December 29, 2017

Album: Images from Alabama

LA Observed contributor Iris Schneider recently visited Alabama to volunteer for Senate candidate Doug Jones. These are some of her photographs from Alabama. Also see her primer for self-preservation through political activism.






October 15, 2017

A salute to Anacleto Rapping, photographer

When our world seems to be run by madmen and the front page is devoted to horrible deeds that human beings do to each other, I feel it is so important to salute those who live with goodness and respect for humanity in their hearts.

anacleto-rapping-by-al-seib.jpgAnacleto Rapping, a former photographer at the Los Angeles Times, who passed away on September 17, 2017 at the age of 63, after a 3-year battle with colon cancer, was one of those people. A photojournalist by profession, his iconic work was infused with humility and facilitated by his great smile. He produced images that were memorable for their artistry but also revealed a deep connection between subject and photographer. His ethos adds a very human dimension to the stereotype of the hard-charging photojournalist that many might have. Not that he wasn't competitive -- he was -- but he always put people first.

Photo of Anacleto Rapping by Al Seib.

As a colleague at the Times, I felt lucky to work with him, not only for his talent and the generosity with which he shared his skills. His gifts went far beyond his technical ability as a master with lighting and composition, and his unique eye. It was who he was as a person, his appreciation for the wonders of nature and the diversity of the human condition that shone through every image he made and helped him forge connections with those he photographed from every walk of life -- from the streets of Soweto to the celebrities on and behind the Oscar stage, from a jubilant Brandi Chastain on the soccer field to the Olympic athletes he documented in 1996 in Atlanta, (and the images that made him a Pulitzer finalist) and the many young people he mentored.

I still remember an assignment I gave Anacleto when I was working as a features photo editor. I needed someone to capture a street scene in the community of Orthodox Jews around Beverly Boulevard and La Brea. I knew this was a tricky assignment but was hopeful that Anacleto could pull it off. It was a beautiful image that he brought back, full of the joy of life, along with stories of how he chatted with the young boys after he made the picture, letting them look through his telephoto lens, a hefty and formidable 300mm 2.8 that surely impressed them. But as he told me about his talk on the street that day, I wasn't surprised. It was his ability to connect with people so personally, and to take every opportunity to teach and share what he knew about photography that made Anacleto who he was.

Anacleto_orthodox.jpgPhotos by Anacleto Rapping. Courtesy of Matt Rapping.

So it made complete sense that after 20 years as a staff photographer at the Times, Anacleto left the paper to become a photography teacher at Brooks Institute in Ventura. At his memorial it was noted that he left his job, which he loved, just because he felt it was time to give back and inspire the next generation of photojournalists. Judging from the many former students who came out to honor him that day, the future of photojournalism is secure. During his time with his students he returned to South Africa with them, a place he had gone on assignment with the Times when Mandela ran for President. Together he introduced them to the people and the countryside and their efforts culminated in a book that helped fund the trip. He remained a teacher and mentor while he also pursued a freelance career in photography.

When news of Anacleto's passing spread through the internet, the outpouring of affection and remembrances on social media was overwhelming. From photographers who he competed with to students he taught, from people he met as an avid mountain biker to parents of kids he coached in soccer, many felt moved to come forward and talk about the beautiful person they knew who had touched them in some small but unforgettable way. At his memorial it seemed fitting that the first speaker said Anacleto would want to encourage everyone to take care of their health with early screenings, colonoscopies and attention to warning signs.

I had the opportunity to work with Anacleto around Christmastime last year when I joined him to volunteer with, a nonprofit that organizes photographers who travel to low income locations and shoot formal family portraits. For some, these would be their first professional portraits. I kept an eye on him between shoots, trying to soak up as many lighting pointers as I could, but mainly I just enjoyed seeing how he interacted with the families and how they responded to him. It was a very joyful day.

After his memorial, Jesse Watrous posted a comment about her relationship with Anacleto as she was one of the last group of students he taught. "Until the very end, he was the best professor/teacher/mentor that I ever had. He was stern, fair and kind," she said, adding that he inspired her to pursue a career with a local newspaper and taught her what it meant to be a photojournalist.

Anacleto will be sorely missed, but those who knew him will find ways to keep his memory very much alive. Patrick Downs, another former LA Times photographer, said he has a mantra he often repeats: "WWAD." What would Anacleto do? It's a way to keep him close and to try to honor him, and make the world a better place, one person at a time.




June 7, 2017

Sebastião Salgado on a life in photography

salgado-ZoeGroup.jpgSebastião Salgado. Zo'e Group, State of Para, Brazil, 2009. ©Amazonas Images/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

Sebastião Salgado, 73, has not taken kindly to the age of iPhone cameras and images that disappear within seconds. He much prefers tattered family albums with pictures looked at again and again, until the edges are frayed from years of use, but the memories remain strong and pass from one generation to the next. Salgado spoke to a small crowd Tuesday night at the Getty Center to coincide with an exhibition at Bergamot Station and a retrospective of his work in San Diego.

He spoke about his life as a photographer and made a very distinct point: "Today there are very few photographers," he said, "but there are a lot of people with cameras." He feels that a photographer is one who puts his life into photography, 24/7, who has become truly comfortable with his subjects, something that can only be gained over time. Indeed, as many of his beautiful images flashed on the screen, images well-known to any devotee of documentary photography, one seemed to epitomize what he was talking about.

It stays in my mind. A beautiful portrait of a young woman from an indigenous tribe found in the Amazon, she has her arms over her head, at peace in a hammock, totally comfortable in her skin and with Salgado, who has recorded the moment with an ease that can only come once you have been fully accepted by the community.

"I never made pictures like a butterfly...You must spend time living with people, and allow yourself to participate in their lives," he says. He is not one to flit from flower to flower. "I prefer long term projects."

His latest project, "Amazonia," on the Amazon and its people, is halfway to completion. After decades of documenting the worst that man can do — to each other and the planet — he has chosen to see that which makes him optimistic: the idea of community and the commonalities that we share as human beings on the planet. He sees the Amazon as the last forest, and if we keep killing it, he says, we will be lost as a species.

So he has spent the last four years, and three or four more to come, recording the beauty of the Amazon and its people as a call for us to preserve what remains before it is too late to save. He sees his body of work as a record of our species, telling the human story. Salgado invoked what Lorca said: man alone is like dust, but together we are something.

He doesn't see himself as the instrument, making photographs. Rather, by immersing himself in these communities, his photography becomes something that both he and his subjects participate in, a very personal connection. "People come to the camera like they are speaking into a microphone," he says. And Salgado seems fulfilled and happy to let his images be their voice.

MOPA San Diego
Sebastião Salgado: Genesis
24 May, 2017 - 30 Sep, 2017

Peter Fetterman Gallery
Sebastião Salgado: A Life in Photography
3 June - 2 September, 2017

Related on LA Observed
Sebastião Salgado and 'Salt of the Earth'
Three new photojournalism books from masters of the craft

May 2, 2016

Lynsey Addario: 'I never feel like I'm doing enough'

lynsey-addario-tom-stoddart-iris.jpgLynsey Addario with photographer Tom Stoddart at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Photo by Iris Schneider.

I couldn't help thinking of Lynsey Addario while watching "Louder Than Bombs," a recent movie by Joachim Trier that focuses on a woman war photographer. There are undeniably fewer women photographers on the front lines than men and even Addario, whose work has won every journalism award out there including a Pulitzer and a MacArthur genius grant, recently acknowledged that now that she has a young child she is less available or willing to run off to cover breaking news around the world. Interviewed recently at the opening of "Refugee," a photography exhibit at the Annenberg Space about the global refugee crisis that includes her work, Addario talked a bit about being a woman, wife and mother and covering hard news and conflict worldwide.

"Having a child, it's harder and harder to work on assignments like news," she told me. "I can't just get on a plane. I'm tortured. That's the reason i waited till 38 to have my son. I come from a very close family, and I knew I'd have to make those compromises. I wanted to have a family and as a woman we have a finite amount of time."

Addario came of age as a photographer after 9/11, and has worked in conflict zones worldwide, mainly for the New York Times, since 2000. The youngest of four sisters brought up in Connecticut by Italian American hairdressers, she began shooting in Argentina where she went to live and learn Spanish after graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1995. She became interested in photographs she saw in the local newspapers and thought that photography might be a career that would allow her to combine her interest in international relations with the art of storytelling. She begged the local newspaper for a job and after much persistence, they gave her one. Later, she moved to New York to learn the skills she needed and found a mentor in Bebeto Matthews. She began freelancing for Associated Press. She lived in India, then Afghanistan. In one interview she talked about her parents, who were not news junkies like her, but rather clueless about the dangerous world she was beginning to explore. She remembers telling them she was going off to Afghanistan. "Have fun!" they told her as she headed out.

Her career has taken off, mainly due to her great eye, compassion and commitment to telling the stories of those under the radar, particularly of women. In Afghanistan she focussed on the lives of women under Taliban rule. She has worked hard, putting in 18 hour days when she is immersed in a story. She has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Republic of the Congo, and the Middle East. But coming from a large family, she always knew she "wanted to start a family of my own someday. In 2005 I met my husband, Paul de Bendern. He was the Reuters bureau chief in Turkey and I was living in Istanbul. We are perfect for one another. He's driven, dedicated to his own work. He understands."

She continued to do the work that mattered to her, often putting herself at risk. But her "someday" finally arrived after a harrowing experience in Libya when she was kidnapped along with three other journalists in 2011. Their driver was killed before they were taken hostage and held for a week. It was not the first time she was held hostage while on assignment or thought her life was in danger.

"After being held hostage in Libya, I came out and thought there were three times in my life that I thought 'I"m dead.' Then Tim (Hetherington) and Chris (Hondros) were killed. That sent me over the edge," she said. "I thought it was time to step back. It was a moment of saying, I've given my life to this work, and still do, but I have to have something else that grounds me. I don't want to end up this wayward, empty soul just traumatized by everything I've seen. Having a child and loving husband gives me this grounding and provides me with a huge amount of love...I'm not working as much on the front line. I can't cover as much breaking news...I don't have the flexibility anymore. Is it okay? It has to be okay.

"Do I wish I could have been in Lesbos? Of course, but I couldn't do it. You can kind of have it all, but you really can't. There is a sacrifice...It's like I never feel like I'm doing enough. I always feel I'm failing either as a mother or as a photojournalist." That speaks volumes about her commitment to her craft and the responsibility she feels to her subjects, and the pull at the same time of her family ties. These are the personal costs of being a woman immersed in the world of conflict photography, some of which Joachim Trier attempts to address in "Louder Than Bombs."

April 28, 2016

Refugee images now at the Annenberg Space

father-daughter-reach-lesbos-stoddart.jpgA father celebrates his family's safe landing in Lesbos, Greece last year after a stormy sea crossing from Turkey. Photo: Tom Stoddart. Inset below of the five photographers: Iris Schneider.

A sweeping show of photography and programming focused on the global refugee crisis has opened at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City. Although a show of this scale can take two years to plan and carry out, Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation swung into high gear last September, around the time that refugees in crowded boats began swarming ashore in Lesbos, Greece, according to Elizabeth Biondi, who curated the show along with the Annenberg's Pat Lanza.

Five award-winning photographers--photojournalists Lynsey Addario, Tom Stoddart, and Graciela Iturbide, portraitist Martin Schoeller, and fashion photographer Omar Victor Diop---were commissioned and supported by the Annenberg's foundation to focus on segments of the 60 million refugees fleeing conflict across the globe. five-photogs-iris.jpgThe results not only show the grit and determination of the refugees, but, according to Stoddart, "the strength of human beings to recover and rebuild." Stoddart talked about watching the refugees come ashore in crowded inflatable boats. "What stopped me was how desperate you must be to put your children on one of these things," he said. And his heart went out as well to the elderly who arrive on foreign shores, "who've lived their entire lives in a city in Syria. The courage it takes to leave when they know they are going to die in a foreign land...When they do land, the relief, the sense of elation is amazing."

Stoddart echoed the sentiments of all the photographers when he said how important it was to humanize the crisis, to put a face on the numbers and turn the statistics into human beings. He talked about the huge mountains of life jackets piled high on Lesbos, each one representing a person. "These people are just like us,' he said. "We need to reach out and realize it could be any one of us."

The photographers documented refugee populations in Myanmar and Bangladesh (Addario), Greece into Europe (Stoddart), South America (Iturbide), Africa (Diop) and the United States (Schoeller). The work is beautifully printed and displayed along with some other smaller exhibits and is presented along with a moving and informative film called "Refugee" that follows each photographer on their journey of discovery as they explore the plight of different groups of refugees. It is a moving tribute to the determination and dedication shown by the photographers as they tell the stories the refugees cannot.

SayThaMarGyi-lynseyaddario.jpgWoman cooks in Say Tha Mar Gyi refugee camp in Myanmar. Photo: Lynsey Addario.

Near Berkasovo, Serbia: A mother carries her daughter across the border between Serbia and Croatia. Photo: Tom Stoddart.

'Louder Than Bombs' and the toll on a war photographer

Devin-druid-Gabriel-Byrne-louderthanbombs.jpgDevin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in "Louder Than Bombs." Lower photo of Joachim Trier by Iris Schneider.

"Louder Than Bombs," the first English-language film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, takes a rather sober look at Isabelle Reed, a war photographer, and the toll her career choice takes on her family. It is a subject that has shown up affectingly in another feature film, "A Thousand Times Good Night" with Juliette Binoche, and will surface again when the upcoming film based on award-winning war photographer Lynsey Addario's autobiography, "It's What I Do," is released.

The attraction of war photography is compelling and complex. Being a news photographer, I understand the instinct we have to run towards danger while everyone else is running away. That drive has produced dramatic images that have changed the course of history: Nick Ut's image during the Vietnam War of children running down the road, their clothing and naked flesh burned by napalm, Carolyn Cole's images from the conflict in Liberia, Addario's images from the Middle East conflicts and Syria, and Tim Hetherington and James Nachtwey's work that shows the toll of war on civilians and eventually got Hetherington killed in the line of duty.

But "Louder Than Bombs" attempts to show the toll that the war photographer's choice to document this hell, and her death while back at home under questionable circumstances, exacts on her family who wait for her at home. In coming home, the main character, played powerfully by Isabel Huppert, suffers from PTSD: she discovers it is harder to find peace when she returns to her suburban New York home than it was to dodge bombs and artillery in a war zone. The adrenaline rush while confronting conflict becomes addictive, as does the desire to make a difference in the world, to tell the stories of the real effects of war on innocents and the soldiers on the front lines. But the film confronts the possibly sexist question: in attempting to save the world, has she inflicted harm on her own family? Trier's choice of a mother as the photographer seems aimed at stacking the deck beyond the concerns one would feel for a male photographer and I'm not sure I agree with that difference.

joachim-trier-iris.jpgThe story takes place three years after her death, when the family and a close colleague gather to edit her images and memorabilia for a retrospective show. In coming together to go through her effects, each family member must deal again with their own trauma surrounding her life, her death (or was it her suicide?) and their own issues as they try to move on, remake their lives and examine the secrets they have held close and avoided confronting. The linear story is offset by some beautiful dream sequences that bring an eloquence to the tale and add another affecting dimension, exposing the inner lives of the characters. While photographs never lie, every photographer chooses what to put in and leave out of the frame. So it is with memories, Trier seems to be saying. Each individual's truth may vary. Each character needed to make their own story about Huppert's death in order to move on. "This is a film that tries to portray the minds of the characters as much as the events around them," Trier said. "Their thinking, their dreams, their memory are all that matters."

