ART : Camera-Ready, Not Shy : Photographers Maureen Lambray and Lynn Davis share a love for tackling challenging, physically arduous subjects.

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

Money gushed like a geyser in the art world of the ‘80s, but for some observers the decade was a bust aesthetically.

Both Maureen Lambray and Lynn Davis--two New York-based artists who began their careers as photojournalists before moving into fine-art photography--chose to sit out those boom years for exactly that reason.

Staunchly traditional photographers who have earned reputations for tackling challenging, physically arduous subjects, Lambray and Davis had little interest in the conceptual approach to photography that dominated the ‘80s. They were further put off by the empty glamour that settled over the decade like a sour fog.


“I hid throughout the ‘80s,” says Lambray, whose first L.A. gallery show is on view at G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Santa Monica.

“It seemed like writers, painters and photographers became more important than their work then, and art became so celebrity-oriented I just couldn’t stand it. I continued making work during those years, but I wasn’t interested in participating in what was going on in the culture.”

“The ‘80s were the years of no personality--it was all fashion and perfection, and everyone wanted to look good,” concurs Lynn Davis, whose “Monuments,” a show of photographs of Cambodia, India and Egypt, is on view at Kohn Turner Gallery in West Hollywood through March 25. “I was never interested in taking those kinds of pictures.”

Nor was Lambray, a fearless photojournalist whose work--much of it war photography--has been appearing in magazines for 27 years.

“My mother died when I was 4, and death has played a huge role in my life,” says Lambray, a native of Coral Gables, Fla., where she was raised by her father, who was in the liquor business. “It left me feeling that every day could be my last, so I should see and do as much as I can.

“My father wasn’t in the mob, but all his friends were, and it was very much like ‘Guys and Dolls’ at our house,” says Lambray, who is in the midst of a six-month stay in Los Angeles. “I grew up surrounded by men, and my younger sister and I traveled with our father a lot--I’m sure that’s where my wanderlust started. My father was a businessman who adored movies, so movies were a very prominent part of my childhood, but beyond that, there wasn’t a scintilla of art in the house. Nonetheless, from the time I was young I painted and wanted to be an artist.”


Lambray--a figurative painter influenced by the work of Henri Matisse, Egon Schiele and Francis Bacon--moved to New York in 1967 to study painting at New York University. Her course in life changed, however, when she visited her boyfriend at Harvard. A professor there asked her to take his passport picture: “He positioned the camera and told me to click the shutter, and I thought that was the biggest thrill--that was the end of my painting career.”

Returning to New York, Lambray taught herself the technical end of photography by working as a photographer’s assistant, and in 1968 she began working regularly for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.

“I also started getting work for the New York Times Magazine and was able to make a living as a photographer almost immediately,” says Lambray, who landed her first significant assignment in 1968 as part of a fleet of photojournalists covering Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. “I’ve always been politically involved, probably because my father was an extremely politically enlightened man.”

In 1974, Lambray embarked on a series of portraits of American film directors, a project that was to take her two years and was published as “American Film Directors” in 1976. In 1977, she made her debut as an exhibiting artist with a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the show came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art later that year. “I never even went to see it--I was too petrified,” she says.

The year of her MOMA show, Lambray tracked down photographer Andre Kertesz at his studio in New York, hoping to buy a print. A friendship-apprenticeship blossomed out of that meeting that was to last until Kertesz’s death in 1985.

“Kertesz was very depressed when we met,” she recalls. “His wife had died, he couldn’t get shows, and he was selling his work for almost nothing. Along I came just madly in love with his work, and he welcomed me into his life because he really needed that.” (A selection of Kertesz’s work is on view at the Hawkins Gallery in tandem with Lambray’s show.)


In 1980, Lambray embarked on a two-year period of risky assignments that involved traveling to hot spots throughout the world for different magazines. She covered the prison camps and boat people of Cambodia and Thailand, lived for several weeks with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut and reported on the war in Afghanistan--an assignment that required her to disguise herself as a man.

“The only one of those experiences that really frightened me was when I traveled to the camps in Thailand photographing the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime,” she says. “Terrible tortures were going on in the region. I didn’t speak a word of the language and often had no idea where I was. When I met and married my husband (writer Tom Carney) in 1980, he made me promise I wouldn’t cover any more wars.”

Lambray spent the next several years working as a photojournalist in the United States, and in 1988 she began a series of nudes.

