Exhibition: ‘In Focus: The Sky’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, Los Angeles

Exhibition dates: 26th July 26 – 4th December 2011


John Divola. 'Untitled', Zuma Series, 1977


John Divola (American, b. 1949)
Zuma Series
Chromogenic print
24.8 x 30.4cm (9 3/4 x 11 15/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Michael and Jane Wilson
© John Divola



Many thankx to Melissa Abraham for her help and to the J. Paul Getty Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.


With its immensity, immateriality, and variability, the sky has been an enduring subject in art history, fascinating and challenging generations of artists. As soon as the medium of photography was introduced in 1839, photographers attempted to represent the sky and its natural phenomena.

Atmospheric light and its constant mutability have always been hard to capture, but by the 1850s the greater light sensitivity of collodion negatives (compared to the daguerreotype and calotype processes) allowed the spectacles of the sky to be more easily transposed to photography.

With further technical improvements such as the development of instantaneous processes in the 1880s and the advent of Kodachrome colour film around 1935, photographers have continued to explore this theme in diverse and imaginative ways.


Skies in Color

In the fall of 1977, after discovering an abandoned lifeguard headquarters at Zuma Beach, California, John Divola began visiting the site to photograph. Painting the walls, incorporating props, using flash, and depending on the Pacific Ocean and the sky for a dramatic backdrop, he created a series of makeshift scenes.

Discussing his work in 1980, Divola said, “These photographs are the product of my involvement with an evolving situation. The house evolving in a primarily linear way toward its ultimate disintegration, the ocean and light evolving and changing in a cyclical and regenerative manner.”

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


John Divola (American, b. 1949) 'Untitled' 1977


John Divola (American, b. 1949)
Zuma Series
Chromogenic print
24.6 × 30.5cm (9 11/16 × 12 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Michael and Jane Wilson
© John Divola


Col. Henry Stuart Wortley. 'The Day is Done, and the Darkness Falls from the Wings of Night.' about 1862


Col. Henry Stuart Wortley (British, 1832-1890)
The Day is Done, and the Darkness Falls from the Wings of Night.,
about 1862
Albumen silver print
29.5 x 35.2cm (11 5/8 x 13 7/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884) 'Cloudy Sky – Mediterranean Sea' 1857


Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884)
Cloudy Sky – Mediterranean Sea
Albumen silver print
12 1/4 x 16 7/16 in.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles




The collodion process (in which a syrupy, light–sensitive mixture was applied to glass-plate negatives) was advantageous for its short exposure time and sharpness, but its sensitivity to blue light could also pose a challenge. By the time the camera captured detail in the foreground, the sky was often overexposed and thus printed as blank space.

To create his sweeping seascape, Cloudy Sky – Mediterranean Sea, Gustave Le Gray combined two slightly overlapping negatives: one for the sky and one for the sea.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) '[Solar Eclipse]' January 1, 1889


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
[Solar Eclipse]
January 1, 1889
Albumen silver print
16.5 × 21.6cm (6 1/2 × 8 1/2 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles



Standing atop Mount Santa Lucia in northern California at approximately 3.50 p.m. on January 1, 1889, Carleton Watkins was able to make only one exposure during the instant of complete eclipse. Accompanied by professors from the newly created University of California and the United States Naval Observatory, Watkins waited slightly more than an hour for the moon to begin its movement and assume its temporary position directly in front of the sun. The radiating sun, its brilliance hidden by the black moon, lies suspended over a sea of clouds whose rippling waves dominate the sky. Only the inclusion of the treetops in the foreground serves to ground the image in a familiar reality.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Dorothea Lange. 'Full Moon, Southwestern Utah' 1953


Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Full Moon, Southwestern Utah
Gelatin silver print
15.6 x 15.3cm (6 1/8 x 6 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of the John Dixon Collection
© Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland



Dorothea Lange suffered health problems in the late 1940s, but she wanted to travel again and be part of the current documentary effort. Since the federal government was no longer funding such projects, this meant working for the thriving picture magazines. Lange proposed to Life that she and Ansel Adams do a project in Utah. They would travel with her son Daniel, who would write text for the article, and her husband, who had a continuing interest in the survival of utopian communities. Their purpose was to record the landscape, built environment and inhabitants of three towns in southwestern Utah settled in the mid-nineteenth century by Mormons. The grandchildren of some of these pioneers were Lange’s subjects during her visit to Gunlock, Toquerville, and St. George in 1953.

Adapted from Judith Keller, Dorothea Lange, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), p. 64. © 2002 J. Paul Getty Trust.



The J. Paul Getty Museum presents In Focus: The Sky, a thematically-installed exhibition of permanent collection photographs, on view at the Getty Center from July 26 – December 4, 2011.

