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Double exposure to the 1930s

September 16, 2004|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

Forgotten photographs, a politician, a love for old cars, a haircut, a suicide and John Steinbeck all figure into the story behind a double exhibition of Depression-era photos at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

The photos were taken in the 1930s by Dorothea Lange and Horace Bristol, colleagues trying to draw attention to the horrid living conditions of migrant workers arriving in California from the Dust Bowl states. Both were members of Group f/64, a loosely knit collection of photographers that also included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham.

"Insight and Compassion: Photographs by Dorothea Lange" displays 44 prints for the first time. For more than 50 years, the photos were stored in a box, forgotten until a woman, searching through her father's papers, found them in an attic.

Its companion show, "A Journey Shared: Photographs by Horace Bristol," is on loan from the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and features 37 images taken during the winter of 1937-38. Bristol, a photographer for Life magazine, was introduced to the migrant camps by Lange.

He pitched a story about the camps to his editors, but it was turned down, so he decided to do a book. He wanted text to accompany his images, so he contacted a writer in San Francisco -- Steinbeck.

But Bristol's book was never done, as Steinbeck decided to write a novel instead. It turned out to be "The Grapes of Wrath," published in 1939 and based on characters in Bristol's images.

Bristol, who grew up in Santa Paula and retired in Ojai before his death in 1997, went to Japan on assignment after World War II and stayed more than 20 years.

While there, his first wife, Virginia, committed suicide. Bristol, who was gone much of the time on assignment, blamed himself for her death and in his mourning destroyed many of his negatives and retired from photography.

The Lange photos took a far more convoluted path to the exhibition. They were the property of Elmer Eugene Lore, a linotype operator who served in the California Assembly during the 1930s. He was chairman of the Interim Committee on Social Service and Welfare and monitored conditions for migrant workers. In 1937, he requested a copy of a report by labor economist Paul Schuster Taylor. Along with the report, Taylor enclosed photographs taken by his wife, Lange.

After Lore's death in 1946, the photos ended up in a box and traveled from one son's house to another's. They were in Elmer Eugene "Gene" Lore Jr.'s attic in Thousand Oaks when his sister, Leah Gabsky, found them.

The problem was, Gabsky had never heard of Lange. She set the photos aside, where they sat until Gene Lore saw them and noticed the old cars in some of them. In October 2002, he showed them to buddy Richard Keller, a car buff. Keller pointed out to Lore that the photos carried Lange's stamp on their backs, and some included what appeared to be her handwriting.

"Who is Dorothea Lange?" Lore asked. Keller explained that she was one of the nation's most famous photographers. Her "Migrant Mother" is a defining image of the Depression.

Keller embarked on a two-year search for information about the photos. In addition to his interest in the old cars, he felt an emotional attachment to the photos, because he grew up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl era.

He contacted the Getty and the Ventura County Museum, but neither person he spoke to seemed interested, Keller says.

Undeterred, Keller continued his quest. One day, he went for a haircut. He mentioned the old cars in the photos to his barber and asked if he would like to see them. The barber said yes, and Keller brought them in.

Sitting in the next chair was Frank Allison, a history and political science professor at Ventura College. Allison encouraged Keller to continue his research.

Finally, this year, Keller ended up in the office of Focus on the Masters, a nonprofit research and educational program in Ventura that documents the lives of local artists. Keller says he was explaining his situation at the front counter when Donna Granata, founder of the program, overheard him and asked to look at the photos. She knew immediately they were valuable.

How valuable? No one's sure yet, Granata says. She helped the Lores authenticate the prints and now is helping get them appraised.

*

Depression-era photography

What: "Insight and Compassion: Photographs by Dorothea Lange" and "A Journey Shared: Photographs by Horace Bristol"

Where: Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Ends Nov. 28

Price: $4; seniors, $3; children ages 6 to 17, $1; members, free

Contact: (805) 653-0323

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