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Paradise found, lost, photographed

For good and for ill, photography has played a major part in making California seem real.

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"Everything worth photographing is in California," Edward Weston once said. His observation, however exaggerated, points up one of the distinguishing features of California photography: It began out of the need to depict a unique place.

From its beginnings to the dotcom boom of our day, California has seemed to offer people a chance to make more money and enjoy more freedom than they could back home, together with a chance to live in a natural paradise. The California Gold Rush of 1849 was the first major historical event to be fully documented by photographers; daguerreotypists as well as gold miners could hope to make rich new lives.

Sustaining the state's rapid economic development called for investors and ever-more new settlers. Both could be attracted by photographs. Individual Californians wanted pictures of themselves and their communities, not least for faraway relatives. For good and for ill -promoting both investment and conservation - photography has played a major part in making the place seem real, whether as America's Garden of Eden or, more recently, as a once-paradisaic landscape ruined by greed.

This remarkable story is the subject of "Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography, 1850 to the Present," an exhibition organized by the Oakland Museum of California. Selected from the museum's own preeminent collection, it presents 200 works, most of which were originally intended as art. Others were done as unpretentious documentation, or even as snapshots.

The earliest panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley lent themselves to both high-mindedness and economic exploitation. In historical fact, such photographs were used to argue in favor of establishing our national park system, but dreams of pristine natural beauty have also led many an outlander to invest or settle in California. America's one-time Eden is now its most populous state, beset by electric-power shortages and environmental degradation, but still offering visions of breath-taking natural beauty.

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