While her two sons are proud of the impact her images have had, and her husband willingly left his own acting career to look after the family while she traveled from war zone to war zone, there is no doubt that constantly worrying about whether she would come home alive took a toll on her family, as it does I'm sure on any conflict photographer or war correspondent. Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg play the damaged husband and older son, but it is the young son played deftly by Devin Druid who seems to be the planet around whom the others revolve. Despite his adolescent sullenness, he exudes a boyish wonder as he tries to grow up and figure out who he is and will become. Even with his adolescent struggles, he is definitely, according to Trier, "insightful beyond his age," and turns in a very moving performance.

Despite a plot more convoluted than it needs to be, the issues raised about personal choices and their consequences, family secrets and the complicated paths in and out of grief, give you a lot to think about.

March 27, 2016

For John Simmons, it all started in the '60s

simmons-Gathering-at-Monument.jpgDemocratic Convention, Chicago 1968. Photographs by John Simmons except portrait by Iris Schneider.

These days there is much that seems to divide us. But John Simmons, 65, a cinematographer by trade, has spent the past 50 years photographing the black community, and in the process has opened a window into daily life that makes those divisions melt away. Showing a broad swath of community life, the photographs provide a moving look at the moments shared between friends, lovers and family. The exhibit, It Started in the 60's, will be on view until April 10 at The Perfect Exposure gallery in Koreatown.

Growing up in Chicago, Simmons had dropped out of high school and was trying to make his way as a painter. Influenced by "The Sweet Flypaper of Life" by Langston Hughes, he was trying to capture daily life through painting, but putting all that he saw and felt on canvas was a struggle. A friend and mentor, Robert Sengstacke, who owned the newspaper The Chicago Daily Defender, put a camera in his hand and sent him out on the street. Suddenly, he found a medium that already had a frame built in. "I was able to be the artist I wanted to be," he said.

john-simmons-iris.jpgHe came back and showed Sengstacke his images. "He said, 'Dang, buddy, You've got an eye,'" and Simmons was off and running. With images of black photographer Roy De Carava dancing in his head, he was determined to document life of and on the streets of Chicago. "Growing up in Chicago, two things can happen: the environment can force itself on you, or you can force yourself on the environment," Simmons said the other day. "I wanted to have a greater effect on the environment than the environment had on me." His photography got him a scholarship at Fisk University in Nashville where he stayed for 4 years. He then moved on to USC, where he studied cinematography.

But photography has stayed with him over the years. The images on display present the beauty and poetry of daily life, a glimpse out a window, the swagger on the street, an embrace in the shadows. He has photographed Nina Simone, Rahssan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp and other musicians, as well as ordinary people, now all frozen in time.

Photographers "can't help but put a frame around the world we see," Simmons says. "We are continually composing...I feel that my pictures tell a story, each one has its own spirit and soul...I have an affinity in general for people, just looking not disturbing...For me, our paths converged for one brief second and whatever I shared with them at that moment will last forever."

His work is a moving tribute to the people he's encountered over the years, most living their lives in anonymity, up until this moment.

simmons-Man with Pistol.jpgMan with pistol, Chicago 1965

simmons-Alijendro Santiago (Oaa=xaca MX. 2014).jpgAlijendro Santiago 2014

March 20, 2016

Mapplethorpe was many things, but not a voyeur

Self-portrait, 1980. Photos by Robert Mapplethorpe except noted.

Artist. Perfectionist. Angel. Devil. Creator. Lightning Rod. Careerist. There are many words to describe photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work is currently on view in an unprecedented dual exhibition presented at LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Voyeur, however, is not one of them. Mapplethorpe, who defiantly used himself in some of his most famous photographs depicting homosexual sex and sado-masochism, made it clear that he was not an outsider.

"Being an artist is to learn about yourself," Mapplethorpe said. And so, rather than observe at a distance, he used photography to document dark worlds that he himself was exploring. "To me, S and M means Sex and Magic," he says in a quote at LACMA's exhibit, which opened Sunday. Not everyone will agree with that definition, but Mapplethorpe's work is nothing if not brutally honest. But beyond the social impact of the most controversial images he made, his artistry, technical skill and quest for perfection in composition and lighting elevated his work to a level beyond the reach of many.

Joe, NYC, 1978.

The exhibits consist of work taken from the extensive Mapplethorpe archive, recently acquired jointly by LACMA and the Getty Research Institute, and private and museum collections. The shows include early pieces for which he is not well-known: assemblage, paintings, drawings, collage, album covers, and hand-strung jewelry are among the work created before he found photography. In fact, in his early years, when he started attending Pratt Institute at the age of 16, photography did not interest him at all. He did not think it could be considered art. It wasn't until he borrowed a Polaroid camera from a friend while living with Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel that he began to experiment with photography and realized it was an art form that had potential.

For Mapplethorpe, his relationships were key to supporting and propelling his art forward. Starting with Patti Smith, who was his first muse, his lovers became his subjects and their portraits document his growth as an artist. When he met the art collector Sam Wagstaff, they fell in love, but Mapplethorpe admits in the upcoming HBO documentary, "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures," that he is not sure their relationship would have blossomed had Wagstaff not been wealthy. But the two helped each other with their struggles: Mapplethorpe encouraged Wagstaff to live as an openly gay man. Wagstaff was devoted to Mapplethorpe, and bought him a large-format Hasselblad camera and a loft on Bond Street and supported his artistic growth.

Those square Hasselblad portraits reveal an artist's eye for composition and the technical skills to light his subjects in an ethereal glow that became his trademark. His nudes are classical in pose, perfectly lit and composed. His choice of models was impeccable as he searched for perfection in the human form (including, as mentioned in the film, his search for "the perfect black penis").

But more than anything, he wanted to be famous and he had the business sense to figure out how to make it happen. Just as he was relentless in his urge to create, he pursued fame and success with the same determination. For many artists, that business acumen is a mystery but for Mapplethorpe it seems instinctual.

When Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, he seemed to redouble his creative efforts, not letting a day go by without photographing something. At the same time, he had one eye towards the future of his legacy, telling friends to talk about him after he was gone, to tell his story and stories. In 1988 he created the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to take care of his archived works, provide support for photography and help fund AIDS research. The foundation recently designated LACMA and the Getty Research Institute as the new homes of all of his work, which was the motivation for this ground-breaking exhibition partnership.

The documentary, which screened at LACMA last week and will show on HBO in early April, provides another riveting piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that was Robert Mapplethorpe. Using previously unseen historical footage and Mapplethorpe's own words, recorded by Patricia Morrisroe for her 1995 biography of the artist, along with interviews that are touching, funny and heart-wrenching with his younger brother Edward, who was his assistant during the 80's, and gallery owners, lovers, models and friends who knew him before he died in 1989 at the age of 42, it attempts to make sense of the complicated man behind the work. At once entertaining, sensational and profoundly sad--kind of like Mapplethorpe himself--it accomplishes a common goal of the filmmakers and the exhibits: to humanize an artist demonized by conservative politicians and forever linked in the public's eye to controversy.

edward-mapplethorpe.jpgEdward Mapplethorpe at last week's LACMA screening. Photo by Iris Schneider.

He is described in the film as "chasing something" and determined to show the struggle within between good and evil. But the chase was a struggle itself. "It's hard to be happy if you like things to be perfect," he said. (On a personal note, it turns out that Mapplethorpe and his 5 brothers and sisters grew up in Floral Park, N.Y. in a working class Catholic family that went to church every Sunday, only 10 blocks from my own childhood home. We went to the same high school, Martin Van Buren, where he graduated a year ahead of me.)

The Getty and LACMA shows complement each other but have different missions. The LACMA work is a retrospective that shows his evolution as an artist, starting before 1970 with his early collages and assemblages and jewelry he made with his hands, while trying to find his true voice. It is revealing and surprising, showing pieces made before he began his controversial exploration of sex and homosexuality on the fringes of society in New York in the 70's when the city's Village and meatpacking district bath houses were still unregulated and group sex, S and M, and casual unprotected liaisons spilled out onto the streets.

His classic nudes, as beautiful as Greek statues, still life studies of flowers and perfectly lit and composed portraits of the people in his life present some of the many facets of Robert Mapplethorpe. The enormity of his archive is impressive to say the least, especially given the short length of his life. "The sheer productivity did impress me," says Britt Salvesen, the LACMA curator for photography, who has been working on the show for 4 1/2 years. Looking through his work also "made me realize that he had the concepts fully formed in his mind. Some photographers discover as they go but he had the images composed in his mind...You can never mistake a Mapplethorpe work."

The show at the Getty, which opened March 15, attempts to add context to the controversy engendered by "The Perfect Moment," the Mapplethorpe exhibition that opened in 1988 in Philadelphia and caused a political firestorm when Jesse Helms led efforts to close it down, waving the X photographs in the air as he addressed the Senate, saying "some people call Robert Mapplethorpe an artist. I think he's a jerk." Those efforts caused the show's Corcoran Gallery opening to be canceled. Eventually the courts decreed that the work was not obscene and the show opened to record-breaking crowds. At the Getty, those somewhat disturbing works are included along with materials from that period addressing the controversy, along with portraits, nudes and floral studies. Although those explicit photographs may be Mapplethorpe's most well-known, and probably catapulted him into the fame he craved, these two current shows go a long way to fleshing out the work of an artist who never really wanted to be a photographer.

Larry and Bobby kissing, 1979

Patti Smith, 1978

Parrot Tulips, 1988

November 18, 2015

Art of Ishiuchi Miyako may be what you yearn for

isiuchi-miyako-iris.jpgPhoto of Ishiuchi Miyako by Iris Schneider.

For those who miss the depth and grit of a beautifully printed black and white image, the photography of Ishiuchi Miyako, whose work is on view at the Getty through February 2016, may be just what you are yearning for. Ishiuchi, who has been exploring her life through photography for 40 years, is a fearless photographer but she says she only took photographs so she could get into the darkroom and print them. I understand the pleasure of the hours of isolation that darkroom printing provides. She taught herself to print, using rolls of photo paper that could make large prints. "The reason I love roll prints is that it is the same as dying fabric," she said, likening it to printing rolls of silk that harken back to her early training in textiles. She is also a pioneer as a female photographer in a country where men have traditionally taken the lead in the photography world, and as such she has inspired the five younger Japanese women whose work is also on exhibit concurrently at the Getty. What unites them is their exploration of family and self, the personal that becomes political, and the thought that has gone into their photographic journeys. Otsuka Chino, one of the younger generation photographers, said her personal exploration was like "being a tourist of your own life."

For Ishiuchi, she began her life as a visual artist when she returned in the 70's to her hometown of Yokosuka, the home of her family's tiny apartment and a US airbase. She would return twice to continue her work there, eventually using the money her father had put aside for her wedding to finance the printing of her work. She began to document her life in her cramped family apartment and her feelings about America and the American military presence in her town. "There are many things I would rather forget," she said in addressing the press before the show, "Postwar Shadows," opened at the Getty. "I only explore negative memories so in the process of forming them into photographs, they turn into something positive." Her prints of Yokosuka are brooding, textured images that grab your attention. She turned an unflinching eye to her surroundings and her images reflect the love/hate relationship she had with the American military presence. While it introduced her to many cultural touchstones, like American music and fashion, she is understandably ambivalent about the US military's effect on her hometown and its intrusion into Japanese culture. She continued documenting Yokosuka and her feelings toward it until 1990.

The show continues for several rooms, each exploring a different facet of Ishiuchi's very personal work. As she turned 40, she became interested in the ravages of time. She explains that she never expected to live until she turned 40 and once she did she became interested in what happens to a body after 40 years of exposure to time. "I became interested in the body as a repository of the invisible: time, air, space. The body is passive, it can't speak back. I decided to photograph how 40 years of time etched into women's bodies. It caused a stir in Japan...if you are a woman, you are not supposed to be old, scarred, withered, to show the passage of time. But that is life...I was interested and compelled by the body embraced by time. I began to realize that with photography you can capture the invisible."

Her images are large and indeed show the ravages of time in scars, wrinkles, spots. This exploration led her to photograph her mother's scarred body as she reached old age. She was invited to use polaroids and began a different visual exploration with color photography. Her mother passed away before she could fully explore the project. They had never gotten along in her mother's lifetime. But after she passed away Ishiuchi began looking at and talking to the clothing she had left behind. "I opened her drawers and found her undergarments and treated them as a kind of skin. This was the beginning of capturing images of things left behind."

In the last phase of the exhibit, Ishiuchi exhibits work done in Hiroshima from 2007, when she was invited by the government of Japan to do a photography project there. At first she felt that so many photographers had gone to Hiroshima "there would be nothing left for me." But she began to look at objects of clothing that remained and found them to be "imbued with life" rather than the death we usually think of when we think of Hiroshima. For me, her photographs of these garments, and those of her mother, are the most moving work in the show. "The garments were still colorful and fashionable. Seeing the clothes made me think if I had been 17, these were the kinds of things I would have worn myself...I had to approach it as a social issue and have been accused of beautifying and glorifying tragedy but I say these things were much more beautiful before the bombing." People are still donating cherished objects and the project continues as she returns every two years. She has captured the spirit left in these garments by their owners in a way that haunts you long after you've left the gallery.

hiroshima-piece-miyako.jpgFrom the Hiroshima series. Courtesy of and © Ishiuchi Miyako.

girl-in-=street-miyako.jpgLittle girl in street: Yokosuka Story #998. Collection of Yokohama Museum of Art © Ishiuchi Miyako

October 31, 2015

Dressed for los muertos


Members of the Ballet Folklorico de Herencia Mexicana in West Covina prepped offstage Saturday at the Old Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. Since it's the day of Halloween, the dancers got made up for Dia de los Muertos. No smiling when you are honoring the day of the dead. Photographs by Judy Graeme.

folklorico-prayer-jg.jpgPraying together before taking the stage.

folklorico-spread-jg.jpgShowing the colors.

Amigas de los Muertos.

folklorico-eyes-jg.jpgLove the eyes.

July 19, 2015

'Endless Summer' poolside


The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel hosted an poolside screening of "Endless Summer" for the 50th anniversary of the surfing culture classic.

Photo by Iris Schneider.

May 3, 2015

'Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography' at the Getty

getty-greycircles.jpgTop: Poly-optic #22, 2013, Chris McCaw. Next: Spin (C-824), 2008, Marco Breuer.

As a  photographer, I am grounded in the real world. My heroes are those who often put themselves in harm's way to expose social injustice, documenting the lives of the less fortunate and doing it artfully and powerfully. So it was kind of exhilarating to visit the Getty for their latest photography exhibit, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, and meet photographers who are exploring other frontiers, sometimes breaking new ground and sometimes riffing and expanding on the work of earlier pioneers like Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Pierre Cordier and Edmund Teske. There is something freeing in looking at work made with a different set of objectives in mind, work that asks questions posed by artists who are following a path of their own design, not knowing fully where it will take them. 

The show at the Getty is unusual in several respects. First, photography is the only art form which the Getty collects internationally and up to the present day. So the possibility of talking with the artists represented in a show is rare. For this show, most of the artists were in the Gallery the day of the opening and some were participating in panels and demonstrations opening week. In addition, this photography show includes several photographers whose work was not made with a camera. While photography is defined as "writing with light," why must a camera be the writing instrument?  Why can't the light source itself, be it the sun or the moon, be the instrument? On the morning of the show's opening, photographers James Welling, Chris McCaw, Alison Rossiter, Lisa Oppenheim, Marco Breuer, John Chiara and Matthew Brandt were present, and spoke about their process and their path. Some were seeing their work on the Getty walls for the first time.


