Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Jack Welpott (1923-2007) was educated at primary and secondary schools in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. He learned about photography as a boy by watching his uncle in the darkroom, and began taking pictures by the time he was twelve. After high school he enrolled in college, but was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943. He served in the South Pacific as a radio intercept operator until 1946. In 1949, he earned his BS in Economics from the University of Indiana, Bloomington on the G.I. Bill. He then studied photography under Henry Homes Smith, painting under Leon Golub and Harry Engle, and design with George Rickey receiving his MS in Visual Communication in 1955. Welpott then completed his MFA in photography and painting in 1959, getting to know classmates Jerry Uelsmann and Van Deren Coke in the process. During these years, he also became acquainted with Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White.
Upon graduation, Welpott was hired by John Gutmann to teach photography in the Art Department at San Francisco State College, now San Francisco State University, where he made extensive contributions to the field of photographic education over the next thirty-three years. In the early 1960s there were few photography courses or graduate programs offered so Welpott pioneered individual courses and a graduate program, and taught one of the first history of photography courses at the college level. Don Worth joined the faculty in 1962, adding color photography to the program, long before color photography was widely accepted as an art medium.
Welpott was a beloved instructor and was deeply dedicated to the success of his students. His educational goal was to determine the needs of the student, provide constructive criticism, and most importantly, help them develop their own vision. A number of his students have had successful photographic careers including Judy Dater, Leland Rice, John Spence Weir, Michael Bishop, Harvey Himelfarb, and Catherine Wagner. He was a pillar in San Francisco’s photographic community for years, along with Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernard, Oliver Gagliani and Dorothea Lange. He was a member of the Friends of Photography, in Carmel, California and served on their Board of Trustees in the mid-1970s and was also a member of the Society for Photographic Education.
Welpott played jazz piano and saw a relationship between his preferred musical form and the photographic process, once saying “When I’m working behind a camera, I feel like I’m trying to achieve something like a jazz musician does.” He was deeply committed to the photographic craft and the unique qualities of the medium. In his artist’s statement he wrote, “I like the process. The way in which it holds together opposites: light and dark, beautiful and ugly, sublime and banal.” He further defined his appreciation for photography’s unique relationship to time, poetically musing, “I like the way it locks you into the moment, the eternal present.”
Best known for his nude studies of women, early in his career he produced a stellar group of documentary style pictures of his mid-western community that are charming and powerful in their directness and authenticity. Many of those works were published in the 2006 book Driving to Stony Lonesome. A group of his nudes is brought together with the work of Judy Dater in the 1975 publication Women and Other Visions. Welpott’s portraits of known subjects (such as photographers Aaron Siskind, Brett Weston, and Frederick Sommer) are complemented by equally compelling portraits of unidentified subjects. In all his work he preferred the large format camera and the gelatin silver print, although he also photographed in color.
The Center’s collection of 47 photographs has been acquired through purchase and gift. More of his work is visible on The Jack Welpott Legacy Trust website at jackwelpott.com.