Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photography

This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs at the Huntington Library in San Marino is a large exhibition. "Los Angeles Photographs" as a category is actually an eclectic array of work: albumen cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite from the 19th century, commercial studio work, news photographs, publicity images, & a variety of artistic processes. Likewise, "Los Angeles" itself is posited as a cultural imaginary as much as a location on a map. The exhibition is organized by loose themes, Garden, Move, Work, Play, Dwell, Clash, and Dream, as opposed to epoch, style or author. As such it becomes quite open-ended in presenting a kaleidescope of images and meanings. The images exist in & of themselves, but also are recontextualized in a tapestry of what would be our imaginary Los Angeles.

In its categories & recontextualizations I am reminded of 2 other works (both non-photographic), Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, and the Thom Andersen film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Loosely, of course. The Banham comes to mind in its "revisionist" reading of Los Angeles as a complicated, potentially marvelous place, contra its mass-media image as a gigantic air-headed suburb. The exhibit at the Huntington ranges from exquisite carte-de-visites by Carleton Watkins, to large color prints of San Fernando Valley porn film shooting sites. My friend K. & I were most delighted w/ 3 photos by Allen Ruppersberg with accompanying dialogues typed on paper (unfortunately not in the catalogue). I was also struck w/ the modernist topographical images by Max Yavno, & a commercial studio which has a very whimsical name, the "Dick" Whittington Studio. Pictorial work. Physique Pictorial work. Bruce of Los Angeles. Catherine Opie. Ed Ruscha. Julius Shulman. William Garnett. William Claxton. William Henry Jackson. Edmund Teske. Joe Deal. Karin Apollonia Muller. John Divola. Edward Weston. I could go on. It's a large show but in a way I wish it were larger. & that the catalogue were printed better, although it's certainly a great read.

In its eclecticism, the images of Los Angeles constitute a collage of meanings which touch on beauty, aestheticism, land surveys, boom & bust economies, anarchy, riots, ecology, architecture, conceptual art, show biz, pornography.

Now back in New York, I have been trying to consider whether such a show could be made of New York City. I do not think I am merely being boosterish in claiming that NYC is one of the most photographed cities in the world & as such is extremely recognizable. & there have been shows, such as Max Kozloff's New York: Capital of Photography. Still, looking through the Kozloff book - it's not quite of the range I find in the Huntington show, it's still a modernist photo collection, sealed off from "other" or "outside" meanings - one sees photos, not an exploration of NYC itself. Perhaps NYC is too much a "dominant" site on the map to sustain a fluid & poetic remapping of a real & imaginary city, as constituted in the exhibition & book by Jennifer A. Watts & Claudia Bohn-Spector. & while Los Angeles was built of hucksters & boosters, & has been in a state of being perpetually for sale, it does not have the symbolic totality of Manhattan (contra something like Sarah Morris' video, Los Angeles, which constitutes a fragment of a bit of local "color" e.g. the entertainment industry). For all its capitalistic excesses, Los Angeles has also been a site of remarkably varied forms of dissent and exploration. Whereas NYC, with its checkered past, it's excess of representations, now seems quite homogenized, packaged, wrapped-up neatly. A NY of differences is now a kind of theme park nostalgia. Curious.

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