Alison Rossiter's prints start with batches of old photo paper and are made by developing the unexposed, expired paper, or by using darkroom chemistry to fix the papers without exposing them to the enlarger's light. Often, after years of sitting in their boxes, some light has leaked inside the box, or a fingerprint has smudged the surface and these conditions will show themselves once the paper hits the developer. Like other artists in this show, EBay has provided an opportunity to search far and wide for papers that many would deem useless. "It all should have been thrown away," she said and talked about working in 2011 with a box of paper made in 1911. "I had an entire century in my hands. The images are made by time. The paper still reacts." A glass showcase houses some of the boxes and envelopes that Rossiter has found, with intricate labels and elegant design, packaging of a bygone era. For some of these artists, a visit to EBay over their morning coffee has become a daily ritual, and what they've found has made their art possible. "I buy something fantastic every day," Rossiter said.

Chris McCaw uses the light of the sun to burn its arc onto paper negatives he has also found on EBay, although he admits it is getting harder to find what he wants. He uses old military reconnaissance lenses, huge columns of glass that he has adapted for his artistic design, to harness the light of the sun or moon, or boards with broken 50mm lenses mounted geometically. Classically trained in Northern California, his journey as an artist changed when he set out to photograph the stars overnight at Yosemite and overslept. The sun had burned the emulsion on the paper. "I thought it was garbage," he said, and he put the paper at the bottom of the box. He didn't develop it for a long time. When he did, it resonated and led him down a whole new path.

mccaw-iris.jpgChris McCaw at the Getty, by Iris Schneider

The day after the Getty opening he had set up his lenses out on the plaza for a demonstration and was explaining his process, chatting with photography enthusiasts and eager students. Surrounded by huge lenses with bellows atttached to suitcases he has designed to make transporting them easier, his enthusiasm was infectious. He encouraged people to peek through a slit in the bellows and see how the sun was burning an arc onto the paper. He explained how his exposures vary with the time of the year, his location and the time of day and height of the sun, how he has adapted to spending hours near his camera while he makes his exposures. "I've gotten into birding," he says, along with reading and people-watching. He enjoys how the personality of a place evolves through the day. "That would be a great subject for a photo project." But obviously, not one he's going to take on anytime soon.

Marco Breuer, whose images include one in which the paper is etched with the needle from a phonograph, was trained in Germany. "I did do the proper camera thing, but in Germany there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, so you need to find a space where those rules don't apply." This idea of exploration and breaking boundaries defines the creative process.

While the idea of what a photograph is may be open to discussion, it's hard to deny that the work in this exhibit gives us beautiful and thought-provoking images to ponder while we answer the questions they pose.

"Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography" is at the Getty Center until Sept. 6.

chiara-sierra-getty.jpgSierra at Edison, 2012, from "Los Angeles Project," John Chiara.

April 13, 2015

Sebastiao Salgado and 'Salt of the Earth'

salgado-amazonas1.jpgGold miners in Brazil. All photos by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics

"Salt of the Earth," Wim Wenders' reverent documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado, should be required viewing for every member of the human race. Unfortunately, more people will probably see "Fast and Furious 7" than this riveting and heartbreaking film. Salgado has spent most of his adult life as a chronicler of man's inhumanity to man. Wenders, who was struck by the beauty, power and humanity embodied in Salgado's images, made this film along with Salgado's older son Juliano Rebeiro Salgado. In fact, like Dorothea Lange, Salgado's life's work documenting the world's families came with great sacrifice to his own. His older son Juliano grew up with a mostly absent father, and he really got to know his father as an adult when in 2004 his father invited him to come along on several photo trips that he eventually contributed to this film. Although Juliano had grown up surrounded by his father's work, he says he didn't really come to understand and appreciate those photographs until the making of this movie.

As Wenders points out in his incisive narration as the film opens, the word "photograph" means writing with light. Usually, a photograph will capture the light that emanates from the sun, the moon, the clouds. But for Salgado, the light seems to come from within him, and he shines it on the impoverished, the unfortunate and those thousands of poor souls who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Using both digital and film cameras, his photography shows no evidence of any difference, despite the passionate arguments many photographers have had over the difference each type of equipment makes. Salgado's images are luminous, the quality impeccable, regardless what camera he is using. In the film we see a scene he is recording but the image he has produced has a depth that almost takes your breath away. The photograph is different than what your eye or brain records. His images soar and it's hard to explain why.

There is a humanity in his work, a dignity that he finds and honors in every subject, every circumstance no matter how dire. He spent many decades documenting tragedy around the world from the drought-scarred Sahel in Africa to the genocides in Rwanda and Congo. He photographed the firefighters who tried to extinguish the burning oil wells of Iraq that were lit by Saddam's army as a final act of vengeance after the end of the Gulf War, turning the landscape into a literal hell on earth.

Ultimately he had to stop. His soul could absorb no more tragedy. After taking a break and retreating to his family's dying farm in Brazil, he embarked with his wife Leila, who has collaborated on all his photography over the years of their marriage, on a different project that she suggested: to replant the denuded forests of his family's farm and try to restore the land to its natural beauty. In accomplishing this, his own renewal took place. He decided that his next project would be one of hope, and spent the next 8 years documenting the pristine and beautiful places and people around the world untouched by change and published the work in a book called "Genesis." Getting back in touch with the beauty of nature, the power of one tree growing to maturity multiplied by thousands, brought him the hope he had lost sight of, and his own rebirth and restoration of spirit.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. We must not turn away from these tragedies until we stop repeating them.

salgado-tigray-ethiopia.jpgTigray in Ethiopia.

salgado-korem-camp.jpgKorem refugee camp in Ethiopia.

salgado-amazonas2.jpgOil well firefighter in Kuwait.

March 10, 2015

Josef Koudelka exhibit at the Getty

koudelka-tank.jpgJosef Koudelka, Prague 1968. c Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka brought us into the Soviet invasion on the streets of Prague, Czechoslavakia in 1968 by smuggling out his film and getting it to the Magnum office in Paris. An engineer by profession, like Sebastaio Salgado, Koudelka was seduced by the camera and the events unfolding before him. Having returned to Prague only one day before the invasion, he sensed the weight of history, loaded up his camera and took to the streets. But it was not until the one-year anniversary that the images he made were published, and then only credited P.P. for "Prague photographer" to protect Koudelka's identity.

In a gripping show of his black and white images now on display at the Getty until March 22, we are thrown back into those days of tumult and caught up in the passion, chaos and repression that he recorded. In the days before Facebook and Instagram revolutions, we have to be thankful for the tenacity and commitment of someone like Koudelka who not only chose to be there, but used his eye and artistry to make these powerful images so the world could see the strong arm of the Soviet Union as it brought its full force against the Czechoslovakian people.

Koudelka eventually felt forced to leave his homeland and began years of photographic wandering, exploring the issues of alienation and statelessness, adding to his earlier Eastern Europe work in the '70s documenting the Gypy community by continuing it in England, where he repatriated. The title of the current Getty show, Nationality Doubtful, comes from the determination made by British border control whenever Koudelka applied to re-enter his adopted homeland as he returned from his photographic excursions. Over those early years he connected with Magnum photo agency and the Magnum photographers including Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who always gave him assistance, advice and a floor on which to spread his sleeping bag.

The Getty show is sweeping in scope, spanning the various segments of Koudelka's long career: his early experimental work on the avant-garde theater in Czechoslovakia, his work documenting Gypsies, the Czech invasion, exiles and more recent panoramas--devoid of people but not the effect that people have wrought on their environment. His most recent work, images of the walls that divide us are stark and dramatic, gritty and powerful.

koudelka-getty-pan.jpgAl 'Eizariya (Bethany) 2010. Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka, Prague 1968 .c Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos.

koudelka-gypsies.jpgJosef Koudelka, Czechoslovakia, Straznice, 1966. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

November 29, 2014

Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro photos at the Huntington

Wales, 1965. By Bruce Davidson

A new photography exhibit at the Huntington Library features a pair of octogenarian masters of the medium. "Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro:Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland" showcases the contrasting styles and experiences of both men.

In the accompanying book, Huntington photography curator Jennifer Watts explains:

One man lives in the city, the other in the woods. One is drawn to the strife and the tumult of life. The other craves serenity and the contemplative forms of nature. Exceptional craftsmen, they still use and develop black and white prints by hand. They are now in their eighties. They have never met. Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro, two American photographers as distinct as night and day, traveled separately to Great Britain and Ireland a half century ago and brought their sensibilities with them. Davidson went first, in 1960, on assignment for a popular magazine. Six years later, Caponigro secured a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph in Ireland. Davidson went twice more to the United Kingdom and Caponigro took more than a dozen return trips across several decades. Their journeys helped establish their respective distinguished careers.

The exhibit first appeared last summer at the Yale Center for British Art (where the two photographers finally did meet). In addition to the 128 photographs, there is a sixteen-minute film called "Still Looking" by Huntington filmmaker Kate Lain. Lain, along with Watts, traveled to Caponigro's home in Maine, and to Davidson's in New York City, spending a few days talking and shooting with each. Lain admitted to being slightly starstruck by her legendary subjects but had no problem with diva-like behavior. Recalling her time with them she says "they were both very open to just let me know their objects and know how they define space. There's something about their spaces that has everything to do with what you see in their photography."

Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro:Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland runs at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens through March 15, 2015.

Stonehenge, 1977. By Paul Caponigro.

Connemara, County Galway, Ireland 1970. By Paul Caponigro.

Dead Calf in the Sand, County Kerry, Ireland 1993. By Paul Caponigro.

London, 1960. By Bruce Davidson.

Brighton, 1960. By Bruce Davidson.

Previously on LA Observed
Bruce Davidson photographs Los Angeles
Bruce Davidson, around LA

November 12, 2014

Photo: Cane and Basket Supply Company


Cane and Basket Supply Co. has been in business on Cochran Avenue off San Vicente since 1934. Photo by Iris Schneider.

October 19, 2014

Shooting Muhammad Ali: An interview with Al Satterwhite

Both photos of Muhammad Ali copyright Al Satterwhite and used with permission.

In 1970, Muhammad Ali was returning to boxing after being banned from the ring for more than three years over his refusal to serve in the U.S. Army. The first opponent he faced during the comeback was L.A.'s Jerry Quarry, the great white hope of the day and a fan favorite at the Olympic Auditorium near downtown. Ali stopped Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia, after opening a deep cut over Quarry's left eye in the third round. Then, not long after dispatching Argentina's Oscar Bonavena, Ali challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship, the so-called "Fight of the Century," in early 1971.

Photographer Al Satterwhite shot Ali in Miami during his training sessions for both the Quarry and the Frazier bouts. Now based in Redondo Beach, Satterwhite is attempting to publish a book of photographs of Ali from that time, many of which have never been seen, using a Kickstarter campaign to finance the project. His deadline is fast approaching: He must raise a total of $32,500 before Friday, October 24. Recently, LA Observed spoke with Satterwhite about photographing Muhammad Ali at two key moments of his career.

LAO: How did you end up shooting Muhammad Ali in 1970-71?

AS: I was a magazine photographer at the time and worked mostly on assignment. I was living in Palm Beach, and my agency in New York, Camera 5, called and said, "Go down to Miami Beach and shoot Ali."

LAO: Had you shot much boxing before then?

AS: I'd never shot a boxer or a fight. But I went down there and introduced myself to Angie Dundee [Ali's longtime trainer whose brother, Chris, owned the 5th Street Gym]. He introduced me to Ali, and then I sort of disappeared into the wall. You know, they get used to you.

Ali didn't pay attention to the camera. He knew I was there, but he wasn't playing to me. He was playing to the sportswriters. They were always saying, "Ali, what's your secret?" One time, he took an envelope and wrote, "The Secret of Muhammad Ali" on it. And he's flashing it, holding it out to the sportswriters. That was his sense of humor, which I totally loved.

LAO: How often did you shoot at the gym?

AS: I don't remember exactly. I would go down for three or four days, and then I'd wait to go back because Angie would say, "He's going to be something else next week." I ended up shooting about 55 rolls of film. There's no color. It's all black and white.

LAO: Did you hang out with him much outside the gym?

ali-satterwhite-smiles.jpgAS: We'd go around after the workout to where he was staying. People would call out, "Hey, Ali!" They'd stop the car and he'd run out and shake their hands and get a picture taken. It was Ali being Ali, not Ali saying, "I gotta do this because there's a camera-man around." He didn't give a shit about me. He was a real person.

One time, we were driving around Miami Beach. He said, "Pull over here." There was a house for sale. I guess he was looking at houses. He said to me, "Why don't you go and ask them what they want." I said, "Why me?" He said, "'Cause you're the only white guy in the car."

LAO: Was the atmosphere in the gym different after Ali beat Jerry Quarry and was preparing to fight Joe Frazier?

AS: If my memory serves me right, there were more spectators and more press. I have a picture of him seated with his robe on, and he's surrounded by seven or eight writers.

LAO: But you didn't cover the actual fights, in Atlanta or New York, did you?

AS: No, because nobody hired me. Hell, Life Magazine hired Frank Sinatra to take pictures [of Ali-Frazier in Madison Square Garden]. I did shoot Ali later, after I moved out to L.A. in the 1970s and he was living here. He had a track meet and I got an assignment to shoot it. I was surprised that he remembered me.

LAO: Did you ever shoot Quarry or Frazier?

AS: No. I don't think I ever shot another boxer other than Ali.

LAO: Do you have a favorite photograph in the series?

AS: I like "The Secret." It's kind of cool because there is no secret. Or, you know, there's a lot of secrets. There's another shot of him that I like. He's in an empty room with a mirror leaning up against the wall. He's sort of looking at his body in the mirror. It's Ali being introspective. That's what I always look for, those quiet moments.

LAO: You've only got a few days to meet your Kickstarter goal. How is it going?

AS: It's not looking good, but it's not over until the fat lady sings or I have to write a check. I just emailed my printer-distributor and told him to think about becoming my partner because, if I don't make the number, he won't have a book to print.

LAO: You were successful with your Hunter S. Thompson book via Kickstarter. Why do you think raising money for the Ali project has proven to be so challenging?

AS: Hunter has a lot of fans who are willing to spend money. Ali may have a lot of fans, but it's possible that there are already too many Ali books out there. Also, a lot of Ali fans only want fight pictures. Mine aren't the fights. They're behind-the-scenes. Other people say, "Well, there's a lot of Kickstarter fatigue." I don't know if that's true or not.

LAO: What else are you working on these days?

AS: I'm working on my book series called "aRound." I have finished "aRound New York," and I have almost finished "aRound L.A." I've got everything shot but I haven't edited it yet. I need to finish London, Paris, Rome, Venice, and then maybe Tokyo and Moscow. They're all fish-eye images. They're 180-degree, round pictures. With digital, they're incredibly sharp.

April 6, 2014

Quick look: Mike Kelley exhibition at MOCA

Photos by Iris Schneider.

In introducing the Mike Kelley show in downtown Los Angeles, new MOCA director Philippe Vergne and curator Ann Goldstein both talked about when Kelley's show opened in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum on the weekend of the Sandy Hook massacre. Vergne said that Kelley's work is so timely, dealing with the difficulties of growing up, alienation, violence, religion and the complexities of society. "Looking at his work is so unsettling, and it shows how Kelly had his finger on the pulse of many important question," Vergne said. MOCA curator Bennett Simpson presented the show, which was organized by the Stedelijk and takes over the entire Geffen Contemporary and some exhibit space at MOCA on Grand Avenue. "The show will surround you," said Goldstein, the Stedelijk's former director. "It is total artwork. It comes at you from all sides: aesthetic, formal, magical, political."


