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A Fixed Lens on a Changing World : Photographer Charles Brittin's role in L.A.'s art scene and his activism are showcased in a solo exhibition.

January 24, 1999|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILIP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A few years ago, Charles Brittin nearly died of a liver ailment. He never expected to see a survey exhibition of his photographs such as the one that opened at the Craig Krull Gallery this weekend. As the photographer leafs through his show's catalog, published by Krull and Smart Art Press, he muses, "It's unbelievable that some people, because they like my work and they like me, have taken the step that I never did, which is to promote my work as art."

Barely recognized today, even among contemporary artists, Brittin had a wide-ranging career during the 1950s and '60s as both an artist and documentarian. Yet when Brittin initially presented his work to Smart Art editor Susan Martin, she asked, "What is the theme?" Brittin laughs at the recollection, adding, "The theme is the process of time passing."

At 70, Brittin sports a tan and wears his long white hair in a ponytail. With his wife, Barbara, to whom he's been married for 38 years, he lives in an airy home near the beach in Santa Monica Canyon. The dining-room table is covered with photographs and collages he has compiled since the early 1950s; pictures document various decades of his life, first as a member of the Beat generation, hanging out with the likes of artist Wallace Berman and curator Walter Hopps, who organized this survey and wrote an introduction in the catalog.

There are moving prints documenting the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, as well as photographs taken at Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, when he was also working for designers Charles and Ray Eames. Along the way, he took surrealistic still-life images and portraits of women that he considers his art.

Although Brittin's pictures were prominent in Krull's celebrated 1996 exhibition "Photographing the L.A. Art Scene," this is Brittin's first solo show since 1952, when Berman hung his prints in his Semina Gallery in Northern California. "It was an abandoned house in Larkspur with no rooms, no doors, no window glass," Brittin says. The current exhibition includes a black-and-white print of the free-standing walls hung with Brittin's photographs. "Everyone wants my picture of that, because it reflects an attitude toward art that nobody is aware of right now. Wally had one-day shows for his friends. They went up, went down, you sent 40 announcements to your friends. If I hadn't taken pictures, they would be in only a few people's scrapbooks as announcements," Brittin says.

Brittin came to photography in a round-about manner. He attended UCLA for five years studying political science, anthropology, sociology and philosophy, but he was unwilling to complete a major. He moved to Venice when there were stretches of empty beachfront lots and the Beats were thriving. He married Justine Carr in 1951 and traveled in the Yucatan, but on their return, he still had not decided the direction of his life. "The rest of our friends had become upscale professionals, and I'm sure that was one factor that caused our separation. I wasn't looking like I was going anywhere." After the divorce, in 1952, he met Berman and his wife, Shirley Berman. "They were my next family. I had already dropped out. I think they confirmed that there was a small community of people who were doing this and surviving in terms that were so much more congenial than the alternative."

While hanging around with the Bermans, living on Speedway, Brittin photographed his friends but did not want to be associated with the Beat movement as described by Lawrence Lipton in his book "Holy Barbarians." "We moved away from him after he wrote that book. We said, 'Now it's commercialized and we don't want any part of it.' The people I knew were quiet and reclusive and wanted to do their thing. I don't think everybody thought of it as important art, but as an expression of our feelings through artistic means. Technically, we were part of the Beats, but our consciousness was that if there was a Beat movement out there, we didn't want to be identified with it."

Berman proved to be a role model for Brittin, as well as being a close friend. "You didn't have to do anything to make the grade, though I assume he was selective about this," Brittin says. "Once there was a rapport, you spent effortless time with him listening to music, talking, looking for flying saucers. He was widely versed in art and literature, probably erratically, but you could always discover something you hadn't quite grasped yet."

Raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Brittin came to L.A. with his mother and siblings after his father died during World War II. His mother had visited L.A. in 1904 and continued to correspond with friends here. In 1944, they offered her shelter until she got settled in the new city. Brittin was enrolled in the 11th grade at Fairfax High.

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