Ilka Hartmann: An empathetic look at the faces of Bay Area resistance

09/28/2017

The camera as a device for freezing time has changed tremendously since the 1960s, but Ilka Hartmann’s eye and lens have remained unflinching, clear and empathetic. “Faces of Resistance: Through the Lens of Ilka Hartmann” celebrates the work of this German-born immigrant who found herself and her calling in California.

Last week I traveled by car with Ilka Hartmann and her son, Ole, from Marin County to Silicon Valley to see an exhibit of her photos and slides titled “Faces of Resistance: Through the Lens of Ilka Hartmann,” at the New Museum Los Gatos. It was a long drive there and back, but it was worth it, and on the journey I had the opportunity to talk to Ilka about her life, though I have known her for about 25 years. 

We both taught at Sonoma State University and have both shared a profound curiosity about social and political movements in the United States and in Europe. Hartmann has photographed them almost obsessively, and I’ve written about them with much the same intensity. We were both born in 1942, she to German parents, I to parents of Jewish descent. We both grew up and came of age in the Cold War and were transformed by the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. We also both sunk roots in northern California, she in Bolinas and I in Occidental and Santa Rosa. 

As a photographer who began her career in the mid-1960s, Hartmann has stayed the course longer than almost any other photographer I’ve known. Once, at a demonstration, police confiscated her camera, a Leica, and her film. ABC-TV recorded the incident, one of the rare moments she was in front of a camera rather than behind it. Fortunately, the police returned the Leica and film. 

Over the years, she has steadfastly put her art in the service of half a dozen movements for social justice, though she also has an eye for balance, symmetry and composition, all of which is evidenced in the pictures on display at the New Museum in Los Gatos. They’ll be there until July 15, 2018. 

One of Hartmann’s earliest teachers, W. Eugene Smith, introduced her to the idea of the photographic essay, with a beginning, a middle and an end. She has adhered to that model of telling a story in images in almost all of her work. 

In Los Gatos, curator Amy Long has mounted an exhibit that both places Hartmann’s pictures against a historical backdrop and highlights individual images, like one of a woman named Leah who cuts thistles with a scythe in a field somewhere in Marin County. There’s another dramatic photo of Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton and his Bay Area lawyer Fay Stender, who helped persuade authorities to release Newton from prison. Another striking photo shows a bird covered with oil in the wake of the disastrous oil spill off the coast of Bolinas that prompted Hartmann and Orville Schell—a China expert and Ole’s father—to create a book titled “The Town that Fought to Save Itself.” Schell wrote the text, and Hartmann took the nearly 100 photographs that capture the rugged landscape of West Marin and the equally rugged faces of its citizens, both newcomers and long-time residents. 

Sometimes the story has come to Hartmann; at other times, she’s had to travel to it. Still, the San Francisco Bay Area, whether it’s Bolinas, Alcatraz or the Castro District, is at the heart of her life and art. A series of 75 color slides shown in the exhibit document the genesis and the evolution of the gay liberation movement in the city. 

What holds the whole show together is Hartmann herself. Indeed, her humble humanity comes across strongly in nearly all of the photos, and takes the viewer back in time to when Indians protested on Alcatraz, gay men and lesbian woman demonstrated in the streets of San Francisco and white radicals and Black Panthers crossed the racial divide to call for justice. 

The Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program is displayed alongside the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement to show continuities and echoes. And on one wall, viewers have recorded their own feelings and ideas about civil rights on butcher paper. 

On the ride back to Marin, Hartmann and I talked about some of our earliest memories—of World War II and the battle to defeat fascism all over the globe. It struck us both that we’ve come a long way since then, and that we still have a long way to go. 

Jonah Raskin, a Santa Rosa resident, taught literature and media at Sonoma State University for 30 years and is the author of 14 books. He performs his poetry live with jazz musicians.