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Lifelong Love of Cars Develops Into Photography Career : Jane Gottlieb takes pictures of both classics and wrecks that have personality, and then adds her own vibrant colors

May 19, 1991|NANCY KAPITANOFF | Nancy Kapitanoff is a Los Angeles writer

Photographer Jane Gottlieb has loved cars for as long as she can remember. Not just the sleek, expensive beauties of the day or the refurbished classics of yesteryear, but crunched-up old ones covered with dust that have been left to languish among the weeds and small, funky European models not usually seen in this country.

For almost 20 years, she has spent her Sundays wandering around the Southern California landscape with her camera in search of, among other things, cars with personalities.

From the thousands of car photographs that Gottlieb has taken over the years, 30 color prints made their public debut Saturday in a solo exhibition, "Dream Machines," at the Francine Ellman Gallery, almost at the boundary of West Hollywood and Los Angeles. Coinciding with the show, Viking Studio Books has published many of these photographs in "Car Tales: Classic Stories About Dream Machines," a book of short stories by such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Saroyan and Arthur Conan Doyle.

But these are not just photographs. For Gottlieb, the world is a carousel of color, and her photographs have become merely a canvas on which she hand-paints with vibrant dyes to enhance the images.

"In the last few years, I've added color to everything," Gottlieb said. "All those faded-out old cars I photographed end up crisp, bright yellows and reds, and I turn the L.A. sky, so often that faded yellowy color, into a turquoise blue. The photographs come alive and are more powerful for me."

The pictures in the show cover the gamut of the car pantheon. A red Ferrari of the late 1980s is now even brighter than those red models that roar down the streets of Los Angeles. A Bentley covered with a gold tarp conjures up images of glamorous movie stars driving around Hollywood in the 1930s. "I say that's a covered Bentley, but actually I never peeked under to see for sure," Gottlieb said. "I like the idea of shooting the cars as I have found them, but now every picture I shoot, I think about painting it."

She found a classic Cadillac parked on the lawn in front of a house and painted it deep pink with a white top. An abandoned Ford convertible encased in dirt and worked over by graffiti artists has been set against Gottlieb's turquoise sky. And a bright yellow old Buick with robust grillwork peers out from behind a green tarp in a garage that now has a pink wall.

"The building was white, the tarp was gray, the greenery around it was all burnt out, and the Buick was white," Gottlieb said. "Yet I drove by it and couldn't help but shoot it. It was so funny all by itself. I ended up calling that picture 'Curtain Call.' "

Gottlieb, 44, grew up on the Westside during the heyday of Los Angeles' car culture. Her passion for cars began with her mother's circa-1952 Chevy, when she was in elementary school. "It was a coral-colored convertible, and I adored that car," Gottlieb said.

Like many Southern California teen-agers, Gottlieb was dying to have her own car when she got her driver's license. "At 16, your big symbol of freedom was to get out with your car," she said. Her parents bought her a Metropolitan, a turquoise and white three-seater Rambler that one car buff recently described as a potato on wheels.

"I wish I had that car today," Gottlieb said. "It's a classic."

About that time, her father, a former history and economics professor at UCLA who had become a real estate developer, bought a black Jaguar XKE convertible. "It was brought over here by someone from England; they weren't even sold in this country yet," Gottlieb said. "He let me drive it. And when my parents went out of town, which car do you think I took to high school? It was in high school that I realized I was just stuck on cars."

After a few Jaguars, Gottlieb's father bought an Aston Martin DB5. "That's the car James Bond drove," she said with a grin. "It was way too much car for my dad. He could barely control it. I remember riding along with him and I'd say, 'Shift, Dad, shift!' And he'd sort of put it into second and cruise along.

"When my parents would leave town, I was supposed to start the car, but I couldn't just start it. I had to drive it around the block too. After that car, my Dad went to something like an Oldsmobile, but he had about five good years to inspire me."

Unlike the typical struggling artist, Gottlieb got support for her interest in art at a very early age. She received her first camera--a Brownie--when she was 7, and started taking pictures. At summer camp, she learned how to work in a darkroom, but in her mind photography was just a hobby because what she really wanted to be was an artist.

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