“It’s the sense of touch. Any real city you walk, you brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A. nobody touches you, always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something. “ -From the film Crash
The Annenberg Space for Photograpy
It’s been said, in L.A. there’s no there, there: no culture, no sense of place. It speaks to the lack of a central identity, the isolation of freeway travel, the emphasis on personal image, the distance between intimates, both in time and space, the lack of a sense of community, each of us in our own cocoon existence. Its not that Los Angles doesn’t have culture, it just fails to invest in its cultural infrastructure, art museums located to avoid community access, or that put a greater emphasis on which benefactor gets which wall named for them, rather than accumulating great pieces to the collection or providing a center for community and connection. It’s in the small community galleries, coffeehouses, art centers where L.A.’s cultural wealth and connection can be found, where undiscovered, uncelebrated artists’ works are displayed while under and unpublished literary talents recite poetry to the uncelebrated walls; each community, separate, often in ethnic enclaves, apart, unconnected, disjointed, the parts never mingling as a whole.
In the movie Crash, these separate worlds come together only by the intersection of violence and accident.
Not so the Annenberg Space for Photography’s inaugural exhibit, L8S ANG3LES-images as diverse as the city for which it’s named. The 8 and the 3 in the title of the exhibit refers to the 11 photographers featured, covering such diverse themes as celebrity portraiture (Douglas Kirkland, Gary Gorman) photo journalism and war photopgrahy (Carolyn Cole, Kirk McKoy, Lawrence Ho, Genaro Molina) architectural photography (Tim Street Porter, Julius Shulman), social documentary photography (Catherine Opie, Lauren Greenfield), and hybrid photography combining with other art media (John Baldesari.)
The images in the exhibit in additon to the diversity of genre, range in size from 3×3 inch images to 4×4 foot images, color, black and white, large, small and medium formats, digital, film, the glamour and the detritus, the contemporary, and the historical.
Such different styles, approaches, disciplines, formats and focus could have made for a very scattered and unconnected exhibit, but it is exactly that diversity, that make this exhibit a more cohesive whole and provides a unified image of what and who Los Angeles is; the parts of a whole, the joining of all those tiny community galleries, combined into a symphony performed by 11 of Los Angeles’ most gifted photographers.
Up the escalator of the building, from the garage, and out onto an above the street, plaza, where steel and glass high rise buildings frame the spectacular natural landscape that surrounds the city, rests the tiny postmodern structure that houses the Annenberg Space for Photography. The small space unlike a community gallery, but also unlike any other Los Angeles museum, packs a powerful amount of art and expression within its walls. Parking in the structure costs $1 with museum validation. The exhibit itself is free. In a city where a family of four needs to plop down almost $40 to go to the Museum of Tolerance, this most L.A. of spaces is so very un Los Angeles, and as such may very well challenge and transform this city away from its disparate and separate parts into something more cohesively aware of itself, (though the Century City location may limit the range of visitors to the space.) There is no glitzy giftshop, no overpriced museum café (reasonably priced restaurants are within close distance) no walls named after obscure benefactors. The space is remarkably accessible to wheelchairs, (another concern of the Annenberg Foundation, of which this space is but one project,) though the parking could have better signage. (Drive to the elevator to the left, within the parking structure, following the signs to 2000 Avenue of the Stars. Don’t follow the signs pointing to handicapped parking.)
The space, designed to resemble the interior workings of a camera, follows a circular path, with a central area, that contains two large screens. In the back of the structure is a reading room, with a smaller assembly area, more similar to a classroom with a smaller screen. For this exhibit there were two films; in the main assembly area, on both screens was a film that gave an overview of the photographers and their work. A less polished and unedited version provided more in depth discussion by the photographers, of their work, vision and process.
The two films are not available on line or for sale, though I was told might be at a later date, and except where stated, little information was provided about the formats or techniques used in obtaining or processing the images, which would have been helpful and informative.
The first artist featured in the exhibit is Julius Shulman, who claims to need only one shot, one negative for each project he works on. He works in large format on black and white film. His prints are impeccably developed with attention to light and shadow. Born in 1910, he is the oldest photographer featured in the exhibit and his work spans several decades. His architectural photography is sharp, high contrast and utilizes wide depth of field, allowing the viewer to visualize the structure in the context of the greater geography. One of the more innovative aspects of his work, is his use of actors within the scene, so that the space has people within it, drawing the viewer in, allowing for a deeply personal and human experience of the space. Over time, the style of clothing, and props used by the actors sets the image in a historical context as well. It is a very powerful technique that adds significantly to the depth of his work.
