Black-and-white masters

Ansel Adams and Ira Latour highlight Chico Artoberfest.

Ira Latour, “Mari Quiros, Seville (flamenco dancer),” Seville, Spain, 1953

Ira Latour, “Mari Quiros, Seville (flamenco dancer),” Seville, Spain, 1953

Photo courtesy of ira latour

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is a lifetime of pictures worth?

Sometimes, the stories are just too big to be contained within this, at times, limited space. And this really is one of those times. Not only is Chico getting an October exhibit of original photographic prints by the great Ansel Adams, but at the same time a retrospective of the work of 88-year-old Ira Latour, arguably the most important photographer to work out of Chico. Alone, a proper biography of either on this newspaper page is unwieldy. Together? A little ridiculous.

How did this local meeting of photo giants even happen?

First, Adams. You know, the most popular American visual artist ever. The guy whose iconic black-and-white images of Yosemite and the rest of our expansive Western wilderness were instrumental in furthering the environmental causes of the Sierra Club and the creation of national preserves. The guy who along the way became the catalyst for photography being taken seriously as an art form.

His story here actually begins with his granddaughter Alison Jaques. She, along with the rest of Adams’ children and grandchildren, was bequeathed a “museum set” of her famous relative’s original prints. Upon an urging by Latour to show the Adams work at the university, Chico State art professor Tom Patton got together with fellow photographer and University Art Gallery curator Jason Tannen to arrange to host the collection, a proposition to which Jaques, a 1983 Chico State graduate, was very open.

“Otherwise, they’re just in a box,” she told Tannen.

“These photos demonstrate technique [that is] completely in the service of ideas or aesthetics,” said Tannen. “Ansel pioneered the concept of previsualizing what the final print would look like, based upon a desire to communicate his feelings about the actual scene.”

As Patton and Tannen whittled 37 Adams photos down to the 28 landscape subjects that will be part of the gallery’s Nature & Spirit exhibit, Patton reached out to other local galleries to see if they’d be interested in cooperating with similar shows.

“Ira was the perfect complement to that,” said Patton about the former Chico State art professor, “He was Ansel’s first student.”

Ansel Adams, “Ira H. Latour,” 1945

Photo Courtesty of Ira Latour

Seizing the opportunity to showcase the life’s work of this Chico master, 1078 Gallery Exhibitions Committee members Thomasin Saxe and Dennis Coleman, along with Patton, went to work, meeting Latour at his Chico home and sifting through hundreds of images to put together a representative history.

From his humanist compositions of people on the streets of various European cities during the ‘40s and ‘50s, to the improbable, unflinching portraits of historical figures who’ve passed through Chico in recent years—Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel—co-curators Patton and Coleman have compiled a retrospective of 52 images.

“What really, really strikes me is that he is so much about human nature and the joy of life,” said Coleman, who has been consumed with working on the exhibit, from its inception to the creation of the catalog to the hanging of the show. “You see it in his pictures of the poor Spanish children, or, one of my favorites, the family at the arch. He is so much about family, and children, and caring, and the joy of life. When you see the pictures you see people who don’t have much money, but the smiles, the camaraderie, the joy of children, I think really comes through.”

Though Latour has been celebrated locally over the years, his story isn’t as noted in the history of photography as an art form or in the popular consciousness as Adams’ is, but his biography is just as engrained in the medium’s history.

His grandfather William Latour was making daguerreotypes in America during the mid-19th century (not long after Louis Daguerre had invented them), and his father Ira Hinsdale Latour was a co-founder of the California Photographers Association. Latour, of course, studied with and was friends with Adams, who, along with Edward Weston, he counts as his mentors.

Both Minor White and Homer Page were teachers of his as well. Throughout his world touring, Latour held a variety of posts, some of which included heading the photography collaborative degree program at UC Berkeley, director of the U.S. Army’s photography department in Europe during the ‘50s, and teaching photography at San Francisco State (1955-59) before landing in Chico in 1968, where he taught art history for nearly three decades.

Ansel Adams, “Mount Williamson, the Sierra Nevada,” Manzanar, Calif., 1945

©2008 The ansel adams publishing rights trust

“When I meet someone like this who I’ve never really been exposed to,” said Patton, “I’m surprised and, I guess in some ways, disappointed that his [work] isn’t more out there and that more people don’t know him. I think there are certainly far more celebrated photographers without nearly the body of work.”

And that’s at least part of the impetus for doing the retrospective show and producing a catalog from it (available during the exhibition for $35), to maybe start a process of reassessing Latour’s place in art history.

“His aesthetic has certainly been honed by his associations with Ansel Adams, Minor White,” said Coleman, adding, “I just think he’s a really important artist, and he’s an important person because he’s a walking history book. It’s been an honor and privilege to talk to him.”