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ART REVIEW

Hand in hand

Photography and the city of L.A. grew up together. The Huntington takes a look.

June 18, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

A1991 photograph by John Humble shows Selma Avenue at Vine Street as a jumbled, architecturally constructed Hollywood landscape of office buildings, stores, asphalt and advertising billboards. Dominating the center is Angelyne, the cosmetically manufactured "human Barbie doll," who adorns one enormous sign.

Radio host Rick Dees, then an eternally adolescent 41-year-old, graces a KIIS sign just above her bleached-blond head. Neutered Ken to Angelyne's pneumatic Barbie, he's the benign Adam to her wicked Eve in Hollywood's media-made Garden of Eden.

Humble's deceptively simple image -- documentary in the most profound sense of that slippery term -- hangs at the entry wall to a large new exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Hot on the heels of opening its beautifully refurbished, exquisitely reinstalled mansion, so rich in 18th century European and other art, the Huntington has mounted what is being billed as the most comprehensive show of L.A. photographs ever assembled. It spans the 1860s to the present.

Those dates correspond with two epochal narratives: the history of Los Angeles, incorporated in 1850, and the modern development of the camera, invented almost simultaneously in France and England a scant decade before.

Here's the thing: France and England had rich visual legacies when the camera came along, but L.A. did not. Los Angeles and photography matured together. "This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in L.A. Photographs" perceptively mines that strange and specific relationship.

That's Fitzgerald

The title is borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, whose despairing protagonist laments, "I know myself, but that is all." The alchemy of the still camera in fabricating perceptions of people and places is an inspired subject for examination. Humble's picture is emblematic.

The show, like Fitzgerald's book, is novelistic -- less an art exhibition than a pictorial essay about L.A. as a mediated environment. Its whopping 284 photographs stand in for words.

Artists made many of these pictures, but far from all. The largest group -- 25 photographs -- comes from the "Dick" Whittington Studio, an invaluable commercial outfit that worked for almost every major business and organization in the city between 1924 and 1987, recording L.A.'s explosive growth and commercial development.

Several other commercial photographers are well represented. They include William M. Godfrey, a former Midwest dentist credited with the city's first photograph (an innocuous 1862 view of downtown's plaza), and C.C. Pierce, a distinguished architectural photographer, appropriate to a city powered by waves of real estate speculation.

William A. Garnett's aerial chronicle of the postwar construction of suburban Lakewood is nearly Minimalist in its organized geometry. (Implausibly, Garnett got his start working in the Pasadena Police Department's photography lab.) G. Haven Bishop's 1915 street scene of a downtown neon advertisement reverberates against Humble's 1991 Hollywood view, but Bishop's nocturnal photograph is part of Southern California Edison's corporate archive, documenting the urbanizing effects of electricity.

The next largest group -- 19 photographs -- was made by arguably the greatest 19th century American landscape photographer, Carleton E. Watkins. Although better known for his classically ordered views of Northern California and Nevada, in which a rustic dam or mountain plateau is endowed with the noble gravity of the Parthenon, Watkins' two L.A. excursions resulted in languid vistas of Santa Monica Canyon and Pasadena farmland. Sylvan southern harmonies supplant rustic northern dramas.

Among postwar photographers, the two most abundantly represented are Harry Gamboa Jr. and Gusmano Cesaretti. Gamboa's well-known series of Chicano portraits plays off cultural stereotypes, promulgated by mass media. Cesaretti is a visual consultant who pulls those mass-media levers, most notably with film and TV producer-directors Michael Mann and Tony Scott.

Disappointingly, just 18 of the 108 named photographers are women. Glamour photographer George Hurrell is unsurprisingly included, for example, but not his MGM predecessor, Ruth Harriet Louise. More men than women would be expected, given social norms of the last 150 years, but the disparity is greater than it should be.

The show is not organized chronologically or by artist. The seven visual essays are instead thematic, beginning with a selection in the library's West Hall that looks at L.A.'s reputation as an artificial garden.

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