Embodying the ideals and vision of the American West, this exhibition presents the work of landscape photographer Stephen Hallet Willard (1894-1966). Raised in Corona, Willard’s interest in landscape photography began at an early age and southern California provided him with a variety of subject matter to hone his photographic skills. By the time he graduated from high school in 1912, he had developed the technical skills needed for a career in photography. Over the next 50 years, traveling an estimated 300,000 miles, Willard produced thousands of photographs documenting areas of the West few Americans had seen or visited including the deserts, valleys, canyons and mountains of California and the Southwest.
Around 1914, Willard began to travel regularly to Palm Springs describing the area as “a wonderland of desert and mountain, canyon and mesa,” that he found unsurpassed “for [its] subtle charm and fascination.” In 1921/22, Willard moved to Palm Springs where he established his photography studio and gallery. He opened a second studio in Mammoth and developed a pattern of living in the desert in the winter and the Sierras in the summer, where he photographed the mountains and lakes.
Desert landscapes, however, would remain Willard’s primary passion and focus. The Coachella Valley, along with the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, would become his favorite subjects which he photographed throughout his career. Characterized as a land of extremes, access to the beauty and charm of the desert required the endurance and determination of an artist and explorer and what Willard described as an initiation into “the secrets of the Sun”:
The desert, above all subjects in nature, contains, for me, some elements of spiritual quality, which are not to be captured by the casual trip along paved highways where traffic passes every few minutes. The spirit of the subject is best felt miles away from any habitation or work of man, where the desert lives “silent, hot, and fierce.”
The desert offered Willard the tonal vocabulary he sought for his black-and-white photographs: sharp contrasts of light and shadow, expansive uninterrupted horizons, folded mountain ranges, layered ridge lines, and long shadows created by the morning and afternoon sun. Enduring harsh conditions, he often spent days traveling by burro or car to remote desert locations. Once he found his subject, he might wait hours for the correct light and conditions to capture the image he desired.
With photographs ranging in date from 1908 to 1951, Secrets of the Sun traces the evolution of Willard’s stylistic developments from his early soft-focus Pictorialist images to the sharp clarity of the Straight photographs that characterized his mature work.
In 1999, Dr. Beatrice Willard donated her father’s life’s work to the Palm Springs Art Museum. This generous gift of over 14,000 items includes original glass and film negatives, photographs, photo albums, hand-colored lantern slides, photo-paintings, postcards, cameras, lenses and other photographic equipment, personal papers, books, and memorabilia.
This exhibition is organized by the Palm Springs Art Museum with support from the Museum’s Western Art Council and the Stephen H. Willard Endowment Fund.