Vergne and Simpson at the media preview.

March 11, 2014

Abelardo Morell makes the national parks his camera

Old Faithful Geyser exposed on the ground inside a tent by camera obscura. Abelardo Morell

It's not easy to find someone whose right brain and left brain are each working overtime. But photographer Abelardo Morell is more than a creative spirit. In a recent talk at the Annenberg Space Skylight Studio, in conjunction with the current show, Morell called himself a "closet scientist" who has invented a new way of seeing and recording images, or rather re-invented a very old way of seeing using new technology. His recent photography has turned rooms into cameras by employing the technique of camera obscura (literally "dark room") and figured out how to take it on the road. The resulting images of the US National Parks, currently part of a sweeping exhibit honoring 125 years of National Geographic photography at the Annenberg Space for Photography, are stunning and totally fresh. In this digital age, where we are bombarded nonstop with images, that is saying something. These photographs will make you stop and look again.

Morell's technique is to create a pinhole camera you can walk into by creating a tent of lightproof plastic. The image reflected through a pinhole is exposed onto the ground of the park (or sometimes in a hotel room or bedroom wall) and becomes a layered image incorporating the reflected image and the surface it is reflected on. His series on the national parks is seen in the film created for the Geographic exhibit, and like each of the Arclight productions that accompany the Annenberg shows, the film alone is worth the trip.

Morell, whose work was recently on exhibit at the Getty Center and at the Rose Gallery in Bergamot Station, has been a photographer and photography teacher for over 30 years. In his talk at the Annenberg Space, he explained how his photography went from doing simple documentary work of his family, into exploring "the simplicity and mystery of photography itself" by turning common household objects, like lamps and glasses, into tools for actually making images. "In the late 80's I turned my classroom into a camera by taping dark plastic over the windows and making a small opening in the plastic to produce an image projected inside the room," he said.

Left, Joshua Tree National Park. Right, Yellowstone National Park. Abelardo Morell.

Morell said people had been inside camera obscura before, but no one had ever made a photograph using the process itself. Once he realized that, he was off and running. He turned his living room into a camera, then a hotel room in Times Square, and a bedroom across from the Brooklyn Bridge. He spent a whole summer trying to figure out the correct exposure. "The early ones were 8 hours long...but then I converted to a digital back," he said. For someone who described himself as "anti-technology" in his early days, Morell says "it was like Dylan going electric. Instead of 5-6 hour exposures, now they are 5-6 minutes."

His decision to take this technology on the road led him to the national arks project. "It's fascinating to be inside a tent and see nature," he said. The project has many meanings for him. "It's about the meaning of where we live, the nature of time, the nature of things, the nature of what we see." And, ultimately, who we are.

The Abelardo Morell national parks project can be seen as part of the exhibit, "The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years." The show closes April 27, 2014.

January 7, 2014

Ace Hotel opens on DTLA's Broadway

The curtain in the United Artists theatre. Photos by Iris Schneider.

The Ace Hotel opened officially today in the building on Broadway that houses the old United Artists theatre. Downtown boosters call the new boutique lodging another game changer for the central city's resurgence. It's less than a block from the new Swedish store and cafe Acne in the Eastern Columbia building and not much further from the new Urban Outfitters in the renovated Rialto Theatre. Iris Schneider stopped by the Ace Hotel before the opening to take a look around. — Editor

The Ace Hotel from across Broadway. The landmark Jesus Saves sign is behind the hotel.

A quick look at the bar.

December 28, 2013

Photo collecting is all in the Vernon family

Carol Vernon at LACMA. Photo by Iris Schneider.

On a recent morning, Carol Vernon strides into LACMA's Resnick Pavilion looking as comfortable as if she were in her own living room.

The photography exhibit we are soon standing in, "See the Light-Photography, Perception, and Cognition," explores parallels between photography and the science of vision. If Vernon feels at home it's because the images we are surrounded by were, for many years, part of her family's everyday life.

Drawn from the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, the exhibit gives museum-goers the chance to view 220 of the 3500 images collected by her late parents between 1976 and 2007. Acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008, the collection essentially tells the history of 19th and 20th century photography. It includes masterworks by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Man Ray, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Paul Strand and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. One of the finest private collections of photography assembled in the United States, it is notable for its variety and depth. "The scope of this collection is unparalleled," says LACMA photography curator Britt Salvesen. "The range of styles and balance of American and European photographers is incredibly interesting. Today you could never put together a collection like this."

"Magnolia Blossom," 1925 by Imogen Cunningham.

For Carol Vernon, to walk through the exhibit is clearly bittersweet. She was in her mid-20s and working with her dad, an industrial developer and builder, when her parents began to collect. "It's always nice to come and see these familiar images," she says. "For many years my office was in their house so I was surrounded by a lot of this. A lot of the collecting happened where I was able to go with them, so it was fun." The initial spark was a chance encounter between Leonard Vernon and Maggie Weston, Edward Weston's daughter-in-law, in her Carmel gallery on New Year's Eve in 1976. One thing led to another, and three months later Carol Vernon and her parents found themselves in a Westwood hotel room.

"There were images on the bed, on the floor, just kind of propped up. They were just gorgeous and we had a field day," Vernon recalls. Her parents bought 17 photographs, mostly dating from the 19th century. Their collection had its beginning. "This was not a studied thing..It really was very organic," Vernon says. "The more they looked at, the more they wanted to know. This was a time when there were only two photography galleries in Los Angeles [the LACMA photography department wasn't officially created until 1984] and there was a lot of learning going on."

The Vernons became well known to curators, dealers, scholars, and artists — struggling and established. "In those years, anybody who was a fine art photographer trying to sell their work would eventually hear somebody say, 'you need to go see the Vernon's'," Carol says. "My parents loved sharing what they had. Nothing would make my father happier than when someone would ask, for example, 'do you have any Weston, or Adams', or whatever it was, and he would pull out boxes and boxes for them to go through. They loved seeing what artists and dealers were bringing them, and learning about what was about to go up for auction. It was a very small community then and they loved having them all in the house."

"Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (née Julia Jackson)," circa 1867 by Julia Margaret Cameron; "Balance," 1942 by Gyorgy Kepe.

The couple formed relationships with many of the photographers they collected. "Max Yavno was one of the closest," Carol remembers. "He lived in town so we got to know him very well. Great photographer, total ladies man!" Ansel Adams was a frequent dinner guest. "It was really a treat to be sitting at the table with this master. The conversation was wide ranging. It was about photography, what he was doing, what was going on in the world, where he'd been traveling. They were very low-key family dinners."

When asked why her parents took so passionately to collecting photography, especially at a time when the art world was still debating whether photography could be considered art, Vernon is only able to speculate.

"My father had wanted to be a fashion photographer in his youth, though it was probably more about the women," she says. Later on he became an avid amateur, often using his camera while traveling and for family snapshots. The couple was well known among dealers for their ability to communicate without words what they wanted to purchase. "They were just so in tune that they just knew, and it was 'OK, we'll take these and that one over there, and that one's not part of the group," Vernon says.

"Pyramids of El-Geezeh from the Southwest," 1858 by Francis Frith; right, Vernon and Salvesen by Iris Schneider.

As in all families, things changed. Marjorie Vernon died in 1998, Leonard in 2007. When Carol starts to talk about the experience of moving the collection from her parents' Bel Air home, she sounds like any child who has had to deal with losing her parents. "The day they came and started packing everything up and it was all going into these boxes, and the walls were getting was a horrible day," she says. "It was the realization my parents were gone. This was the proof that this life was over." Vernon dealt with her grief by reminding herself that she was carrying out her parents' wish. They wanted the photo collection to stay together, preferably in Los Angeles.

The Vernon Collection at one point was in danger of going up for auction. A gift from Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation made it possible for LACMA to purchase the collection, according to Vernon and museum sources.

Carol Vernon has inherited her parents' love of collecting. She and her husband, Robert Turbin, adhere to her parents' philosophy of acquiring what you like, and what speaks to you. Their own collection includes paintings, drawings and ceramics, as well as photography. The difference, however, is that while her parents could agree on what to buy without speaking to each other, Vernon and Turbin readily acknowledge that "we actually have to talk about it."

See the Light--Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and 
Leonard Vernon Collection
 is on exhibit at LACMA until March 23, 2014.

LACMA photos: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, and acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin. Except for Julia Margaret Cameron: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation and Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin.

December 25, 2013

Not a creature was stirring (photo)


Christmas Eve over Downtown Los Angeles, from the roof of the Toy Factory lofts. Photo is part of Iris Schneider's Night Vision series.

Christmas morning, Santa Monica Bay (photos)

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Eat my sand, Minnesota.

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Bad waves, good friends.

kelp wreath Xmas a.m. Santa Monica 12-25-13.JPG

Kelp wreath.

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Small girl, big ocean.

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Photos: Ellen Alperstein

December 16, 2013

Sunday night sunset over DTLA


Photo by Iris Schneider.

October 25, 2013

Elliott Erwitt gives young Hollywood an excuse to party

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Waiters hold photos by Erwitt. Below, Erwitt with Matthew McConaughey and Camila Alves McConaughey.

Big doings in the photography world around Los Angeles this week. The Annenberg Space for Photography opens its latest exhibition, a showcase of the work of National Geographic photographers this Saturday. But last night at the Leica Gallery the red carpet and velvet ropes were in place and flashes popped as photography royalty bumped up against young Hollywood and its art wannabes. The museum, a posh space hidden behind some hedges on Beverly Boulevard near Robertson, not only exhibits the work of Leica shooters but, I was told by a photojournalist friend of mine covering the event, "sells the cameras and the Leica lifestyle." The Magnum veteran photographer Elliott Erwitt made a rare appearance to herald the publishing of another book, "Elliott Erwitt's Great Scottish Adventure." This one, a tie-in with The Macallan (their fourth in a collaboration with photographers), marks the end of a months-long project documenting Scotland, funded by one of its high end distilleries: The Macallan Scotch Whiskey.

erwitt-mcconaughey-alves.jpgErwitt, looking much younger than his 85 years, had just flown in from New York for the tony book launch, and was leaving this morning on a months-long book tour that first takes him back to Scotland and then on to other cities. The party was a true collision of art and commerce, an odd mix of art-lovers and those who can sniff out an open bar and manage to get their name on the list. "These shots of whiskey go for at least $20 at bars around town," a friend told me as she swirled the caramel colored liquor in her heavy glass. Indeed, bottles of The Macallan can sell for thousands of dollars.

Among the young crowd of beautiful people were some who did not even know who Elliot Erwitt was, or that they were in the presence of one of the greatest photographers who ever lifted a Leica. "I'm here for the ladies," one gentleman said when Erwitt's name drew a blank. "And I'm not disappointed." When Matthew McConaughey, a scotch enthusiast, walked in the door, the paparazzi could relax. They knew they had their money shot for the night. As the event swirled around him, Erwitt chatted with some guests, leaning on the cane he uses with a Harpo Marx horn attached to the handle. Erwitt acknowledged that the Leica around his neck was not just an ornament for the night. He couldn't resist shooting a few pictures just for himself. From the waiters working as human easels to the women in sky-high heels, the evening was a perfect canvas for Erwitt's sardonic eye. Can't wait to see what he made of it.

Erwitt chats with the photogs.

Erwitt mingles at the party.

Photos by Iris Schneider

October 13, 2013

Three new photojournalism books from masters of the craft

erwitt-provence-boys.jpgBoys in Provence, 1959. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

Veteran war photographer Don McCullin started a controversy last month when he declared, after receiving the lifetime achievement award at Perpignan's Visa Pour l'Image Photo Festival, "We haven't changed a thing. Once the Syrian war is over you can bet your life there will be another tragedy in my lifetime. We will not see the end of war and suffering." McCullin has spent decades documenting war and cruelty, from Vietnam to Biafra. But rather than feeling satisfied that his images raised awareness of the tragedy of starvation, or the cruelties of war, he feels disillusioned and inadequate. On a panel discussing the merits of war photography with David Douglas Duncan, 97, famed photo editor John Morris, 96, and several younger photographers, there was much disagreement. Certainly, the images brought home from Vietnam shaped public opinion, turning many against our involvement in that war. But McCullin seemed deeply troubled by his time spent documenting unspeakable horrors he did not try to halt, but only document. "You have to suffer the shame of memory and then you have to somehow live with it, sleep with it, understand it without trying to become insane," he said.

The pull of war is strong. Whether it's the search to expose evil and human suffering, find the adrenalin rush or make a name for yourself, there are many young and old photographers still traveling the globe to document the battlefields and disasters that the world never seems to run out of. McCullin himself headed to Syria last year. But in looking back, he realized he was just too old to run for his life wearing his equipment and a flak jacket. He deemed the mission a mistake. Several photo editors on last month's panel said the risks are just too great, and they no longer will take freelance photos from Syria, not wanting to encourage anyone to risk their lives in search of a great photograph. Most major agencies and newspapers do not have staffers in Syria now, citing its danger.

salgado-iceberg.jpgIceberg between the Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. 2005 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery. Below: Nenet Nomads (Windstorm). Siberia, Russia 2011. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

Sebastiao Salgado is another photographer of conscience who has spent much of his adult lifetime documenting the world's conflicts and mayhem. He recently decided, for very different reasons, to change course. In a recent TED talk, the renowned and respected photographer, whose luminous black and white images--of drought in the Sahel, gold miners harvesting gold by hand snaking up a mountaintop in Brazil, looking more like ants than people, or oilfield workers, faces stained black with oil, dealing with the gushers running rampant after the Persian Gulf War--almost belie their tragic overtones. He revealed that his doctor told him he must stop shooting disasters and tragedy as his own health was suffering along with that of his subjects. It forced him to reevaluate his life and work, and put the brakes on a career that spanned several decades. "I had lost all faith in humanity," he says in the introduction to "Genesis," his impressive new book.

Salgado, 69, retreated with his wife to his family's farm in Brazil to ponder his future. The two decided to issue their visual wake-up call to the world by spending several years documenting the pristine landscapes and cultures that are at risk unless we change our ways and begin addressing the environmental issues that threaten the earth.

salgado-nenets.jpgThe resulting images, as one would expect from Salgado, are exhilarating, compelling, breath-taking. He spanned the globe on an eight-year odyssey that he calls his "homage to the grandeur of nature," seeking out tribes and landscapes untouched by the modern world. You can feel the cold of Northern Siberia as you gaze upon the Nenets tribespeople walking through a snowstorm or feeding their sled dogs. The book is filled with one natural wonder or remote tribe after another, captured in a way that makes you feel you are right there next to Salgado. These majestic landscapes are so remote it's easy to imagine the sound of the shutter piercing the silence as Salgado worked.

The resulting photographs are available two ways: as a coffee table book published by Taschen, affordable at $65, and as a limited edition two-volume book, each one almost three-feet long, with a wooden stand of its own designed by architect Tadao Ando. In a pre-publication ad in many major newspapers, Taschen offered the two volumes for $3,000. If they didn't need a room of their own to view them properly, I would have made the purchase. Having them nearby to gaze at seems to restore your faith, if not in humanity, then at least in Mother Nature. This is photojournalism at its purest. No ego involved, just conscience and artistry perfectly combined. Two rooms of large prints are currently on exhibit at the Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station.

