flunky to being the chief photographer. While I was learning a lot, I didn’t like the fact that I had to please other people with what I did. Sometimes I had to take advice from art directors,and from other people that thought they had an idea of what I should be doing. I didn’t like that. While I was working at the lab, I was going out in the little towns around Bloomington on weekends and photographing the stuff you see in Driving to Stony Lonesome.Henry, the FSA, and Life Magazineinfluenced me. I was in touch with the work of Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans. I was fascinated by Weston’s living like a poor man in a cabin with all these babes coming in and out.It never occurred to me that I could be an artist with a camera. I had those examples, but they were a long way away. They weren’t in Bloomington. It seemed impractical.I had the work ethic that’s laid on you by the Middle West, that you worked for money.
One night, I had an epiphany. I’d made a photograph of some grass and I’d come back to that lab at night when nobody was around to print it. I was all-alone in this big lab. I had dry mounted that photograph and I put it up and I looked at it. At that moment it hit me. This is your calling. You’ve got to figure a way out of this lab and into doing work that maybe nobody will give you a penny for. Then something happened that sealed the whole thing. Some guy came through the lab one day looking for a volunteer to teach a six-week summer class in an art department in New Paltz, New York. It was easy for an employee of the university to take a leave of absence. I took a leave and went there and taught. I came back to IU and I thought, “Now I have to get an MFA.” I went on half time in the photo lab and enrolled. I was the first person at IU to do an MFA in photography.I was also painting at the time. I was taking painting classes and Henry said to me, “I don’t know if they’ll approve you as an MFA in straight photography,but if you were to say it was combined painting and photography, they’ll probably approve that.” It was a fortuitous thing because I had as my teacher Leon Golub who became a famous American painter. I had a studio with another guy. I painted and made photographs. I got the MFA and then I hunted for a job and as luck would have it, San Francisco State hired me.I had a way to make a living and do things nobody wanted.I loved it.
JK: Did you know anything about SF State and the people you were going to be working with?
JW: Very little. I researched teaching jobs by going to the library. There’s a book called American Colleges and Universities. It’s a directory that lists every college and university in the United States.It gives you a rundown of what that school’s got and whether it has an art department. State sounded compatible, but I had no way of knowing what I was getting into.
JK:You came from a small college town in Indianato San Francisco in the waning days of the beat generation.
JW: I have this image of me showing up there in a green suit with a green tie. I started going to upper Grant Avenue. I would sit in the Old Coffee Gallery, the Coexistence Bagel Shop, or Vesuvio looking at the scene and listening to the poets read poetry to jazz. The women particularly appealed to me. They dressed in ways I’d never seen women dress before, like they just stepped out of a Toulouse Lautrec painting. I was around for the summer of love later. I became something of an aging hippie even though I was still on the faculty at San Francisco State.
JK: Did Don Worth come to State before or after you?
JW: He showed up after me. We started out in a conflicted situation because we were both going after the same job at State.I didn’t know about Don’s wanting that job when a friend of mine asked me if I’d like to meet Ansel Adams. He took me over to Adams’ house.Don was there. Adams was there. Philip Hyde and Ruth Bernhard were there. Adams and Hyde and some of the others were treating me like some poisonous invader from the Midwest. It was all jocular, but they were still giving me a hard time. Don didn’t treat me badly. He didn’t say anything. I left there wondering why they treated me like that.My friend told me that I’d gotten the job that Adams wanted Don Worth to get. I think I got the job because of John Gutmann. John was interested in me because I also painted.When Don first walked in my office I felt like I was in the gunfight at the OK Corral, but that went away with time. I thought he was a hell of a photographer and he should be on the faculty there.Don is a very good friend now and has been for many years, but initially it was a little uneasy. Same with Adams, although my relationship with Adams was always a little ambivalent because I was from the Middle West with attitudes that came from the Bauhaus and from people like Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan.In my role as a teacher I found myself cast in the role of critic of Adams. These things always got back to him. Still, he was very nice to me. He had me to his house and he helped me in many ways, but I always felt like this unspoken impediment there. I wasn’t one of his boys.
JK: Did you ever paint on pictures?
