Wherever in the world photographer Lynne Cohen happens to be, she begins her work by reaching for the phone book and looking up the addresses of generic places: corporate offices and mortuaries, police academies and modeling schools.
Cohen was one of three exhibiting artists in “Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers” who spoke Sunday afternoon at a panel discussion at Newport Harbor Art Museum. She said that getting into private offices and training areas is surprisingly easy, “if you have the nerve to ask.”
Her black-and-white, 20- by 24-inch photographs of empty observation rooms, equipped with two-way mirrors, one-way windows and hidden cameras, are “metaphors for surveillance,” she said. When viewers mistake the bizarre-looking real environments in her photographs for artist-created “installations,” she is pleased because she finds them equally implausible.
In answer to a question from the audience--which filled the museum’s small lecture room--exhibit guest curator Marc Freidus explained that typologies means “a grouping of objects of a similar type or class.” The artists collect this data in the sense that a scientist may collect members of particular genus or species to make observations about them.
The images in this show are not part of the tradition of “pure” photography, in which the object is to make a single distinctive image of a subject. Instead, the “Typology” photographers realize, Freidus said, that “any single picture has a limited truth value.” By displaying a group of photos of similar things, the artists can offer “a comparative truth, a certain kind of access to the subject matter.”
Panelist Rod Slemmons, who wrote an essay for the exhibit catalogue and is associate curator of prints and photographs at the Seattle Art Museum, compared the “Typology” photographs to the seemingly repetitive music of Philip Glass: “You hear the same tones over and over, but what’s visually exciting are the overtones set up between things.”
The subjects of panelist Roger Mertin’s photographic series include apple trees growing outdoors--different trees, or the same tree seen at different seasons--suburban sightings of basketball hoops, and Christmas trees in living rooms.
Mertin, who said he photographed daily, generally beginning early in the morning, wryly compared his work to a milkman’s rounds. But he seemed unwilling or unable to discuss the meaning of his work.
Judy Fiskin was much more forthcoming. She is represented in the exhibit by her 2 3/4-inch-square photographs of “dingbats,” the disparaging term for the boxy stucco buildings that invaded Southern California in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“The reasons why I always loved architecture are mysterious to me,” she said, “but why I started photographing Southern California architecture is less mysterious. I taught myself photography by imitating (French 19th-Century photographer of street views, Eugene) Atget for two years. At the end, I really had Atget down--my photographs looked like his. When I realized that, I had to make them look more like mine.”
One day, standing on her porch, she realized that if Atget had lived in Southern California, he would have photographed the bungalows in her neighborhood. And so--at first, without quite realizing what she was doing--she proceeded to survey the domestic architecture of her home town in photographs, decade by decade.
An early revelation was that despite the formal, Georgian-style facade of her parents’ West Los Angeles house, the windows on the side of the house were installed in a seemingly random way.
“These kinds of clashes struck a chord in me,” Fiskin said. “There is something about outer order and inner chaos that is somewhat autobiographical.” The audience laughed sympathetically.
In Los Angeles, Fiskin said, you can see “housing styles from all over the world, with relatively few references to the indigenous landscape. But they do have a lot of references to the indigenous imagination.”
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, builders chose to imitate the plain, boxy International Style because it was the cheapest way to go. And yet, “the decorative impulse is so strong in people,” Fiskin said, that the flat facades of these buildings were treated as “a canvas to paint on,” with various kinds of geometric motifs, roof styles and even decorative shrubbery.
“What interested me the most was to collect and catalogue all the decorative motifs that appeared on all these cheap buildings. . . . Collecting was another thing that attracted me to photograph architecture. Photography is good at satisfying those collecting impulses.”
* “ Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers” remains through June 2 at Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $2 general, $1 for students and seniors, $1 for children 6 to 17, free for everyone on Tuesdays. Information: (714) 759-1122.