Two other large photo books offer photo collections from masters of the craft. The first accompanies a small show also at Fetterman Gallery by National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. The show marks the publication of his book "Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs." McCurry, 63, has spent most of his career as a Magnum photographer working on assignment for many publications, including National Geographic. He has traveled the world, to India, Tibet, Cambodia, Kashmir, the oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War and Afghanistan. It was there in 1984 that he made the most iconic photo of his career: a green-eyed Afghan girl whose face graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and riveted its readers. He returned to Afghanistan 17 years later and miraculously found her again, and told that story for Geographic. This large book presents fourteen of his photo essays with text that tells how he got the photos. The chapters present rich color images from his travels around the world and clearly, McCurry is extremely gifted. His images, often bathed in ethereal light, provide a travelogue of diverse locales and faces, showing daily life as well as monsoons, war and hardship.

mccurry-mother-child.jpgMother and child looking through taxi window, Bombay 1993. Copyright Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.

Unfortunately, though, rather than letting his work speak for itself--and the photographs do, eloquently and powerfully--he decided to package the photography with newly commissioned essays and ephemera collected over the 30+ years of his career. The first photo in the book is a full page picture of McCurry armpit deep in water in India, camera hoisted above his head. The book travels down the path of "how he got the picture" with essays written by someone, not McCurry, reverently describing in detail how these stories came to be and relating how, as a young boy looking at a Brian Brake photo essay in National Geographic, "he could not have imagined that he would one day inherit Brake's mantle as the master of the photo essay..." Of the many qualities that made McCurry a good photojournalist, humility was not one of them.

The book also has pages of beautifully photographed letters, journals, visas, press passes, passports, foreign currency, well-worn shoes, perfectly preserved tearsheets from every magazine and newspaper that ran McCurry's photos, every journal and note he scribbled to himself and seemingly every receipt for every purchase McCurry made over the decades of his career. While it's interesting to see the paper trail that his assignments created, in the end I found it distracting. I kept wondering, where did he keep all this stuff and how did he keep it in such pristine condition while wading through waist-deep water or running with rebels in Karachi? Perhaps that's part of what his Geographic assistants were for.

For me, there is too much McCurry here. Each chapter includes photos of McCurry, often posed with his subjects who oddly seem like props. These add a sour note to an otherwise beautiful book. To my mind, a photojournalist is a fly on the wall, unseen, unheard. The most egregious of these "I was there" mementoes is a series of photos taken by McCurry's assistant on September 11. Sad for all the wrong reasons, his assistant photographed him photographing the twin towers going up in flames. Why were they included? Why were they shot, for that matter? Didn't his assistant have more important photos to take that day? It's quite obvious that McCurry was there, given the hauntingly beautiful images in the book. I wish McCurry had let the photography speak for itself and saved the ego-trip for a presentation to a photojournalism class.

Elliott Erwitt, 85, has also published a scale-tipping new book called "Kolor." Erwitt's sense of humor and sardonic eye has kept me a fan for years, and after a long career, he is at the point where he probably has rooms full of unpublished images. Erwitt has said in interviews that photos take on special significance when they are put together and published in a book, which he does periodically--there are 8 titles on the backflap from his latest book. He felt it was time for another one, and so he went through his stockpile of unpublished Kodachrome slides, edited them and published "Kolor," which he calls his homage to George Eastman, founder of Kodak. The book presents a huge collection of never-seen color work made over the years, including outtakes of his Hollywood film work shot on the set of "The Misfits" and many images taken while shooting commercial work in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Erwitt always kept a second camera at his side on commercial jobs and found time to shoot personal pictures. Many of those are published here, offering a glimpse beyond the black and white photography he made his name with on assignment for Life and other magazines, while working in the editorial and advertising worlds as a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.

erwitt-fashion-coat.jpgFashion shoot in New York, 1989. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.

His humor shines through, even if not every image published here makes it onto the top rung of his impressive body of work. Even Erwitt's rejects are worth seeing, and they are paired across the spreads in a way that takes advantage of his off-kilter sense of timing and humor. It's fun to wade through. After decades of producing stellar images, it's impressive to see the result of his longtime passion of documenting life and its simple moments. As a side note, Erwitt, who has always been somewhat reclusive, has recently appeared in a video for a Cole-Haan marketing campaign that featured four still-vibrant artists born in 1928. All beautiful seniors and creative souls in their unique way, they are people whose commitment to their craft keeps them going into their 80's. In Erwitt's case, we appreciate the many laughs he brought us as he held up a mirror to our society while exposing our humanity along the way.

September 21, 2013

Vaux's Swifts over downtown*


Migrating Vaux's Swifts circle their roost in a downtown Los Angeles chimney on Friday evening. Until they continue their journey south, a few thousand swifts can be seen at dusk over Broadway (near 5th Street) and the Spring Arts Tower.

Photo above by Iris Schneider. Below: LA Observed

*Added Sept. 22:

Swift watching on Saturday night.

Previously on LA Observed:
Vaux's Swifts are back on Broadway

August 12, 2013

A taste of Henry Rollins

9489309451_23da397d24_m.jpgOn Saturday, August 10th, Henry Rollins inaugurated the new Meet and Greet speaker series in the Annenberg Space for Photography's newest area, Skylight Studios. A compelling speaker, he shared tales about his encounters with people all over the globe, taking their pictures, and documenting the power of kindness to combat global brutality and propagate peace. Not bad for an old hardcore punk. He's  maturing in his inimitable, self-absorbed way, but maturing nonetheless. He mentioned his LA Weekly column and a few attendees applauded. I almost believed his humblebrag that the Skylight audience's adulation was the first confirmation that he'd ever received that people actually read his column.  Hmmm.

rollins_colver.jpgThe audience laughed along with him as he related the tale of an overemotional biker who accosted him in a Toluca Lake coffee shop because Rollins had a small part in "Jack Frost," a flick the biker had enjoyed every Christmas with his now-deceased wife.

He is very charming and left his listeners with advice on how to combat human incivility: treat each encounter as an opportunity to be kind and celebrate that person's humanity with dignity.

My friend and I caught the Rollins lecture by accident. We had just wandered over to the Skylight Studio from the Helmut Newton show now on view in the main gallery. Aside from the black and white photographs of naked women in casts, I really enjoyed people watching. Who can resist the sight of smug old men in khakis and tennis shoes, studiously ignoring giant photos of women with unshaven private parts, while arguing over the superiority of the Windows 7 operating system?

Ed Colver is the next Skylight Studio "Meet and Greet" speaker, appearing August 17 from 1-3pm.

Cropped photo of Rollins and Colver: Annenberg Space/Unique Nicole
Top Photo credit; Angie Padilla (c) 2013 used with permission. All rights reserved.

July 20, 2013

Adunni Nefretiti

©2013 J. Michael Walker

Eastside artist J. Michael Walker posts on Facebook:

So, last Monday, in the warmest possible hour of a crazy-hot afternoon, two over-packed cars pulled up in front of my house, and out spilled a cornucopia of sweetness and beauty: the seven women who comprise the music and dance troupe of Adunni Nefretiti, who came, on their final day in LA, and on their "day off" for me to make portraits of them, before they jet off, back home via Dubai, to Lagos, Nigeria. And so, in my tiniest-possible crowded studio, as we drank ice water, gobbled grapes, laughed and joked, we made many gorgeous images.... Axé.

Walker was the author-illustrator of "All the Saints of the City of the Angels: Seeking the Soul of L.A. on Its Streets" (Heyday 2008), and co-editor of "Waiting for Foreign: LA Writers on (and in) Guadalajara."

More of his photos of the troupe.

July 1, 2013

Nude but not vulnerable: the women of Helmut Newton

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The women in Helmut Newton's photos are often nude, but rarely vulnerable. Rather, they are powerful and strong, proud and unabashedly naked. Not to mention drop dead gorgeous. Perhaps it's because of Newton's obvious love for women and utter lack of pretense, but the models, actresses and heiresses who shed their outer garments seem quite comfortable with the photographer and his requests, which often pushed the boundaries of taste, decorum and expectation. Given the fact that many of these images appeared in the early 1960's in the pages of French and British Vogue, they were certainly shocking for their time. Now, many imitators later, we are not as shocked. In fact, the floodgates have been opened. In ads from Calvin Klein to Prada to Abercrombie, there are beautiful young people in provocative poses, in and out of expensive garments, making you feel like a voyeur for leafing through a magazine. Good taste be damned, anything goes. Whether you thank Newton, or curse him, he is probably responsible.

With its current Helmut Newton show, the Annenberg Space for Photography finally manages to solve one of the problems I have had with their photography exhibits: too many images. With big nudes and big women come big prints, and finally, here is a show you can absorb easily, without straining your neck to see the images high up on the walls near the ceiling, or leaving exhausted with the feeling that you have not seen everything because there was just too much to take in. Absorbing it is, mainly because the images are striking, beautifully composed and speak of another era and another world--one of wealth, privilege, and secrets. When Newton first made these images in the 60's and 70's, no one was doing this kind of work.

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He made no apologies for exploring the dark and provocatively erotic side of glamour, sado-masochism, domination and dalliance, images that were inside his head, but, he insists, came straight from reality. In a fascinating and revealing film made by his wife June, playing on a continuous loop in the back auditorium, he says "Every picture is based on reality. It's all real, and happens every day...amongst the rich." He loved visiting Los Angeles and took up residence part of the year at the tony Chateau Marmont. He loved our sunny afternoons, and sought out rich and often famous women to be his subjects, willing partners in telling naughty stories with his camera.

According to one of his assistants, Mark Arbeit, one of three young Art Center photography students who accosted Newton during a trip he made to LA in the late 70's, and eventually began working with the master photographer, the usual rules of photography — avoid high noon, wait for early morning or late afternoon light — did not apply. Newton loved shooting in all kinds of light and when he did it wasn't with an entourage. No Annie Leibovitz army of assistants for him — it was just him and one assistant, one camera and very simple lighting. Locations were critical in his shoots, and could have been in a mansion, or a construction site. While he made his living as a photographer (and quite a good one, getting $10,000 for his commercial photo shoots), Newton was a storyteller, bon vivant, lover of women and life. He was high fashion's favorite bad boy but never lost sight of his mission: sell the clothes.

ASP Newton - Saddle I.jpg

One of his models, whom he first approached on the street, was asked to work with him and told she would most likely end up nude. Partly due to the period, when women's lib was beginning, he found models who totally bought into his visual fantasies. His photography was a true collaboration between model, photographer and often, the photographer's wife June, whom he married in 1948. A self-portrait, with Newton amongst some nudes as his wife looks on (top), is one of my favorite photos, showing him shooting in what could be mistaken for a dirty old man's raincoat. In this exhibit, we all get to be willing partners in the not-so-secret and scandalous life of Helmut Newton and friends.

Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City until Sept. 8.

Photographs © Estate of Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton and Los Angeles


Helmut Newton, the self-proclaimed "bad boy of photography" best known for his provocative, edgy, and highly sexual fashion images, had a decades-long relationship with Los Angeles. Newton, the subject of a new exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography, started coming here from his home in Europe for work in the mid 1970's. By the early 1980's, with wife and collaborator June, Newton was routinely spending every winter in residence at the Chateau Marmont. He continued until his death in a car crash at the hotel in 2004, at the age of 83. A regular contributor to Vogue in Europe and the U.S., and to Vanity Fair, and a prolific maker of advertising images, he found that Los Angeles, and the culture of Hollywood in particular, suited his creative sensibilities.

ASP Fahey Chateau.jpgNewton was drawn to "fantasy, films, and narratives. He was very controlling, like a movie director," said David Fahey, co-owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery on La Brea and a longtime Newton friend. Newton had close friends in the entertainment world, including producer Bob Evans and director Billy Wilder. In his 2003 autobiography, Newton revealed his fan-like enthusiasm about photographing one of his movie crushes during some downtime in Los Angeles in 1972. "Ever since I saw Jane Russell in Howard Hughes's 'The Outlaw' I have been madly in love with her," he wrote. "I heard she was living nearby so I suggested to my editor that we set up a phony sitting with her, pretend it's for the magazine, a small white lie. The editor complies and everything is set up. In my excitement I got the date wrong but Miss Russell comes down the stairs and very graciously announces that, no matter, she will pose for me today."

Newton writes that, of course, he chose to photograph Russell in her bedroom. "It's boiling hot, my t-shirt is stuck to my body, the sweat is running between my glasses and my eyes. From time to time she looks at me in a funny way. She's found out that she has a madman in her bedroom."

Newton was initially drawn to the Chateau Marmont because it was the "coolest, hippest place...he loved the ambience," said Fahey. In an essay in the March, 2013 Vogue, British actor Rupert Everett describes a 1985 Christmas-time encounter with Newton and his entourage. Everett was still a struggling newcomer, lonely and stranded in Los Angeles for the holidays and staying at the Chateau.

"One afternoon just before the new year, Helmut Newton and his wife June surged into the hotel surrounded by luggage. I attached myself to the group and pretty soon I had slipped into their easy routine. The men set off for work each day each day while I sat around with the girls-June, Tina Chow, and sometimes Wendy Stark. Most nights our group met in the hotel foyer and clattered down to the hotel basement parking lot where we bundled into Helmut's car to go out for dinner. I sat in the back while Helmut-shrieking at the wheel-negotiated the blind corner from the car park onto the street."

The hotel ultimately became a second home for Newton. "I love my winters in the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood," he wrote. "I have this fascination for familiar surroundings. My favorite photos are often those which evoke a strong feeling of 'I have been here before' "

Working in Los Angeles gave Newton endless possibilities for locations, especially outdoors. Photographers Mark Arbeit and George Holz assisted Newton in the early 1980's, when they were students at Art Center. "We drove him around in my old Dodge Dart," Holz said in an interview. "We took him around to places we knew but it was his eye that said yes, this place works, or doesn't work." Holz and Arbeit remember shooting at a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in the hills of Mt. Olympus, and in Manhattan Beach. "He really loved those blond surfers," said Holz.

The Hollywood sign makes an appearance in one image and the gymnastic rings at Santa Monica beach are a key element in photographs of actress Daryl Hannah from 1984. A 1981 image shows actress Raquel Welch fending off a menacing dog and surrounded by agaves in her Beverly Hills backyard.

ASP Fahey Helmut and June.jpgHe learned to navigate the minefield that is photographing movie stars, but he grew annoyed at the presence of publicists. "For a long time during my annual sojourn in Hollywood I photographed a lot of actresses for Vanity Fair," Newton wrote. "They were invariably accompanied by their press agents, who became more and more demanding and obnoxious, standing behind me, looking over my shoulder saying, 'Not from this angle, make her head turn to the right, you are showing too much skin, cover your shoulders.' " Eventually he banned all publicists from his sittings.

Newton, who was born in Berlin in 1920, moved to Paris after a short period in Australia. He loved what he called the "free-spirited" quality of life in the U.S. (even though he often expressed frustration with American art directors and the restrictions placed on his erotic images that didn't exist in Europe.) "He loved music and diners," said Holz. He also loved Nudie's, the North Hollywood shop where tailor Nudie Cohn made custom outfits for movie stars and musicians.

Newton was attracted to Los Angeles for another simpler reason. "I think it was exciting for him," said Arbeit.."He was used to older, much darker European cities and he really loved the light here." June Newton, now 90 and a resident of Monaco, has continued the couple's tradition of wintering in Los Angeles. According to Fahey, she typically arrives at the Chateau Marmont on Christmas Eve and usually departs sometime in March.

