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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : Freeze Frame : Variety of images in exhibit capture the early stages of photography as art.

August 22, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can hardly help but notice the name Janss in the present exhibition at the Conejo Valley Art Museum. The museum itself has been ensconced in a cozy corner in the Janss Mall, a happy home since being evicted from its previous space in January. The show mixes images by Lawrence Janss, the self-described "advanced amateur" photographer, and also a generous sprinkling of works by well-known photographers from Janss' own collection.

But before the concerned museum-goer screams "vanity fare," this is a valuable, worthwhile and informative exhibition that may be the perfect example of the Conejo museum's mandate: to attract viewers who wouldn't normally step inside a museum, while also promoting an aesthetic viewpoint.

As presented here, Janss' personal viewpoint is a fairly conservative one. This may be a highly selective, backward-glancing overview, but it is a good sampler. Studded with classic images and shooting stars of photography--Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Steiglitz, Edward Steichen--the show is a concise walk through the early stages of photographic medium, just as it was being emancipated from its documentary function.

Even relatively recent prints, such as Judy Dater's well-known 1974 image "Imogen and Twinka," in which the aged photographer and her impish nude subject romp in the woods, is a tribute to a vanishing golden era in photography.

As a photographer, Janss spent time catering to the logistical needs (as a go-fer) of mentor Ansel Adams. Sure enough, he admires nature through large color images and, in black and white, shots of the gnarled surfaces and branches of oak trees (appropriately enough for a prominent denizen of Thousand Oaks).

Actually, though, Janss' stronger work comes from his "Portfolio One: 16 Images of the Soviet Union," from a trip there a year ago. A sensitively shot portrait of "Mother Russia," these works range from ancient Russia to the modern communist state, and Janss tactfully avoids any hint of socioeconomic struggle.

Janss especially appreciates the architectural riches of the country, from the ornate Orthodox churches and 15th-Century apartment buildings in Latvia to the opulently gilded dome in the interior of St. Isaac's Cathedral, shot from a heavenward perspective. By contrast, the Monument to the Soviet Conquest of Space and the imposing, arcing edifice of the Kosmos Hotel seem frivolous and destined for early obsolescence.

Among Janss' holdings are prints of some of the acknowledged masterworks of fine art photography. Cunningham's own 1910 shot, "The Dream," presents a dreamy, frilly young woman in a pose showing a prescience of attitudes to come. War-weary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith captured a decisive and now immortalized moment when he photographed his young children in a garden. "Children's Walk Through Paradise Garden" is now a classic image, a metaphor for the sweet oblivious innocence of youth.

Eugene Atget's 1907 image "Rue Gobelins" depicts grinning mannequins--mute dandies--with the bustle of outside street life reflected in the shop's window panes. Steiglitz, the seminal proponent of the pursuit of the photographic art, is shown via "The Steerage," his famous view of an oceangoing vessel turned into a magical composition.

My personal favorite of the show is Caponigro's "Running Deer," a haunting mystical vision of deer in blurry rhythmic motion across a dark field, transformed into a white ghost herd.

Not surprisingly, the stock of Adams images is especially strong. It includes "Moonlight Over New Mexico," in which a sleepy village rests under a sky with a silvery white smear of clouds lining the horizon. "Solitary Pine Snow" is a visual poem about the stillness of winter, an essay on the color white.

But the most enlightening bit of Adams' work here is a history lesson. Adams was so impressed with Timothy O'Sullivan's 1873 shot of Canyon de Chelly, N. M., that he set out to reproduce precisely the shot--to find "his original tripod marks." Let it not be said that photographers don't have respect for their peers and elders.

Janss' collection, too, is rife with the work of artistic elders and pioneers. George Barnard, a 19th-Century photographer, worked with and then broke away from Matthew Brady and is represented here by a fascinating account of the Civil War-wracked South. Edward S. Curtis is the best-known photographic chronicler of American Indian life and his images in the show also make a connection to another exhibit of American Indian vessels at the museum.

As a sort of logical finale to this historical cross-section, and also a hint of the modernism to come, several Steichen prints are hung at the end of the rambling exhibition. Their presence is quiet but radical. Steichen was a "secessionist" by art world reputation and by instinct. In his cropped compositions and poetic sense of light and shadow, we can see the seeds of a new, liberated photography.

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