Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gladding, McBean Terra Cotta Clay Factory-A Photographer's Dream

I first became involved with the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in December 2005. At that time, Viewpoint was located in an industrial area of Sacramento, well off the beaten track. Now Viewpoint has a home in the midtown section of Sacrmento, right in the heart of the arts district. Upon discovering Viewpoint and its commitment solely to photography, I also became aware of the fact that it sponsored workshops at an operating terra cotta clay factory in Lincoln, California. I signed up for my first workshop in March 2006 and have returned twelve times since then. In March, I will spend another two days discovering more of the hidden treasures within the confines of this facility as one of the instructors. It is thanks to Gene Kennedy, a well-known photographer, and the management of Gladding, McBean that photographers have been given a unique opportunity to capture images within this working factory.

Gladding, McBean has been around since 1875 at its current location, all because of the clay discovered at the site. At first, the factory turned out clay sewer pipes. It still manufactures clay sewer pipes. About ten years after opening, it began to also create terra cotta trim for buildings, first in San Francisco, then to other areas of the United States and finally the world. The factory extended its product line to roof tiles, ornamental pottery, and fire bricks by the end of the nineteenth century. Examples of all of these products can now be found throughout the buildings comprising the factory.

As a photographer, I am drawn to Gladding, McBean by the sense of history, as well as all of the old buildings, kilns, product and furnishings. Because this is an operating factory, the mix of product and the location of open and used areas is constantly changing. The one thing that doesn't change is one of the rooms on the third floor of one of the buildings that was occupied by the master modeler. When he died in the 1950's, his room was left as it was. To this day, there are many items in the cubby holes and on the walls that were first placed there over fifty years ago.

I also tend to be drawn to graphic elements in nature and in architecture. Gladding, McBean is rich with such subjects. The patina of clay dust adds wonderful character to the images, as well as wreaking havoc on digital camera sensors. That's one of the reasons I always carry two camera bodies during trips there, one with a 16-35 mm or 24-70 mm lens, and the other with a 60 mm or 100 mm macro lens. Cleaning dirty sensors is no fun, nor am I interested in losing valuable time cleaning instead of capturing. The sessions run from 8:30 in the morning until around 4:30 in the afternoon, and that is hardly sufficient time. Every visit to the factory leads to new discoveries. I had never visited the building housing the clay hoppers until my twelfth time coming to the site, and I have every reason to believe that the next trip will open up yet another room or section of a room as yet unexamined.
I assembled seventeen of my images from trips to Gladding, McBean for a solo exhibit at the Pence Gallery in Davis, California, in January 2008. Those images can be viewed here. For more recent work, please visit this site.

If you are interested in attending one of the workshops, then visit Viewpoint's Workshop site for dates and cost. It is a unique experience that is well worth the time and money.

Next week: Exploring Your Own Back Yard


  1. What a unique experience! Enjoyed this post and I'm already looking forward to the next one.


  2. My husband, Dan Cross (Gladding McBean sales manager) and I are proud to have one of your photos of Ernst Kadel Office at Gladding McBean. I have had the privilege of working there as the first woman sculptor that they have hired in the architectural terra cotta dept. and love photographing it's uniqueness. We are currently beginning the process of opening a art and antiques gallery in Lincoln. I would love to know if you would be interested in showing your work in Lincoln.

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