Part 7: Saint Albert of San Francisco
Ansel Adams, Albert Bender and Virginia Adams, 1930.
Photographer unknown. Collection of the Bancroft Library,
University of California, Berkeley. Used with permission.
When Ansel Adams wrote his autobiography he devoted entire chapters to some of the people who had been the most influential in his life, including his wife, Virginia, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, and Edwin Land. Leading off this list was a name very few people today would recognize: Albert Bender.
Albert Maurice Bender, known to his friends as Mickey, was a very successful insurance broker in San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century. He was not one of the extraordinarily wealthy of his time, like Leland Stanford or Henry Huntington, but he was certainly in the upper class of Bay Area society.
Like many of the upper class at the time, Bender loved the robust arts scene of the Bay area, and he became known as one of the foremost collectors and patrons of both literary and visual art in San Francisco from the 1910’s through the 1930’s. More than just collecting, though, he thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the personal lives of the artists and writers he knew. He was known to hand out “loans” which he never expected to be repaid or to commission new writings or paintings at times when he knew someone was struggling to make ends meet.
He was influenced early on by his cousin, Anne Bremer, who had studied art in New York and Paris. After she died in 1923, Bender began collecting modern art with both a passion and a sophisticated eye. Within a decade he has collected nearly 1,100 paintings and sculptures by artists that included Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Through his patronage, this collection became the core of what is now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
His support for the arts was so generous that he was widely known at the time as “Saint Albert of San Francisco.” He was so well-known by this name that a letter addressed to “Saint Albert of San Francisco” was delivered to Archbishop Hanna of the Roman Catholic Church by mistake. The Archbishop promptly forwarded it to Bender with a note that read: “This must be for you.”
As he immersed himself in the vibrant arts scene of the Bay area, he began to meet an exciting new group of photographers who were at the cutting edge of a modernist vision. One of the first of this group was Ansel Adams.
In 1926 Adams was introduced to Bender at a party, and the very next day Bender arranged to meet with Adams and see some of his photographs. Never one to hesitate when he saw art that he liked, Bender on the spot offered to finance a professionally produced portfolio of Adams’ images. It was a breakthrough moment for the then relatively unknown photographer, and within a year Adams' first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, was published. It was the start of a long and very productive relationship between the two men.
Adams introduced Bender to other photographers around the Bay area, and within a short time Bender found a new and dynamic circle of creative friends. He began by buying early prints from some of the now iconic image makers of the region, including Edward and Brett Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Consuelo Kanaga and Alma Lavenson. Lavenson’s career in particular was helped by Bender after he introduced her to Edward Weston. Weston convinced Lavenson to give up her soft-focus lens and concentrate on a sharply-focused style that became her hallmark.
Another now famous photographer who Bender recognized early on was Dorothea Lange. She said that he was the first person to buy her photographs based upon their artistic merit rather than a commercial exchange (for much of her early career she operated a portrait studio in order to make a living).
However, Lange eventually grew tired of what she saw as Bender's particular brand of patronage. She thought he insisted that artists spend far too much of their time seeking more patrons rather than creating more art. At one point she called Bender "an unattractive, loudmouthed clown who trained his artists to toady to his rich friends."
Bender got to know many photographers quite well in part because some served as his informal chauffeurs. He had never learned to drive, and he didn’t hesitate to ask someone to take him on trips ranging from errands around San Francisco to long road trips in which both Bender and his photographer of choice would stop to take pictures along the way.
After a long driving trip to Santa Fe with Ansel Adams at the wheel, Bender introduced Adams to writer Mary Austin. Within 24 hours Bender had convinced the two to collaborate on a book, resulting in their famous publication Taos Pueblo. It was Adams’ first of many books to come, and Bender both instigated and financed it from the start.
When Edward Weston’s son Brett later broke his leg in an accident while horseback riding, Bender called Edward as soon as he heard about the incident. Without prompting, Bender said he was sending a check to Edward for $200 (equivalent to about $2,750 in 2016) to help with the expenses. Bender’s offer of assistance was just one of the many ways he helped photographers and artists in addition to buying and promoting their work.
Bender died in 1941. By that time many photographers he had supported were relatively successful for the time, but for some his early support was never forgotten. When Adams published his Portfolio Two: The National Parks and Monuments in 1950, he dedicated it to the memory of Albert Bender, whom he said believed in "Ansel the Photographer" from the beginning.
Read more in the series A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy