The Obstructed View

“The View from Here: L.A. and Photography”, an all-day symposium at the Getty Center marking the 175th Anniversary of the announcement of the medium, brought together important photographers/artists, curators, and educators to discuss the role of Los Angeles in the recent history of the medium.

The Getty plays a large role in the acquisition and exhibition of photography, and as one of the most important institutions in the region and nation, the expectations were high for an intense and informative event. Symposia were focused on three areas of interest- photographic education; photographic practice, and the critical perspectives of the city’s critics and curators. The audience arrived early and was ready for a passionate discussion that might provide insight into what makes Los Angeles city, county, and the surrounding Southern California region such a special place for photography.

Obviously, photography has had a major impact on Los Angles through the institutions that have arisen to show, support, and collect it. Whether the location has had much influence on the medium is less evident, and in our time of physical mobility and the accessibility of almost any image made almost anywhere, the importance of where one lives has been diminished. For many artists, one location can be as good as another. For artists whose work is primarily process-oriented, the location might even be irrelevant. Perhaps it is a fool’s errand to even attempt to connect location, medium, and creative output, but for those of us invested in the history, theory, and criticism of photography, it’s an idea worth exploring.

The opening lecture was by art historian George Baker from UCLA, who focused primarily on Zoe Leonard’s enigmatic work. Though he viewed her work through a surprisingly romantic, almost nostalgic prism, her fine work is intelligent and even provocative in that it challenges photographic conventions. But besides her inclusion in “Blues for Smoke” at MOCA in 2012, her involvement with Los Angeles is minimal. This lack of connection in a symposium on photography in Los Angeles was not explained and set a poor tone for the event.

The Education panel (Jo Ann Callis from CalArts, James Welling from UCLA, John Divola from UCR- who filled in for Catherine Opie from UCLA who was ill- Robbert Flick from USC, and moderated by Ann Wilkes Tucker from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) delved into the panelists’ personal and professional relationships with Robert Heinecken from UCLA and John Baldessari from CalArts and pretty much ignored the scores of other institutions and artist/teachers throughout the city, let alone the outlying region. Of course, both are seminal artist/teachers, but their time has passed, and it was as if there were only two places to study photography in Los Angeles, and the discussion reinforced the prevailing bias toward those two institutions and their great teachers. John Divola from UC Riverside was on the panel and mentioned his program, Cal State Northridge and Orange Coast College in passing, but other institutions and teachers were mostly ignored. With a room full of prominent photography teachers, the organizers could have reached into the audience to find another replacement for Opie since Divola was already scheduled to be on the second panel. Another artist/teacher that might have livened the otherwise staid panel.

The important issues and challenges of teaching were barely mentioned. The obvious disruption/transition of analog into digital technologies, the challenges of developing a unique vision in a world of interconnected imagery, the rising role of video, and the questioning of the relevance of traditional practices by young artists were not mentioned. If anything seems prevalent in the LA photography scene, it might be experimentation and the obviously huge influence of the entertainment industry. Instead, the cult of the personalities of Heinecken and Baldessari was the prominent topic of discussion.

The Practitioner panel was equally myopic, focusing on a mere handful of artists, including Divola, who lives in Riverside and whose work hasn’t been done in the city for quite a while. Others were Stephen Shore, who has only a tangential relationship to the city, Harry Gamboa Jr, a seminal figure in the Chicano Activist movement, but less important as a photographer. Alex Prager, a recent art star who didn’t seem to know or offer much about photography, and Matthew Brandt, another younger art star whose work is process-oriented. The latter two clearly related to the notion that experimentation and entertainment are powerful forces here, but neither issues were explored.

One had to wonder why there were no mentions or discussions of the recent artists who have helped define the city and region for the past twenty-five years. Where was the discussion of the work of Anthony Freidkin, Susan Silton, John Humble, Anthony Hernandez, Eileen Cowin, Darryl Curran, Liza Ryan, Judy Fiskin, Shiela Pinkel, Thomas Alleman, and Jenny Okun? All of whom are important artists who have helped define the city and its photographic practice. The moderator was Colin Westerbeck, who seemed to have a sheet with questions in front of him, but appeared to be winging it, jumping from topic to topic with little depth and no insight. In addition, there was an odd preoccupation with work made in the 1970s, but again, no attempt to discern why that time yielded such strong work or if the work done in Los Angeles was unique in some way, or how the important practitioners of that time have developed as artists today.

The final panel on Critical Perspectives at least had a direct connection to Los Angeles, with curator Jennifer Watts from the Huntington Research Library, Rebecca Morse from MOCA, and now LACMA, Christopher Knight, the chief art critic from the LA Times. Jan de Bont is a well know movie director and photography collector, and the moderator was Virginia Heckert from the Getty. The panelists did not reveal how or if they saw that the city was shaped by photography nor vice versa, but focused on institutional issues.

The day was a lost opportunity to examine what it has meant or now means to be a photographic artist in Los Angeles, how the city influences the artists and medium, and what the last twenty-five years of photographic practice have meant to it. The moderators were not focused on this, and the panelists seemed to be bored, rehashing the historical points they and everyone else already knew. Fortunately, their stasis is not indicative of photography, here or anywhere else, but perhaps an unfortunate reflection of their own insulated perspectives and intellectual hubris. None seem prepared to do anything but chat. Limiting the discussion to Los Angeles was absurd as well since its area of influence is so wide, and so many artists work, live and travel throughout this very large geographic area, yet still feel strongly connected to the city and its powerful cultural draw.

For the 200th anniversary, I hope the Getty puts out a call to all photographers, teachers, collectors, and art lovers and not just their well-known friends and colleagues, to submit proposals and ideas. Hopefully, a fresh perspective would emerge, and one that might truly begin to see the reasons for so much fine photography being made in Los Angeles and its surrounding regions.

The Editor