LA Art Circle 1950-60

At certain points and at certain times there is a coalescence of a critical mass of artistic talent. This is the case with LA and art in the late 1950s. LA was considered a backwater of arts culture – certainly when compared to the New York arts scene. The LA epicenter was the Ferus Gallery started by Walter Hopps, Edward Kienholz and Bob Alexander. Ed Ruscha was one of the prominent artists at the gallery. He was a photographer as well as a conceptual artist.

Ed Ruscha as photographed by Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper the actor became interested in knowing and collecting the art of these West Coast artists. He was also a photographer in his own right. Let’s look into the photography of Ruscha and Hopper.

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More about the LA art scene: at the time there was a controversy as to whether New York or LA discovered Pop Art. Many claim that it was LA. They would opine that the whole atmosphere of LA, billboards screaming to ‘buy me’ spoke to the pop artist of LA. Some say it sprang up de novo simultaneously as a rejection of Abstract Impressionism

What wasn’t in doubt was the inequity in prices being paid for artwork, with New York fetching the big bucks. Was it just the density of collectors or the quality of the work? It would be anyone’s guess. I would put my money on the more mature art market on the East Coast as compared to the burgeoning scene in LA.

Dennis Hopper

Born on a wheat farm in Dodge City, KS in 1936, Hopper eventually moved with his family eventually to San Diego. His life and career is worth reading about. Saying he was the co-writer and director of Easy Rider only begins to scratch the surface of this man’s talents.

My interest in Hopper stems from his involvement in the arts scene in LA in the 50’s and 60’s. He was a collector and supporter; his photography of this era also made him a contributor. His first wife gave him a Nikon and he had it with him whereever he went.

To supply more details to this multifaceted individual, Hopper involved himself in amateur theater once he was in California. He was noticed by Hollywood and was signed. In the 50’s Hollywood would sign a “stable” of young actors to a multi-picture contract. Then every movie that came out had the same group of actors. Hence “Rebel without a Cause” and “Giant” had many of the same actors.

The first rebel was James Dean – with his success there came the feeling that the studios had too much control. This attitude was not lost on Hopper who was close to Dean. With Dean’s untimely death, Hopper was next up to challenge the status quo – and challenge he did!

There aren’t many roller coasters that have more ups and downs than Hopper had in his life. If I had one person I’d love to have dinner with, this is the person.

Ed Ruscha

Born 1937 in Nebraska, Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma before eventually heading to California. His childhood friend Mason Williams of “Classical Gas” did the same thing. Once in Southern California Ed’s art talent defined a whole era. One of the sentinel artists at Ferus Gallery, he became known for modern art with text.

My interest in Ruscha is his photography. Wikipedia on this subject:

Photography has played a crucial role throughout Ruscha’s career, beginning with images he made during a trip to Europe with his mother and brother in 1961, and most memorably as the imagery for more than a dozen books that present precisely what their titles describe. His photographs are straightforward, even deadpan,in their depiction of subjects that are not generally thought of as having aesthetic qualities. His “Products” pictures, for example, feature boxes of Sunmaid raisins and Oxydol detergent and a can of Sherwin Williams turpentine in relatively formal still lifes.  Mostly devoid of human presence, these photographs emphasize the essential form of the structure and its placement within the built environment.  Ruscha’s photographic editions are most often based on his conceptual art-books of same or similar name. Ruscha re-worked the negatives of six of the images from his book Every Building on Sunset Strip. The artist then cut and painted directly on the negatives, resulting in photographs that have the appearance of a faded black-and-white film.  The Tropical Fish series (1974–75) represents the first instance where the photographic image has been directly used in his graphic work, where Ruscha had Gemini G.E.L.‘s house photographer Malcolm Lubliner make photographs of a range of common domestic objects. 

The work that put Ruscha on the map was Actual Size , 1962. This was his announcement of his love for the banal and text in his creations.

