Don Worth

Don Worth (1924–2009) was born in Nebraska and his early life was dedicated to music. He attended the Juilliard School of Music where he received the Bachelor of Music degree (1949) and the Manhattan School of Music where he earned Master of Music degree (1951) in piano and composition. He began serious photography in 1949, and worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams from 1956 to 1960. He began teaching photography in the Art Department of San Francisco State University in 1962 and retired as Emeritus Professor in 1993.

Worth was born in Hayes County, Nebraska in 1924 and raised on a small farm in Iowa. His childhood experiences in a rural setting shaped his artistic sensibilities and sparked a life-long interest in horticulture. Worth began cultivating exotic plants before age ten, and his initial artistic expression – through music – was also as a child. He began studying piano at age eight and in 1946 traveled to New York to study piano and composition. In New York he encountered the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and later the photography of Ansel Adams. He was amazed how their art revealed a structure and an emotional impact that he had pursued through music. He purchased a camera and began his exploration of photography.

In the mid-1950s, while doing postgraduate work in music at Mills College in Oakland, he had met Ansel Adams. Worth’s photography impressed Adams, as did their shared interest in music. In 1956 Don was hired as Adams’s full-time assistant, a post he held until 1960. The artists maintained a close personal friendship until Adams’s death in 1984.

Worth eventually put aside a career in music and devoted his creative energies to photography and horticulture. For forty-six years, Worth cultivated his nearly half-acre garden in Mill Valley as a personal botanical garden. It was recognized as one the best collections of palms and tree ferns in the Bay Area, and Worth was known as a great plant propagator and expert on palms. His garden served as both his personal retreat and the focus of hundreds of his photographs.

Some of Worth’s most beloved artworks use plants as their subject matter, including hybrid succulents of his own invention. He traveled widely to photograph, including works in Hawaii, Mexico, and Tasmania. Don Worth's photographs — generally made with a large-format camera — have an incisive clarity and quiet meditative mood. Many of his landscapes depict vast depth, and he often used the transformative effect of fog, mist, and other atmospheric conditions to define the receding space.

During Worth’s six-decade artistic career, he attained an international reputation as an outstanding image maker and master printer. In 1974 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to chronicle the American landscape and in 1980 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellowship. In 1973 the San Francisco Museum of Art organized a mid-career monographic traveling exhibition that featured 150 photographs, accompanied by an illustrated catalogue. More recently Photography West Graphics published Close to Infinity, which features 66 of Worth’s plant and landscape views.

His collection of about 60 photographs at the Center came primarily from Ansel Adams, who had a large group of Worth’s prints in his personal photography collection. Additional works were purchased from the artist during his lifetime.

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