JSNH&B home • Spring 2008 • vol. 1 no. 2

Gold Rush Towns through a Woman’s Eye:

The Photographic Legacy of Alma Lavenson


quoteFrom 1930 to 1968, Lavenson photographed Mother Lode communities … unquote

Alma Lavenson is one of the most intriguing figures of 20th century California. Entirely self-taught, Lavenson became one of the leading photographers of the century and a contemporary and friend of such masters of photography as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. She also left an amazing historical repository of Gold Rush history. From 1930 to 1968, Lavenson photographed Mother Lode communities, primarily focusing her large-format camera on the historical buildings of the Gold Rush-era. More than 350 photographs were produced, which now reside in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. Among her subjects were the Nevada County towns of Grass Valley, Nevada City, Rough and Ready, North Bloomfield and Washington.

Some of her photographs are reproduced here.


Self-taught Photographer

Alma Lavenson was born in San Francisco in 1897. She enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1915, and began her self-study of photography. For years she practiced amateur photography and took images of buildings in particular. Alma was fascinated by the geometric forms of structures and their placement in the landscape. She frequently exhibited in photographic salons and became a member of the influential Pictorialist Photographers of America. In 1930, she met Weston, Adams, and Cunningham. Lavenson also began her more than three decades of photographic wandering through the Gold Country in that year.

In 1932, Lavenson was asked to participate in the Group f/64 exhibition at San Francisco’s M.H. deYoung Museum. This exhibition revolutionized contemporary photography. New techniques of visualization and technical routine pioneered by this group continue to be major influences on photography. This loosely-organized group was described in their “Manifesto” as follows: “The name of the group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image, which is an important element in the work of members of this Group … The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.”

Iconic Self Portrait

Lavenson self-portrait, Hands, 1932The spare, but hardly simple, photographs of Alma Lavenson reflected this artistic philosophy. In 1932, Alma Lavenson produced one of the most admired images of the century. It is her “Self-Portrait (with Hands).” This image of Lavenson manipulating the lens of her camera is frequently cited by photographers as one of their most favorite self-portraits, although Lavenson’s face is not shown. In 1996-1997, this image was fashioned into a huge banner and used to adorn the New York Public Library’s exhibition on the history of women photographers. In 1999, the University of California hosted a major retrospective on the photography of Lavenson and Imogen Cunningham., which used the self-portrait as a central image. The self-portrait is used as a cover photograph for the book 101 years of California Photography (1992). And recently a print of Lavenson’s self-portrait was sold at auction for more than $110,000.

Alma Lavenson remained mostly an amateur photographer. But her inspiration was a dynamic influence on generations of women photographers. Lavenson died in 1989 at the age of 92.