Written by on December 4, 2017

Picturing California: A Visual Tour Through the Golden State

Indigenous Californians were the state’s earliest image-makers. Their sacred, ancient rock art includes elaborate depictions of animals and human figures combined with symbols, patterns, and geometric shapes. These stunning markings in paint and chiseled rock are believed to be visual records of religious rituals, visions, mythology, and cosmological events. Centuries later, European expeditions produced visual documents that were useful for navigation, science, and trade, hastening the expansion of colonial power in California.

After gold was discovered in 1848, and following statehood in 1850, the need to visually describe California for legal, commercial, and promotional purposes soared. Photography soon joined drawing, painting, letterpress printing, lithography, and engraving as mediums available to realistically and artistically represent California as an impression or expression of place.

Color illustrations from California Wild Flowers by Elizabeth Hallowell Saunders. This rare portfolio was published in 1905 and features twelve three-color plates. See all twelve plates on the Kennedy Library Online Collections.

Picturing California: A Visual Tour Through the Golden State, which is open through February 27, 2018, explores the many ways California has been pictured, from the practical and commercial to the artistic. Exhibit selections spotlight some of the department’s historic collecting areas, including California and regional history; California literature and poetry; California tourism and promotion; California architecture; California fine press printing, book arts, and photography; and the history of the graphic arts.

Highlights include Eadweard Muybridge’s 1877 photographic panorama of San Francisco, wood engravings of the desert and Yosemite by Paul Landacre and Richard Wagener, photographs and architectural plans for the Fararr House, Mark Mills’ demolished masterpiece, and an audio-visual display of Courier’s Text Atlas of the United States of America, a “geographically accurate, 100% typed atlas of the US, with each state typed out using only the letters of its name,” as read by Alex, synthetic computer voice.

In addition to works by Votan Henriquez, Arnold Hylen, Jennifer Farrell, Ed Ruscha, and many others, the exhibit also features a rare, hand-colored map with routes to the Gold Rush and a 1932 Edward Weston photograph of the Big Sur, both of which are on generous loan from Roger and Janice Verity (pictured on the wall at far left).

The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Starr (1940-2017), journalist, professor, scholar, and former California State Librarian. He devoted his career to chronicling California’s dynamic history, both fact and fantasy, and included print culture as a vital part of it.

The graphic design for the exhibit is by library student assistant Swasti Mittal (ART, ’18).

Learn more about Special Collections and Archives at http://lib.calpoly.edu/sca

Read more on Architecture Archives, California history, jessica holada, printing history, and special collections and archives.

3 comments on “Picturing California: A Visual Tour Through the Golden State
  1. Tony Sorvetti says:

    Great article. Would Ansel Adams and John Muir be considered contributors to the visual pictorials of California?
    Thank you

  2. Siobhan Leachman says:

    An interesting article particularly as it mentioned the early C20th illustrator and photographer Elisabeth Hallowell Saunders. I’ve been doing some research on her and have collated some of it in Wikidata see https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q53506473 if you are interested.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Ansel Adams would certainly be considered a contributor to the visual history of California, Tony, but we chose instead to feature a vintage print from one of his contemporaries, Edward Weston, whose image of the Central Coast we were able to display thanks to a generous loan from local Californiana collector. As for Muir, there are beautiful publisher’s bindings of his works, but we do not have examples of these in our collection. For this show, we focused on Cal Poly’s gems, which included some titles and authors that may be less familiar to people, but no less spectacular. The portfolio by Elisabeth Hallowell Saunders would be considered one of those gem. Thank you for your interest in her, Siobhan!

    -Jessica Holada

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