Continuing with the focus on the landscape that is home to Los Angeles’ humanity, the next photographer is another landscape photographer, Tim Street-Porter, who photographed many of the same structures that Shulman photographed, but with a very different tone and result. He also works in film, though uses more color film than Shulman, His work also has a wide depth of field, with an emphasis on detail. Where Shulman uses people in his scene to provide depth and context, Street- Porter uses the natural world as stark contrast to the angular twentieth century architecture that he refers to as L.A.’s “legacy.” For example, in his image of the Disney Hall, the hard curved and angular steel walls stand in stark contrast to the herb garden. This effect is possible with the use of color film, where the green landscape (or the soft desert colors of Palms Springs) stand in brilliant contrast to the controlled design and lines of the architecture. His colors are deep and saturated, and his use of environmental and reflective light is precise and powerful. (The image of Disney Hall, taken before the steel was buffed, shows white and blue steel walls, refecting the colors of the sky. In his photo. ““Dawnridge” the residence of Tony Duquette, Beverly Hills, 1967 Ornate Interior with Italian Baroque screen” he utilizes the ambient sunlight coming through the window on the otherwise unlit room.
The next two photographers in the exhibit are portrait photographers who capture images of the glamorous world of celbrity; the image and industry of Los Angeles. Douglas Kirkland asserts that it is important for a portrait artist to do nothing that “you would be uncomfortable being done to you.” Especially interesting was his description of his collaboration with the subject; that “ the photographer an the subject make the picture; the photographer doesn’t make the picture himself.” His portraits include Morgan Freeman, Bjork, Brigite Bardot Niclole Kidman and others. Most interesting were his photos of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Diverging from the glamour of celebrity portraiture, he notes that the images of Monroe, naked with a white silk sheet, were taken only months before her death. Equally challenging of Hollywood glamour was the image of Judy Garland’s tear filled eyes and tear stained face. In the film shown in the reading room, Kirkland explains the collaboration that went into both shots. In the former, the idea of the bed, the sheet and the nudity apparently came from Monroe’s artistic vision. There were many photos taken of the shoot itself, of Kirkland photographing Monroe. In stark defiance of the artistic tradition of the objectification of the female form and the essential obliteration of her greater humanity, Kirkland, in describing the power and intensity and his own profound understanding of the collaboration that went into the shoot challenges so many of those assumptions ever the more significant given that the subject was a woman whose humanity, value and life was obscured by her beauty, her commercial value and the objectification of her sexuality.
Greg Gorman images are close up and intimate and as he explains, reflect the confrontational nature of portrait photography. He states; “For me a photograph is most successful when it doesn’t answer all the questions, and it leaves something to be desired.” While he claims that his work shows a deep humanity, I found his focus to be more formal and less personal than Kirkland’s, and more concerned with image and technique. I didn’t see his work breaking out of narrow constructs of film celbrity, and his most famous subjects were little more than props to highlight his technical skill and artistic vison. His photo of Imman, naked, shows every goosebump on her arm, though little concern or empathy for her quite apparent discomfort. His inviting image of Leonardo DeCaprio, might beg several questions and assuredly leaves many wanting more, but says little about the person behind this very skilled and polished image. His thought to detail use of side lighting, dark clothes, close ups and heavy shadows shows impeccable skill, but unlike the other artists in the exhibit do little to actually illuminate our common human experience. Though within the context of this exhibit that focuses on all that is Los Angeles, this nakedly narrow application of immense skill to document celebrity and image, seems especially appropriate.
The next two artists in the exhibit are deconstructionist, using photography not only to document our lives but to challenge our core assumptions.
Catherine Opie considers herself a social documentary photographer. Her work explores community, home, gender and relationships. “We are very fluid with gender and we always have been” she states, in reference to her images of women with mustaches or little boys in tutus. She captures Los Angeles communities: the local Mercado, the memorial for a slain gang member, friends at home, what it means to be home “what’s behind the closed door.” She explains. Her work is in color, including a few Polaroid shots.