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Forgotten until I was researching Ruscha was my rendition of this work – 1968 my family was in Southern California and we went to LACMA – Los Angeles County Museum of Art and I snapped this photo in B/W:

Dutifully recording the camera , lens, developer I used. I wished that I would have paid more attention to the framing!

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Survival of the Fittest – would pertain to Ruscha as he learned to exhibit and sell on the East Coast and not be insulated. He often said that he could do his art anywhere, many felt that this was not really true.

George Rodgers

Many photography aficionados can name three of the original members of Magnum – Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson and Chim. Most can’t tell you who the fourth member was. This was of course George Rodgers.

Coming from a middle class background, George never had the support of his father and was left to fend for himself. In his 20’s he joined the merchant marines and sailed around the world twice and lived in America for several years before he decided that he should be a photojournalist. This was a new occupation in the 1920’s and 30’s made possible by the advent of the small 35 mm Leica camera. Part of Rodgers’ decision to become one was based on the horrible illustrations that editors would pair with his writing. He decided he could do a much better job illustrating with his own photography.

CHAD. Chari-Baguirmi. N’Djamena (formerly Fort Lamy). Hassau chieftains demonstrate their superb horsemanship in a “Fantasia”. 1941.

Rodgers was eventually able to sign on to the fledgling picture magazine, LIFE. He was assigned WWII coverage literally in all theaters of war. His first four- week assignment turned into an 18-month mega tour of the Middle East, China, Burma and India. He returned to NYC where he was hailed as a hero which he did not feel he deserved. He did however experience PTSD with headaches, nightmares and other manifestations.

Robert Capa and George Rodgers, Italy

MAGNUM

Both Capa and Rodgers were tired of having no control over their photos and stories and when they met in Italy their thoughts over a new agency to serve the photojournalist congealed.

“Later in March, Capa went to New York. As he sat in a hotel bar he met the writer John Steinbeck—equally disgruntled—sitting on the next stool. They became fast friends, and Capa persuaded Steinbeck to take him along on a trip to the Soviet Union that the writer was envisioning as the first of its kind since the war. Steinbeck’s idea was to write a first-hand account of the Soviet people, without getting involved in politics. With Capa’s help and contacts, Steinbeck sold the concept to the New York Herald Tribune. But at the end of April, visas obtained and bags packed, Steinbeck fell and broke a kneecap. The trip had to be postponed for six weeks. So it could be said that it was Steinbeck’s kneecap that was the impetus for starting Magnum Photos. Capa was too restless and frustrated to remain idle, and decided the time was ripe to organize the agency he had been talking about since before the war. If he was to remain a photographer, it would be on his own terms.” from “George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography, 1908-1995” by Carole Naggar

So it was that Magnum was formed- the active principles being Capa, Cartier Bresson, Chim ( David Seymour) and Rodgers. For a short time photojournalist William Vandivert was part of the mix along with Maria Eisner. The initiation fee was $500 and the agency held back 40% with the rest and residuals going to the photographer. Each of the principles had a main geographical interest with Chim’s being the Middle East, Rodgers Africa, Cartier Bresson’s was Europe with Capa’s being a roving photographer.

In Carole Naggar’s wonderful book about Rodgers she posits that Chim ( David Seymour) was the least recognized founding member of Magnum. Look for an article on Chim soon.

“Nevertherless, Cartier-Bresson, for one, firmly maintains that Magnum could not have been born without Chim: “The one thanks to whom Magnum was founded was not Capa, not me, not Rodger, but Chim—he is the one who did the bylaws, who gave Magnum its structure “- Carole Naggar

An interesting story in Ms. Naggar’s book told how Leni Reifenstahl (Nazi photographer and apologist) had offered Rodgers $1000 to introduce her to the Nuba tribe. After having photographed the Bergen Belsen concentration camp there was no way he wanted to help her. He politely told her to “bugger off.” One more reason to vilify Reifenstahl.

