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The photographic evolution of Rose Mandel

The name Rose Mandel may not be synonymous with the likes of American masters Ansel Adams and Minor White, but Mandel was a personal student of, and championed by, both.

“The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is the first retrospective of a photographer considered innovative and groundbreaking by her contemporaries yet generally unknown in the larger art world.

Originally from Czaniec, Poland, Mandel fled Europe in 1942. She studied child education and psychology in Geneva before settling in the Bay Area with her husband. There she enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where Adams and White were instructors.

Mandel skillfully combines elements of abstraction and surrealism to create images that are personal reflections of Mandel's inner thoughts and feelings, Susan Ehrens an art historian and independent photography curator.

A series of close-up views of nature, seen in and out of focus, have not been seen since they were first exhibited in 1954.

“This selective focus, of seeing things in and out of focus, extensively explored by Mandel from about 1951 through 1959, was innovative, original and extremely important,” Ehrens says.

Ehrens, who was guest curator for the exhibit and a friend of the photographer, says Mandel had an insatiable interest and curiosity about the world. Mandel rarely spoke about how she approached making photographs, Ehrens says, except that photography was a “fine art and was a highly personal expression of what was in her mind and heart and soul.”

Mandel seems to have been completely invested in exploring the many avenues of the photographic process. From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, she created original portraits, close-ups of nature, abstractions of water and street photographs. Although each discipline is somewhat unrelated and even treated as specialties by many photographers today, there is a lyrical quality that emanates from all her photographs no matter the subject matter.

“From the outset, her vision was instinctive and personal,” says Julian Cox, founding curator of photography and chief curator, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “For Mandel, the photograph was meant not simply to describe the world but also to suggest its infinite forms and evoke its many moods.”

During this period, Mandel had a steady job as senior photographer for the art department at the University of California; therefore, the art she created outside of work was hers alone and not driven by a need to sell her work. Photography was not widely collected, and she did not participate in the art market as we understand it today. She printed in modest numbers and was not interested in gallery representation or aggressive marketing.

“Almost every print in the exhibition and catalogue is one-of-a-kind, and many have never before been on public view,” Cox says.

She took part in several solo and group exhibitions and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for photography in 1967, but to this day she is relatively unknown to a wider audience.

“She was not one to make grandiose proclamations about her creative intentions,” Cox says. “In fact, she famously stated, ‘Everything I can’t say in words is expressed there in my photographs.’ ”

Mandel died in 2002 at 92.

“The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel,” is on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through October 13.

- Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN

Art Institute of Chicago photographs are restricted gifts of Lucia Woods Lindley and Daniel A. Lindley, Jr. Rose Mandel Archive/All rights reserved.