JW: Only in small ways. I have some things that I’ve done that will crop up in a book I’m working on now that are partially hand done and partially photography.When I first came out here I tried to continue painting but I realized I had too many things to do, so I set aside painting. I had been dealing with photography much longer in my life and so I felt more secure. I thought I’d skip the painting until the day I had the time to sit and paint.That day has never come.
JK: You and Don built a hugely successful photographic program at SF State.
JW: It was a very good set up with John Gutmann, Don Worth, and me. Neil White played an important role too. There was UCLA with Robert Heineken and company and the University of New Mexico with Van Deren Coke. We three became the Ivy League of photography.I often felt like I was a football coach and we were in competition with these other schools, but there was collegiality, too. I’d take students down to LA and we’d hang out with Heineken’s people and argue about how they didn’t have any technique; they’d come up and tell us we didn’t have any ideas. There was a period of time there when these three schools were the best thing going in the West.
I can’t claim all the credit. There was good chemistry going on between Don and me. Some of the students gravitated more in his direction and some gravitated more in mine.Some gravitated towards Neil White. He was incredible in his own way. John never taught in the graduate level but he was there and he had a big effect. I always thought a rich program should have a mix of people. They shouldn’t all be like-minded. And that’s what we had. Henry said an interesting thing. There were, there are two kinds of photographers, makers and takers, and the trick is for someone or for them to figure out which they are.Many programs would only teach takers and they’d have nothing to do with makers and there’s also the other way around sometimes. They’d teach makers but they didn’t want to mess with takers.We wanted to open the door to any student, wherever they fit.
JK: How did your own work progress during the ’60s?
JW: I was in the West with all these hotshot nature photographers. That had a big imprint on me technically. Don is a perfectionist. I never thought I could achieve that but I was always trying. I couldn’t see myself as an environmentalist in the manner of Adams. I wanted to work in the landscape, but I was influenced by the Minor White and Harry Callahan idea that photography is capable of reflecting the unconscious mind — dealing with your own mental processes. When I went into the landscape it was not to say, “Isn’t this grand?”It was always to talk about my own mental life.I became a funny mixture of experiences I’d had in the Middle West mixed in with being out here. I sometimes I felt like I was a fish out of water. I’m still like that: I’m not the grand landscape photographer. I’m not like Strand and Weston and Walker Evans.I keep quoting Minor: “Look at it not for what it is but for what else it is.”This perspective became very important to me.It’s not a good place when it comes to popular appreciation, because most people don’t want to spend that much time looking at a photograph. I’ve given a lot of thought to what a picture means beyond the obvious.Sure it’s a picture of, say, a mountain but what is that all about?I have a bunch of photographs that deal with the idea of triangles. These things are what I call formal problems. I always have a formal problem in front of me.
JK: But not necessarily an emotional problem?
JW: It’s always emotional for me. I view my photographs as being like dreams. Dreams are a pathway into the unconscious mind.I wish people would look at them and get involved in these multiple levels of meaning. Sometimes in my titles I try to make it happen. There’s one I call The Journey, which is based on a dream.
JK: You’ve been doing female nudes a long time. When did you start doing that and how has it evolved for you?
JW: I was always interested in the female body. I thought if anything would plumb the depths of my unconscious mind it would be that. Women are a big mystery for most men. Certainly they are for me. I did only a few nudes in Indiana, but I was thinking about it. When I came west, I was hanging out in the beat generation world.
JK: Easier to get women to take their clothes off?
JW: Unlike women in Indiana. Even out here, the figure was not a big part of my photography at first. I’d do it once in a while, but what I was doing at that time was landscape and other things.I became fascinated with portraits. Some of this came about through my teaching. I taught the history of photography for many years and it made me take a close look at the photo-secessionists and at the f/64 group.Something that got to me was their portraits. If you look at my work I think you’ll find more portraits than anything. I was doing these various things and, low and behold, about three years after I moved out here, into my life comes Judy Dater.Judy was doing some figure photography. I was married and had a family but my marriage was going to hell in a hand basket because my wife wanted to be in Indiana. Judy and I were sometimes doing photography together and somehow we came to the idea doing a project on women.Not just nudes but women, in particular, counterculture women.This led to the book Women and Other Visions. I’ll bet there are as many portraits in there as there are nudes, but people go right to the nudes. Once I got that reputation, it snowballed. Ansel started hiring me to teach figure photography workshops, so there were more models available. They were in front of my camera, so I made photographs. After publishing Women and Other Visions, I started doing workshops around the country. Invariably, when I’d do a workshop there’d be several ladies in the class, and one of them would always be putting out signals that said she wanted to get naked for me.I’d say, “Okay, let’s do some figure photography.” I came to realize that many attractive, young women liked to be photographed in the nude. I was in Chicago with Judy and we were giving a lecture before a bunch of people including Arthur Segal. Segal asked me, “Did you sleep with all those women?” I didn’t mean to be funny but I said something that brought the house down. I said, “Well, not as a rule.” The point was that I was interested in making photographs. A shrink would probably say it was sublimation. So I have countless figure photographs. I’ve done a lot of other things and but people go straight to the nudes. That bothers me but that’s the way it is. You can’t write your own history.