Top photo: Daryl Hannah in Santa Monica by Helmut Newton for Vanity Fair in 1984. Lower photos: Helmut and June Newton at the Chateau Marmont, © David Fahey from the exhibit film "Provocateur."

June 27, 2013

WeHo on the night of marriage rights

weho-iris-flag.jpgLast night, West Hollywood took to the streets to celebrate the Supreme Court's ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and that Proposition 8 was all but finished. LA Observed contributor Iris Schneider was there too.

Also: Coverage at WeHo News

Photos by Iris Schneider.

Left: Shane Tierney, Curtis Gordon, Michael Roberts. Right: Brianne Ng and Daisy Lopez.

Left: Johnny Cross and Larry Woodley. Right: Dude Kelsbro.

Joelle Sagehorn, Lisa Snipes and Ang Mercier

Karla Eduvia.

June 11, 2013

Drummer girls

Visitors on Tuesday at a new Ringo Starr exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Downtown check out the Ludwig Classic Liverpool drum set that Starr played when the Beatles toured Japan in 1966. Photo by Judy Graeme.

The Grammy Museum bills Ringo: Peace and Love, which opens Wednesday, as the first major exhibit dedicated to the former Beatle's career and the first ever for a drummer. The exhibit runs through March 2014. The Grammy Museum also currently has exhibits on the life of the late Jenni Rivera and the Beach Boys.

May 28, 2013

Photography of war at the Annenberg Space

ASP Meiselas.jpg

On Memorial Day, it seemed fitting to pay tribute to those who have sometimes given their lives to fighting man's inhumanity to man, and those who have dedicated their lives to documenting those struggles. I spent some time absorbing the enormity of the world's struggles and conflicts at the War/Photography exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography, where over 170 images dating from 1887 to the present detail the military and civilian cost of war. As with each exhibit at the Annenberg Space, a 30-minute film brought the bravery and dedication of war photographers to life through interviews with six of the photographers whose work is represented in the exhibit: Pulitzer Prize winners David Hume Kennerly and Carolyn Cole, Alexandra Avakian, Edouard H.R. Gluck, Ashley Gilbertson and Joao Silva. Silva lost both legs after stepping on a land mine while covering the Afghanistan war on assignment for the New York Times in 2010.

Unfortunately, the scope of the exhibit covers many photographers and those in the film are barely represented. As with many of the exhibits at the Annenberg, there was too much of a good thing, with the curators choosing to go wide, rather than deep. It would have been more satisfying to see more in-depth work, rather than a wide overview of many images.

ASP Adams.jpgAs Kennerly says in the film, telling the story of war goes back to the beginning of photography. And some of the images on the walls here are iconic: Robert Capa's image of soldiers landing on the beach at Normandy, Susan Meiselas's guerillas waging the civil war in Nicaragua, James Nachtwey's riveting portraits of the victims of Rwandan genocide, Eddie Adams' capturing the execution of an unarmed Vietcong soldier by a member of the Vietnamese Army, David Turnley's photo showing the grief of losing a comrade as a helicopter brings the dead and wounded from the battlefield of the Gulf War.

Listening to the photographers speak on film about their mission, their commitment, their fear and seeing their bravery as they shot alongside soldiers armed not with cameras but rifles brought an immediacy to the images on the walls. Ashley Gilbertson came home from the war in Iraq determined to bring honor to the dead. He decided to photograph "Bedrooms of the Fallen," 40 bedrooms of soldiers who left for combat and never came home, 40 because that is the number of soldiers in a platoon. Some of the bedrooms had been locked by their families when they went to war and never unlocked again, memorials frozen in time.

"The war is fought on a very impersonal level," he says. "We should mourn their loss and make it deeply personal." For each of the photographers here, and many others whose work is part of this exhibit, the act of documenting these struggles and their aftermath, has become their personal passion and life's work.

The exhibit is in its last week, closing Saturday at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City.

ASP Gluck.jpg

ASP Griffiths.jpg

Photos: Top, © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Second, Eddie Adams © Associated Press. Third, © Edouard H.R. Glück. Bottom, © Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos.

May 17, 2013

Valley Girl at 30

At LACMA on Thursday night, a packed and very excited audience, some dressed in 80's garb, watched a screening of "Valley Girl" as the the museum's Film Independent program celebrated the movie's 30th anniversary. "This film was well-researched and shot in Los Angeles. It is about our cultural history," director Martha Coolidge told the crowd.

Although everyone laughed and applauded every character and Los Angeles landmark, from the Sherman Oaks Galleria to the Mulholland Drive overlook and Grauman's Chinese, no one would argue with Coolidge when she said of the film, "It's serious." Nicolas Cage made his screen debut in the film, at age 18, and Coolidge entertained with stories from the set. She said that despite the backer's demands that breasts be bared for rating's sake, when they saw the whole movie for the first time they said incredulously: "It's a real film. It's about something." Indeed, the screenwriters were determined to make a film that mattered, not just another movie about teens looking for sex. There are threads that go back to Romeo and Juliet, and scenes with the heroine's hippie parents nearly brought down the house while showing the movie's great heart.

After the show, those audience members who dressed up were summoned to the stage for a costume contest. Then everyone headed to the LACMA courtyard for a reception under the watchful eye of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."


Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, the crowd. Bottom, Coolidge and Elvis Mitchell.

April 25, 2013

Paris Photo comes to Hollywood

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Paris Photo is the annual photography fair held in France — transported to the U.S. this weekend for the first time. On the lot at Paramount Studios are gallery spaces, booksellers such as Taschen and Aperture and live artist conversations and film screenings. Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," is one of the featured speakers. At the preview on Thursday, City Hall's culture maven Olga Garay-English welcomed the organizers to LA and Councilman Tom LaBonge presented a proclamation and a calendar.

Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, looking onto the New York backlot at Paramount Studios from a facade occupied for the weekend by Zucker Art Books. Below, display space inside facades on the studio's New York street.

paris-photo-3.jpg paris-photo-2.jpg

December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas mannequin at Wacko

Found color for Christmas inside the Wacko store on Hollywood Boulevard. Photograph by Judy Graeme; click it to see larger.

December 8, 2012

Streetscape: Hollywood Mennonites

A choir of Mennonites waiting to sing on the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk on Saturday afternoon.

Photo: Judy Graeme. Click on the image to see larger

November 24, 2012

Sigourney Weaver at Tail o' the Pup, 1983

sig-weaver-tailopup.jpgNew York Magazine's fashion blog The Cut has a Thanksgiving gallery up billed as Twenty-two famous beauties stuffing their faces. Hidden in the series is this gorgeous shot of the original Tail o' the Pup at La Cienega and Beverly boulevards. Eddie Blake was forced to move in 1986 to make way for the Sofitel and landed on San Vicente, where the Pup remained until 2005. The photo is by Douglas Kirkland and Corbis. Sigourney Weaver at the time was between The Year of Living Dangerously and Ghostbusters, and a couple of years from introducing Ellen Ripley in Aliens.

The slide show also has images of a young Elizabeth Taylor eating a hamburger, Katherine Hepburn sharing chowder with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, plus Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner, Heidi Klum, Twiggy and other faces.

Previously on LA Observed:
What about a Tail o' the Pup truck?
Art o' the Pup
The Pup is gone
Tail o' the Pup next to go

September 11, 2012

Theo Ehret, 1920-2012

Photographs by Theo Ehret except as noted

Theo Ehret, an unsung giant of sports photography in Los Angeles, has passed away.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, Theo was the house photographer at the Grand Olympic Auditorium. The cavernous concrete arena did not look like much from the outside. It anchored a decidedly seedy street south of downtown L.A. But as promoter Aileen Eaton and her savvy matchmakers shaped the careers of Danny "Little Red" Lopez, Ruben Navarro, Carlos Palomino, and Mando Ramos - and with a be-tuxed Jimmy Lennon holding court as m.c. - the Olympic Aud. became a raucous punch palace that roiled to life every week.

Theo and his Rolleiflex camera chronicled every aspect of the scene: the press conferences held to announce the bouts, the fighters' training regimens at the local gyms (the Main Street Gym being the most prominent), the weigh-ins, the portraits that were used to publicize the bouts, the head-jarring action inside the ring, and the rowdy crowds that came to cheer on their favorites.

How rowdy? When fans approved of the fighters' efforts, they showered the ring with coins. Displeased, they filled cups with urine and hurled them at the participants.

freddie-blassie-ehret.jpgLikewise, Theo covered professional wrestling at the Olympic. The combatants were larger-than-life physical freaks who alternately delighted and vexed their enormous fan-base: Andre the Giant, Killer Kowalski, Mil Mascaras, "Classy" Freddie Blassie, John Tolos, Giant Baba, Bull Ramos, The Sheik, Gordman and Goliath, Chavo Guerrero, Ernie Ladd, "Superstar" Billy Graham, Hulk Hogan, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, and many others. Ehret covered all of the promotional oddities: cage matches, midget wrestling, tag-team skirmishes, and the 20-man battle royals that inaugurated each season. (Theo and Blassie (left) - L.A.'s ultimate heel - became good pals.)

Typically, Theo's images were seen on the posters that hung in gyms around town and in the programs sold at the arena. They were sent to - and published by - local newspapers, including the Times and the Herald Examiner, as well as international sports publications. Glossy insider magazines - World Boxing, International Boxing, Inside Wrestling, The Wrestler, Wrestling Revue -- also used Ehret's photographs.

You could almost smell the liniment.

Theo and I met in 2004. I had been researching the photo collection of the Los Angeles Central Library for an exhibition I was curating, and I kept running across Theo's images in the files. Many were of the fighters in their put-up-your-dukes pose; Theo liked to call these portraits "mug shots." I included Theo's photo of Andre the Giant holding up jockey Bill Shoemaker, both men beaming, and of Aileen Eaton surrounded by a few of "her boys" in the exhibit and the companion book.

Theo and I began to meet regularly in his cozy Echo Park studio to look over his vast collection of negatives. We bonded over our dogs. He had recently suffered the loss of his beloved Chow Chow. I began to come over with our dog - she is part Chow - and Theo plied her with treats. (Disclosure: I worked with Theo to publish a book of his boxing and wrestling images - unsuccessfully, thus far.)

Rodolfo Gonzalez (right) fights Jimmy Robertson at the Olympic in 1972

We talked a lot about his past and how he came to be in Los Angeles. Theo was born in Mannheim, Germany, on July 7, 1920. He was drafted into the German Navy; he lost a finger during World War II and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.

In the early 1950s, after working in the motor pool for the U.S. Army, Theo and his wife, Elsbeth, came to America. They arrived in South Dakota, took one frigid look around, and fled to Los Angeles. They had nothing. Theo worked doing auto repairs until he could afford to purchase a large format camera. He found work for a PR firm, shooting for commercial clients.

Finally, in 1963, he set up his own photography studio in Echo Park, on Sunset Boulevard, just down the street from the newly-opened Dodger Stadium. Among his first clients was Aileen Eaton, the public face of the Grand Olympic.

In the days before The Forum began to host fight cards, the Olympic Aud. was in its heyday. Eaton and Co. regularly promoted local Latino fighters to boost attendance. They also brought legends to fight in L.A.: Roberto Duran, Sonny Liston, Alexis Arguello, Emile Griffith, Marvin Hagler. Celebs like Ryan O'Neal and Burt Reynolds, who used to own pieces of fighters, hung out there.

Here's how journalist Richard Meltzer described the scene in the pages of the L.A. Weekly:

As so often happens at the Olympic what loomed as a sure-fire theatre-of-cruelty performance has turned out (thru its inability to deliver even that idealized form) to be something wholly other, maybe Pirandello by way of Bukowski, maybe pre-aesthetic ghetto street theater, maybe Fat City as bumbling improv (maybe something else). But no matter how you look at it, this is the thee-ate-er bargain of this or any year. Mark Taper Forum and all the Equity waiver pits can go take a flying dump. First round to last something excruciatingly real is unearthed re the frailties of human endeavor, a real authentic gusher that, locally, only this dungeon of sweat & poverty can automatically deliver, week in/week out. Oceans of concrete mystery too, like who knows if maybe [boxer Roberto] Torres is reluctant to engage in combat because he once killed somebody with his lethal straight right to the adam's ap? I mean, who the heck knows? So I'm tellin' you right now (unsolicited testimonial time): if you don't come and catch at least a week of this before they tear the place down and turn it into a shopping mall you ain't got culture that adds up to diddle.

Theo shot boxing and wrestling until the early 1980s. By then, Eaton had been forced out at the Olympic. Meltzer's prediction of the Olympic's future almost came true. Today, the Olympic is home to a Korean-American church.

Theo liked to say that he wasn't a huge fan of boxing or wrestling, that shooting at the Olympic was just another gig. That was part of his inherent modesty. His immense body of work compares favorably with the likes of Charles Hoff, the longtime New York Daily News photojournalist who shot boxing during the 1940s and 1950s.

apartment-wrestling-ehret.jpgOthers agreed. In 2001, publisher Benedikt Taschen produced Exquisite Mayhem, a coffee-table book of Theo's wrestling images (alongside myriad lewd "girlie wrestling" photos that Ehret shot for the glossies.) Later, Taschen used several of Theo's images for G.O.A.T., its tome about Muhammad Ali. And, the late Michael Kelly included Theo's work in "Street Credibility," an exhibition Kelly curated at MoCA in 2004.

Earlier this year, just before he passed away, I accompanied Theo to a Pro Wrestling Reunion event organized by Dr. Mike Lano. Theo drove us to an LAX-area hotel in his spiffy BMW, and we mingled with wrestlers Jack Armstrong, Mando Guerrero, The Destroyer, and Superstar Billy Graham; former Olympic publicist Jeff Walton; and "Judo Gene" LeBell, Aileen Eaton's son (and a fierce fighter himself).

For the occasion, Theo brought along a DVD of his work. For the next half-hour, his black-and-white images transfixed the crowd. Every time a new face appeared on the screen, people started yelling and cheering. Several approached Theo with their copies of Exquisite Mayhem to get his autograph. He was the rock star in the room.

Afterwards, we had lunch and talked for a long time. Then, he drove us home. Once we hit the carpool lane on the freeway, his was easily the fastest car on the road.

Theo Ehret was 91. I miss him, and his generous soul, very much.

Theo Ehret by Gary Leonard

David Davis is the author of Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, Marathon Crasher: The Life and Times of Merry Lepper, the First American Woman to Run a Marathon and Play by Play: Los Angeles Sports Photography 1889-1989. He is a contributing writer at Los Angeles Magazine and his writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the online Wall Street Journal.

September 4, 2012

Photo: Inside the fence

bar-faces-moca-contemp-lao.jpgCrowd pushes up to the bar during Play MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary, August 2012. Click the photo to see bigger. LA Observed photo.

August 27, 2012

Streetscape: Venice Beach

Green pumps on Pacific Avenue. LA Observed photo.

August 11, 2012

Women and war becomes life for LA photojournalist

Black and white photos by Marissa Roth; portrait by Iris Schneider.

Common wisdom advises that life is a journey. For photojournalist Marissa Roth, life and art conspired, taking her on a worldwide odyssey that rambled over 28 years. The work she produced will be on exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance beginning August 16. "One Person Crying: Women and War" began for Roth when she was working on a book project in the Philippines. A colleague advised her that there would be a coup the next morning, just the day she was supposed to leave the country. At 3 a.m. she jumped on the back of his motorscooter and headed out, on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, to cover it. But she realized as the mayhem unfolded, "it wasn't my thing. I was more interested in the other side, what was happening in the homes while this was going on."

