YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Photo synthesis

Four new shows ply the shifting ground between art and photography, photography and imagination.

March 07, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

A veritable flood of photographs is just now washing into L.A.'s art museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the UCLA Hammer Museum and, last but by no means least, the J. Paul Getty Museum are all in High Photo Mode. Down the road a bit, a traveling survey of recent West Coast art at San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art is also dominated by films, video projections and still photographs, while the Long Beach Museum of Art is hosting a photography show from Washington's National Portrait Gallery.

Together, the four L.A. museum shows will offer well over 700 works of photographic art to public view. That averages more than 175 pictures apiece -- many more than exhibitions in other mediums typically muster. The Hammer's large fall survey of Lee Bontecou's career featured 70 sculptures and 80 drawings; MOCA's big coming survey of the Minimalist era in the 1960s, filling the entire building, will present about 150 works. By any standard, the photography shows are huge.

I dare say that if 700 paintings or 700 sculptures came trundling into L.A.'s special exhibition galleries all at once, audiences would rock back on their heels in stunned astonishment. A like number of photographs we take in stride.

Yet this abundance turns out to have a wholly unexpected aspect. The four shows coincidentally outline a central argument that virtually defined the photographic enterprise for nearly 150 years, beginning with its birth in Europe in the 1830s: Is a photograph an imitation of reality or a work of imagination? Together they offer a rare opportunity for a crash course in photographic history -- and for pondering why that once-central quarrel no longer applies.

Look around. How many pictures do you see in a day? 100? 1,000? 10,000?

The newspaper you're holding in your hands likely contains more pictures than might be seen in an entire lifetime by the average person living 200 years ago, before cameras. And another paper will arrive tomorrow.

As much as our ancestors were accustomed to a vista dominated by nature, we're used to living in a landscape of images -- "a forest of signs," as MOCA once quoted Baudelaire for the title of an exhibition. It's a defining feature of modern experience, one which differentiates our age from any other.

Still, the experience can be daunting -- and managing it an exercise in seeming futility. Last month, in a reorganization of leadership at the Smithsonian Institution, a curator was appointed for the first time to oversee its various collections of photographs -- about 13 million of them. (Apparently the Smithsonian is "America's scrapbook," as well as its attic.) In December, a critic at the Village Voice fretted over his Top 10 list of the year's best photography books, which he couldn't whittle from 44 titles.

Before the camera revolutionized the image world in the mid-19th century, pictures were found mostly in rarefied places of institutional authority -- especially palaces and places of worship -- or they were appended to texts in books or pamphlets. Usually a picture didn't come to you; you went to the picture.

Today when we make a special effort to go see a picture, our destination is most often a movie theater or an art museum. And increasingly, the pictures we go to art museums to see are photographs. A circle seems to be closing.


The big spring show at LACMA is the much-heralded survey "Diane Arbus: Revelations," which opened last Sunday. This controversial exhibition reconsiders the brief but startling professional life of an artist known for photographs of freaks, eccentrics, social outcasts and other anomalies of humanity -- and for committing suicide in 1971 at age 47, at the zenith of her career.

The Arbus estate has tightly controlled the photographer's work for more than three decades -- hence the title, "Revelations." Launched on a seven-city tour of the United States and Europe lasting until fall 2006, it was greeted with enormous press at its debut last fall in San Francisco. Photographs not seen for years, or never seen before, jostled with the classics.

Janet Malcolm observed in a sharp essay in the New York Review of Books that the show and its authorized catalog certainly add great luster to the artist's reputation. But she also noted that, perhaps inevitably, the event "blurs the radicalism of the achievement that has made her life an object of avid interest." It's tough to be radical when you're an establishment darling adored by thronging crowds.

Los Angeles Times Articles