Willard Worden, like Carleton Watkins, was one of the Bay Area’s forgotten photographers. But that will change with the current exhibit at the de Young Museum, “Portals of the Past.” His images are part of the larger exhibit, “Jewel City: Art From San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition”, which features 250 works from American and European artists from the 1915 World’s Fair.
At the height of his career, Worden was chosen to be the official photographer for the 1915 fair as well as being asked to display his photographs of the surrounding Bay Area and Yosemite National Park. Worden won a metal of honor at the fair but soon stopped taking photographs because, according to James Ganz, the curator of both the Worden exhibit and the larger Jewel City exhibit. “He was an artist, but didn’t participate in larger art movements or international exhibits.” Instead he settled into a local business of selling prints and framing pictures. Because he didn’t sell his work outside of his home city, he and his work have been largely forgotten.”
Worden was born in Smyrna, Delaware in 1868. He began practicing photography while serving in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. He fell in love with San Francisco and moved here after his stint with the army. Though not a studio portrait photographer, he opened his first photography business in Cow Hollow. After the Panama-Pacific International Expo, Worden established a gallery at 312 Stockton Street which remained in business until the 1940s, though he appears to have ceased making photographs after the gallery opened.
He had the artist’s eye for San Francisco, her exotic Chinatown, the growing urban vistas of the city and the natural beauties of California. He adored the dramatic play of light and shadow which he augmented by his knowledge of artificial lighting, done so skillfully that it looked real. He didn’t hesitate to retouch an image if he thought it would make the photograph stronger.
For instance, in “San Francisco at Night – City Hall Illuminated” (1903), he darkened the sky through retouching and added a full moon and clouds to heighten impact. He did not let any ”modern” innovation go unused from spotlights, searchlights, and projectors, which are used to magical effect in photographs like “Arch of the Rising Sun” which seems to rise from the waters like the mystical city of Atlantis. Within a few years, his stock list contained hundreds of views of San Francisco and the environs as well as sites as far away as Yosemite National Park.
“Then the 1906 earthquake hit, and like any photographer who lived through that event, Worden instantly became a photojournalist, running around town taking hundreds of photos of the fire and its dramatic aftermath,” says Ganz. With an eye for artistic drama, Worden photographed the city in flames, with destruction on every street.
The Worden exhibit contains half-tone reproductions of photos, gelatin silver prints and many soft-focus, sepia-toned, framed images that were most likely to end up on the interior walls of middle-class homes around the city. Worden also spent a lot of time producing hand-colored photos, which were in great demand by those who could not afford oil paintings. “Ansel Adams, like most contemporary photographers, would have bristled at these,” Mr Ganz said. “But Worden was remarkably good from the beginning, almost completely self-taught.” One of Adams’ earliest photographs is in the show; it is interesting to compare Adams’ crisp black and white images with Worden’s romantic, poetic visions. But everything old is new again and perhaps it is way past time for us to appreciate Worden as well as Adams. Loving one style of photography should not mean that we reject other points of view.
“Portals of the Past: The Photographs of Willard Worden” is on at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until February 14th 2016