Seeing Modern Architecture in Color: Catherine Bauer’s Kodachrome Slide Collection

Posted on by riddlek@berkeley.edu

By Nicole Krup Oest

The Environmental Design Archives is home to a fascinating collection of color slides by one of the history of modern architecture’s most underappreciated photographers: Catherine Bauer. Known for her integral role in garnering support for the bill that became the Housing Act of 1937 and for her ensuing lifelong career as a public housing researcher and consultant, Bauer easily counts as one of the most important women to have taught at Berkeley. The University’s celebration of 150 Years of Berkeley Women presents an excellent opportunity to bring the importance of photography in Catherine Bauer’s housing work to light.

I first began thinking about Catherine Bauer as a photographer in 2014 after visiting the Bancroft Library to study her files on public housing in Los Angeles in the 1940s. A tireless researcher, Bauer had collected file upon file of photographic prints, newspaper clippings, and pamphlets on public housing around the world. What stood out to me, however, were letters in which she wrote about taking her own photographs with Kodak’s 35-millimeter color slide film, Kodachrome.

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Fig. 1: Slide index C in box 10, folder I.79 “Travel Slides, East Coast with Index (C), ca. 1944.”

Across campus at the Environmental Design Archives, curator Chris Marino pulled the slides in the William and Catherine Bauer Wurster Papers. I turned page after page of Kodachrome slides neatly prepared for viewing in cardboard mounts, labeled in Bauer’s hand, and accompanied by a handy index divided into columns that Bauer labeled “Buildings, country, etc.” and “Personal” (Fig. 1). I saw new views of famous wartime housing projects like architect William Wurster’s Carquinez Heights at Vallejo (Fig. 2) and Richard Neutra’s Channel Heights at San Pedro (Fig. 3). I also saw a photograph of Bauer, herself, captured with her camera in hand as she strides through a field outside a Farm Security Administration camp (Fig. 4).

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Fig. 2: "Carquinez: experimentals, 2-story flats, F-L, E-11," 35 mm slide, in box 10, folder I.74 “Travel Slides: U.S. ‘tract housing and sprawl,’ 1946–56.”

On the surface, the collection might seem commonplace—an organized researcher’s tool made for use in her public speaking and teaching of public housing. But the significance of Bauer’s collection is multifold. These photographs offer rare images of housing from the 1930s through the 1950s in color. Looking back at the first outlines of my project, I had not planned to write about color photographs of housing, much less color slides in a collection that, for a long time, remained one of the most important visual resources in the field. On another level, the Kodachrome slides offer a privileged view of the role of visual media in Bauer’s teaching of housing. They invite a look away from the photographs commissioned by architects or magazines and towards images made for non-commercial purposes.

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Fig. 3: “Channel Hts. LA, entrances, 2-story unit, E-87,” n.d., 35 mm slide, in box 10, folder I.74 “Travel Slides: U.S. ‘tract housing and sprawl,’ 1946–56.”

From the indexing, to the labeling of the Ready-Mounts, to her lecture notes at the Bancroft—Bauer’s files lend clues to the pedagogy of the past while simultaneously holding a mirror to the digital tools of the present. How does one present modern housing in the classroom? In working with the Environmental Design Archives on the online exhibition of Catherine Bauer’s photographs, I found myself facing a variation on this question. Should we scan only the images to better approximate what Bauer’s audiences would have seen on the screen when she presented her slides? Or should we photograph the slides in the marked cardboard mounts on a light table, as Bauer and her students might have viewed them before placing them under a loupe or in a slide viewer?

Finally, Bauer’s collection offers material for future research on the creative contributions of women to the history of housing and photography—especially women who never proclaimed themselves photographers the way their celebrated contemporaries like Roger Sturtevant and Julius Shulman did. This research promises to destabilize the murky categories of “applied photography” and “amateur photography” and urge historians to look closer at not only what these photographs show, but how they show it.

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Fig. 4: “FSA early camp (+C.B.), V de M,” unidentified photographer, n.d., 35 mm slide, in box 10, folder I.72 “Travel studies: U.S. ‘low-rent housing,’ 1949–56.”

Seeing modern architecture in color in Catherine Bauer’s Kodachrome slide collection compelled me to plan a new subarea of my research that received an additional grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation. The slides now form the centerpiece of a chapter in my book, Photography and Modern Public Housing in Los Angeles, forthcoming from the German publisher, arthistoricum. Conceived in the spirit of Catherine Bauer’s commitment to students of housing and urban planning, the Environmental Design Archives’ online exhibition is the first dedicated to understanding Bauer’s photographs as unique objects of study and dynamic components of her housing work.

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Nicole Krup Oest is a historian of art and photography and an instructor at City College of San Francisco. Her current research focuses on the photographs of the designer and art historian, Esther Lewittes Mipaas.

Check out our new online exhibition Catherine Bauer and the Photography of Modern Housing: http://exhibits.ced.berkeley.edu/exhibits/show/cbw-exhibit