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Exhibit Spotlights Work of 13 Top Photographers but Lacks Artistic Focus

Of all the forms of visual art, photography is the one most likely to stop you dead in your tracks. It makes us all instant voyeurs, allowing us to peer intently at sights we might not think of examining in the flesh--either because our eyes weren’t peeled to catch them or because we’re too abashed to stare.

That phenomenon may help account for the proliferation of photography exhibits in this 150th year since the birth of the medium. It also may have a lot to do with the furor that has arisen in the U.S. Congress over National Endowment for the Arts grants awarded to exhibitions displaying Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of homoerotic subject matter and a photo by Andres Serrano entitled “Piss Christ” of a crucifix in a urine-filled container.

The Brea Civic & Cultural Center Gallery’s bow to photography’s sesquicentennial, “Fifteen Decades of Photography"--on view through Aug. 18--is a vast and decorous enterprise that (as might be expected) skirts the medium’s wilder shores.

There is a lot to see, and much of it--borrowed from some of the West’s major photography collections--is a real treat. What’s missing is some sort of rationale, however. Why were these particular 13 photographers chosen from dozens of other candidates, and what different photographic outlooks motivated them?

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Instead, the show, curated by Mark Steck, provides brief biographical labels stuffed with miscellaneous facts. That’s better than nothing (except when the information is misleading), but it doesn’t take the place of a point of view.

It is odd, for example, to see a sampling of the photographs of Frances Frith--an Englishman who made repeated photographic pilgrimages to Egypt and the Holy Land in the mid-19th Century--unaccompanied by any discussion of the phenomenon of documentary photography. Frith was one of a number of intrepid Victorians who lugged their bulky equipment to far-off places, enduring great hardships and frustrations in making and processing their images.

Several of Frith’s small images are stereographs: double images of a subject that photographers made in an attempt to replace the camera’s “one-eyed” vision with the human, binocular variety. Viewers looked at these images through a special magnifying apparatus.

Adam Clark Vroman, another historical figure whose name is no longer a household word, was a Pasadena bookseller whose turn-of-the-century photographs of the Hopi Indians are sober, unromanticized documents. Some are posed portraits, like the shot of three bony, tense-looking Hopi men in thin, tattered clothing; others show daily activities. One photograph of a mother gazing down at her infant in swaddling clothes has a striking warmth absent in the other images.

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Arnold Genthe was also a documentary photographer, best known for his scenes of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Although his work often looks rather dark and furtive, the handful of undated photographs on view--probably from his extensive prowls in San Francisco’s Chinatown--do not represent him at his peak.

The portrait was another hardy photographic genre. Baron Adolph de Meyer, a man of independent means who worked at various times for Vogue, the old Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, turned out ever-flattering images of actresses and the ladies who lunch. He liked to shoot women in front of windows or alongside works of art, which gave sitters a sweet glow and an aura of genteel high culture.

For “Woman in Pearls,” from about 1915, he negligently looped a strand of pearls over the wrist of a faintly ridiculous-looking matron posed next to a rococo sculpture of a nude pouring water. As time went on, he refined his technique. A photograph of actress Anita Louise from about 1928 shows a serene, seated statue of a goddess in a flowing dress and immaculate pageboy, her long fingers arranged like flower stems.

During Hollywood’s golden age, George Hurrell enveloped stars in luminous veils of perfection. Jean Harlow poses seductively on a stuffed tiger. Tyrone Power rests his sculptured chin in the curve of Loretta Young’s neck. But the ol’ black magic doesn’t work on the young Katharine Hepburn, whose face has a waxy, blurred look without a hint of moxie.

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For those looking for household names in photography, the exhibit offers a long wall of Ansel Adams prints and four archetypal images by Edward Weston.

But it is disconcerting to read that in addition to being known for “his exact sharpness,” Edward Weston is also celebrated for his “quality in portraying the archetypal America.” Come again? It isn’t likely anyone would confuse him with Norman Rockwell. His real legacy lies in his crisp abstractions, like the photographs on view of a cabbage leaf and a sand dune, that offered a new way of looking at organic form.

In choosing work from younger California artists of our time, Steck unexpectedly paired Lewis Baltz (represented by precise, coolly damning photographs of parcels of land in the process of being developed) and Judy Coleman (whose woman-centered art dwells on individual gestures, mysterious textures and images of falling bodies in a whooshing, galactic void). These brave selections give some idea of the diversity of contemporary photography, but their whys and wherefores need more explanation for the cultural center crowd.

Other photographs in the exhibit are by Albert Renger-Patzsch, a big shot in the German Weimar Republic of the ‘20s; Bill Connell, a longtime figure on the Los Angeles photo scene; Costa Mesa photographer Al Belson; and the inimitable Barbara Morgan.

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Best known for her vividly memorable photographs of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham in action, Morgan also has surveyed the world at large. In “Hearst Over the People,” a huge image of the media baron floats like a specter over a crowd in the street. The aerial view seems deliberately imitative of early 20th-Century Soviet photography, and the implicit comparison is between the all-controlling power of the state and of the press.

“15 Decades of Photography” remains through Aug. 18 at the Brea Civic & Cultural Center Gallery, 1 Civic Center Circle (behind the Brea Mall). Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Thursday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 990-7730.


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