“The sky has fascinated and challenged photographers since the invention of the medium,” said Anne Lyden, associate curator, Department of Photographs, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and curator of the exhibition. “This exhibition showcases a wide range of approaches to capturing the many moods and effects of the sky – things we usually take for granted.”

The selection of 22 artworks provides visitors with an opportunity to explore the Getty Museum’s world-renowned photographs collection through the pictorial subject of the sky, with the works loosely organised under four different themes: urban skies, clouds, dark skies, and colourful skies.

The exhibition features photographs by artists such as: Ansel Adams, John Divola, André Kertész, Joel Meyerowitz, Alfred Stieglitz, and Carleton Watkins, among others. The Getty’s collection includes exemplary objects that demonstrate both technological and aesthetic innovations in photography. Among the different processes highlighted are daguerreotypes, albumen silver prints, palladium prints, platinum prints, and more contemporary inkjet prints.

One of the most well-known works in the exhibition is Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, (negative made November 1, 1941; printed December 16, 1948). Traveling by car through New Mexico, Adams was inspired by light from the setting sun illuminating crosses in the graveyard at the side of the road. By carefully considering the composition, visualising the printed image before creating the photograph, understanding the required exposure needed in response to the available light, and exerting a certain degree of control in the printing process so that detail and shadows were retained, Adams succeeded in capturing the fleeting moment when the sun was setting and the bright moon appeared in the darkening sky.

The summer sky of Cape Cod features in Meyerowitz’s photograph Fence, Truro, negative 1976; printed 1992. Having recently acquired a large view camera, Meyerowitz spent two summers recording the structures and light of the coastal area that ultimately resulted in the 1978 book, Cape Light. Noting the shifting shadows as they played across the picket fence, his use of colour aptly describes the very subject of light itself.

Included in the exhibition is a selection from John Divola’s Zuma Beach series. In the fall of 1977, after discovering an abandoned lifeguard headquarters at Zuma Beach, California, Divola began visiting the site mornings and evenings to photograph. Bringing paints, using flash, and depending on the Pacific Ocean and the ever-changing sky for a dramatic backdrop, he created spontaneous scenes in this seaside theatre.

Also on view is a small group of three photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. From 1922 to 1934, Stieglitz photographed clouds and created a series of abstract configurations which reflected the fluctuation of his subjective state. By simply titling each piece Equivalent, he invited an open reading of the images and their content.

In Focus: The Sky is the ninth installation of the ongoing In Focus series of exhibitions, thematic presentations of photographs from the Getty’s permanent collection.

Press release from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


André Kertész. 'The Lost Cloud, New York' negative 1937; print 1970s


André Kertész (American, born Hungary, 1894-1985)
The Lost Cloud, New York
Negative 1937; print 1970s
Gelatin silver print
24.8 x 16.5cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Estate of André Kertész



Urban Skies

Soon after arriving in New York in October 1936, André Kertész spent time searching the city streets for fresh material, just as he had done in Paris for a decade. One afternoon he observed a solitary white cloud in a vast blue sky, dwarfed by the monolithic presence of the Rockefeller Center. Kertész later recounted that he was “very touched when he saw the cloud, as it “didn’t know which way to go” (Bela Ugrin, Dialogues with Kertész, ” 1978-1985, the Getty Research Institute) – a sentiment he strongly identified with as a new immigrant.

From the lyrical to the abstract, photography has often been an apt medium with which to capture the fleeting nature of skies.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


The impenetrable façade of Rockefeller Center in New York dominates the frame of this photograph, filling the lower and right sides of the image with its cold, hard, modern lines. The other third of the composition belongs to the sky, in which a lone puff of white cloud hangs isolated like a cotton ball, holding sway against the force of the skyscraper. The brilliant white form is “lost” in this scene that is otherwise devoid of natural, spirited shapes. The cloud possesses an innate impermanence; it will be gone with the next gust of wind, blown along on its path to some other expanse of sky. Andre Kertész’s juxtaposition of the whimsical cloud and unforgiving architecture seems to emphasise his own sense of isolation; the photograph was made soon after he had emigrated from Europe.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Alfred Stieglitz. 'Songs of the Sky' 1924


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
Songs of the Sky
Gelatin silver print
11.7 x 9.2cm (4 5/8 x 3 5/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© J. Paul Getty Trust


Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958) 'Cloud, Mexico' 1926


Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958)
Cloud, Mexico
Palladium print
14.9 × 24cm (5 7/8 × 9 7/16 in.)
© 1981 Arizona Board of Regents, Center for Creative Photography



The first image with artistic intention that Edward Weston made in Mexico was of a cloud. Stopped in the port of Mazatlan on his way to Mexico City in 1923, Weston, for the first time in his career, was moved to photograph the sky, a theme that would occupy him intermittently throughout his entire sojourn in Mexico. Working with his Graflex, which allowed for greater flexibility than his tripod-mounted eight-by-ten-inch camera, he shot clouds spontaneously and maintained a personal collection of prints that he referred to as his “cloud series.” He noted in his daybook, “Next to the recording of a fugitive expression, or revealing the pathology of some human being, is there anything more elusive to capture than cloud forms! And the Mexican clouds are so swift and ephemeral, one can hardly allow the thought, ‘Is this worth doing?’ or, ‘ls this placed well?’ – for an instant of delay and what was, is not!”

