Rose Mandel was born in Czaniec, near Krakow, Poland. She lived in Paris, France where she studied art and contemporary aesthetics; and in Geneva, Switzerland, where she graduated from the prestigious Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, having studied child psychology with Jean Piaget. In 1942, accompanied by her husband Arthur, Rose Mandel immigrated to the United States, settling in the Bay Area of California. Since her English was inadequate for work as a child psychologist, Mandel found employment as a lathe operator in a munitions factory.
When a friend recommended that she seek a career in the arts, Mandel asked photographer Edward Weston if she could apprentice with him. Since his health was failing, Weston recommended that Mandel study with Ansel Adams, who was to begin teaching at the CSFA. Mandel attended classes with Adams in 1946 and 1947 and he became her most important mentor. Her other teacher, Minor White, had begun to explore the psychological and spiritual, and he found in Mandel a kindred spirit; her ideas and images influenced White’s own photographs and exploration of “sequences” of images that together expressed a private, subjective, and highly complex reality.
In 1948, Mandel had her first exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art, a sequence of twenty photographs of urban signage, empty storefronts, display windows, and reflections on glass. Ansel Adams provided the title-- On Walls and Behind Glass. In 1954, she exhibited a second sequence, The Errand of the Eye, at both the M. H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, and at the George Eastman House, Rochester. Here Mandel’s subjects were sensitively rendered details of plant forms, recorded in and out of focus. In 1956, White published a portfolio of her photographs in aperture magazine, and in 1960, Mandel’s photographs were included in the landmark exhibition, The Sense of Abstraction, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Abstractions in nature--specifically in water--became a prominent subject for her camera. These photographs were the result of a highly refined sense of craftsmanship, and a complex understanding of psychology and abstract expressionism. No wonder Mandel found kinship--and friendship-- among the Bay Area abstract painters she met at the school: David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn. “Rose, you are a painter with a camera,” David Park would tell her, admiringly. Mandel appreciated his compliment, but for her, this work was pure photography.
Beginning in 1948, and for the next twenty years, Mandel was employed as senior photographer in the Art Department of the University of California, Berkeley. In 1967, Mandel received a Guggenheim Fellowship when Ansel Adams recommended her work to the Foundation. In 1992, The Art Institute of Chicago purchased her sequence On Walls and Behind Glass, and exhibited this with a selection of Mandel’s later photographs. Significant exhibitions and publications followed, including: Watkins to Weston: 101 Years of California Photography 1849-1950 (1992); A History of Women Photographers (1994); Pacific Dreams: Currents of Surrealism and Fantasy in California Art, 1934-1957 (1995); Facing Eden: 100 Years of Landscape Art in the Bay Area (1995); and From Dry Point to Digital: Photographs from the Hallmark Cards Collection (1999). Mandel died in Berkeley, California in 2002 at the age of 91. A monograph on her photography is in development by Susan Ehrens.