Egret and crab

Thursday, May 31, 2012

City of the fallen angles

I traveled to Los Angeles yesterday with my friend Ken Seals for a rewarding but ultimately exhausting, fun filled day. Our first stop was at my favorite mexican restaurant in the world, La Cabanita in Montrose. We both dined on and adored their amazing chuletas, thin pork chops cooked in a pasilla chile sauce topped with sour cream. Amazing green tomatilla sauce and a smoky chipotle sauce, the cuisine just doesn't get any better. It was great riding up with Ken because, besides being a great guy, we have very similar taste in music. Started with the Band, Will the Circle be Unbroken, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, made for a very nice ride.

After lunch we drove over to the Getty to see the new Herb Ritts exhibition. We parked in the lot off of Sepulveda and took the tram up the hill. Ritts is the late Los Angeles fashion photographer, known for his slick and sinewy black and white photography of nudes.

I must candidly admit that this was my first trip to the Getty. What a repository and what a revelation! A beautiful complex, inside and out. Lots of space and perfectly designed down to the nth detail.

Ritts is not exactly my cup of meat. Think Mapplethorpe, west coast edition. Technically brilliant, the commercial photographer liked to venture into both overt homoeroticism and the rather grey androgynous area between gender, but only with the most beautiful of human bodies as his subjects. It is a celebration or continuum of the Nazi era film work of Leni Reifenstahl. The brutality of fashion, set to a colored aryan ideal. Ritts subjects sometimes wore thorns or clay or became inanimate figures on a mantle.

In at least the Ritts photos I saw, I notice an interesting phenomenon; men are quite soft and women are invariably hard. He has no problem celebrating the most delicate and gentle expressions of men but his women are taut faced, severe and contorted. His photo of swimmer Lynn looks like a drug store mannekin or a man in drag. The women might have sand or water on their face, always slightly obscured and I noticed usually a touch out of focus. He did not appear to allow his women models to be femininely beautiful.

His subjects also often obscure their sexuality. Several photos showed androgynous bodybuilders of undetermined sex entwined with each other. Gender blurring is great and evidently you can make a whole career out of it. It just got tedious for me. Only a few pictures resonated. But it obviously worked for him so I guess he never felt the need to stretch or alter his approach. The curse of success, I suppose.

The stuff was quintessentially Los Angeles in its reliance on perfect form and surface. I just didn't feel a lot of breadth underneath.  Bit shallow I think. I really liked one of the photos, a closeup of two bodies, reminded me of my photographic hero, Weston. And sure enough underneath the work was a thumbnail of a Weston piece that he riffed on. Might as well borrow from the best.

Ritts is a master of photography. Some of his dark on dark techniques are truly amazing. I wonder if there is any more personal work extant, perhaps not as candy coated and wrapped up in the issues of sexual identity? This exhibition bored me very quickly.

View through screen, Getty © Robert Sommers

Next door was a great collection of early photographers, more pleasing for me. Adams and Cunningham, Stieglitz, Steichen, Weston, Muybridge, Brady. Early camera lucida work. A wonderful photo of Mrs. William Morris. Bravo. Another of powerful picture of Martha Graham dancing in her dance piece Lamentation. The Gloria Swanson photograph. A murderer's row of photography. (another term of venery) I was in heaven. The Getty has a lot of money and they have spent it very wisely. An absolutely incredible museum. And they let you mostly take pictures. A very pleasant staff, I might add.


Ken looked at each Ritts photo methodically, gave them much more deserved attention than I could muster and I decided to go upstairs and look at the fourteenth century german drawings. A fantastic exhibition. Durer and Holbein, Cranach, the Master of the Coburg Roundels. Many artists whose identities are lost to history and now can only identified by initials, style or glyph.

Lucas Cranach the Elder


We continued upstairs in our wing to european paintings. I was in a room with three Manet's, one Renoir, three Monets, three Degas, a great Jericault, two Pissaro's, a so-so Sargent, maybe more expensive canvas than I have ever seen in one place. Great Van Gogh. A large Munch, an underwhelming Turner that the Russian guard told me was just purchased for 55 million.

We saw earlier paintings as well and many objects. Illuminated pages, stained glass. And only managed to scratch a small portion of the museum's offerings.

I am really hoping to get back up to the museum
soon to continue to sample its many fruits.


After dinner we drove through Burbank and up to the Castaway Restaurant, perched high above the city. Ken belongs to a photographer's group called Clickers and Flickers and they meet every month for a meal and a slide presentation. A lot of old pros, a lot of film people.

We had drinks in the bar. A really good jazz band with a blonde woman sax player were grooving on the other side of the room. Met a few photographers, looked out at the great view of the expansive valley below.

We got seated at our table. Introduced ourselves tot he group. I had an older man who was a friend of Weston, Ed Martin across from me, Gail Natzler, Otto's widow to my immediate left. A school teacher and her husband on the other side. A man who just created a photographic tarot deck, Lee Varis.

People brought shots of their latest work. I thumbed through the slick magazine that the group puts out. All very impressive.

The featured guest was ace Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster.  He just published a book entitled Four Seasons of Yosemite: a photographer's journey. Mark is a great photographer and responsible for some of the paper's most iconic shots. His slide show was incredible, especially the shots he has taken for the paper. He is a smart and funny guy, a self confessed member of the 7:30 a.m. crash and burn crew.

We finally left for home around 11 and started the long drive back to Fallbrook. I want to thank Ken for driving and for accompanying me on this quite epic day.

1 comment:

grumpy said...

i think you're right about Herb Ritts and about celebrity/fashion photography in general. so shallow. it also makes me rethink my opinion of George Hurrell. my favorite book of LA photos is still Don Normark's "Chavez Ravine 1949".