The economy of form achieved in this 1926 image through the isolation of a single strip of stratus clouds oriented diagonally within the frame was not new to Weston’s aesthetic; his 1924 picture of Tina Modotti (1896-1942) nude on the roof of their home (see 86.XM.710.8) employs a remarkably similar composition. If Mexico provided Weston the inspiration to explore and expand the range of his oeuvre, adding clouds, still lifes, and landscapes to his repertoire of portraits and nudes, it simultaneously served as the place where his visual approach to the world was honed. His time in Mexico came to an end the same year he made this picture, but many of the principles he developed there would last him throughout his career.

Brett Abbott. Edward Weston, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005), 48. ©2005, J. Paul Getty Trust.


Bernice Abbott. 'Night View, New York City' 1932


Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
[The West Side, Looking North from the Upper 30s / Nightview]
Gelatin silver print
33.8 × 26.8cm (13 5/16 × 10 9/16 in.)
© Estate of Berenice Abbott



“If [photography] is to be utterly honest and direct, it should be related to the pulse of the times – the pulse of today.” ~ Berenice Abbott

Nowhere is Berenice Abbott’s statement better demonstrated than in this photograph of the pulsating vibrancy of New York City, alive at night with thousands of glittering lights. The flashes of illumination perforate the frame, reflecting the dynamism of the world’s fastest-changing city. Abbott set about documenting New York when she returned there in 1929 after nine years spent in Europe. Abbott made this photograph from a high vantage point in the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue looking north.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946) 'Equivalent' 1926


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
Gelatin silver print
11.6 × 9.1cm (4 9/16 × 3 9/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946) 'Equivalent' 1926


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)
Gelatin silver print
11.7 × 9.2cm (4 5/8 × 3 5/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984) 'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico' 1941


Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984)
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico
Negative November 1, 1941; print December 16, 1948
Gelatin silver print
34.9 × 44cm (13 3/4 × 17 5/16 in.)
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust



Arguably Ansel Adams’s most famous image, this photograph is titled Moonrise rather than Sunset, even though the moon technically does not rise in the sky. As a scholar noted: The factuality and, moreover, the meaning of the setting sun were rejected by him in favour of the expressive symbolism of the rising moon; of the shining luminescence ablaze with greatness in its primal mystery, dramatically isolated in the infinity of darkness.

Instead of making an unmanipulated print from the negative, Adams selectively printed the sky black and the foreground dark in order to achieve a particular illumination and spiritual transcendence. The photographer’s skill and vision transformed the tiny town of Hernandez, dotted with glowing white cemetery and church crosses, into a spectral landscape.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Paul Strand (American, 1890-1976) 'Sangre de Cristo, New Mexico' 1930


Paul Strand (American, 1890-1976)
Sangre de Cristo, New Mexico
Platinum print
9.2 × 11.9cm (3 5/8 × 4 11/16 in.)
© Aperture Foundation


William A. Garnett (American, 1916-2006) 'Smog, Los Angeles' 1949


William A. Garnett (American, 1916-2006)
Smog, Los Angeles
Gelatin silver print
25.2 × 34cm (9 15/16 × 13 3/8 in.)
© Estate of William A. Garnett



An ardent conservationist, Garnett became concerned about land use and air pollution in the early 1940s. He made this photograph in an attempt to raise public awareness. Over the years Garnett came to believe that he was more likely to inspire positive change by pointing out nature’s enduring beauty than by showing the ugliness caused by poor choices.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Robert Weingarten (American, born 1941) '6:30 A.M. 10/06/03, #98, Malibu, CA' 2003


Robert Weingarten (American, b. 1941)
6:30 A.M. 10/06/03, #98, Malibu, CA
Inkjet print
76.4 × 76.4cm (30 1/16 × 30 1/16 in.)
© Robert Weingarten
Gift of Alvin and Heidi Toffler


The horizon at dawn, looking southeast over Santa Monica Bay, from the artist’s home in Malibu.


Joel Meyerowitz. 'Fence, Truro' negative 1976; print 1992


Joel Meyerowitz (American, b. 1938)
Fence, Truro
negative 1976; print 1992
Chromogenic print
59.7 x 47.3cm (23 1/2 x 18 5/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Nancy and Bruce Berman
© Joel Meyerowitz, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY



The J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, California 90049

Opening hours:
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Saturday 10am – 8pm
Monday Closed

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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