This became a recurring theme of interest in her work, eventually taking her to Cambodia and Vietnam, Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, Pakistan, Hiroshima, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Novi Sad in Eastern Europe where her grandparents lost their lives in World War II, and the United States.

Women are the real collateral damage when wars are waged. Though they are not the fighters, their struggles are far more personal, as they are left behind to keep the home functioning, the children fed and clothed, the cities and villages alive. These women are the survivors who soldier on in war's aftermath. Roth traveled around the world, bearing witness as she let them tell their stories. "I can't explain it. I couldn't get away from it. It's like I was following my path and my passion. I just had to surrender to it." Her photographs, while steeped in the physical and emotional wreckage of war, show no guns, no blood, no combat.

magbula-and-son.jpgI've known Marissa for decades. We met while I was working as a photographer at the Los Angeles Times and she was freelancing for the paper. She was always flying off somewhere to shoot something on her project and I always wondered how she was able to fund all that travel. Through a combination of some savings, some inheritance and a lot of hustling she was able to make intermittent trips. "I've probably spent close to $200,000 on the project. I could have given myself a masters and a doctorate! But I thought 'I just have to do this, no matter what it costs.' It's been a great lesson in trust, I suppose, trusting the unknown. Not letting fear be my copilot. I had to learn to just trust the process." And she never let go of her vision.

Now that the exhibit is close enough to be real, she has turned to Kickstarter to help raise $15,000 to pay for some of the costs of exhibiting the work here and elsewhere and give voice to women all over the world who have been affected by war.

Although she has published several books, Roth was unsuccessful in finding a publisher for this project. She changed her game plan and looked instead for an exhibition space. With the help of Howard Spector, a curator and mentor, she created a Powerpoint presentation for a lecture, and last October she showed it to Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance. Geft committed to doing a show at the museum. But that commitment was for the exhibit space only.

"She basically said that a show like this would cost $50,000-60,000 to produce and an additional $40,000 for travel costs," Roth said, and those were costs which Roth would have to pay. "I wanted it to be beautiful. I knew it would be expensive but after all the work I'd done, I wasn't going to scrimp on prints, mats, frames." She forged ahead finishing the work. Her brother passed away and left her some money and that gave her the impetus and the means to make the final push.


With a recent trip to Vietnam, her travels came to a close. "I thought that once I found my grandparent's home and memorial in Novi Sad in 2009 that I was done." But she realized that she needed to go to Vietnam after talking with Spector, who was working to create a cohesive exhibit from all her years of work and images. "I was tired, but knew I needed to go."

"Vietnam was my coming of age war and I realized it was a huge influence on me. I didn't fully appreciate how it shaped me in terms of my desires as a peace activist, and to become a photojournalist. I still have vivid memories of sitting on my bed as a kid and looking at Life, Look and National Geographic. I was conscious of those pictures early on."

Often the trips would take a year of planning, so she could hit the ground running and maximize her time in the country. Once she returned from Vietnam, and with Geft's commitment to a show, she hired a designer and set about creating the exhibition. "Because I deal with so much history and address so many wars and conflicts, I felt I had to also give history lessons in the exhibit. We determined we would create freestanding text panels that give background to the wars I've covered."

Some private donors and foundations have come forward with grants. She is represented by Creative Visions Foundation, a non-profit foundation started by Kathy Eldon to fund visual projects and honor her son, photographer Dan Eldon, a Reuters photographer who was killed at 22 while on assignment in Somalia. To help pay for the remaining exhibition costs, Roth turned to Kickstarter.

MarissaRothsmall-iris.jpgNow that the traveling and photography are done, and the show is coming together, "I find myself weeping a lot," she said. "In a funny way, now I find myself feeling all the pain of these women. I don't have to keep myself cinched up in order to keep going." She has already moved on to another project, a book of images she made in Tibet. "I don't want to do too much more war stuff. I've hit my pain threshold," she says. "I'm not sure where the road will take me. I had to do this documentary project, but my roots are in art. The Tibet project is very different, almost like a photographic meditation," she said. She paused and took a breath. "I want the lights turned on in my life."

The exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance will run from August 16 to October 25. Visit Kickstarter to support this project.

Corrected post

July 29, 2012

Night vision: Street piano


Shawn Whitehead plays piano for change in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. His friend Fred Banks watches.

The latest in Iris Schneider's series of Night Vision photographs from around the city.

July 22, 2012

Who did shoot rock and roll?

The Ramones at Eric's Club, Liverpool, England, May 1977. Courtesy of Ian Dickson /

If the question is "Who Shot Rock and Roll," the answer according to the new show at the Annenberg Space for Photography would have to be everybody.

The show is a rambling exhibition of 166 images, some iconic and many obscure, documenting rock and roll and and along with it a slice of cultural history. Most photographers have only a single image displayed, including Annie Liebovitz — whose early unrehearsed black and white images for Rolling Stone are so different than the posed portraits she is more well-known for — and some such as LA's own Ann Summa, who documented the early punk rockers, are ignored. The show marks the first time that the Annenberg Space for Photography has collaborated with a museum, taking a show curated by Gail Buckland that began at the Brooklyn Museum and adapting its space to fit the show.

viewers-annenberg-iris.jpgWith so many photographs plastering the walls, the exhibit is as overstimulating as a concert whose speakers are turned up to 11. But a very fine film made to accompany the show features 8 photographers — Bob Gruen, Norman Seeff, Lynn Goldsmith, Henry Diltz, Guy Webster, Mark Seliger, Jill Furmanovsky and Edward Colver — and helps to distill the experience down to something manageable, enjoyable and educational.

I have found some of the shows at the Annenberg too overwhelming, with images hanging up and down the walls, impossible to physically see unless you are Kobe Bryant, and difficult to process because there are just too many images competing for your attention. But for me, the films always come to the rescue, allowing you to sit and take in the experience from a different perspective, then attack the images again.

In this exhibit's film, created by Arclight Productions, photographers whose iconic images are seared into our memories — Norman Seeff's vibrant and sexy Tina Turner, the innocence of Joni Mitchell captured by Henry Diltz, Bob Gruen's John Lennon touting New York City, Colver's raw punk energy — reminisce and tell stories out of school. I learned that Guy Webster's famous Mama's and Papa's album cover photograph of all four of the bandmembers in a bathtub happened because everyone, including the photographer, was too stoned to leave the house. Often the photographers developed friendships with their subjects first, and photography came afterwards. Some, like Diltz with the Lovin' Spoonful, were invited to hop on the bus and tour with the band as their first professional gig.

"So many people say, 'Oh, this was my life,'" Diltz said at the show's opening. As the only official photographer at Woodstock, Diltz's images provide a history of rock that marked milestones for a generation, most of whom remember not only the songs but where they were when they heard them, and what they went through to hear them live. Diltz lived in Laurel Canyon during that golden time when Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass and so many other folk icons hung out together in their backyards, making music and mayhem, and then rolled down the hill to play the Troubador or watch their friends perform on Sunset Strip.

Diltz had been a musician, singing harmonies in a folk group that toured the college circuit. He picked up an old camera on a whim at a flea market while on tour and was blown away when he did his first slideshow for his friends. Totally self-taught ("I learned by reading the directions on the yellow box of Kodak film") he got special access because he was a friend first, photographer second. "It was all by accident," he said.

Left: Tupac Shakur, August 1993 - Courtesy of Danny Clinch; Elvis Whispers Softly, 1956 - © Alfred Wertheimer, The Wertheimer Collection

Indeed, many of the photographers represented in the show started out by touring with a band, gaining the access that made those special and unique images possible simply by being there, camera in hand. It was a much more innocent time. The bands were new themselves, not worried about controlling their image like they are today. There were no restrictions or rules. No limits on what could and could not be shot. They were too involved with having a good time to worry about being in control.

Diltz said that many times he would sit for hours and not shoot a thing. "I learned an important skill as a musician on tour myself. The art of just hanging out."

As these photographs and stories have shown, it paid off.

The show has proven to be extremely popular, and the Annenberg has extended its hours to accommodate the crowds. Indeed, I stopped by on a Saturday night close to the 9 pm closing time and the place was packed. Besides those milling around looking at photos, about 50 people were seated in the area usually reserved for film watchers, totally mesmerized by slides of album covers flashing on huge screens because it was too late to begin a screening of the film.

People connect with these images not only because of what they are, but because of what they mean to them, what memories they trigger, what part they played in the history of their own lives. Music accompanied us along our path in life, whether it was the music we danced to in the 60's or rebelled with in the 80's. For whatever the show lacks in focus, it does provide an opportunity to appreciate some great photography on a communal head trip into our past.

The Annenberg always schedules a series of lectures during their exhibits which are usually sold out immediately and this time they have also added three live, free concerts hosted by KCRW. Despite my reservations about the overkill of imagery, I have to acknowledge the Annenberg Space for its efforts to make photography hip, and accessible to new audiences.

Edited post

Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present is at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City through Oct. 7. Info

Color photo by Iris Schneider

June 17, 2012

Concert at the Getty


Dancers enjoy the music on Saturday at the Getty Center's "Saturdays Off the 405" concert series. Photograph by Iris Schneider.

May 29, 2012

Counter of books at The Last Bookstore downtown


Photo by Judy Graeme.

May 20, 2012

Night vision: Mean streets of Silver Lake

party aftermath.jpg

The aftermath of a teenage party over the weekend in the Silver Lake hills.

May 18, 2012

Are we all paparazzi now?

paparazzi1-iris.jpgAlthough the term paparazzi was first coined in Italy, it has reached its zenith — or its nadir — on this side of the Atlantic, aided by the internet, the money to be made and the ease of picture-taking technology and dissemination. It's debatable which came first, the insatiable desire to document the famous or the need for the masses to see endless images of celebrities caught acting like normal people. Added to the mix is another layer, as celebrities themselves post their whereabouts and thoughts on their Twitter accounts, courting the popularity that we always knew they craved despite their protests.

Some of these issues of celebrity were addressed at the Getty Wednesday night at "Are We All Paparazzi Now?," a discussion in conjunction with an exhibit called "Portraits of Renown," celebrity portraits dating back to the 1800s and including Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Georgia O'Keefe, Edgar Allan Poe, Josephine Baker, Andy Warhol and Anderson Cooper as an infant, photographed by Diane Arbus. The show hangs, not accidentally, adjacent to an expansive show of the work of Herb Ritts, whose sun-drenched and beautifully composed images of people like Madonna and Richard Gere had almost as much to do with their ascension in the public eye as did their talent.

Since directing "Teenage Paparazzo," a thought-provoking 2010 documentary about a 13-year-old Los Angeles boy who threw himself into the pursuit of the celebrity image, Adrian Grenier has taken on the role of educator. The star of "Entourage," usually the object of the camera's lens himself, screens his film and speaks to teens and adults about the perils and paradoxes of celebrity in American culture. He often uses the term "hall of mirrors" to describe the state of society today. It seems apt, as I often wonder if people have forsaken actually living their lives for the shared experience of documenting their lives, pausing to photograph the meal that's just arrived at their table, the painting they are looking at in the museum or the shoes they are trying on. Now that we know celebrities are just like us, proven by the endless flow of images of them shopping, pushing strollers, sipping lattes in their sweats or heading to or from the airport, we've come to the point where we've deemed our own lives just as worthy of exposure.

The discussion, taking place at a major museum, begs the question: the portraits that grace the walls of the Getty seem several cuts above the images that we are bombarded with daily. Yes, the paparazzi quench the desire for our society's need to know everything about those we have put on the public pedestal. But is there anything about these images that can be called art? Squiers noted the difference between making pictures and taking pictures. "Great photographers make pictures," she said.

Today's paparazzi certainly give us images that provide a glimpse into our society and what it values at this moment in time. One quizzical audience member referred to them as "bullshit." Galo Ramirez, the lone paparazzo on the panel, responded, "If it's bullshit they want, it's bullshit I will give them." At the same time, he acknowledged the lucrative market for his work, refusing to put an amount on what an image could bring him but saying that whatever he is paid makes it well worth his while to wait at someone's home for hours. He is hoping to snag the hottest shot on the market in the next "news" cycle: Angelina Jolie in her wedding gown.

The panelists at the event, which was co-sponsored by Zocalo Public Square, included Grenier, Carol Squiers of the International Center for Photography, Carolyn Davis (a photo editor at Us Weekly) and Ramirez, who famously crashed his car into one driven by Lindsay Lohan as they both made U-turns several months ago. He recently got pictures of the coroner's van taking Whitney Houston's body from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Carla Hall, an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times, moderated the panel.

Grenier has taken the issue of celebrity and run with it, having the self-awareness and smarts to see its many layers. He acknowledges that pictures tell a story and there is nothing inherently wrong with storytelling. "But we have to leave the celebrity experience and have human experiences with each other," he said. "I don't want to tell anyone how to live. I just want people to see as many perpectives as possible."

Carla Hall, Carol Squiers, Adrian Grenier, Carolyn Davis and Galo Ramirez.

Both photos: Iris Schneider

April 14, 2012

Remembering Herb Ritts

Walking through the J. Paul Getty Museum's new exhibition, Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, I kept thinking back 20 years to when I wrote a profile of Ritts for the Los Angeles Times. I was writing about the photography market for the paper, and there were few bigger players locally than Ritts.

Djimon with octopus, Hollywood. 1989. © Herb Ritts Foundation

Familiar photos of such people as Madonna and Richard Gere are among the show's highlights, but the beautifully printed photographs feature unfamiliar as well as familiar figures, celebrities as well as people made celebrities by Ritts' photos. Perhaps more important, the exhibition demonstrates a very creative mind at work, maximizing his models, light and settings.

Not that I was surprised. The day of our visit, Ritts eagerly gathered up his magazine layouts and books, proudly turning pages for me to see one photograph after another. As he did so, I sensed that the tentative smile and ingenuousness charming me must surely have gone a long way in similarly charming his photography subjects. This show proves me right with its oiled bodies, strangely turned limbs, unexpected celebrity poses and even a model crowned by a dead octopus.

Ritts' Hollywood Hills home was a showplace for photography, including print after print by photographers he admired. I recall he'd built ledges along the walls for photographs, rather than framing them, so he could move them around. The day I was there, his library's prime spot was held by one of Berenice Abbott's glorious photos of New York at night, and around the house were recognizable masterpieces by other legendary photographers.

He considered himself a photography collector, he told me, and on display were great photos by Man Ray and Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Paul Outerbridge. He said he had just purchased others by Joel Peter Witkin and Robert Mapplethorpe, and when we later discussed the photo market, we talked as much about his buying more of their work as about others buying his work.

The Getty's companion show, "Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity," places Ritts' work adjacent to walls of iconic photographs by everyone from Nadar and Edward Steichen to Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol. Ritts died in 2002, but remembering the way he spoke of his photographic influences--including Weston for his simplicity, Helmut Newton for his risk-taking, and Irving Penn for nearly everything else--I imagine the juxtaposition would have made him a happy man indeed.

Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz and Naomi Cambell pose for Herb Ritts in Hollywood in 1989. © Herb Ritts Foundation

Tatjana, veiled head, Joshua Tree 1988. © Herb Ritts Foundation

"Herb Ritts: L.A. Style" is at the Getty Center through August 26.

Barbara Isenberg is a Los Angeles-based arts writer. Her most recent book is the Los Angeles Times bestseller "Conversations with Frank Gehry."