Female prisoners in the newly liberated Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

Rodgers generally had a dislike for the famous or the celebrity – his first meeting with Ernest Hemingway was just one such instance. He found Hemingway a drunk, boastful and full of it – the complete opposite of himself.

1954 was a disastrous year for Magnum – Robert Capa was killed stepping on a landmine in Indochina and Werner Bischof was killed in a car accident. Chim had to step up to manage things and it wasn’t easy as at the same time more photographers were added to the Magnum roster.

Reference for this article

Road Trip as a Photographic Genre

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

The next several articles will be about “The Road Trip” as a legitimate genre in Photography.

The ‘Road Trip’ is such a quintessential part of the American psyche. I am admittedly ignorant of things European but I don’t think that they lust after the same thing on their continent. Perhaps because they have such great train service no one thinks of the trans-europe experience as such a big deal. Not so in America. This is huge country explored but not settled until the 20th century. The advent of the automobile primarily helped this expansion west. Before World War II the road trip was not glamorous – Think ‘Grapes of Wrath’ depression era travel. After the war with the completion of the American Highway system and later the Interstate, the travel was easier and became an adventurous pursuit. 

The question, “Are you up for a road trip?” has always been answered YES! In the early 60’s we had the TV show, Route 66 which was the epitome of the American Road Trip . So it would come as no surprise that a distinct, photographic genre arose out of this lust for the open road. What follows are but a few examples of photobooks relating to the road trip. Some are not so much about the trip but rather things that are seen on road trips.

So it is with no surprise that many established and no so established photographers have made it a rite of passage to engage in this genre.

The Russian Journal – Robert Capa with John Steinbeck

The Road to Reno – Inge Morath

The Americans – Robert Frank

ILF and Petrov’s American Road Trip

ILF and Petrov’s American Road Trip

What a wonderful bookend to Robert Capa and John Steinbeck’s Russian Journal

I had never heard of this book until just recently. It was probably unknown to even Capa and Steinbeck writing a decade later.

In 1935. the Soviet collaborative satirical writers Ilya Ilf (1897-1937) and Evgeny Petrov (1903—1942) traveled to the United States where they journeyed from New York to California and back by automobile. Two Months in a Ford In 1935 Ilf and Petrov traveled to the United States as special correspondents for Pravda the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party to which they contributed a series of articles during the trip. Shortly after their arrival in New York in early October aboard the French luxury liner Normandie they purchased a Ford automobile and went in search of America- Erika Wolf


The narrative was a combination of humorous criticism and awe at the American way of doing things. It was written at a time when America and Russia were still nominally on friendly terms. It would seem to ILF and Petrov easy to criticize our way of life, that is until Stalin started his murderous purges after this book was published

Petrov and ILF

The roads are one of the most remarkable phenomena of American life. American specifically not just American technology. Sometimes these signs display a fairly dark humor. Back east we saw this billboard on the road: “Drive carefully. Cemetery after bend in road.” Apropos of cemeteries: this is the kind of cemetery you come across most in America. It’s an automobile cemetery. New cars replace the antique ones which have broken down for good. 

There are many attractive qualities in the character of the American people. They are excellent workers jacks-of-all-trades. Our engineers say that working with Americans is pure pleasure. They are precise but not so much as to be pedantic. They are neat and punctual without being so fussy that other people would start to make fun of them for it. They know how to keep their word and they trust other people’s words. They are always ready to help.

Americans just aren’t curious. This is especially true of young people. We drove sixthousand kilometers on American roads and almost every day we took into the automobile fellow travelers who were waiting for a break on the side of the road. More often than not they were young men looking for work They talked about themselves gladly, even with pleasure. And not a single one of them ever asked who we were, where we were going or what language we were speaking with each other. Don’t think this was the result of excessive delicacy. Quite the contrary-Americans are even a little rude. They simply weren’t interested. 

