Sonya Noskowiak

Sonya Noskowiak (1900–1975) began her photographic career as studio assistant to Johan Hagemeyer in 1925 and within less than a decade exhibited alongside Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham. Like her Group f/64 counterparts, she produced sharp-focus studies of natural and man-made objects, which emphasized photographic presentation rather than subject matter. Following an intense period as a creative photographer, Noskowiak maintained a portrait studio and pursued documentary photography.

Noskowiak was born in Leipzig, Germany, and spent her childhood years in Chile, Panama, and California, as her father sought employment in gardening and landscape design. At age 19 she moved to San Francisco, enrolled in secretarial school, and then worked at photographer and horticulturalist Johan Hagemeyer’s Los Angeles studio.

Through Hagemeyer, Noskowiak met Edward Weston, and began her photographic career in earnest. From 1929 to 1935 they had a close personal and professional relationship; she lived with him as a companion, model, and mother to his children. He offered her artistic and technical expertise, and shared in the enthusiasm of her first successes. He inspired Noskowiak to notice the visual potential of her surroundings and taught her the rudiments of interpreting them with her camera.

Noskowiak was attracted to bold feats of urban engineering—the giant pylons of city bridges, curving highways, and massive water tanks—and underscored the power of these structures, both physical and visual, with her aesthetic approach. She also fixed her lens on the recurring patterns of nature. Like Weston, she concentrated on discrete objects photographed at close range: the inside of a flower, the veins of a plant, the lined surface of a rock. The effect was to magnify and abstract nature, allowing its physical properties to become the basis for her compositions.

Critical attention came early for Noskowiak. By the middle 1930s, her work had appeared at the M. H. de Young Museum, and at the Ansel Adams, Denny-Watrous, and Willard Van Dyke’s 683 Brockhurst galleries.

When Noskowiak’s relationship with Weston broke apart in 1935, her life and work changed considerably. Eager to leave Carmel, she moved back to San Francisco, where she established a portrait studio and was one of eight photographers hired for the California region of the Federal Art Project (FAP), a division of the Works Progress Administration, from 1936 to 1937. It is unclear whether the social concerns of the FAP caused the shift in Noskowiak’s work, but by the mid-1930s she was photographing in a new way, replacing her intimate studies of nature with far more expansive and distant views of rural and urban landscapes. The shift was both stylistic and conceptual. Noskowiak no longer perceived the land in strictly aesthetic terms but as a place where people lived and worked. Where the photographer had once rejected all references to a broader context, she became increasingly inclusive and specific, using the camera to describe rather than fragment her surroundings.

Noskowiak found many opportunities in San Francisco. Many of her friends were there, as well as a small but important community of women artists – including Imogen Cunningham, Dororthea Lange, and Alma Lavenson. Noskowiak’s studio on Union Street attracted a distinguished clientele of artists, writers, actors, and musicians. She had learned the art of portraiture in Carmel and knew how to exploit the subtleties of posing to evoke moods or emotions. Her ability to allude to her sitters’ interior worlds was matched by her understanding of and admiration for external beauty.

Business was always precarious for Noskowiak, however. She often divided her time among several jobs and had little time for creative work. It seems likely that Noskowiak stopped making artistic photographs sometime in the mid-1940s. Commercial work ensued throughout the 1950s, but business plummeted in the early 1960s. In 1965 she was diagnosed with bone cancer and died ten years later in Marin County.

The collection of 454 prints by Noskowiak in the Center’s holdings includes early nature studies, landscapes, architectural views, and a wealth of portraits of both known and anonymous subjects. Her archive was the third to enter the Center’s collection, and features correspondence with Edward Weston and other photographers; reviews and announcements of exhibitions, including Group f/64; clippings about Noskowiak; and negatives and contact prints. Related material can be found in the Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Willard Van Dyke Archives.

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