First impressions of the Annenberg Space for Photography

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I spent some time Friday at the new Annenberg Space for Photography, now open to the public in Century City on the site where the old Shubert Theater used to be. It’s part of a larger evolution -- and I don’t just mean in its urbanizing neighborhood.

When the Getty Museum launched a department of photographs 25 years ago, complete with a spectacular acquisition of multiple private collections dating to photography’s 1839 invention, the focus (you should pardon the expression) of scholarship about camera-work tilted decisively toward Los Angeles. Since then, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art have built impressive collections, and the Huntington Library has been actively exploring its own sizable trove of historical photographs.


For now there’s no indication that the 10,000-square-foot Annenberg Space for Photography will begin to collect, which is fine; but an active program of photography exhibitions, workshops and other public events is planned. In some respects, the program recalls the one at New York’s International Center of Photography. The ICP does boast a collection and a school, but its programs have made it a lively intersection for professionals and the public. Given the image-saturation that characterizes contemporary life, that’s useful. The Annenberg Space for Photography -- ASP, I guess -- could become something similar.

As always, it will take some time for the new institution to shake out. Here are some first impressions.

Two things I like: It’s free, and it’s eclectic.

ASP calls on the deep resources of the Annenberg Foundation, just now ...

... relocating its headquarters from suburban Philadelphia to L.A. Not charging admission enhances the possibility for the place to become a hangout for the photography crowd, while also reasserting the museum-as-library model that has largely been overtaken by the museum-as-entertainment-complex. ASP isn’t stuffy -- the design is a mash-up of museum gallery, Apple Store and ArcLight Cinema -- but it’s serious and friendly.

As for eclecticism, the opening exhibition is less a concise, coherent show than a simple (if thoughtful) acknowledgment of the contemporary breadth of photographic practice. ‘L8S ANG3LES: 11 L.A. Photographers,’ a selection advised by a curator from Houston, assembles 10 photographers, plus one artist (John Baldessari) who now works almost exclusively with found vernacular photographs. Art (Cathy Opie), architecture (Tim Street-Porter, Julius Shulman), social documentary (Lauren Greenfield) and celebrity photography (Greg Gorman, Douglas Kirkland) are all given a platform, together with a sizable representation of photojournalism (distinguished Times photographers Carolyn Cole, Lawrence K. Ho, Kirk McKoy and Genaro Molina). There’s not a slacker in the bunch.

Two things I don’t like: ASP has a corporate aura, and light is a problem.

Virtually every interior surface in the building is either gray or white. The colorless-scheme feels less like a nostalgic nod toward the traditional silver-print-past of ‘art photography’ than it does a chilly pinstripe suit. And in the main room, dotted with numerous small digital screens and dominated by two enormous ones, the motif of images-plus-text-plus-musical-soundtrack is like a PowerPoint presentation at a trade convention. The conservative style clashes with the progressive subject.

Light, which every photographer knows as both a god to be worshiped and a foe to be conquered, is a tougher problem. The glass-walled building makes for lots of reflections on the framed photographs under glass, even with the shades drawn. And the digital screens are similarly light-reflective, which is a nuisance. (From where I sat, six screens were visible at once.) If you’ve ever used a laptop outdoors during the day, you know what I mean.


These glitches are fixable, though. And the proof of any venue will, of course, be revealed in the program. Stay tuned.

-- Christopher Knight