Sonya Noskowiak (25 November 1900 – 28 April 1975) was a 20th-century German-American photographer and member of the famous San Francisco photography collective Group f/64 that included Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. She is considered to be a central figure in one of the great art movements of the century. Throughout her career, Noskowiak photographed quite a few subjects those including landscapes, still lives and portraits. Her most well-known, and unacknowledged, portraits are of the author, John Steinbeck. In 1936, Noskowiak was awarded a prize at the annual exhibition of the San Francisco Society of Women Artist. She was also represented in the San Francisco Museum of Art’s 1939 “Scenes from San Francisco” exhibit. Ten years before her death, Noskowiak's work was included in a WPA exhibition at the Oakland Museum, in Oakland, California.
Noskowiak was born in Leipzig, Germany. Her father was a landscape gardener who instilled in her an awareness of the land that would later become evident in her photography. In her early years, she moved around the world while her father sought work in Chile, then Panama, before finally settling in Los Angeles, California in 1915. In 1919, she moved to San Francisco to enroll in secretarial school. Interested in photography at an early age, in 1925, Noskowiak would become a receptionist in Johan Hagemeyer's photographic studio in Los Angeles County. Upon expressing her interest in photography Hagemeyer, wrote off dream as a joke in his diary.
Becoming a Photographer
In early April 1929, Noskowiak met photographer Edward Weston at a party and the two began dating immediately; her eventually becoming his model, muse, pupil, and assistant. Weston first taught her to spot photos—touching up flaws in prints—before he giving her first professional camera. This camera included no film and for several months Noskowiak worked with Weston pretending to photograph while he taught her the mechanics of photography. During her time with Weston Noskowiak's photography developed tremendously showcasing her understanding of craftsmanship, as well as her own style. Several of Weston's works, such as Red Cabbage Halved and Artichoke Halved, were inspired by Noskowiak's early negatives.Weston even once stated: "Any of these I would sign as my own." Dora Hagemeyer (sister-in-law of Johan) wrote that while Noskowiak's photographic style was clean and direct like Weston's, she "put into her work something which is essentially her own: a subtle and delicate loveliness."
Photography in the late 1800s and early 1900s was defined by pictorialism, a style that refers to a photographer manipulating an otherwise straightforward photograph in the means of 'creating'. This was in response to claims that photography was not an art but merely scientific documentation. Weston and other photographers began to turn away from pictorialism, with many having growing concerns about their place in photography. In 1932 Noskowiak became an organizing member of the short-lived Group f/64, which included such important photographers as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, Weston and his son Brett. Noskowiak's works were shown at Group f/64's inaugural exhibition at San Francisco's M. H. de Young Museum; she had nine photographs in the exhibit – the same number as Weston. .
In the summer of 1933, Noskowiak, along with Weston and Van Dyke, traveled to New Mexico for scenery shots. Her photographs Cottonwood Tree - Taos, New Mexico, and Ovens, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico both are from this trip and differ from her previous work. Cottonwood Tree is not nearly as intimate as her other works while Ovens is the earliest of her work to focus on human-made culture. Later that summer, she had her first solo show at Denny-Watrous Gallery in Carmel. The exhibition included a series of photographs from New Mexico. She held another solo exhibition at 683 Brockhurst in November. Between 1933 and 1940, she participated in a few of Group f.64 exhibitions, including shows such as the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego, Fresno State College, and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
Group F.64 dissolvement
Noskowiak and Weston broke up in 1935, Group f. 64 disbanded shortly thereafter. Perhaps, due to her frayed relationship with Weston and perhaps because other members of the group were going their separate ways. Although writings from Noskowiak began to dwindle during this time her career did not. Noskowiak also moved to San Francisco and opened a portrait studio this same year. This same year Noskowiak moved to San Francisco to open a portrait studio on Union Street. In 1936, she was one of eight photographers, including Weston, selected for the California region of the Federal Art Project to document California during the Great Depression
Noskowiak also engaged in commercial work and commissions to make a living. After Groupf.64 dissolved, she spent the next year photographing California artists and their paintings, sculptures, and murals. These images then toured to a variety of public institutions. Though she continued to photograph as an artist, Noskowiak's livelihood from the 1940s on was based on portraiture, fashion and architectural images. Noskowiak photographed many prominent figures such as painter Jean Charlot, dancer Martha Graham, composer Edgard Varèse, teenage violinist Isaac Stern, and writers Langston Hughes and John Steinbeck. The portrait of Steinbeck is particularly powerful, and is one of only a handful of images of the writer in the 1930s. It is used extensively to this day. She continued commercial photography up until the 1960s, photographing images for manufactures of lamps and stoves, as well as for architects.
She primarily focused on landscapes and portraits, specifically between the 1930s and 1940s. Noskowiak embraced straight photography and used as a tool to give newer meaning to her photographs. Her technique emphasizing the forms, patterns, and textures of her subjects, rather than just documenting it.
Her earliest works reflect the photographers of her period and their thoughts on pictorialism. In her earliest works, such as City Rooftops, Mountains in Distance (the 1930s), there's a graphicness to how she abstracted the piece. There's the dark, strong industrial structure that contrasts against the light sky. There are almost no logs seen on the buildings, and if they are they are blurred beyond readability. This is an example of the 'New Objectivity' movement, which focused on a sharp, documentary approach to photography.
Noskowiak often composed her photographs to intersect her subjects, which gave a more dynamic feel to her photographs. Good examples of these are in her works Kelp (1930) and Calla Lily (1932). The composition crops the visual boundaries of the kelp plant and flower and draws the viewer's eyes to the texture of the plants. Kelp is so abstracted that if not for the title it would be unrecognizable. While in Calla Lily, her use of chiaroscuro gives a luminous almost floating feeling to the photograph.
Her photograph, Agave (1933), is an intimate viewing of the cactus plant. Another example of her compositions separating the object from what is shown and emphasis on the beautiful pattern on the plant.
Noskowiak utilized the same technique of straight photography in her pictorial portraits and commercial works. The same intimacy shown in Agave can be seen in portrait works such as John Steinbeck (1935) and Barbara (1941).
In both, she creates an intimate atmosphere, one in which the viewer feels as though they are there interacting with the subjects. Even in her more commercial works, Noskowiak's style and technique still remained. In her untitled 1930s photograph, you have a model with a broad-brimmed hat that conceals her face. The composition of the piece relieves viewers from thinking about the photograph as an advertisement. The cropping and position of the models give closeness, viewers get the feel of being in the moment with the model than an advertisement quality.
In 1965, Noskowiak was diagnosed with bone cancer, thus then ending her practice in photography. She lived another ten years before passing away on April 28, 1975, in Greenbrae, California. It is hard to say what legacy Noskowiak left behind as the discussion of her work began to dwindle after her break up with Weston. Though there are a few people, such as the director of Weston Gallery in Carmel Richard Gadd, who believes that Noskowiak forged a path for young photographers. In recent years, Noskowiak's work has been included in group shows at Weston Gallery, the Oakland Museum of California and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.
In 2011, thirty-six years after her death, Noskowiak shared an exhibition with Brett Weston at the Phoenix Art Museum. In 2015, eight of Noskowiak’s works were on view at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania. The exhibition, named Weston's Women, only acknowledges Noskowiaks and other female artists in their relation to Weston. Her archives, including 494 prints, hundreds of negatives and many letters to Edward Weston, are now housed at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.