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Photograph by Rondal Partridge, 'Potato Field Madonna,' Kern County, California, 1940
Babe in Burlap : Partridge photographed this young woman in the Central Valley in 1940. 'I looked right at her and she looked right at me and I saw her vulnerability,' he says.

'The Secret of My Failure'

By the skin of his teeth, photographer Rondal Partridge eluded fame and fortune and their tedious consequences. He visits Santa Cruz this week.

By Traci Hukill

Rondal Partridge was born into photographic nobility. The son of artist Roi Partridge and Group f/64 co-founder Imogen Cunningham, he came of age in the darkroom with his famous mother's Modernist images of flowers and nudes. His godmother was Depression documentarian Dorothea Lange. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were family friends. He could have inherited the mantle from any of these Olympian talents, but Partridge went his own way. Restless, hotheaded and irreverent, he took up the family business on his own terms, photographing whatever he pleased for only as long as it pleased him and hewing to no particular style. After high school he followed the 1930s rodeo circuit for a while, abandoning it when a cowboy buddy was fatally bucked off a horse. He apprenticed with both Lange and Adams in the 1930s but emulated neither. Taken as a whole, his body of work over seven decades is a riot of portraits, landscapes, casual studies and chronicles of everyday unglamorous life that at first glance seem totally unrelated. There is no patented Rondal Partridge look. Instead, what unites his photographs is a sensibility: curiosity, a sly sense of humor and a willingness to turn his gaze on the ugly.

It's all laid bare in Byways to the Highways: Rondal Partridge Photographs California 1936-1969, at MAH through Sept. 7. A great heap of junked cars forms the backdrop for a billboard advertising the new 1964 Chevy Impala. A full parking lot at Yosemite, mid-1960s, upstages Half Dome. A dead bird is perched upside down in a graceful wine stem. A disheveled Ansel Adams, framed by the grandeur of the Sierras, steps back from his camera with an impish, almost depraved expression, like a dwarf who has just pocketed a fairy tale nugget of gold.

Partridge's prickly relationship with the lordly Adams sums up his relationship with the artistic establishment. "He was the best pictorialist in the world," Partridge says, speaking from his home in Berkeley. "Drove me crazy. ... He never photographed a nude, never photographed dirt, never photographed a dirty barbed wire fence, automobiles or any of those things. And all of those things I do. ... And there are thousands of little Ansels in this world."

Dorothea Lange was another story. Though Partridge never modeled his work after hers, he revered her individuality and dedication to helping the common man. "Dorothea, raised up on the pictorial grasp on photographic society, escaped the hold of her fellow workers and became individual," he says. "She really made her own decisions. Her whole life."

Partridge's own independent streak cost him fame; it certainly cost him fortune. "I was offered $30,000 a year from Look to be a documentary photographer," he recalls, "and I asked 'em straight up, ''What am I gonna document?' They said, 'You're gonna take a high school boy, photograph him washing his father's car, he's gonna borrow it for prom and wreck it. We're gonna pay for it.' I was making $4,000 a year and I said, 'Thank you, good night. That's not documentary to me.'

"Key to Partridge's peripatetic habits--and perhaps his obscurity--is his conviction that one should never stay at anything for too long.

"There's a theme that develops after you've photographed something enough times," he says. "When you find it, unbelievably, you should quit, or you'll exploit it. You're apt to repeat yourself, seek aggrandizement and seek popularity. That is the secret of my failure. That is the secret why I'm not rich and famous.

"I'll tell you what photography is: it's the greatest teacher. There are the greatest lessons to be learned, the greatest observations if you use photography and don't exploit it. If you use it to learn."

RONDAL PARTRIDGE discusses his work (and celebrates his 91st birthday) Thursday, Sept. 4, at 7pm at the Museum of Art & History Auditorium, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz; $5 members/$7 nonmembers; 831.457.1964. 'Byways to the Highways: Rondal Partridge Photographs California 1936-1969' closes at MAH on Sept. 7. For the full transcript of this interview click here .

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