About American Indians they wrote:

You can physically destroy the Indians; they are powerless to resist. But you can never defeat them. They hate and disdain the white peddlers, in a sense their palefaced brothers, who tried to destroy them for centuries and finally drove them into the barren desert. This hatred drips from an Indian’s every glance. He will tie a newborn child to a flat board and place him right on the dirty earth floor of a wigwam, but he doesn’t want to take any culture from a white man. Indians are almost completely unassimilated into white culture. This centuries-old stubborn resistance by the Indian is probably one of the most remarkable phenomena in world history

And on Hollywood they felt:

No! It’s not enough to say that American cinema isn’t art. It’s a moral epidemic, no less destructive and dangerous than cholera or the plague. All the tremendous accomplishments of American culture -schools, universities, literature, theater-all are crestfallen before the film industry. You can graduate from twenty schools and universities and after a few years of regular cinema attendance turn into a total idiot. In Washington, the capital of the United States, there is not one single theater for all five hundred thousand of its inhabitants. There are only movie palaces. And in small towns people don’t even know what theater is.

The quotes above give a general idea of the tone of the book. Their commentary is not too dissimilar to Andy Rooney of ’60 minutes’ fame. Or even Will Rogers to pick someone from that era. This road trip book is not to be missed for anyone serious about the genre.

Capa , Steinbeck & Russian Road Trip

This is the story of how Robert Capa war photographer and John Steinbeck went on a road trip across Russia. Not originally billed as a road trip it surely was. The year was 1948 and mutual suspicion was rampant in the USA and Russia; their goal was to actually go to Russia and see for themselves what the country and the people were like.

“Their joint commitment to record only what they could witness—based not on research or speculation but on visual record—is their full story.”-

“There must be a private life of the Russian people, and that we could not read about because no one wrote about it, and no one photographed it.” – John Steinbeck

World War II was only 3 years in the past and the immense destruction was all about them. It was also a time of relentless rebuilding. Everywhere they went, Russians would ask if the United States was going to invade them? The citizens were war wearing and looking for any assurance that this was not in ‘the plans’.

“More and more we were realizing how much the Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.”- Steinbeck

This 40 day excursion took place when Russia was in the process of building their own Atom Bomb – thanks to help of several spies including Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. It was a year after this book was published that they successfully detonated their device.

To say the least this book was criticized for being naive as the pair was shown only what the authorities would allow them to see. I still think their book has validities especially in terms of their description of the people they met.

“It was true of most of the young people we met. And it was interesting to us that the attitudes of our most conservative and old-fashioned groups are found in the attitudes of the young people of the Soviet Union.”

Steinbeck and Capa

“Well, there it is. It’s about what we went for. We found, as we had suspected, that the Russian people are people, and, as with other people, that they are very nice. The ones we met had a hatred of war, they wanted the same things all people want—good lives, increased comfort, security, and peace. We know that this journal will not be satisfactory either to the ecclesiastical Left, nor the lumpen Right. The first will say it is anti-Russian, and the second that it is pro-Russian. Surely it is superficial, and how could it be otherwise? We have no conclusions to draw, except that Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones there are surely, but by far the greater number are very good.”

Limelight

Helen Gee

Limelight was a unique place when it opened in 1954. It was arguably the first coffee shop + serious photography gallery under one roof. It was the singleminded idea of Helen Gee. The time was 1954 in NY City and no one had thought of combining these two. As it was photography was trying to move from a newspaper/magazine venue to what we might call fine art photography and photojournalism.

There was barely a movement in America to devote time and space to photography in museums. Selling photography was also an afterthought. So Helen Gee , who not herself a photographer,decided that this is what the art world needed. Helen was a woman of immense will as she was also raising her daughter alone.

