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An Aesthetic View

Exhibit conveys an original approach from golden era of photojournalism.


Genevieve Naylor (1915-1989) was one photographer who burrowed into her craft, and transformed it into the stuff of art. Ostensibly, she had a professional relationship with the camera, working as a photojournalist and fashion photographer. But, on the evidence of the modest but potent exhibition at Brooks Institute, aesthetics were always hovering.

As such, this makes for a good companion show with the Horace Bristol exhibition seen in these hallowed halls a few months back. Like Bristol, Naylor was a photographer who came of age in a golden period for photojournalism, doing work for such image-hungry magazines as Life, as well as under the WPA program.

As seen here, Naylor possessed a refined sense of light and composition, even when the images were necessarily captured on the fly. Whether shooting common folk or celebrities, she understood the importance of visual elements in conveying a story in a compact way. "Death Tent," taken in a makeshift hospital tent in Korea in 1953, has a graininess that accents the sense of urgency and doom. A hole in the canvas wall lets in an intense beam of sunlight, which looks less like a ray of hope than a beacon from the beyond, reaching in for souls about to travel.

Naylor also understood that no one photographic approach works for every situation. "Cajun Tug Boat Woman" shows an ample-framed woman squarely in the middle of the frame, consuming the picture, while the innocent beauty of "A Child Under the Bed" results from the oblique, voyeur's perspective, peering under the bed as if peering with longing at youthful naivete.

She was privy to the rich and famous, and loved to catch them in unguarded, unposed moments. We find Billie Holiday, looking healthy and happy on a '40s TV stage set. A young Jane Fonda lies on the rug, pouting lips pressed against a Siamese kitten. The Fonda family lounges at home in Hollywood in the '40s, with Henry in the center of the frame, stretched out in casual glory like a patriarchal anchor.

A relatively young John Huston, shot in 1955, appears as a raconteur shot in mid-story, hair slightly tousled. Orson Wells, still the lean, black-haired enfant terrible in 1941, is shot on location, his face buried in a handkerchief. Burl Ives, meanwhile, appears off-hours during the making of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1955, cat-napping, looking like a stately, robed mass precariously perched in a hard-backed chair.

Celebrities from outside the show-biz circuit also make for ripe subjects: Jean-Paul Sartre is seen in a rare conceptual image, his face fuzzy--too much existential pondering, perhaps--while a glimpse of his face in a mirror is in sharp focus.

And then there is the photographer icon Henri Cartier-Bresson, an influential figure on Naylor's own aesthetic. In a shot taken in New York in 1946, he is seen with his own camera in tow, but she places him at the bottom of a frame with a brick factory building behind him. We sense his gentle impatience on the "wrong" side of the lens, and his anxiousness to get back to the pursuit of his legendary search for the "decisive moment."

In the '50s, Naylor had close contact with Eleanor Roosevelt, as her personal photographer, and one image captures the former first lady's formidable and dignified presence, though it's not one of the stronger images in the show.

More memorable are selected images from other groups of work, such as images from her government-sponsored trip to Brazil in the early '40s, including the sparkling, absurd image, "Man in Bathrobe Strolling on Copacabana Beach." The fashion imagery here also veers, refreshingly, toward the bizarre, as in a shot for Harper's Bazaar from 1945 with plaid-skirted women in a wonderfully surreal bowling vignette.

Naylor, whose work has been gaining renewed respect in the art world of late, managed to deftly mix reportage with invention in her work as a photojournalist. When fashion was the order, she found ways to sneak around cliches and get the muse in on the action. In both cases, she took the medium seriously enough to imbue it with vitality, while leaving us memorable documents sliced out of history.

* "A Journey Into the Past with Genevieve Naylor," through April 9 at Brooks Institute Jefferson Campus, 1321 Alameda Padre Serra in Santa Barbara. Gallery hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; (805) 966-3888.

Preying on Ritual and Color: A very different attitude toward reportage emerges in another highly recommended photography show in Santa Barbara. The cheeky-sounding, but aptly titled "Pilgrimage: Devotion, Emulsion, Emotion," now at the Channing Peake Gallery, brings together the complementary work of notable locally based artists Bob de Bris, Nell Campbell, Ginny Brush, Bob Smith and Matt Straka.

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