Opie’s work is followed by the work of fellow deconstructionist, John Bladessari. This was perhaps the main incongruity of the exhibit, as I felt her work resonated mostly with Lauren Geenfield’s work, which was sandwiched between the works of L. A. Times photojournalists. A more fluid transition would have placed Baldessari next to Gorman, followed by Opie and then Greenfield. Regardless, I found John Baldessari’s work to be least compelling in the entire exhibit. He combines photographs with paint to make rather trite statements about identity and celebrity, though perhaps in contrast to Gorman’s work, the few prints of his in the exhibit had a contextual value. There was nothing technically inspiring in his images nor in his print quality. Obscuring faces with large dots to emphasize our general unimportance, or the false importance we put on image and celebrity, was artistically quick and dirty, showing little innovation, vision or creativity. If Gorman’s work obliterated the humanity of celebrity though image and glamour, Baldessari obliterated it with condescension and triviality. His work utilizes mostly vinyl print, snap shot photography, cut outs and paint, in combination.
The rest of the exhibit, with the exception of Lauren Greenfield, focused on the work of L.A. Times photojournalists. Lawrence Ho, Genaro Molina and Kirk McKoy photograph L.A. bringing the disparate Los Angeles communities to the whole, every day, in the L.A. Times. These are the artists who capture an entire story, an entire humanity in a single image. In the photograph: Fashion Show, Actors Stuart Townsend, Charlize Theron, Adrian Brody, Kate Capshaw and director, Steven Spielberg attend a fashion show. The model stuts past these privileged eyes, who gape at her bikinied body, her head out of the frame. In the row of front seat celebrities, one rests her hand on her lap, lined up by the camera so that it also could seem to be grabbing the crotch of the mode; the model’s anonymity and sexuality on display for the entertainment of privilege and power. Apparently this event was a fundraiser for the Children’s Action Network.
Equally powerful is Ho’s image of Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor who will begin his tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in fall 2009. In this photo, Dudamel is filmed conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The film is shot at slow speed and narrow depth of field, so that Dudamel’s hand, wand, hair and jubilant smile seem to move within the still frame, capturing the intense energy he brings to his work. The light falls just perfectly to illuminate his face and hands.
In Genaro Medina’s image Maaple Avenue, “A woman and her daughter make their way through the garment district framed by a bubble gum machine along Maple Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles” The bubble gum machine almost fills the frame. This color print, has wide depth of field, providing a glimpse of Los Angeles streets and skyline, through the optical distortions of the gum ball machine.
If there ever was a photo that left me “wanting more” it was Kirk McKoy’s, The Fun Bunch” depicting a group of friends from Inglewood, jumping into a body of water in Marina del Rey. Printed in black and white, I want to know so much more than what this print reveals: what format was it shot in? how staged was it? How many shots were taken? It is a very different shot, if taken with the non-spontaneous 4×5 or with a digital camera, shooting multiple frames per second. Regardless, the composition and energy of this photograph makes it one of the most memorable of the entire exhibit. Kirk McKoy is the Senior Features Photo Editor and Deputy for the Los Angeles Times.
In the exhibit, awkwardly displayed between local Los Angeles Times photographers and L.A. Times war photographer, Carolyn Cole, are the works of anthropological photographer, Lauren Greenfield whose still and video photography documents youth culture, the impact of media and celebrity on kids from different cultures and how this creates its own homogenized culture. She addresses the social and emotional lives of girls and “how the body has become the primary expression of identity for girls in contemporary American Culture.” Her images, in color, contrast consumerism, conformity materialism with the wisp of humanity attempting to escape beyond those limited constructs. Her work exposes “the darker side of stardom and celebrity” and how this impacts youth and their self image. Greenfield provides images of society girls getting ready for the prom, damas on their way to a quinciniera, a young man on his bed looking over designer objects, trying to look rich for the other kids at an exclusive private school, teenagers at the beach, a woman with anerexicia leaving treatment, a toddler in a dance outfit at an opening of a department store shoe department, a young woman, looking in the mirror, pushing her breast together, talking about her aspirations to be a topless dancer. Through these incredibly intimate images, her work delves into “what is public and what is private.” To do this, she explains, one must gain the trust of the subjects so that they are “okay with having you in their space.”
While this review has amassed almost 3000 words, there was an ineffable quality to both individual work and the exhibit as a whole. If this inaugural exhibit is any indication, this new space promises to provide Los Angeles with a meeting ground and a much needed artistic infusion, combining its talents with its diversity, quite possibly breaking the Los Angeles divide of freeway and distance.
Crash. Paul Haggis. Lionsgate. 2005