Observing an L.A. Photographer: fifth in a series
Photographer Charles Brittin is not as revered in Los Angeles as his work deserves. In the 1950s and '60s, he documented the Los Angeles avant-garde artists like Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin and John Altoon. Brittin's friend, the artist Wallace Berman, introduced him to the Beat culture and social life of the Ferus Gallery, a legendary exhibition space that opened in 1957 on North La Cienega.
The Ferus was notable for showcasing innovative young artists who would become famous, and was the site of Andy Warhol's first solo pop art exhibition. Founded by artist Ed Kienholz and curator Walter Hopps, it was just around the corner from Barney's Beanery, where the artists and friends such as Frank Gehry and Dennis Hopper gathered to smoke, drink and talk about art.
Brittin's photographs are sure to become better appreciated now that the Getty has acquired his archives and plans to feature him in a major L.A. art retrospective. "Charles' work stands as an important record of the Los Angeles art scene in the 1960's," senior curator Frances Turpak told me.
Brittin, now 80, wears his long hair in a ponytail. His subjects have also included Venice Beach when the view was filled with oil derricks, Ocean Park before it became gentrified, and the civil rights and antiwar clashes of the '60s. As the child of an abstract expressionist painter who was active in Los Angeles then, I jumped at the chance to meet Brittin and see his photographs. We met in the Seminar Room of the Getty Research Institute and went through box after box of prints, proof sheets and negatives.
A surprise for me was seeing Brittin's photographs from the 1966 art installation called "The Peace Tower," which was conceived by the L.A. Artists Protest Committee as a response to the Vietnam War. The 58-foot steel tower, built in an empty lot on Sunset Strip, was designed by artist Mark di Suvero. It held 418 2 foot-by-2 foot paintings contributed by artists including Vija Celmins, Elaine de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Motherwell. Brittin's color image of the installation appeared on the cover of Artforum magazine.
Brittin's work was also published in the Los Angeles Times, Harpers Bazaar, the New York Times, and Semina, the handmade Beat literary and art magazine created by Wallace Berman. Born in the Midwest, Brittin moved here in 1944. He lived first in the Fairfax area, where he says, "I was politically and culturally awakened." After attending high school in Pomona he enrolled at UCLA and discovered photography. He was attracted to the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand and admired the documentary style of Robert Frank.
He moved to Venice and helped attract attention to the young painters and sculptors who were creating an exciting new art movement in Los Angeles. In the 1960's, he became involved with CORE and the Black Panthers. His growing political activism moved him to document civil rights demonstrations in Los Angeles and the South. His photo of a woman being arrested at the Los Angeles federal building in 1965 is among his images from that time in a 1999 book, "Charles Brittin," from Smart Art Press and the Craig Krull Gallery.
Later he worked for the designers Charles and Ray Eames. The 1970's saw Brittin drop off the radar. He put everything aside to deal with health issues and survived liver and kidney transplants. After an extended recovery period, he began photographing again in 1996.
Over the years, Brittin has utilized various photographic formats from 35mm to 4x5 view cameras. He has recently embraced digital technology and carries a camera with him "always." He continues to be primarily interested in photographing people. His love of the ocean and living in Santa Monica Canyon keep him close to his old haunts.
While we talk, his pleasure at having his work acquired by the Getty is palpable. His images will be included in a 2011 exhibition entitled "On The Record: Art in L.A., 1945-1980," being curated by Getty Research Institute assistant director Andrew Perchuk. Referring to the late 50's and early 60's, Perchuk says that Brittin's photographs help bring attention to this "very difficult period of art history to study. Many of these artworks no longer exist. He was a real insider to the scene. You get a sense of the personal connection he had with his subjects."
Many of his Beat friends never knew about his later work. "Until I had the privilege of reviewing Charles's work for this book, I had no idea of the range or the amount of work he'd done," Ferus gallery co-founder Walter Hopps said in the 1999 book. "Some artists are always out there pitching the goods but Charles has never done that, nor have I ever heard him complain about not getting more attention. His self-effacing modesty is, of course, key to his sensibility as an artist."
Brittin is still out there shooting Los Angeles. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
This is the fifth post in an occasional series about Los Angeles photographers whose subject is the city. Previous entries featured Iris Schneider, Julius Shulman, teenagers Downtown and Joyce Campbell.
All photos courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust