SANTA BARBARA — If this is Santa Barbara, where are the landmark Spanish buildings and the magnificent fig trees? Where is all the tropical bliss that leads everyone in his right mind to equate the seaside city with heaven? Not in "Focus Santa Barbara," an exhibition of photographs by Walter Cotten, Larry Fink, Lee Friedlander, Mary Ellen Mark, Richard Misrach and Richard Ross, at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum through Oct. 27.
"Think of this as an opportunity for six photographers to do their work here," Betty Klausner advises a visitor when asked how accurately the pictures depict the city. Klausner, director of the forum and organizer of the project, puts the emphasis on their work . "The object of 'Focus Santa Barbara' was not to capture the most obvious symbols," she remarked. "We didn't need these particular photographers to do that. We just wanted them to talk about Santa Barbara through their photographs."
The forum issued an open-ended invitation to the artists to work here. They were given room and board plus an honorarium of $1,000 to $1,500. Some of them quickly exhausted those funds and put their own resources into the project.
Misrach, for one, spent more than a year--off and on--producing atmospheric views of the coast. Using Ektacolor Plus film and a view camera, he created 20x24-inch prints of expansive beauty and misty desolation that lead to contemplation of the horizon. Sometimes the line between the sea and the sky provides a definite, if untouchable, axis for an otherwise ethereal picture. In other photos, the horizon is noticeable by its absence, fading from view but leaving its memory.
The show, though encompassing varied approaches to relatively "straight" photography, seems to divide itself according to the geographical base of the artists. The three Californians--Misrach, from the San Francisco Bay area; Cotten, who lived in Santa Barbara for 10 years before moving to Los Angeles; and Ross, a long-time resident of Santa Barbara--all photograph landscapes in color.
Cotten, like Misrach, is particularly sensitive to the natural light along the coastline, but he inserts evidence of cultural decadence (lone Greek columns) or human encroachment (a dead-white, concrete-block building) in seductively colored skyscapes. Some of these intrusions are latter-day versions of 19th-Century Romanticism's fixation on crumbling ruins; others seem to be the artist's way of poking fun at Post-Modernism.
Ross' wit is at work in seven 30x30-inch pictures continuing his familiar series on chairs in the landscape. The local boy comes closest to offering the lush, tropical view of Santa Barbara that's probably expected by the lay audience, but it's hardly an ordinary one. He invests empty benches with human presence and sets them out as aristocratic couples in verdant settings.
The three Easterners work in black-and-white and focus sharply on people. Marks, a documentary photographer, visited here twice, once for the annual Solstice costume parade and again to shoot pictures at Casa Dorinda, a retirement community for the wealthy. At the parade, she snapped a wistful picture of two little girls dressed as flower princesses--sweet, but not sentimental because a big paper bird parodies their dreamy attitude. Marks' photos of affluent retirees are as devastating as the parade shots are hopeful. With all their resources, these old people can't prevent themselves from looking sadly comical.
As is his wont, Friedlander roamed all around town, photographing people at a horse auction and tumble-down scenes that wouldn't pass muster with the Chamber of Commerce. Fink was kinder to Santa Barbarans than he has been to people at New York cocktail parties, but his dark photos have ominous overtones. For him, Thanksgiving parties and Joe's Bar (a reputedly egalitarian watering hole) afford tense little human dramas in which every gaze and evidence of body language has vivid significance.
Klausner calls the project "a curious vanity indulgence" rather like having one's portrait painted by a famous artist. The same risk was involved, for the client relinquished control of the final project to artists with strong aesthetic personalities. The result is neither glorification nor degradation. It's art influenced by a place but ultimately determined by individual sensibilities.
The project was supported by Chevron USA, the National Endowment for the Arts and several other organizations. The forum is open Wed.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. Information: (805) 966-5373.