JK: Tell me about your students.
JW: One of the things that pleases me is that most of the people who went into the graduate program at State wound up being affiliated with fine art photography.In many programs the dropout rate is high.The students might get degrees but they wind up being shoe salesmen. I am proud of the fact that Don, Neil, John, and I managed to do something that has endured amongst our students. I’m still helping some of them. They come back to me and they want advice. I always went over the Zone System rather thoroughly.I even worked out an abbreviated approach to it that I thought people could understand more easily. When I was in the city I had a studio and 20 years after the fact mid-career professionals who had been in my classes at State would show up, and they’d say, “Jack, would you mind running over the Zone System again?” Now they want digital advice.
JK: In your work as an artist, are there phases — periods when you did this and then you stopped doing it and you did something else, or do the same themes go through your work for your whole photographic career?
JW: I hate dating work because I can look at something I did 30 years ago and think it belongs today.Still, there has been progression technically. I always felt like I had two-year segments where I’d be thinking about a technical problem that I couldn’t master. I’ll give you an example: the chiaroscuro effect that Rembrandt often used.I knew other photographers who could do it and I couldn’t do it and I wanted to do it. I went along for two years trying to figure out how to get that effect and finally, quite without knowing it, I did it. I didn’t realize it until after the fact. I looked back and I thought I started doing that in April of last year.So I got that hurdle out of the way. There were other hurdles almost always having to do with trying to get better with some process. Revelations would come and I’d make a little leap in terms of how well I was doing things. But there have been strings that have been running since the beginning. Henry even brought that up about teaching me and other people. He saw my work early on, and then he also saw it 20 or 30 years later and he said, “It’s interesting how I can look back to that terrible early work and see the germ of what’s happened here.” It struck me that, as a teacher, my job is to see if I can find that kernel.Sometimes it’s hard because what you’re looking at is terrible. In my critiquing of work I always try to begin not putting down work but looking for the possibilities.Any time I do something I start thinking about what it is all about.I started thinking about the nude and I began to realize that the nude could be political.I began to make nudes that I thought were a slap in the face at authoritarian morality. They’re a little bit off the edge. I saw it as a political act. Every time Jesse Helms raised his voice I’d make a raunchier photograph. I have one called Wine and Woman and it’s a crotch shot of a woman with a glass of wine in the foreground. I call it a celebration. Recently a guy in the wine business bought one. I told him I’m waiting for the day when the Age of Aquarius comes back and that picture winds up on a bottle of wine.
JK: Tell me about the new book.
JW: It’s titled Climbing Mount Vision. It is an effort at summarizing my life in photography, an impossible task, but I’m trying. I have a first draft completed.
JK: How is it organized?
JW: Makers and Takers (my portraits of photographers), Fascinating Women, The Nude, Puzzles, Photogenic Drawings, Inside (Interiors), Outside (as opposed to calling it landscapes or cityscapes), and Variations (These are departures from the norm).
JK: What’s the significance of Mount Vision?
JW: I live at the foot of Mount Vision. I have always seen it as a metaphor for a life in photography. There are many paths up this mountain, some easy, some full of undergrowth. I used to climb it with my late wife Brooke. Coming at it from our direction was a huff and puff endeavor, full of thickets and underbrush. Sounds like a life in photography to me. At the top one can see for many miles up and down the coast, provided the fog has not taken over. It is a magic, mystical place revered by the Miwok Indians. For them the name didn’t come from the fact that there could be a good view from the top. Vision meant visionary. I like the idea of visionary as opposed to merely vision.