A1991 photograph by John Humble shows Selma Avenue at
Vine Street as a jumbled, architecturally constructed Hollywood
landscape of office buildings, stores, asphalt and advertising
billboards. Dominating the center is Angelyne, the cosmetically
manufactured "human Barbie doll," who adorns one enormous sign.
Radio host Rick Dees, then an eternally
adolescent 41-year-old, graces a KIIS sign just above her bleached-blond
head. Neutered Ken to Angelyne's pneumatic Barbie, he's the benign Adam
to her wicked Eve in Hollywood's media-made Garden of Eden.
Humble's deceptively simple image -- documentary in the most profound
sense of that slippery term -- hangs at the entry wall to a large new
exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical
Gardens. Hot on the heels of opening its beautifully refurbished,
exquisitely reinstalled mansion, so rich in 18th century European and
other art, the Huntington has mounted what is being billed as the most
comprehensive show of L.A. photographs ever assembled. It spans the
1860s to the present.
Those dates correspond with two epochal narratives: the history of Los
Angeles, incorporated in 1850, and the modern development of the camera,
invented almost simultaneously in France and England a scant decade
Here's the thing: France and England had rich visual legacies when the
camera came along, but L.A. did not. Los Angeles and photography matured
together. "This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in L.A.
Photographs" perceptively mines that strange and specific relationship.
The title is borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, whose
despairing protagonist laments, "I know myself, but that is all." The
alchemy of the still camera in fabricating perceptions of people and
places is an inspired subject for examination. Humble's picture is
The show, like Fitzgerald's book, is novelistic -- less an art
exhibition than a pictorial essay about L.A. as a mediated environment.
Its whopping 284 photographs stand in for words.
Artists made many of these pictures, but far from all. The largest group
-- 25 photographs -- comes from the "Dick" Whittington Studio, an
invaluable commercial outfit that worked for almost every major business
and organization in the city between 1924 and 1987, recording L.A.'s
explosive growth and commercial development.
Several other commercial photographers are well represented. They
include William M. Godfrey, a former Midwest dentist credited with the
city's first photograph (an innocuous 1862 view of downtown's plaza),
and C.C. Pierce, a distinguished architectural photographer, appropriate
to a city powered by waves of real estate speculation.
William A. Garnett's aerial chronicle of the postwar construction of
suburban Lakewood is nearly Minimalist in its organized geometry.
(Implausibly, Garnett got his start working in the Pasadena Police
Department's photography lab.) G. Haven Bishop's 1915 street scene of a
downtown neon advertisement reverberates against Humble's 1991 Hollywood
view, but Bishop's nocturnal photograph is part of Southern California
Edison's corporate archive, documenting the urbanizing effects of
The next largest group -- 19 photographs -- was made by arguably the
greatest 19th century American landscape photographer, Carleton E.
Watkins. Although better known for his classically ordered views of
Northern California and Nevada, in which a rustic dam or mountain
plateau is endowed with the noble gravity of the Parthenon, Watkins' two
L.A. excursions resulted in languid vistas of Santa Monica Canyon and
Pasadena farmland. Sylvan southern harmonies supplant rustic northern
Among postwar photographers, the two most abundantly represented are
Harry Gamboa Jr. and Gusmano Cesaretti. Gamboa's well-known series of
Chicano portraits plays off cultural stereotypes, promulgated by mass
media. Cesaretti is a visual consultant who pulls those mass-media
levers, most notably with film and TV producer-directors Michael Mann
and Tony Scott.
Disappointingly, just 18 of the 108 named photographers are women.
Glamour photographer George Hurrell is unsurprisingly included, for
example, but not his MGM predecessor, Ruth Harriet Louise. More men than
women would be expected, given social norms of the last 150 years, but
the disparity is greater than it should be.
The show is not organized chronologically or by artist. The seven visual
essays are instead thematic, beginning with a selection in the
library's West Hall that looks at L.A.'s reputation as an artificial
An Edenic vista is framed by such works as Pierce's panoramic 1910 view
of the Cahuenga Pass, all rolling hills dotted with farmhouses. The
pervasiveness of the pastoral idyll subtly recasts Herb Ritts' pair of
sensual portraits of male and female fashion models as iconic images of
humanity's tragic fall, a blend of Angelyne and Dees. Ditto Larry
Sultan's porn actors in a middle-class Valley backyard and Anthony
Friedkin's deluxe patrons at the Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool.
The remainder of the show, installed in the Boone Gallery a short stroll
from the library, is cleverly reached by ambling through portions of
the Huntington's own celebrated gardens. Artist Allan Sekula was
commissioned to create a visual link between the two spaces.
He responded with a sequence of 15 small garden "billboards." Some are
provocative. A neon bus sign lets you know your experience is being
stage-managed ("Go Greyhound, and leave the driving to us"), while a
woman with a mop in a tatty domestic driveway puts as careworn face on
the unsung drudgery that keeps ordinary life going.
The Boone Gallery rolls out themes of work, home, play, aspiration and
conflict -- and, of course, car culture. Each is multifaceted, with
selections assembled like curatorial collages. Juxtapositions recognize
that photographs, unlike paintings, are inherently linked to a world
Take one series in "Work," which opens with Imogen Cunningham's 1932
portrait of actor Spencer Tracy on an unidentified movie set. Next to it
is Edward Weston's pair of rubber dummies on the MGM back lot, followed
by two hyper-masculine beefcake pictures by Robert Mizer, underground
publisher of the homoerotic magazine Physique Pictorial. Ansel Adams'
adjacent picture shows female movie mannequins severed into pieces,
which resonates with Peter Stackpole's 1938 picture of two dames in
bathing suits, hoping for work as movie extras.
This gendered acting sequence culminates in Philippe Halsman's 1952
"Marilyn With Barbells." Monroe lies on a bench working her pectoral
muscles, conjuring a different type of physique pictorial.
A city that moves
"Move" reconfigures car-culture clichés in 18 pictures that riff on
street photography. There's the classic version -- say, the freely
swinging camera of Garry Winogrand, which tilts and destabilizes
ordinary urban views. Then there's the Pop Art pun on a street
photograph: Ed Ruscha's 21-foot-long accordion of snapshots, together
showing "Every Building on the Sunset Strip."
Finally, absurdist humor doesn't get any better than the pairing of
printed dialogue with self-portrait photographs of Conceptual artist
Allan Ruppersberg affably asking other pedestrians for directions --
"You go down Sunset to La Brea. Right on La Brea to . . . ." People on
foot cope in a city organized around cars.
The "play" section includes pictures of iconic L.A. recreation --
surfing, cycling, hiking -- as well as theater (playacting), music along
Central Avenue (playing jazz) and, unexpectedly, masturbation (a porn
actress with her hand down her pants). The effect of these
juxtapositions is to sharpen attention -- no mean feat in a world where
photographs are as ubiquitous in daily experience as nature used to be.
Perhaps that helps to explain the quirky installation design by
accomplished architects Kevin Daly and Chris Genik, which takes some
getting used to. In addition to a conventional hanging of framed
pictures on sky blue walls, they've built metal display stands that are
biomorphic -- abstractions evoking organic plants. Each "stem" is topped
by a framed photograph, like a rather ugly industrial flower.
More than 40% of the show comes from the Huntington's own collections, a
vast archive numbering some 500,000 images. Huntington curator Jennifer
Watts and independent curator Claudia Bohn-Spector have also borrowed
works from 50 other public and private collections. Whether these
photographs together evince a distinct Los Angeles style of visual
expression is difficult to say. But "This Side of Paradise" is certainly
a very good read.
By Christopher Knight
For The Los Angeles Times