Alma Lavenson

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Alma Lavenson
BornAlma Ruth Lavenson
(1897-05-20)May 20, 1897
San Francisco, California
DiedSeptember 19, 1989(1989-09-19) (aged 92)
Known forPhotography

Alma Ruth Lavenson (May 20, 1897, in San Francisco – September 19, 1989 in Piedmont, California) was a leading American photographer of the first half of the 20th century. She worked with and was a close friend of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and other photographic masters of the period.


Lavenson was born to Amy Furth and Albert Lavenson who was the son of German immigrants and the co-owner of Capwell Department Store in San Francisco.[1] Growing up, Lavenson attended both public and private schools in San Francisco. In 1919 Lavenson graduated from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor's degree.[2] Her first photos were snapshots of family and friends taken with a small Kodak camera. She learned to develop and print her negatives by watching a technician at an Oakland drugstore in the early 1920s.[3] In 1923 Lavenson had the opportunity to travel Europe for seven months, along the way she kept a travel journal that would become "My Discovery of Europe".


Lavenson's first published photograph, an image of Zion Canyon entitled "The Light Beyond," appeared on the cover of Photo-Era magazine in December 1927. In her early work she concentrated the geometric forms of structures and their placement in the landscape. She frequently exhibited in photographic salons and became a member of the influential Pictorial Photographers of America, and continued to be heavily influenced by Pictorialism.[4]

In 1930 she was introduced to Adams, Cunningham and Weston by art collector Albert Bender. Bender also wrote Lavenson a letter of introduction to give to Edward Weston.[5] Two years later she was invited to participate in the famous Group f/64 show at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, although there is some uncertainty about whether she should actually be called a "member" of Group f/64, given her association with Pictorialism. The announcement for the show at the de Young Museum listed seven photographers in Group f/64 and said "From time to time various other photographers will be asked to display their work with Group f/64. Those invited for the first showing are: Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Brett Weston." However, in 1934 the group posted a notice in Camera Craft magazine that said "The F:64 group includes in its membership such well known names as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, John Paul Edwards, Imogene [sic] Cunningham, Consuela [sic] Kanaga and several others."[3] Lavenson was not mentioned by name in that notice, but her name is always listed as being associated with the group because of her place in the first exhibition.

In 1933 Lavenson began taking a series of photographs of abandoned buildings in the Mother Lode region of California. She continued documenting the remains of the Gold Rush period for more than two decades, and her images are now noted both for their artistic beauty and as a record of a vanishing piece of the California landscape.


Edward Steichen selected Lavenson's classical portrait study of a San Ildefonso Indian couple, made in 1941, for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man that was visited by 9 million people on its world tour. The picture, which had won her third prize in the first Annual Salon 'Photography West of the Rockies' at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1941, was also included in the exhibit and publication Facets of the Collection: Faces Photographed, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in 1984.

Lavenson’s Self-Portrait (with Hands) was one of the most admired images of the 20th century. In 1996-1997, this photograph was fashioned into a huge banner and adorned the entrance to 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). Recently[when?] a print of Lavenson’s self-portrait was sold at auction for more than $110,000.[6]


Alma Lavenson remained mostly an amateur photographer, but her inspiration has been a continuing influence on generations of women photographers.

Lavenson's archive is housed at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

Books about Alma Lavenson[edit]

  • From Pictorialism to Modernism: Photographs by Alma Lavenson (San Marino: Huntington Library, 2006)


  1. ^ "Oakland Tribune Newspaper Archives, Feb 16, 1928, p. 3". 1928-02-16. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  2. ^ North American women artists of the twentieth century : a biographical dictionary. Heller, Jules., Heller, Nancy G. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1995. ISBN 9780815325840. OCLC 31865530.
  3. ^ a b Therese Thau Heyman (1992). Seeing Straight: The f.64 Revolution in Photography. Oakland Museum. pp. 60, 153.
  4. ^ Blaustein, Jonathan (2013-05-23). "From Pictorialism to Modernism, With Little Notice". Lens Blog. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  5. ^ Blaustein, Jonathan (2013-05-23). "From Pictorialism to Modernism, With Little Notice". Lens Blog. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  6. ^ The Photographic Legacy of Alma Lavenson

External links[edit]