Feature: Alder's Accounts
Around the Block with Lee Greene Richards
by Tom Alder
Among the blue hairs and Buicks, I completed my annual Memorial Day flower ritual at the Salt Lake City Cemetery this past weekend. While wandering about looking for water, my attention shifted to family names on many of the head stones: Cannon, Young, Smith, Kimball, and Moyle (sorryhad to include my kin in there some place). The other predominant name that shows up a lot is Richards.
Levi Greene Richards was born into a pioneer family in 1878 but later changed his first name to just “Lee” for, as he said, “professional reasons.” That Lee grew up in “The Block” with other artistic pals like Mahonri Young, Alma B. Wright, and Jack Sears, is significant. Their mutual encouragement strengthened one another and they also shared a superb teacherJ.T. Harwoodwho assisted them with their dreams and served as a living example that the pursuit of art was honorable and achievable in the Great Basin. Although Young would spend much of his professional career outside the region (as did Jack Sears), and Wright would become an expatriate in France, Richards remained in the Salt Lake area.
Barbara Ostler, who wrote her thesis and subsequent book about Richards, suggested that Richards is best known for his portraits, particularly of LDS Church officials, but he was additionally a gifted landscapist, and muralist. Examine any Richards landscape and you will observe a well-composed, balanced, and aesthetically-pleasing work.
Richards’ early training from Harwood was boosted by his numerous trips to Paris where he studied, as was the tradition of second generation Utah artists, at the Academie Julian. Later, he qualified for acceptance into the state-sponsored Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he studied at the atelier of famed portraitist, Leon Bonnat.
Like with Harwood, Willard Clawson, Lewis Ramsey, and Henri Moser, the explosive effects of post impressionism, expressionism, and even Fauvism would not be lost on young Utah talents like Richards. Richards excelled in his Parisian studies in the early 1900s where he exhibited at both the prestigious Salon de la Societe des Artistes Francais, and the Salon d’Automne (1903). Two years later, the Salon would be the site of the scandalous exhibit of Matisse’s Fauves (“wild beasts”). Richards would subsequently exhibit at and serve as a juror at the Salons of 1909 and 1920.
Richards first rented studio space at the old Dooly Building, the only Louis Sullivan-designed building in Utah, that gave way to the wrecking ball so that we could experience the wonderful architecture of the Shiloh Inn (sarcasm included). Later, to accommodate his growing LDS Church portraiture business, Richards relocated to the Templeton Building (see 15 Bytes, May 2007 edition) where his studio was adjacent to friend and long-time artist Dan Weggeland.
Although Richards was an amiable, engaging gentleman, he required of his portraiture subjects the promise of no less than twelve sittings. His eye was on detail and anyone visiting the UMFA who inspects Richards’ full-length portrait of "Jeune Fille au Sac Vert" (1904) and "After the Hunt" (1911) will readily observe the influences of Whistler and Sargent, whom Richards admired from his Paris sojourns.
Richards and his family maintained a close association with his pioneer family and the Mormon Church; however, he, like Mahonri Young, kept somewhat distant from “active Church membership,” as Ostler asserts. Whether for a Church official, other subject, landscape, or mural, Richards was never found without his trademark green painter’s smock and tie. Having lost all of his hair at an early age, Richards once tried a toupee, but quickly discarded it and made light of his baldness.
One of the unique features of Richards’ paintings was his use of an unusual combination of his initials which formed a turtlenot unlike Whistler’s use of a butterfly. Richards employed the “turtle” signature only on more personal works, utilizing his very familiar reddish-colored full signature on all other paintings.
Richards' landscape style of the 1930s easily compares to that of associates Waldo Midgley and Henri Moser. I’d be hard pressed to identify the artist who created September Hills, 1930 (in the collection of Don and Barbara Ostler). The composition could be Midgley's, LeConte Stewart's, Moser's, or any number of contemporary Utah artists, but it is an exquisite painting by Richards. "Big Cottonwood Stream," 1932, utilizes several orange hues and punctuates the painting with two groupings of trees surrounding Big Cottonwood Creek (we former Cottonwooders say, “crick,” not “creek.”). This one is very much like numerous Moser paintings, which is not surprising since the two painted together, usually at Bear Lake. Sometimes, Richards painted with his cousin, Louise Richards Farnsworth, a glorious, underrated expressionist who will be the subject of a future column.
Richards was at home whether the canvas was large or small. He seemed especially suited for large mural work as evidenced by his work in the Utah State Capitol Building rotunda. Richards received a WPA commission for the work which reportedly paid $90 per month, likely a welcome sum for the Richards family in 1934. Next time you are in the rotunda, walk the stairs to the gallery area and look up. Richards’s works are stunning and if you notice any Richards family resemblance, it is because he used so many of his family members as models. The depictions detail such historical events in Utah as Father Escalante Discovers Utah Lake, 1776, Brigham Young and Pioneers Entering the Valley 1847, and Driving the Golden Spike 1869. Take a pair of field glasses with you when you go so that you can see some of the typical Richards detail.
Richards' other memorable celebration in mural painting is located above the grand staircase in the Park Building at the University of Utah. This massive mural shows some of the world’s greatest scientists and inventors (Darwin, Galileo, Aristotle, among others). At the time, the 5th floor of the Park Building housed the U’s art collection, before it was relocated to the Art and Architecture Building and most recently to the UMFA building, thanks in large part to Marcia and John Price.
