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Recording the World With Lens and Pen

February 04, 1996|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the depth of field is not too shallow, all figures within the frame emerge--in focus. This is a scientific truth of photography.

But can the same equation be applied to letters? To the human condition? How deep must one plunge to pull details into clarity?

That exploration is part of a laboratory at Duke University, an experiment that crept onto the magazine stands last summer. It has garnered polite print notices, stirring talk within insular literature and photography communities and trickling over a border or two.

DoubleTake is the love child of longtime friends and colleagues Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist, Harvard professor and social historian, and Alex Harris, a documentary photographer. Editor and photo editor, respectively, they hope to redefine the concept of the documentary magazine at a moment in history when the print world shudders through transition.

The publication positions itself as "witness" rather than "explicator." It is arresting in its simplicity and, the editors hope, "subversive in its traditionalism."

But are high style and high standards enough to guarantee survival?

In a quiet way, through four quarterly issues, it has already bucked the system, questioning tastes and values. While Vanity Fair-style celebrity portraits often do duty as fine art, securing a place for an emerging vision has often been the center of wistful kaffeeklatsch chat.

And so, some would say it is a brave and audacious debut in a time that is shaky for both the arts and print journalism. Others would deem it naive--a great idea at an inopportune time to launch such a pricey venture.

At $10 an issue, this matte-finished, coffee-table centerpiece of a magazine offers a much-needed refuge and spotlight for fine art photography of established visionaries. The work of Helen Levitt, Anthony Barboza and Paul D'Amato is tucked amid showcase space for new work by up-and-coming photographers who mix media and stretch boundaries.

Through affecting photo essays weighing in on social conditions, political strife and family life, juxtaposed against fiction (James Alan McPherson, Ron Carlson, Nadine Gordimer), essays (Susan Faludi, Rosellen Brown, George Evans) and journalism, DoubleTake could well be the most evocative literary/arts salon between two covers to hit the stands in quite some time.

"Publication" sounds too officious; "magazine" doesn't quite set it apart from others.

"When I hear somebody having trouble defining it I know we are on the right track," Coles says. "Our greatest wish is in the resurgence of the role of good writing. The world of quarterlies, monthlies has changed, especially fiction, which has been shortchanged. We'd walk around and try to find a magazine that had . . . a visual side and a literary sensibility."

It is that dual-voiced telling that Coles and Harris want to flesh out. One does not serve the other. Which is why in these pages, words and images share equal weight: two brushes, two tones.

"In the photo community we are an outlet for the work that photographers in the world are passionate about," Harris says. "Work that they are not doing on assignment--stories, places that they are concerned about. I think the role we will play in the photography community will be to show that photographers have something to say in the world. It's not just celebrating their eye."

Therefore it stands as an anomaly: "We have the opportunity to offer something that . . . isn't shrill, that isn't related to a murder trial, gossip or a moment of degradation of American life," Coles says. "We're not interested in conventional political stories. . . . We want to get a sense of how people live their lives--with a camera. A good observer--through fact, fiction or poetry."

Boosting their endeavor is a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation of Chattanooga, Tenn., which has contributed to the $4-million price tag for publishing the first four issues. Direct mail and strategically placed advertising has also served to trumpet DoubleTake's arrival and drum up subscription and newsstand support. Still, distribution is problematic. In Los Angeles, which should be a fertile area, the magazine is hard to find.

Finding a supportive readership is much like separating nodding acquaintance from bosom best-friend: a matter of sensibility.

What draws them, editors hope, is commonality and the focus on the human condition--the importance placed on giving voice to those who would not ordinarily have a forum. "Ordinary people of all sorts," says Cole, shuffling through his memory. "We got a submission from a man from Topeka. He is a night courier and he wrote a wonderful essay about what life is like in the middle of the night."

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