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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : Photojournalist's World War II Works Exhibited : Horace Bristol pictures display imagery that brims with humanity and intuitive aesthetic vitality.

June 24, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than any show in memory, the current Horace Bristol exhibition neatly embodies the multiple missions of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

Bristol, now 84 and living in Ojai, is a local boy made good and then made local again. He has been a renowned photojournalist since his arrival in the '30s, and he shows an accomplished eye through imagery that also brims with humanity and intuitive aesthetic vitality.

An engaging and artful slice of history, the showing of Bristol's World War II photos paints a picture that is not so much a grisly, war-is-hell chronicle as it is a view from the periphery of the soldier's life.

As Bristol commented in an interview: "The combat photographers were foolish and brave. I may have been foolish, but I wasn't brave. They were ordered to do it, but they also gloried in it. That's a little different than what I was doing.

"I had a wonderful life, because my orders read, 'You shall proceed to any place you deem necessary.' I happened to show these orders to an admiral and he said, 'I wish I had orders like that.' "

From the evidence here, Bristol chose paths less taken by other combat photographers. Several of the images are taken from plane's-eye view, with warplanes depicted as if in graceful aerial ballets, belying the deadlier mission at hand.

"Transport Plane in the Aleutians" has an eerie, icy crispness, all cone-shaped peaks flecked with snowy rivulets, with the plane slipped in almost as an afterthought in the lower part of the frame. Then, in a cold reminder, there is the sharp vertical descent of "Dive Bomber in Action," with the subject going in for the kill.

Life between the cracks of combat was as interesting for Bristol as the heat of the battle. We see sailors sewing battle flags and petting puppies, and also preparing a casket for burial. All in a day's work and play. Bristol seeks to tell the soldier's story, on and off the front lines.

But what we see in this exhibition is only one piece of the intriguing puzzle of Bristol's life story.

He began his career in the neighborhood, at the Piru News in 1931. After shooting children's portraits in Santa Paula, where he was raised, Bristol headed to San Francisco, where he befriended such photographers as Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston.

His attitude about his chosen medium was being forged by the company he kept.

"My feeling was that photography was designed to tell a story," Bristol said. "Weston once said to me, 'You mean you let editors crop your pictures?' I said, 'Sure, that's the idea.' He said, 'You're no photographer.' "

Bristol began a hectic schedule shooting for Life, Fortune and other magazines of the day.

Among his notable '30s-era projects was a photo essay of Dust Bowl migrant workers, with John Steinbeck scheduled to write the text. As it turned out, Steinbeck declined the assignment at the last minute and wound up working much of the material into "Grapes of Wrath."

After the war, Bristol wound up in the Far East and lived in Japan for 20 years.

But his career hit a serious crossroads in 1956, when, wracked with grief over the suicide of his first wife, Bristol destroyed much of his life's work and swore off photography. Years later, at the urging of his second wife, Masako, he retrieved negatives and prints that were under his son's care.

It was perhaps inevitable that Bristol would wind up at the Ventura museum about now, in the midst of his busy, belated entre into the annals of photojournalistic art.

The past few years have seen a generous unearthing of Bristol's body of work, once virtually left for dead by the photographer. Currently, images from the postwar period in Korea and Japan are showing at Stephan Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles, through July 10. A show at the San Francisco Museum of Art is pending.

The Ventura museum's wartime images and Bristol's eyewitness opportunities came about courtesy of Edward Steichen, who, then 64, headed up the naval photography unit that included Bristol.

Portraits of the pair serve as a prelude to the show. Bristol, as shot by Imogen Cunningham, cuts a bold figure of a man we imagine to be fueled by courage and compassion. Bristol's photograph of Steichen renders him as a sagacious, bright-eyed commander, whose stated goal for the unit was "to make vivid the drama of ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances."

We can safely assume that Bristol and his comrades entertained no grand artistic vision at the time, and had no ambitions of one day seeing these photographs on gallery walls. At the time, photojournalism served a valued public function, an innocence and a primacy that it can never regain in the age of mass electronic media.

As curator Meg Phelps writes in her catalogue essay: "Without the inundation of contemporary media coverage, then each single image carried more weight and could significantly shape public perceptions."

The perception put forth here is one of American boys fighting the good fight in the last "good war" we've had.

Still, the most powerful image in the show is also one of Bristol's most oft-seen photographs. A strange, unlikely nude study, "PBY Blister Gunner" depicts a soldier, naked except for headphones, forming a dramatic arc in the picture frame.

Having just dived into Raboul Harbor to save a downed pilot, the soldier was surprised by an enemy attack and rushed back to his post, dripping wet and sans uniform. By now, it's a classic wartime image, a kind of magical moment and composition on the fly that underscores the absurdity and the ever-present peril that is war.

With images like this, art and history hit home, half a century later.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"World War II: The Camera Remembers," photographs by Horace Bristol, at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St. For information, call 653-0323.

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