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Jack Welpott 1923-2007
by Darwin Marable
Internationally known photographer and educator, Jack Welpott died in Marin General Hospital, Greenbrae, California on November, 22, 2007. He was eighty-four. A memorial will be held on January 12, 2008 in the Fine Arts Gallery at San Francisco State University to celebrate his life and work. Everyone is invited.
According to photographer/curator Leland Rice, "Just like Jack's own mentor, Henry Holmes Smith, Jack was the perfect mentor for those of us who did graduate studies at S.F. State. Jack had a unique ability to challenge us both emotionally and intellectually. The list of photographers working today who studied with Jack spans a healthy 25 years and his own photography, full of romance and intrigue, is still very under recognized today."
Born in Kansas City, Kansas on April 27, 1923, Welpott grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. After high school he enrolled in Indiana University, but was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943. He served in the South Pacific as a radio intercept operator until 1946. After WW II, he returned to Indiana University on the G.I. Bill where he earned an M.F.A degree studying with Henry Holmes Smith. Welpott and Jerry Uelsmann were the first M.F.A. graduates while Van Deren Coke was also a graduate student. During these years, he became acquainted with Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White all of whom were established photographers and pioneers in American photographic education.
Welpott was hired in 1959 by John Gutmann, whose own photographic work was then unknown, to teach photography within the Art Department at San Francisco State College, now San Francisco State University. He taught there for the next thirty-three years. When he arrived in San Francisco the Beat Generation was winding down in North Beach, however, he took advantage of the local poetry, jazz, art and culture. Welpott also played jazz piano which became a lifelong avocation. Years later he said, “When I’m working behind a camera , I feel like I’m trying to achieve something like a jazz musician does.” He also soon became associated with the local photographic community which included Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernard, Oliver Gagliani and Dorothea Lange.
At that time there were almost no photography courses or graduate programs offered at the university level anywhere in the United States. Welpott pioneered in creating both photography courses and a graduate program. He also taught one of the first history of photography courses at the college/university level . While providing a solid basis in photographic technique, Welpott always encouraged an appreciation of the master photographers. Also, he integrated the ideas of Carl G. Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, into the reading of photographs, especially dreams, symbolism and the unconscious mind. Don Worth also joined the faculty in 1962 and added color photography to the program when color photography was not considered relevant in fine art photography.
Welpott’s educational goal was to determine the needs of the student, provide constructive criticism and help them develope their own vision. A number of his students have become major contributors to photography: Judy Dater, Leland Rice, John Spence Weir, Michael Bishop, Harvey Himelfarb, and Catherine Wagner among numerous others.
In 1968, with Welpott’s support, a number of his students formed the Visual Dialogue Foundation to promote their photographs by producing a portfolio, creating exhibitions, a and, in general, publicizing their photographs as fine art. The museum and fine arts galleries in American had not yet accepted photography as a fine art. Although mindful of Group f64, a number of the members continued to work in the tradition of Group f64, while others began to experiment with photography. VDF became the vortex of San Francisco’s photographic community and established a bridge with Robert Heinecken, another pioneer at the University of California at Los Angeles, who was pushing the parameters of traditional American photography.
In a time of increasing specialization in photography, Welpott was unique in that his work was both diverse and unexpected. Formal problems were always of major concern to him. His nudes were erotic and sensual interpretations of the female figure and his best known work. They can also easily mislead the viewer, because he was also interested in integrating subject and technique. Sensitivity to light and composition, especially spatial relations, were always major concerns. His interest in 19th century French painting, especially Henri Matisse, affected his vision. He was also an outstanding portrait photographer and his fragmented landscapes are visual poems which parallel some of the best in landscape photography.
Welpott also liked to create new challenges for himself. During 1980 and 1981, he began exploring San Francisco’s cityscape when he photographed the financial district resulting in some unique, and, at times, critical views of the world of business. Known for his black and white photographs, during the 1980’s he photographed in fragments and in color, but always with restraint. And in the 1990’s, Welpott combined a photogram of a projected seed pod with pen and ink drawing and hand coloring. In graduate school he studied painting and photography and also taught drawing. With an interest in Abstract Expressionism, he wanted to create a photograph in that genre.
Regarding the creation of a photograph, Welpott revealed a mystical side when he stated, “There is the physical sensation of light penetrating everything. The world becomes luminous. Sometimes, one can see a wider, more brilliant, more significant, more detailed world than is apparent to others.”
Welpott was a member of the Friends of Photography, Carmel, California and served on the Board of Trustees from 1973-1976. He was also a member of the Society for Photographic Education. In 1973 Welpott was a recipient of the Medal of Arles, France, and in 1979 received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant.
His photographs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum, New York; International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York; Center for Creative Photography, University ofArizona, Tucson; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris and the Australian National Gallery among others.
Jack Welpott is survived by his daughter, Jan Marie Danielle, her husband, Rob Daniele, their sons, Nicholas and Kevin, his son, Matthew, and stepdaughters, Karan and Jenny Grey.
© Darwin Marble
[Kindly provided by Susan Ehrens, Jan 8, 2008]