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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

In Living Black and White

An exhibit of Al Belson's final works at South Coast Plaza reveals photographer's fascination with everyday life.

August 28, 2000|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An empty gondola; an old woman walking; a fruit vendor delivering fresh pickings on a bicycle; Japanese tourists on vacation; a fisherman's net; girls in hair curlers.

In a race to capture life before his death, Newport Beach photographer Al Belson, who died in 1995 of cancer, portrayed humanity through everyday street scenes.

Those images are on display at "Al Belson: A Photographic Reverie," at the Orange County Museum of Art's South Coast Plaza Gallery through Sept. 24. The show surveys black-and-white prints Belson took during his travels to Italy, Spain, the Yucatan and the American West.

Belson, a London native, had a penchant for British daily tea rituals and considered turtlenecks, ascots and velvet blazers always in style--even in Orange County. He helped train a generation of arts enthusiasts to see black-and-white photography as a fine art.

Urged by his friend Ansel Adams to share his expertise with aspiring photographers, Belson founded the Newport School of Photography in 1979. Belson also had an Orange County gallery.

Students included professional photographers as well as lawyers, doctors, art collectors and businesspeople.

Eve Belson-Fudge was a teacher before she enrolled in the photography school. Also a native of England, Belson-Fudge was inspired to learn photography in the United States after she saw an Ansel Adams photograph on a 1975 cover of Time magazine. She settled in Orange County and entered the school in 1980. She married Belson soon after.

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"When he died, I didn't want his legacy to die, because he was so instrumental in creating photography as art," said Belson-Fudge, 48, who remarried and lives in Corona del Mar.

In 1996, a year after her husband's death, Belson-Fudge donated dozens of Belson's prints to the Orange County art museum.

The photographs in the exhibit were taken while Belson was in remission after his first bout with cancer in 1986. He had closed the school and had begun traveling.

"We had no money and we mortgaged our souls to go to Italy, a country Al always wanted to go to and felt he had to before he died," Belson-Fudge said.

One of Belson's best-selling prints on exhibit, "Two Hats," was taken on his trip to Italy in 1987.

"Al's best photographs were the serendipitous ones like 'Two Hats,' " Belson-Fudge said. "Two Hats" is of Japanese tourists looking at postcards.

"The man's eyes were constantly busy," Belson-Fudge said of her husband. "He missed nothing. And he was a remarkable technician."

Collectors responded to the print.

" 'Two Hats' is my favorite piece," said Susan Spiritus, who owns a photo gallery in Newport Beach and knew Belson since the 1970s.

"I knew he was one of the important figures in photography in Orange County," said Spiritus, who opened a gallery in 1976. "People thought we were crazy because no one had a gallery in Orange County at the time that exclusively showed photography. In the 1970s, photography attracted only a small circle of people."

Spiritus, 56, said she owns some of Belson's prints but she didn't showcase his photographs.

"There are a lot of his images that I didn't respond to because he liked prints that were dark and somber," Spiritus said. "There's nothing wrong with that. It was his style. I personally liked things that had a lot of light."

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Born in 1924, Belson was handed a camera at age 7 and learned how to shoot from his father, a photographer. The young Belson also developed an ear for jazz and supported himself playing music when he was 14.

After military service in World War II, Belson worked as an entertainer and photographer until 1950, when he immigrated to Hollywood. He opened a photo studio on Sunset Boulevard, shooting celebrities such as Frank Sinatra.

Former students and friends said Belson's greatest influence was as a teacher.

Photographer Steve Francis of Anaheim was an amateur when he met Belson.

"Al cut through all the technical jargon and baloney to simplify things for you," said Francis, who enrolled in Belson's school and now shoots professionally for the Nature Conservancy.

"The one thing I learned from Al was not to get hung up on the technical aspects of photography," said Francis, 47. "The important thing was to take pictures, not run test after test on gray cards, because you can lose track of why you're carrying a camera."

Belson's school also was a social setting for his students and friends. They met the second Friday of each month and gave lectures, critiqued one another's prints and then went to dinner.

"I miss that about Al," Francis said. "It was nice to be able to pick up the phone and call Al, whether it was a business question or a technical question. He always had an answer for you."

A master at black-and-white portraits and street photography, Belson captured simple folk in common landscapes.

"Al loved the dignity of their labor and the sense of futility of their hard work," Belson-Fudge said. "He loved the sweetness of humanity."

* "Al Belson: A Photographic Reverie," Orange County Museum of Art's South Coast Plaza Gallery, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Through Sept. 24. Free. (714) 662-3366.

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Vivian LeTran can be reached at (714) 966-5835 or by e-mail at vivian.letran@latimes.com.

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