She had fallen in love and married Mr. Gee a very promising painter who unfortunately was committed to an institution because of uncontrolled schizophrenia. Fortunately she had a skill much in demand at that time – namely retouching photographs and negatives for magazines. This was her seed money for Limelight

The Before
The After

Her networking skills were amazing as she was able to cajole some of what we think of the luminaries of Mid-Century Photography. Here is a list of exhibitions

LIMELIGHT EXHIBITION CHRONOLOGY 

1954 Joseph Breitenbach, Korea, May 13–June 27 Rudolph Burckhardt, June 29–August 15 Louis Stettner, August 17–September 27 Minor White, September 28–November 3 Grant La Farge, New England in the 1890s, November 6–30 Great Photographs: Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Édouard Boubat, Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Harry Callahan, Imogen Cunningham, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, Izis, Lisette Model, Gotthard Schuh, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, Jakob Tuggener, Sabine Weiss, Edward Weston, and Minor White, December 1–30 

1955 David Vestal, January 3–February 14 Arnold Newman, February 15–March 19 Eliot Porter, March 21–April 17 Alfred Stieglitz/ Dorothy Norman, Portraits of Each Other, April 19–May 7 Dan Weiner, Italy, May 10–June 7 Suzy Harris, June 10–July 25 Group show: Fourteen Photographers, July 28–September 2 Wynn Bullock, September 5–October 8 László Moholy-Nagy, October 11–November 19 Édouard Boubat, November 22–December 31 

1956 Leon Levinstein, New York, January 3–February 11 Ansel Adams, February 14–March 31 Esther Bubley, April 3–May 5 Imogen Cunningham, May 8–June 25 Sabine Weiss, June 28–July 29 Footlights and Spotlights: Theatrical Photographs of the American Stage, 1860–1900, loan exhibition from George Eastman House, August 1–September 19 Ken Heyman, September 21–October 28 Dan Weiner, South Africa, October 30–December 2 Eugène Atget, December 4–January 6 

1957 Izis, January 8–February 17 Frank Paulin, February 19–April 2 Eliot Porter/ Ellen Auerbach, Madonnas and Marketplaces, April 4–May 19 Elliott Erwitt, May 24–July 7 Morris H. Jaffe, July 9–August 18 Lyrical and Accurate, loan exhibition from George Eastman House, designed by Minor White, August 20–September 28 W. Eugene Smith, October 1–November 10 John Cohen, Peru, November 12–December 15 Berenice Abbott, Portraits of the Twenties, December 17–January 26 

1958 David [“ Chim”] Seymour, Chim’s Children, January 28–February 25 Rudolph Burckhardt/ George Montgomery, February 27–April 10 Ken Heyman, Bali, Japan, Hong Kong, April 12–May 25 Bert Stern, May 27–July 20 James Karales, Rendville, USA, July 24–August 31 Group show, September 3–30 Harold Feinstein, October 2–November 15 Gerda Peterich, Dance Portraits, November 18–December 31 

1959 Robert Doisneau, January 5–February 28 Harry Lapow, March 3–April 12 Dan Weiner, Russia and Eastern Europe, April 14–May 12 The History of Photography, loan exhibition from George Eastman House, May 15–June 30 Group show: Seven Europeans, July 2–August 13 Group show: Images of Love, August 15–September 30 Brassaï, The Eye of Paris, October 5–31 Group show, November 2–December 13 Louis Faurer, December 15–January 18 

1960 Photographs by Professors: Lou Block, Van Deren Coke, Allen Downs, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, Henry Holmes Smith, and Minor White, January 19–February 29 Ralph Hattersley, March 1–27 Jerry Liebling, April 1–May 15 Edward Weston, May 17–June 26 Gordon Parks, June 28–August 7 Jack Smith, August 9–September 11 Group show, September 13–October 16 Claudia Andujar, October 18–November 8 Paul Caponigro/ Minor White, November 10–December 14 Julia Margaret Cameron, December 16–January 31, 

Exterior of Limelight

After a 6 year run, Limelight closed. A combination of difficulty finding and keeping staff combined with efforts to unionize her establishement forced her close to avoid bankruptcy.

Information for this article was gleaned from this book:

8/26/19. – new internet article