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Alone on the Range

Solitary figures and empty landscapes characterize California photography.

March 21, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On my office wall is a framed photograph of the beach at Coney Island by the photographer who called himself Weegee. It depicts a vast expanse of humanity as far as the eye can see, maybe a million men, women and children, all of them packed together cheek by jowl.

"That's why I left New York," said one ex-Brooklynite when his eye fell on the photograph.

You will not see any shots of the huddled masses in "Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography, 1850 to the Present," edited by Drew Heath Johnson (W.W. Norton, $60, 384 pages), an ambitious and richly rewarding survey of photographic images that both depict and define California. More often than not, when we are invited to behold a landscape, it is lovely but also lonely, and when we see the human figure, it is usually a solitary one.

The point is made, for example, in the work of Edward Weston, whose classic still-life photographs include a naked woman who looks like a seashell, and a seashell that looks like a naked woman, both reproduced in "Capturing Light." Those are the images that Weston had in mind when he declared that "everything worth photographing is in California."

The absence of crowds says something profound about what attracted artists--and lots of other people--to California in the first place. Ranging from George Fiske's "Sunset Study" of 1884, which depicts a lone rower on an otherwise empty expanse of San Francisco Bay, to John Divola's "Falling/Flying" of 1984, which places the blank outline of a falling figure into a wilderness scene, the characteristic image of California photography is unpeopled.

"Capturing Light" is co-published by the Oakland Museum of California, where an exhibition of the 200 photographs in the book is now on display. Collections of pretty photographs of California are a commonplace, of course, and sometimes just a cliche, but "Capturing Light" is not merely a coffee-table book. Rather, Johnson presents a smart and provocative selection of photographs--"a 'greatest hits' approach," as he readily concedes--and then places each one in context with a series of illuminating essays.

Thus, for example, we are given a couple of nude studies by Anne Brigman dating to the turn of the 20th century--female figures in sensual and eerie poses in strangely beautiful outdoor settings--and an essay by Naomi Rosenblum that helps us to understand what brought the photographer to California in the first place and what she intended to bring to her work.

The subtext of most of the photography is that people do not much improve the view, an idea that has not changed in more than a century. The classic image of Yosemite, for example, is a solitary figure atop Glacier Rock overlooking the rugged and gloriously empty Yosemite Valley, and we are shown an example taken by Eadweard Muybridge that dates to 1872. More than a century later, Roger Minick plays with the same image in a 1980 photograph titled "Woman With Scarf," a postcard-perfect vista of Yosemite Valley as glimpsed over the shoulder of a lone sightseer wearing a garish souvenir scarf that she obviously picked up at a crowded gift shop before heading to the most photographed location in California.

Now and then, we come across a photograph that shows the human face of California with greater warmth and humor--Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph of a Pieta-like mother and child at a camp for migrant workers in Nipomo, for example, or Max Yavno's 1947 photograph of a cable-car turnaround in San Francisco in which three conductors and a couple of pedestriansappear to be performing an elaborately choreographed dance. And Carrie Mae Weems' 1990 photograph of one woman brushing another woman's hair is a rare example of the same sensibility in a contemporary photographer.

*

"When Can We Go Home?" is the poignant title of a painting by the Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto--those were the words that his young daughter spoke when the family arrived in Fresno for what she thought was a picnic outing. In fact, Sugimoto and his family were among the 110,000 Japanese Americans who were arrested and interned at the outbreak of World War II, an experience that he documented in a series of haunting canvases that he painted in the barracks in Arkansas where he was held captive.

"I depicted camp life with an artist's sense of mission," explained Sugimoto, whose life and work are explored in "Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience" by Kristine Kim (Heyday Books, $50, 141 pages; also available in paperback, $24.95). "[But] I thought that my artist life was finished."

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