Donald Munro

From TV to fine-art photography, nothing is free

Ansel Adams on a coffee can? What was our world coming to in 1969?

I’ll get to our region’s most revered photographer and his unexpected fling with Hills Bros., which you can see this month at Spectrum Art Gallery, in a moment. But first, a related digression.

Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker, has long been a proponent of the idea that quality television should be viewed as art. In an expansive and fascinating recent essay titled “The Price is Right” in the Oct. 12 issue, she dives into the churning waters that have long defined the relationship between advertising and television.

TV has always been a money game, with the first programs run by admen (the guy from Lucky Strike, say, or Lysol) calling the shots. The financial model soon shifted, and we’ve all been thoroughly inculcated over the decades with the norm of network television being broken up by pesky commercials and sponsorships.

Things are changing fast, however. Most of us are aware of the massive disruptions that streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu are inflicting upon the existing television business model. One way to make up the shortfall: product placement, which is a big deal these days, from those Target shopping bags you see on “Jane the Virgin” to the Pond’s cold cream ad campaign – paid for by Pond’s – on “Mad Men.”

That makes Nussbaum nervous.

She notes that even if you’re willing to accept the best television as art, the medium still isn’t thought of among the upper echelon of what people consider “real” art – paintings, theater, music – and it’s because of the money.

It’s one thing to laugh knowingly at Stephen Colbert’s ironic (but still paid for) plug for Sabra hummus on his new “Late Show,” she writes, but consider how miffed we’d be if we learned that Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard had accepted a bribe to put the Talking Heads into his childhood memories or if Stephen Sondheim slipped a Dewar’s jingle into “Company.”

One reason, she writes: a belief “that art is powerful, that storytelling is real, that when we immerse ourselves in that way it’s a vulnerable act of trust. Why wouldn’t this be true for television, too?”

Which brings us to Adams and coffee. What’s the connection?

I’m wandering through Spectrum on an ArtHop tour, looking at the more than 80 fine art photographs that are part of the cooperative gallery’s annual fundraiser auction, when I get to the can, prominently displayed on a pedestal. I stop and gawk.

Titled “Hills Bros. coffee can with Yosemite Valley Winter by Ansel Adams,” the can features a wrap-around photograph made with an 8” by 10” view camera.

Adams wrote in his autobiography: “The idea was to produce something of lasting attractiveness after the original contents of the can had been consumed … Potentially corny: actually reasonable. There were thousands of three-pound cans filled with coffee sold nationwide in grocery stores for $2.35 each.”

Jane Alexiadis, a Bay Area art appraiser who wrote the display text for the coffee can, notes that it’s rare for the cans to come up for auction, but when they do, they can bring up to $1,500.

There’s a funny story behind Adams’ foray into commercialism.

When the noted photographer Imogen Cunningham saw the coffee cans, she criticized Adams for selling out. To make her point, Alexiadis writes, Cunningham had a friend fill one of the empty cans with manure and add a sprouting marijuana plant, delivering it to him as “pot in a pot.”

Adams wrote: “I enjoyed Imogen’s joke, but when my good friend and fellow photographer Henry Gilpin, then deputy sheriff of Monterey County, dropped by and spotted the plant he quietly suggested that I destroy it. I did.”

There’s nothing new about the intersection of commercialism and fine art, of course. Artists have had patrons from the start, whether they be religious power brokers, kings or wealthy merchants. Rare, indeed, has been the artist throughout history who hasn’t had some money person in the wings – some merely paying the bills, others calling the shots.

We might feel more pure and virtuous putting our art into categories – the unsullied and pristine artistic endeavors of a painter or photographer placed far higher than a collaborative TV series, say – but, deep down, you can’t get past the intersection of art and commerce. Television is just a little more blatant about it.

It’s fitting, then, that the coffee can, which was given to the cooperative gallery by an anonymous donor, is part of a fund-raising drive. The nonprofit Spectrum, which for more than 35 years has brought fine-art photography to the central San Joaquin Valley, can’t subsist on goodwill alone. Pesky expenses such as rent, utilities, administration and upkeep all require cash.

Over the years, the gallery has developed a format for the annual auction that works. Until Oct. 24, you can see the works available for auction at the gallery in the Tower District. On Oct. 25, the works will be moved to the Fresno Art Museum for a live auction.

The hope, of course, is that people will bid up the price of Adams’ coffee can – and the other fine works offered at the auction. In a very long stretch, you could even say that a little bit of Spectrum’s next season will be brought to us by Hills Bros. coffee.

Whatever keeps the lights on.

Spectrum Art Gallery print auction

  • Through Oct. 24: exhibition at Spectrum Art Gallery, 608 E. Olive Ave.
  • Oct. 25: auction at Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. 1st St. (4 p.m. reception, 5 p.m. live auction)
  •, 559-266-0691