If anyone was ever born to be a photographer, it was Rondal Partridge, whose name you’ve likely never heard, but you likely know his mother, the legendary photographer Imogen Cunningham.  Partridge’s father was the printmaker Roi George , and their family friends included the likes of Dorothea Lange  and Ansel Adams.  When Rondal was 4 years old, he began spending significant time with Lange and her husband, the painter Maynard Dixon, and began assisting his mother in her darkroom from age 5.  He hit the road at 16 with Dorothea Lange when she was hired by the Resettlement Administration, a Federal agency created to study rural poverty as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1934/5, in the depths of  the Depression, Lange made her career with these legendary photographs, and was paid $4/day by the agency.  As her assistant/driver, Rondal was paid $1/day, and often camped while Lange slept in motels.

“Breaking the starting tape.”  A 1930s Norton climbing the hill – probably purchased in San Francisco from dealer Al Fergoda. It’s remarkable to think what this area looks like today – the heart of Silicon Valley! [National Archive]
From 1937-39, Rondal worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park, and was in charge of Adams’ ‘automatic darkroom’ that produced prints for sale to tourists.  In the Spring of 1940, Partridge was commissioned by the National Youth Administration (NYA) (another New Deal Federal agency) to study youth culture and youth unemployment in California. Partridge traveled from Berkeley to Los Angeles, photographing high school students and other young people, and his work reflects his time studying under Dorothea Lange, with its poignant social concern, and some of her artistry.

“Roadside repair. On the way to the hill climb, this motorcycle party stopped by the roadside while one of the motorcycles was repaired. The girls were pillion riders.”  In 1940, many State highways were still dirt – the road sign behind them might say ‘1’ or even ‘101’! The bikes are all Harley-Davidsons and Indians, in stock trim. [National Archive]
That Spring, he happened upon a motorcycle hillclimb event in Santa Clara, CA, which is now the heart of Silicon Valley, but then was simply another agricultural valley in a state known for its many fertile regions (many of which have been similarly paved over).  Today the Santa Clara valley is teeming with suburban housing developments and the campuses of the tech industry, although a few notable wineries dot the surrounding hills, especially in the southern part of the valley.

“This young motorcycle enthusiast is a contestant in the meet.” [National Archive]
Partridge followed his NYA commission with a stint at the Black Star photographic service, and during WW2 he served as a photographer for the US Navy. Postwar, Partridge worked as a freelance photographer, writing and lecturing on photography and film for universities.  He returned to photograph the Yosemite Valley in the 1960s, notably contrasting the development and automotive traffic against Adams’ natural splendor, in a famous series published as ‘Pave It and Paint It Green’, which was also made into a film.

“This contestant watches another attempt the climb. He wears a sweater which bears his motorcycle’s trade name.” [National Archive]
This chance series of photos capture an amazing and long-lost era of California history and amateur sporting competition.  Hill Climbing was an incredibly popular professional sport in the late 1920s, as the ‘Big 3’ battled it out for supremacy in ‘vertical drag racing’, but the Depression put a lid on motorsports, which led the AMA to create Class C racing in 1934, which specified only catalogued racing machines were eligible for sanctioned racing events.  This killed the era of highly developed factory specials (OHV, alcohol-burning v-twins from H-D, Indian, and Excelsior), but popularized motorcycle racing to a much broader audience, like as this photo series demonstrates.  It was Everyman racing, on every sort of machine, and looks like tremendous fun.

“His first hill climb. The fellow is fixing the gearshift for him, while the other is explaining how to take the bumps. The man with the goggles is wearing a shirt from a local motorcycle club.”  The bike is of course an Indian 101 Scout.  Style notes: cuffed Levi’s, engineer’s boots, motorcycle logo sweaters, club tees, and pre-WW2 aviator shades. A few squares in suits haunt the background – probably dealers. [National Archives]
“An apprehensive onlooker. This woman was a motorcycle enthusiast and was among a group which came by way of motorcycle to the hill climb.” [National Archive]
“At the start of the course. The going gets even rougher and steeper further on. The crowd in the background is composed almost entirely of young fellows. At the bottom of the hill can be seen the parking area. Besides the automobiles, approximately 200 motorcyclists had come to this Sunday event.” The machine is a Harley-Davidson WRTT, a competition machine with a front brake for TT courses. [National Archives]
“About 18 years old, and one of the most daring motorcycle riders at the meet. He wears his own name on his sweater, and wears a leather helmet under his crash helmet. Helmets are made of steel or a composition with Balsa wood lining.” [National Archives]
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