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Life, seen and shared

James Fee's photographs opened windows onto the world; Robert Brinkmann's patronage kept the door open.

March 11, 2007|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

IN the Robert Altman film "Vincent & Theo," adapted from the letters of Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo, footage of the 1987 Christie's London auction of "Sunflowers," which sold for $39.9 million, is intercut with the artist lying on a straw mattress in his garret in Belgium, penniless yet unrepentant, while his younger brother and thankless patron assails him for his financial drain on the family.

"Do you always have to go so far on principle, Vincent, or does it just come naturally?" asks Theo, as the rising bids and astonished gasps continue on the soundtrack.

"I think if you do something, you should do it properly, don't you?" says Vincent.

This was a favorite scene and recurring touchstone for the late photographer James Fee, according to cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, his friend and benefactor. When they met, Fee was a 42-year-old ex-fashion photographer who had driven a Porsche, married models and racked up enough darkness visible to want to draw a line through his life and focus on what still mattered. Brinkmann, in turn, was a 30-year-old German-born USC graduate who had shot most of the U2 documentary "Rattle and Hum" and had neither the money nor, he thought, inclination to become an art collector. The bond between them, born in an instant 15 years ago and stretching into the many tens of thousands of dollars, saw Brinkmann through relative Hollywood success ("The Cable Guy," "Rules of Attraction"), a five-year marriage (to actress Mena Suvari) and the most complete collection of Fee's work in existence. It carried Fee himself through late acclaim, hard-won serenity and finally the withering permutations of the cancer from which he died in September at age 57. Now left behind with the spoils of his patronage, Brinkmann says he's intent on giving it away.

"For a while, I was essentially working and splitting my salary with James," says Brinkmann, today a still-youthful 45, with a clarity of focus that bespeaks both his chosen occupation and the requirements of an almost accidental philanthropy. "At first, it was just a good deal: It was supposed to be $10,000 for a year, but it went way beyond that in terms of time, money, everything. And so somewhere my thinking shifted, and I decided I've put so much money into this, maybe it's a good investment. And then it got to, 'Well, I've got so much of this stuff now, we've been doing it for so many years, I'll basically have this nice collection and it will mean something.' And now that James is gone, all of those considerations have morphed again. Now all I really care about is that his legacy be preserved and that the work survives. Deal, investment -- all that stuff is gone; I'm essentially giving it away, if I can find the right home and make sure that the work is seen."

The pair first met through Marina Sargenti, currently a reality TV director and executive producer, then Brinkmann's partner in a video production company. She had just directed her first feature, "Mirror, Mirror," which Brinkmann had shot. Asked to choose a photographer for routine head shots, she opted for "these dark, moody, contrasty pictures," Sargenti says. "When I gave them to my agent, her face just dropped." Sargenti dragged Brinkmann first to lunch with Fee and then to a makeshift gallery showing above a bookstore on La Brea and quickly found herself superfluous as the two forged a friendship.

"Robert saw something in James and stuck by him when other people didn't get it," says Sargenti. "I can't say enough about his loyalty but also just sticking by his guns. A lot of people don't have that tenacity -- especially in Hollywood -- because they're just going off of what other people tell them and the buzz. They'll help somebody out, and if things don't happen big for them, they just kind of dump them."

Photographs that have 'something to say'

"I'M a visual artist, and I pride myself on at least being able to tell if something is quality," Brinkmann says. "This was in the post-Reagan era, and I just had a visceral reaction to that work. It wasn't vapid; it wasn't a photograph of Madonna in a bustier. It had something to say about who we are and where we live."

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