“I shoot women rather than men because the male form doesn’t interest me photographically--I think of the male body as geometric, and my photographs are much more curvilinear,” she says.

Although the bulk of Lambray’s current exhibition is given over to her nudes, she continues to do politically charged work and returned in October from Chiapas, Mexico.

“I first went down there in 1993 to do a series on local Indian tribes and had the incredible good fortune to meet Gertrude Blom three months prior to her death at 93,” Lambray says, referring to the anthropologist and photographer. “She spent 50 years documenting the Lacandon Indians of Chiapas, and Tom and I learned a great deal from her. We’re waiting for the political turmoil to die down a bit so we can return and continue our work there.”


Photographer Lynn Davis has followed an adventurous path not unlike Lambray’s.

Davis was born in Minneapolis in 1944, the elder of two daughters of a businessman who owned a chain of surplus stores in the Midwest.

She graduated from high school planning to study the humanities but changed her mind after a meeting in 1964 with poet John Berryman, who was teaching at the University of Minnesota, where she was enrolled.

“John made me realize you could make your own world,” says Davis, speaking by phone from Hudson, N.Y., where she lives with her husband of five years, writer Rudy Wurlitzer. “In my senior year in college I started taking pictures, and from the minute I started, that was it--I never did anything else or had another job.”

Davis, who was influenced in her early work by Egon Schiele and Diane Arbus, transferred to San Francisco Art Institute and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in 1970. The same year, she married, and the following year she had a child. (The marriage ended in divorce in 1977.) She began picking up free-lance work as a photojournalist and in 1974 moved to New York, where her career really kicked into gear.

After a year in New York, Davis “branched off into what I call my own body of work,” she says. “The kind of photojournalism that meant something to me began to go out of style, and I realized it was time to veer off in my own direction, so I changed cameras and technique and started doing my own pictures, and within a year I was in a group show.”

In 1979, Davis had her first major show, a two-person exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography that paired her with Robert Mapplethorpe, who became a close friend.


“I was taking pictures of New York at night then and doing lots of portraiture,” Davis recalls, “but I began to lose my taste for portraiture in the mid-’80s because it became so glitzy. During that period many of my friends began dying of AIDS too. And the idea of portraiture that revolved around a personality for sale seemed completely empty. So I stopped taking pictures of people.”

Her work from 1975 to 1984 is the subject of “Lynn Davis: Bodyworks,” a book published this month in Switzerland. From portraiture, she moved into what could loosely be described as travel photography at the suggestion of husband Wurlitzer (whose book about his travels with Davis, “Hard Travel to Sacred Places,” was published last fall).

“In 1986, Rudy mentioned he’d once seen these icebergs that looked like my nudes and I became obsessed with photographing them,” says Davis, who plans to publish a book of her series of 22 photographs shot in 1988 at Disko Bay, Greenland.

“That was the first of the landscape pictures, which evolved into an interest in monuments--I’m particularly interested in sacred structures built prior to the 12th Century. These aren’t places you go into to pray--you circumnavigate them, and they’re based on the great classic forms of the square, the triangle and the circle.

“Many of these sites have become cliche tourist traps, and one of the things that interests me about them is the question of whether that spiritual energy is still there,” says Davis, whose next trip begins March 25, when she leaves for a month of shooting in Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

In 1992, her son was in Los Angeles working on a film and was killed in an automobile accident.


“It’s beyond language how such a thing affects you--I’m amazed I’m still around,” Davis says. “When I started doing the iceberg photographs my friends Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe were both dying of AIDS, and my father had just died. These experiences go into the work in what way it can. Everything about the people you’ve loved most in the world--art can’t begin to approach that, but part of those experiences does go into the work. If people feel some strength in my pictures, I’m sure that’s where it comes from.

“My work is in the tradition of early landscape photographers like Carlton Watkins,” says Davis, who also has a show of photographs of the sea and sky of Nova Scotia opening Thursday at Houk Friedman Gallery in New York. “What I love about photographers like Watkins is the space in their pictures. They really got the form of the land and the emptiness of the sky, whereas a photographer like Ansel Adams tends to fill the frame. I’m more interested in allowing a lot of space in the frame so there’s room for the viewer to make his own journey into it.”

* Maureen Lambray’s photographs are on view at G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, 908 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-5558, through April 8. Lynn Davis’ “Monuments” is at Kohn Turner Gallery, 9006 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 271-4453, through March 25.