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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | SIGHTS

Photographers Work Magic of Preservation

Exhibits capture images of past Hollywood celebrities, snoozing marsupials, and Georgia O'Keefe and her surroundings.

June 13, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From the when-it-rains-it-pours department: Photography, that still-rare visitor in fine art circles, is showing up with unexpected, coincidental regularity in Ventura County.

The "Assembly of the Arts" show at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art presents the work of eight area photographers. Meanwhile, a photography triple-header has taken over the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard.

The fare at the Carnegie--selected works by Horace Bristol, George Hurrell and Todd Webb--offers an enlightening variety of photographic approaches. Tellingly, each of the photographers surveyed here entered the precious realm of art photography through the back door, or, more to the point, through the service entrance.

Hurrell was the eloquent Hollywood portraitist, whose images captured revealing glimpses of Tinseltown royalty. Bristol, who lives in Ojai and grew up in Santa Paula, is a veteran photojournalist who documented the world with a humane heart and a sensitive eye. Webb's photos, taken in and around Georgia O'Keefe's legendary New Mexican home, document that artist's all-important environment, but with their own visual potency.

Bristol is rightfully noted as a pioneering figure in photojournalism. He began shooting for Life magazine in the '30s, and his images of migrant farm workers in California and of World War II have been exhibited regularly of late. Bristol is well-known for his eloquent field reports from the front lines of history.

His show at the Carnegie is something else again. "Call Me Joey" is an innocent photo essay for children and other young-hearted types, on the subject of two pinchably cute kangaroos in Australia, circa 1940. The images come equipped with Bristol's unapologetically corny captions, yet none of this bountiful cuteness undermines the artistic merits or the pristine quality of the gelatin silver prints themselves.

"Good Night Moon!" finds a back-lit kangaroo dramatically placed against a wood-plank floor. The snoozing marsupial in "Life Is Exhausting, Isn't It?" becomes a visual foil for an artful compositional study, much like the famed faces in Hurrell's most transcendent work.

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By now, reputation precedes Hurrell's Hollywood photographs, which somehow simultaneously glamorize and deglamorize the stars. A photographer whose career spanned from 1928 until his death in 1992, Hurrell possessed a genius for creating complex portraits. The best of them both glorified and revealed something vulnerable about his famous--or soon- to- be- famous-- subjects.

The images here, focusing on Hurrell's work in the '40s, come from the Carnegie's own sizable Hurrell collection. Among the examples on view, there are plenty of juicy--even poetic--images to savor. Veronica Lake is seen as a wave of blond hair sweeping back from a sultry, half-awake face. The pose is tilted, seen from a dreamy angle. Gene Tierney, star of "Laura," is juxtaposed with a mannequin, making her fleshy reality all the more persuasive, although a haughty aloofness keeps us at bay.

Moody lighting and a trail of smoke from a gracefully handled cigarette flecks the image of Humphrey Bogart, his eyes wide with skepticism and natural charisma. Charles Laughton is seen with cigar and glowering expression, melted into an overstuffed chair, and with a Churchill-esque stoicism.

Rita Hayworth, head tossed back in frothy laughter, is the picture of abandon, in contrast to Paulette Godard, the picture of sunny cheer with her scrubbed face framed by a floppy white hat. Jane Wyman is all creamy skin tones, in settings with an eerie crispness of detail.

Given the liveliness, intimacy and timelessness inherent in Hurrell's work, it's hard to believe that these images were taken 50 years ago. But then, motion picture and still photography work the magic of preservation.

Webb attended to another type of portraiture altogether in his 30 years of photographing famed painter O'Keefe and her desolate, yet beautiful surroundings. What emerges, as seen in this traveling show in the upstairs gallery, is a portrait of the artist and her adopted habitat.

A student of photography pioneers Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, Webb creates a generous vision, savoring textures and shadows. He shot the artist herself--in all her wrinkly glory--in the outdoors and in the studio, as well as creating elliptical architectural scenes of her spartan ranch home.

Fittingly, Webb also spent time photographing the arid Southwestern terrain, cow skulls and all, that inspired O'Keefe. A simple post office in Albiqui, N.M., reflects the serenity of another, less harried, world.

In the end, there is the artist herself, bathed in mysterious shafts of light in Twilight Canyon, a small but mighty figure in a landscape blissfully removed from the urban hurly-burly. In other words, she was in sync with her environment and her artistic vision, as was Webb, her faithful and artful documentarian.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Georgia O'Keefe: The Artist's Landscapes-Photographs by Todd Webb," "Call Me Joey: A Kangaroo Photo Story of the 1940s by Horace Bristol," and "Stateside: Hollywood Stars of the 1940s by Photographer George Hurrell."

* WHERE: Carnegie Art Museum, 424 South C St., Oxnard.

* WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday; through July 21.

* CALL: 385-8157.

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