ART REVIEW : An Archival Look at 'Lure of California'

The Huntington Library in San Marino is such a ravishingly beautiful spot that any art that has the temerity to show its face thereabouts is going to have a run for its money. A library and complex of galleries situated on a 150-acre botanical garden, the Huntington is one of California's most prominent research centers, but that's just so much icing on the cake.

Given the Huntington's horticultural competition, it's no surprise that "The Lure of California," a survey of early photographic views of California, is a trifle disappointing. Presented in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography, "The Lure of California," which runs through Jan. 18, is an exercise in timid curating. Drawn from the Huntington's extensive archive of photographs spanning the period from California's statehood to the early 1900s, the exhibition fails to draw any fresh conclusions, nor is the material terribly new. This is basically a history lesson, and a rather dry one at that.

Documenting the growth of California's agriculture, industry and commerce following the completion of the transcontinental railroad, these pictures tend to be relentlessly impersonal. One way the curators could've breathed some life into the proceedings would be to present more information about the photographers beyond the basic biographical facts that turn up on wall labels. These artists fail to come to life as real people, partly because we know so little about them, partly because of the stiff photographic style that dominated the period in which they worked.

Photographers invariably took the neutral long view when the art form was in its infancy; the camera hadn't begun to probe and pry yet, and hadn't discovered the voyeurism in itself. At this stage of the game photography had its hands full functioning as a recording device; moreover, the puritanical sense of propriety of the era discouraged photographers from violating the bounds of convention. There's no sex in these pictures and not much humor either. And, the candid shot was unthinkable--and not just because of the technical limitations of the time.

What we get instead are informative, emotionally flat images. Augustus William Ericson shows us the Indians of Northwestern California, and M. H. Grant visits the Humboldt logging industry of 1885. Cromwell & Westervelt documented the Southern California Packing Company in Los Angeles in 1887, and I. W. Taber snapped Monterey County's Del Monte Hotel in the 1880s and San Diego County's Hotel Del Coronado as it looked in the early 1890s.

Dominating the show is work by Carleton E. Watkins, an intrepid shutterbug who really got around. With Watkins we travel from Lake Tahoe, to the San Fernando Valley circa 1876, to the San Gabriel vineyards (1880), to the hayfields of Kern County (1887). Watkins' pictures are all technically polished, but lack inspiration. We get no sense of his emotional involvement with either photography or the people and places he photographed. And unfortunately, that can be said of most of the work in this show.

In an adjoining gallery is a related exhibition, "New Visions," that picks up where "The Lure of California" leaves off. On view through May 6, "New Visions" explores the significant trends and artists that dominated California photography from 1900-1950.

Of central concern to photographers of this era was the struggle to get photography to be recognized as a legitimate art form. Led by British photographer Peter Henry Emerson, this struggle first coalesced around a movement known as Pictorialism. Aligning themselves with the avant-garde movement known as photosecessionism that was fostered in New York by Alfred Steiglitz, the Pictorialists approached printmaking as a creative process, and their highly experimental images favor softly focused, romantically idealized subjects. Think of Maxfield Parrish and you'll have a good idea of the somewhat sappy look they were after.

By the mid-1920s Pictorialism gave way to the style of "straight" photography popularized by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Four of Weston's trademark still lifes are on view, as are four of Adams' trademark landscapes. All of them seem suffocatingly dull in their antiseptic perfection.

The most intriguing part of the exhibit deals with a lost generation of Japanese-American photographers of the 1920s and '30s. Forced to abandon their artwork when they were detained in internment camps during World War II, artists such as Dr. Kyo Koike and Hirumo Kira hammered out a stark, beautifully simple approach to picture making that had an obvious impact on Weston, among others. Most work by Japanese-American photographers was destroyed during the war, so the rare examples included here are high points of the show.

Concluding the exhibition are three images by Max Yavno that are so wonderful and widely loved that they've become ubiquitous; "Muscle Beach," "Cable Car," and "The Leg." Signaling the cameras leap from the controlled "straight" photography typified by Weston into the wild fray of life in the street, Yavno's wonderfully robust pictures easily hold their own alongside the splendid gardens that beckon through a nearby window.

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