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The accidental exhibition

Marcel Bolomet's works languished for decades. He died at 97 and never saw them displayed.

July 23, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Marcel Bolomet lived 97 years and five months -- not quite long enough to see his artistic debut. But the show goes on at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition of black-and-white photographs, shot in Europe and England under the cloud of World War II, introduces the work of the Swiss-born photojournalist, who never considered himself an artist and gave up professional photography several decades before his death in April.

That's not to say Bolomet is unknown in Los Angeles, where he spent the last 50 years of his life. An engaging raconteur with a sharp sense of humor, he moved to the United States in 1947 and had a second career as a professor of European history and French at USC and Caltech. He also donated his time as a docent at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades before it was closed for renovations.

But Bolomet the photographer is another story, and it's finally being told in the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 30. Born in Geneva in 1905 and educated as an interpreter at the University of Geneva, he began taking photographs while serving in the Swiss Army and eventually became a reporter and photographer for European magazines and newspapers.

As the exhibition shows, his work gave him access to famous people. There's a shot of Edith Piaf leaning against a wall and casting her eyes heavenward while singing, and another of Winston Churchill smoking a cigar and waving his hat while riding in an open convertible. Yet most of the pictures depict anonymous folks going on with their private lives or performing public service in difficult times. Images of English longshoremen and French newspaper salesmen mingle with pictures of military servicemen crowded into a city square, riding on a bus or standing guard.

Several of the most poignant images depict children in the care of the Swiss Red Cross. One print presents 48 mug shots of kids bundled up in winter clothes and tagged like so much luggage. Another picture depicts a wide-eyed little girl clutching a doll in a wicker basket as if it's her most precious belonging. Yet another memorable image shows a nurse fitting a youngster with prosthetic legs.

Still, the mood of the show is not relentlessly gloomy. One pre-war shot is a bird's-eye view of a perfectly coiffed woman at the wheel of a shiny automobile, tucked away in a leafy glen. In a postwar picture at Trafalgar Square, a tiny girl captures center stage by feeding the pigeons.

"His work bridges age, culture and class," says gallery owner Hawkins, who likens Bolomet's photographs to those of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. "He could be upstairs and downstairs at the same time."

The photographs would never have come into the public eye without Robert Walker, who brought them to Hawkins' attention. Walker has a demanding day job as visual media services coordinator at the Getty Research Institute, but he became Bolomet's indefatigable champion, spending several years of vacations and weekends sifting through his archive of negatives and printing choice ones.

"I didn't know what I was getting into," Walker says. He quit three times, but the project became a commitment that he just had to fulfill.

Walker met Bolomet at the Getty, when the older man was a docent at the museum. Bolomet wanted to talk about photography, and they agreed to have lunch. The conversations continued, and Bolomet, who had no prints of his work, eventually brought Walker two large cases of negatives. Thinking the negatives might be of historical interest, Bolomet wanted to donate them to an institution.

Walker made inquiries on Bolomet's behalf and found that no one would accept the nitrate and acetone-based negatives because they were highly flammable. Bolomet thought he should just throw them away, but Walker began holding them up to the light.

"At first I saw pictures of bicycle races, theatrical productions and weddings," he says. They were nice but not special, and the negatives were in terrible shape -- dirty, scratched and variously damaged. But then Walker began to find pictures that he thought had considerable artistic merit. He decided that the way to preserve the work was to make prints of these and present them as fine art.

But he knew it wouldn't be easy. Making a single silver print from a damaged negative could take up to eight hours; producing a limited edition of a large body of work would be nearly impossible. The solution was digital imaging. Walker eventually scanned 100 negatives, digitally correcting defects and making prints on archival paper.

"I just wish Marcel could have seen the show," Walker says.

So do Bolomet's son and daughter-in-law, Pascal and Ruth Bolomet, who live in Hawaii.

But watching the World War II-era images come to life at the moment when America was preparing to go to war in Iraq put a sad twist on the exhibition for the aging photographer. "This show wasn't just an ego thing for him," Ruth says. "He would listen to the news, shake his head and say, 'This can't happen.' "

*

Marcel Bolomet

Where: G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, 300 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., L.A.

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Ends: Aug. 30

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 655-4180

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