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ART : Family Albums : The works of two contemporary photographers, now on view at Pierce College, reflect deep connections to their loved ones and ethnic heritages.

February 05, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

Since the earliest days of photography, many notable photographers have turned their cameras on their families.

Nineteenth-Century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is well-known for her pictorial images of her children. Edward Weston took several pictures of his sons.

Here in Los Angeles, two contemporary photographers, Willie Robert Middlebrook and Gavin Lee, have focused on their families to create bodies of work that capture much more than the characters and lives of the individual family members. Both men use highly personal techniques to make photographs that speak about their deep connections to their loved ones and their respective ethnic heritages.

Images from Middlebrook's series, "Portraits of My People," and Lee's new installation, "Return to Zhongshan," are on view at the Pierce College Art Gallery in a show titled "Family."

Gallery Director Joan Kahn says she was inspired to curate the show when the issue of family values arose in the presidential campaign.

Among Middlebrook's very large prints are a sensual portrait of his wife and a self-portrait in which his hands frame his face almost as if he were holding a camera, which calls attention to his photographer's eye. In another image, his mother's face, embraced by loving hands, reveals a life that has included pain, sorrow and fortitude.

His baby--only 3 hours old--nurses in one of the photographs. In another, three of his feisty-looking children look out on their father and the world beyond him.

The painterly quality of Middlebrook's work comes about in the darkroom, when he sprays the prints with developer, to create what he calls photographic paintings. He writes in the show catalogue: "My drive, my direction, my strong social and aesthetic conviction, from which everything that I do comes, stems from my parents endowing strong feelings about the ideals and the integrity of being Black.

"From the first time I picked up a camera I felt, and still feel, the need to reflect their world and my own; our sensibility." Middlebrook was recently appointed director of the Watts Towers Arts Center.

Lee reveals the world of his ancestors and his Chinese and American heritage in an installation of fiberglass prints. A sense of family lineage and the family's identification with two countries are conveyed by the documents Lee has included in his piece: his grandmother's certificate of identity enabling her to enter the United States, a letter from her father to her, her 1977 American passport and Lee's passport.

These documents are interspersed with small photographs of China that he took when he was there last fall. The feeling of family line and respect for it are enhanced by the long metal basket-like structure that holds the material.

Lee states: "These new works, known as the Metal Constructions, lead me to the country of past and memories. Traveling this country, I am beginning to rediscover my past, my family's history."

Kahn says she believes the feelings of connectedness and love in their works convey a sense of humanity beyond individuals, class and race.

Where and When What: "Family" exhibit at Pierce College Art Gallery, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, through Feb. 25. Call: (818) 719-6498.

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