Richards completed his long artful career, teaching at the U of U’s art department from 1938 to 1947, instructing being a first for him and assuredly a treasure for all who received his expertise. Richards passed away on February 20, 1950, and as Ostler pointed out, “Richards often said that his idea of heaven was to have a large canvas with all the time to paint when wanted. Perhaps this is what his heaven is all about.”
Not many artists retain their same clear, balanced, and bright palette as they age, but I have never seen a poorly-composed or otherwise lacking artwork by Richards. His works can be seen in numerous public and LDS Church buildings, as well as in private collections. The market value for Richards’ artworks does nothing but increase, but even more significant is the enhanced historical and cultural value of his body of work. Regardless of the motive, when a Richards painting becomes available, I highly recommend consideration for purchase.
The First Step is Admitting . . .
by Amanda Moore
It's late at night and I am trolling the Internet looking for something cheap, a foreign born lovely that goes by the name Diana, Holga, Savoy, Lomo, or even the sweet American Brownie. NO, I am not talking mail order brides, but toy cameras.
I have a problem. Epic battles are being fought on eBay everyday for these cameras, and I have become one of the many casualties. I am addicted to the crappy plastic lenses, the limited focus, the sunny versus cloudy aperture setting, and the need to tape my camera up like a mummy to prevent light leaks …
Finding the cameras is only part of the rush; there is also limitless information available on how to modify them once I have them. I can turn them into pinholes, Polaroid, 35mm cameras, and so on. And let’s not forget film, filters, accessories, color flash and everything Lomography. Finally, I can exhibit the images for the world on myspace.com, flickr.com, and toycamera.com (just to name a few).
So what is a toy camera? It all begins with the legacy of the Diana |1|, created in China in the 1960s. The Chinese were trying to create a camera for the everyman but weren't sure which film should be used, so they created a cheap camera that used professional 120 films. The Diana became a fixture at state fairs and carnivals as cheap prizes. Many artists and photographers discovered them there, but their rise in popularity in America did not come until years after they were no longer being produced. What makes the Diana so popular? Like any other camera, the images it produces. The focus is soft because of the plastic lens, but because it barely covers the film plane, there is also a nice gradual vignette. Typically, whatever is in the center is in focus and the peripheries become very blurry.|2| It mirrors our own vision in this way. The last thing that makes this camera so popular is a snowball effect: it gets more popular just by being so popular. People fight over original Dianas because they want the name. But no worries--you won't have to spend tons of money to have such crappy effects. Thankfully, there are many clones that produce the same poor quality image--if not worse.
The clone that has become the most popular in art schools and has risen to the top of the toy camera food chain is the Holga. Built in China, the Holga first started showing up in the early ‘80s. It has several variations, including those with flash, those with color flash and even some with glass lenses. Some people even modify their Holgas so much they take sharp pictures, making them almost not crappy.
Holgas have found their real fan base on Lomography.com. Lomophiles will tell you that a Holga is a Lomo, but hard core Holgaphiles will say “up yours” to Lomo. Lomo is actually a reinvented Russian camera company that now specializes in the fab reintroduction of their cameras as well as Polaroids, Holgas and any other weird, specialized film camera they can get their hands on. They are definitely marketing to the 20-something crowd and create kits with cool packaging, cameras, film, accessories and initiation to the club at an inflated price. The Lomo Society is responsible for a large part of the growing popularity of toy cameras.
Toycamera.com has aided in the toy cameras ascendancy. The site has been around for many years as a non-competitive space for people who enjoy sharing their love of plastic cameras and the images they produce. People from around the world post galleries, modifications and have even participated in group collaborations. They have self-published a book, The Toycam Handbook, through Lulu.com, and a magazine, Light Leaks, that is published in Canada but edited right here in Ogden, Utah.
Back to my addiction… As a photographer, I find myself at odds with many local authorities who cannot believe I would waste film on a piece-of-junk camera. Actually, there are many local authorities who cannot believe I shoot film to begin with. I believe that an important part of the rise of the toy camera movement is digital photography. As the better cameras have become more affordable and therefore more predominant in photo classes everywhere, there had to be a natural backlash against the technology. Students, artists and hobbyists are putting down their digital SLRs and picking up their Holgas. By doing this they are relinquishing perfectly exposed images, sharpness and LCD screens. They are relearning how to look at their subject and how to lose control.
As an artist, I am reminded how important process is no matter what the medium. I find myself out in the field with three cameras strapped to my body: my Hasselblad, a Polaroid and one of my Holgas or Diana clones. I think these multiple formats represent how my brain is going to take in the information I see. So much of my own artwork is based on travel, and I think the way I photograph it is representative of my memories of the trip. The Polaroid is the short-term memory. Often, I don't look at the developed Polaroid until much later and I won't always remember what I was looking at. The Hasselblad is more representative of my long-term memory. The image is always sharp and--as long as I am paying attention--the exposure is good, and because the image is part of a sequence on a roll of film, I can more clearly place the subject. The images from my Holga or Diana cameras become my imagination around the events. They are soft, dreamlike and often reduce the image to shapes and colors. I often look at them and have no idea where they were taken or what they were, but they still retain some part of the memory for me.
I have found a support group for my addiction, a toy camera club founded by the Supervising Editor of Light Leaks Magazine, Steph Parke. We met through our dealer, David Ujifusa, owner of Howell's Photographic on 200 South. If you are interested in falling down the rabbit hole with us, I will be teaching a class on toy cameras this June 11th through July 2nd at the Women's Art Center and September 19th through October 3rd in the University of Utah's Continuing Education Department. You can also join us once a month for meetings of the Salt Lake Toy Camera Club. ||
Amanda Moore's work can be seen at http://www.movingtruewest.com