Previously on LA Observed:
Getty acquires 69 Herb Ritts photographs
The Getty's gardens to close for three months
Getty Research Institute acquires two Man Ray archives

March 26, 2012

Night vision: The Clock


I stopped at LACMA around midnight on Saturday night to check out "The Clock." So did a lot of other people. The line to get a seat for the 24-hour screening was down the stairs and onto the Wilshire Boulevard sidewalk.

March 23, 2012

Hollywoodland -- your land, my land


Remember in 2008, when a Chicago investment group stuck a For Sale sign on 138 acres of open space next to the Hollywood sign? They bought the land from the estate of Howard Hughes in 2002 for close to $1.7 million, got it zoned for four McMansions (because we're short on those) and then offered it up for $22 million. Bob Pool broke the story, and a lot of people got really steamed.

Today, fellow Angelenos, thanks to an impassioned fund-raising campaign by Mr. Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge and the Trust for Public Land, those 138 acres now belong to us. Even with a final sale price of $11.7 million, it wasn't until philanthropist Aileen Getty stepped in with a million-dollar-plus donation, and Hugh Hefner kicked in the final million that the deal was done. (A complete list of major donors is here.)

So say thank you in the best way possible -- go for a Hollywoodland hike.

Pix from yesterday's ceremony after the jump...

Continue reading "Hollywoodland -- your land, my land" »

February 5, 2012

Discovering Francesca Woodman


How is it that until about a week ago I'd never heard of the photographer Francesca Woodman? She has been hovering about in my universe for years, but I'm embarrassed that I completely missed her. It took a look through LACMA's newly opened In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists to be enlightened. Fate intervened and our paths finally crossed.

Woodman is one of the nearly 50 artists included in this "first exhibition devoted to the female surrealist artists who worked in Mexico and the U.S," as the press materials read. Born in 1958, she is the youngest and one of the lesser known artists in the show that includes superstars of the movement Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois and Louise Nevelson.

francesca+woodman+3.jpgWoodman's black and white images, made primarily with a square format camera and printed small, demand that the viewer come in close. Reading the wall label next to the first photograph, "Self Portrait talking to Vince" (top photo here), told me that her life was shockingly brief (1958-1981) and that she photographed in Providence, R.I. My first thought was that perhaps she had been a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I graduated. Later in the day a Google search confirmed it. Woodman was a photography student at RISD from 1975 to 1978, around the time I was there, and in the same department, although she was 2 years behind me. It's entirely possible that we may have passed in the hallway or on the street. Other images in the LACMA show were made in Rome where Woodman spent her junior year as part of RISD's European Honors Program.

Like the mystery of her abbreviated life, Woodman's images are haunting and provocative. The level of her work is highly sophisticated for someone so young and still in school. Woodman often photographed herself, sometimes nude, sometimes clothed. She used props, blurring, and dilapidated interiors (not hard to find in Providence.) She experimented with cut paper, reflections and alternative processes. She used her sexuality, her relationships and her environment to develop themes in her work. The disturbing spookiness in some of them hit me hard. Sadly, an ominous feeling about her proved true. I learned that Woodman committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, not long after graduation and a move to New York City.

In the 2010 documentary The Woodmans, a revealing and sometimes unsettling look at the photographer's family that I watched after seeing the show at LACMA, her close RISD friend Sloan Rankin acknowledges that Woodman was far more artistically evolved than the other students. But also chronically needy. "She was a fragile person. It caused her to make beautiful pictures," Rankin says. As I watched the film, clues about her emotionally complex life emerged. Maybe also clues into her imagemaking. I felt little sympathy for her parents, both accomplished artists in their own right. They are clearly still wrestling with not only their daughter's suicide, but with the fact that her artistic success has far eclipsed their own. "As Francesca has become more and more famous, we've become the famous artists family," her mother Betty says in one scene.

While Woodman is part of a large group at LACMA, she is currently the star of her own show up north at SFMOMA. Francesca Woodman is the most comprehensive exhibition of her work ever mounted. Her RISD work is well represented, as well as her experiments with the diazotype process (think architects' blueprints) and her fashion photographs. The show fully explores Woodman's body of work, which impressed me as hugely accomplished for someone barely entering adulthood. She had hoped to pursue fashion photography in New York, but struggled with finding opportunities.

Even a drop of the attention her work is now receiving might have been a huge gift to Woodman following her graduation from RISD. She battled to survive professionally in New York, and according to her father was "discouraged and demoralized in her personal life." There was intense therapy, medication and a failed first attempt at suicide. Making photographs became a rarer and rarer occurrence.

Then again, perhaps no amount of validation or success would have been enough to save the life of a young woman so deeply in pain. Her apparently overwhelming inner demons broke her spirit before she could find a way to harness them. Surely trouble was brewing long before she arrived in Providence. However, her images have survived and taken on a brilliant life of their own. Although I'm late to the game, I'm glad that at last I've found them.

Trailer from the documentary on Woodman's life:

"In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists" runs at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion through May 6.

"Francesca Woodman" runs at SF MOMA though Feb. 20 and will travel to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in spring 2012.

Photographs by Francesca Woodman courtesy of the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

January 25, 2012

Night vision: Projection room


In the projection room tonight at the Million Dollar Theater, for Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," with projectionist Tom Ruff.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive will be presenting classic films at the historic Broadway movie palace each Wednesday night through March 28. Upcoming showings include "Bus Stop," "Shampoo," "Bridge on the River Kwai," and "Taxi Driver," among others.

Photo: Iris Schneider

January 2, 2012

Photo: Occupy at the Rose Parade


Occupy LA protesters demonstrate at the end of the Rose Parade on its route through Pasadena. Photo by Iris Schneider.

Night vision: Before the Rose Parade


The City of Los Angeles float turns onto Fair Oaks Avenue moving into position for Monday's Rose Parade. Latest in the Night Vision series by Iris Schneider.

November 30, 2011

Aftermath at Occupy L.A.


My photographs from the clean-up scene Wednesday morning at Occupy L.A. More inside, the last one a shot from Sunday night's general assembly. All by Iris Schneider.

Earlier images of Occupy L.A. by Iris Schneider. Here and here

Continue reading "Aftermath at Occupy L.A." »

November 18, 2011

Weegee's Hollywood

Weegee's plastic lens turned on Elizabeth Taylor circa 1950..

Here's a riddle from the art world: Who was part huckster, part experimental trailblazer and part social commentator, lampooning society's adoration of celebrity, but longing to be one at the same time? Warhol, you say? No, turns out it's Weegee, the cigar chomping photographer — aka Arthur Fellig — who fled New York in 1946, where he made his reputation as a chronicler of the night, of crime scenes and the spectators who gathered to watch, to turn his sights on Hollywood.

Claiming he was "through with the newspaper game," after selling the title of his book of New York photographs called "The Naked City" to a producer who turned it into a movie, he was drawn to Hollywood. But, as the sweeping show currently up at MOCA proves, Weegee was a lot more complicated than we thought.

Continue reading "Weegee's Hollywood" »

November 5, 2011

Robert Reich at Occupy L.A. *

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich speaking on Saturday at Occupy Los Angeles, outside City Hall.

This weekend, Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, visited Occupy LA and spoke to a small crowd gathered on Spring Street shadowed by City Hall's American flags. It was exhilarating to hear someone who had been in Washington's inner circle speak honestly about bringing fairness, compassion and equality back to the American economy and thereby restore the principles of our democracy and of capitalism itself. "Capitalism cannot function when so much wealth goes to the top," he said. It's one thing to walk through the Occupy LA camp and see statements like that scrawled on a cardboard sign, but quite another to hear someone of Reich's background—as Clinton's Secretary of Labor and a respected teacher and writer—state it.

Reich started his talk by thanking everyone from the Occupy LA movement, and urging them to give themselves a pat on the back. "Because of you, people in this country are beginning to discuss issues that have been avoided for years...Nothing good happens in Washington unless good people outside of Washington are mobilized, energized and organized to make sure that good things happen," he said.

Reich is currently Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been a professor of economics at Harvard and Brandeis and has published 13 books on the economy. He knows this stuff. And like a patient and wise educator, he told the crowd: "Let me tell you the facts. And we've all got to make sure we have the facts together because they are the truth and we've got to speak the truth over and over and over again."

"This economy is richer than it has ever been but we are cutting education, child welfare services, getting rid of teachers. They are saying we can't afford it. We CAN afford it. Our economy is twice as large as it was in 1980 but wages have stagnated for 3 decades. Where did the money go? To the top 1%. This is not class warfare. Our system has gone out of balance. We have to save the system from itself...It is not just our economy that suffers with these inequties. It is also our democracy that suffers."

He named individuals like the Koch brothers as some who have benefited from this inequity. "Our democracy is too precious to allow it to fall into the hands of a few people who are usuing their fortune to pollute and corrupt American democracy."

It was shocking and refreshing to hear someone who knows the economy and the way our government works--or doesn't--speak so plainly. He went on to name some other culprits who have helped get America where it is today: the Supreme Court, whose recent decision about campaign finance, namely that corporations can be treated like people when contributing to political candidates, has done its part to send our democracy down the wrong path. "I'll believe corporations are people when Texas and Georgia start executing corporations," he said.

After his rousing, validating speech—in which he told the occupiers that, while the Occupy movement may not be a movement yet in terms of defining its' demands and refining its methods, it is "motivated by a moral vision of what America could be. There is a powerful and indestructible moral vision underlying this movement"—he lingered to chat and debate with individuals in the crowd, signing autographs but mainly talking economics and solutions and commiserating with beleaguered veterans of our country's current economic woes.

He said one of his great regrets in life is that he failed to get the endorsement of the Democratic party in 2002 when he attempted a run for Governor of Massachusetts against Mitt Romney. "I would have beaten the pants off him," he said.

And perhaps changed the course of our upcoming Presidential election.

Sadly, only a smattering of the occupiers gathered on Spring Street to hear these words. Many others probably did not even know he was speaking, or chose instead to hear the speakers from the south steps advocating the benefits of hemp, or engage in small debates on communism vs. democracy, or just hang out and enjoy a beautiful California Saturday.


September 29, 2011

Night vision: The Closer


Crew films an episode of "The Closer" on Fuller Avenue near Beverly Boulevard, at about 1 a.m. Third installment in the Night vision series. Click on the image to see it larger.

August 19, 2011

Night vision: 2nd and Beaudry


At 2nd Street and Beaudry, just west of the Harbor Freeway from Downtown. Second in the Night Vision series.

August 9, 2011

Night vision


Iris Schneider is starting an occasional series of photos on Los Angeles at night. She's calling them Night Vision. She spotted Steve McQueen last night on Union Avenue near 12th Street in Pico-Union.

November 24, 2008

Photography of Carleton Watkins

Old Plaza, circa 1880
The Plaza, Los Angeles, circa 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum

Carleton Watkins, whose images of 19th-century California are the stars of an exhibition at the Getty Museum, had a simple motto: to stand "where the view looks best." Weston Naef, the Getty's senior photography curator, calls Watkins "the greatest American photographer before Alfred Stieglitz....He was an artist in the very strictest sense of the word. He was probably the first American to show a purely photographic imagination — as opposed to a painterly imagination...."

For Naef, the exhibit represents decades of admiration for his subject. Watkins was probably the first to photograph Yosemite and his astounding images of the valley and the Mariposa Grove of big trees propelled the first federal protection of the Sierra Nevada wilderness.

Born in 1829 in Oneonta, New York, Watkins arrived in San Francisco in 1850 and was hired by childhood friend Collis P. Huntington (who later founded the Central Pacific Railroad) to deliver supplies to Gold Rush mines. After fire consumed Huntington's enterprise, Watkins worked as a carpenter and bookseller and began taking scenic daguerreotypes of the Mother Lode country. He moved to San Francisco and photographed the estates of the city's wealthy, making important contacts through Huntington and at social occasions in the home of Jessie Benton Fr�mont, writer and activist wife of the former U.S. Senator and general John C. Fr�mont.

Watkins accepted commissions to provide photos for court cases and clients such as the State Geological Survey, but it's his personal projects that display his abundant spirit of exploration. Watkins reached Yosemite via the Mariposa Trail for the first time in 1858-59 and returned many times. He had a San Francisco cabinet maker create a camera capable of accommodating glass plates as large as 18 inches by 22 inches. The amazingly detailed photographs made with the unique "mammoth plate" camera brought Watkins international renown. He used an enclosed wagon to transport hundreds of pounds of camera equipment, glass and chemicals needed to develop his glass plate negatives, sometimes pulled by mules and sometimes loaded on a rail flatcar. He traveled hard miles around California and the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, and ventured afar to destinations such as Yellowstone, Puget Sound, South America and the Arizona Territory outpost of Tombstone.

Watkins produced more than 1,100 mammoth-plate photographs, making him one of the 19th century's most prolific photographers. Some of his best-known images are panorama views of San Francisco in the 1860s and rare images of the crumbling California missions. He traveled by rail to southern California for the first time in 1876-77 and again in 1880-81 to photograph the burgeoning oil industry, agriculture, and other subjects.

Thompson's Seedless Grapes, Kern County 1880
Thompson's Seedless Grapes, Kern County 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum

The Los Angeles that Watkins visited would have seemed like a wild west boomtown (and part Mexican pueblo.) It was far from most evidence of civilization. H.H. Bancroft in "Bancroft's Guide For Travelers by Railway, Stage, and Steam Navigation" called Los Angeles:

The oldest and largest city of Southern California, having 5,614 inhabitants, many of whom are foreigners. It is situated in a narrow valley, about 22 miles from the sea, on the Los Angeles River. The city is rapidly growing in population and wealth, and the surrounding country abounds with extensive and flourishing vineyards, groves of oranges, lemons, olives, and other tropical fruits. Connected with San Francisco by steamer and railroad, via San Pedro�

In Los Angeles, Watkins continued to associate with influential people like Don Benito Wilson, a rancho owner and former mayor. Watkins, according to Naef, had an "ingrained sense of history" and made a point of photographing the historic plaza where Los Angeles was founded. It's not by accident that the stereograph contains elements that are symbols of the city's origins, including the old plaza church ( Our Lady the Queen of the Angels), Fort Moore Hill and the adobe home of former Californio leader Andres Pico. It's conceivable that Watkins would have encountered Pio Pico, California's last Mexican governor, sunning himself on the plaza.

Watkins' record of the state's historic Franciscan missions took him all over California, starting with Mission Dolores in San Francisco. His photograph of Mission San Fernando, Rey de España, is in the Getty show. While here he also photographed the beach in Santa Monica, locales in the San Gabriel Valley and Point Fermin lighthouse.

Beach and Bathing House at Santa Monica, 1880
Beach and Bathing House at Santa Monica, 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum

Though he achieved international fame and commercial and artistic success, Watkins' endured financial distress when his sight began to fail. In 1895-6 he lived with his wife and children in an abandoned railroad car, until Huntington deeded him a ranch in rural Yolo County. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, Watkins lost all of his glass-plate negatives, business records, archives, and personal papers. In 1910 he was committed to Napa State Hospital for the Insane. He died in poverty in 1916 and was buried in an unmarked grave. It was a tragic end for the artist who, according to the Getty, played a "dominant role in establishing an outdoor photographic tradition in California."

Says Naef, "his photographs were as perceptive as the words of a poet and they provide a unique personal vision of the birth and growth of California."

Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins runs at the Getty until March 1, 2009.

June 2, 2008

The photographs of Charles Brittin

Observing an L.A. Photographer: fifth in a series
Venice oil derricks, circa 1957
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.

John Altoon on Venice Beach, undatedBrittin'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.

Fun house head on Ocean Park pier, 1957Brittin'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.

Arrest at federal building, 1965While 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