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Double exposure of history and art, in a shutter's click

The Getty's growing collection of news images follows a trend of raising regard for photojournalism.

January 05, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

The J. Paul Getty Museum, best known for its contested antiquities, Impressionist irises and gorgeous grounds, has been diversifying in gruesome black and white.

Since 2003, the museum has bought up several photographic prints that count among the 20th century's most iconic journalistic images of death by violence: Malcolm Browne's picture of the 1963 self-immolation of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk; a print from the Zapruder film of the 1963 shooting of John F. Kennedy; Robert Jackson's photography of the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald; a Boris Yaro image of the 1968 killing of Robert F. Kennedy; three Eddie Adams pictures of a Vietnamese execution in 1968; and Robert Capa's 1936 image of a Spanish soldier, taken at the moment he suffered a fatal gunshot.

This doesn't mean that the Getty has gone tabloid, curators say. In fact, they note that the killing pictures, now in storage, are just eight images in a broader effort to bolster the documentary holdings in a photography collection that includes tens of thousands of landscapes, portraits and other more placid scenes. The idea, they say, is to explore the borderlands between art and news.

But these purchases also stand as stark evidence, experts say, that nearly 80 years after New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired its first photograph and 30 years after photojournalists began getting serious attention from museums, curators are still widening their view of what makes a picture museum-worthy.

In museums that show photography these days, "there's a willingness to start opening up" and less hand-wringing over what is and isn't art, said Carol McCusker, curator of photography at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

"We really do follow where the artists are leading us," said Tim Wride, curator and interim head of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Nothing is as clean as that's art and that's not.... Those lines continue to blur."

Further evidence hangs on those institutions' walls. Through Jan. 14, MOPA is running a show of photographs of immigrants by Don Bartletti, a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times. Through Sunday, a LACMA photo essay show includes 10 images of Baghdad in 2003 by war photographer Simon Norfolk.

Weston Naef, the veteran Getty photography curator who engineered the recent purchases, acknowledges that when he was a fledgling curator at the Met 35 years ago, "pictures of this kind would have been unthinkable as acquisitions."

Since then, he said, he's had an "elevation of understanding." These days, the Getty fills its photography galleries (which expanded in October) with such projects as its 2005-2006 exhibitions on street photographer Weegee and "Pictures for the Press," which included the assassination and Vietnam images.

When Naef ponders acquisitions, he said, "the highest priority is when beauty and history overlap and coincide in a single work." For instance, he said, the RFK picture, shot by then Times staffer Yaro, "is built from the classic components of works of art, as we've evaluated them from the Renaissance. It's a picture made up of bold patterns of light and dark. You've got the actuality of the dying man, and the emotion of all the people around."

In part, he said, these purchases show recognition that lines can blur between news and art, especially with passage of time. On a second level, they represent a pivotal period in photography's history, after the advent of highly portable cameras and wire transmission allowed photographers to get better pictures, avoid censors and give the public a more realistic view of war and violence than was possible in the early 20th century. But there's a third element too, which Naef called "the opportunity factor." As newspapers, magazines and other media outlets turn to digital photography, curators say, some are selling or donating their archives, and the prints in them can be treasure for a collector or museum tracing the history of photography.

In 2001, New York's Museum of Modern Art acquired 300 photographic works from the New York Times. In 2005, the Time Picture Collection Inc. donated 1,000 works, including many photographs from the heyday of Life magazine, to the International Center for Photography in New York. In a series of donations from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections acquired the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives, a collection of more than 1.5 million prints and 3.5 million negatives from 1918 to 1990.

On a smaller scale, San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts in 2006 took in donations of works by Esther Bubley, Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt -- all snapped up for the museum by collectors buying from archives that were "unloading," McCusker said.

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