In its most basic definition, photojournalism serves a utilitarian function, as a clean, presumably objective window on a world in flux, documenting life as it whizzes by. Within that broad task load are myriad approaches and schools of thought--from the stolid craftsman to the loose cannon and would-be artist.
David Hume Kennerly, one of the few photojournalists with virtually household-name recognition, is a role model in the first grouping. That point becomes amply clear after looking at the exhibition of 127 photographs, taken from 1965 to '93.
Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work has been seen extensively in Time and LIFE magazines and who served a stint as White House photographer during Gerald Ford's reign, seems to take his responsibility seriously.
Because of those priorities, these images are intriguing and yet seem out of place in an art gallery setting, where we tend to look for telling details, aesthetic viewpoints or ironic twists. Individually, the shots are generally more driven by content than any particular interest in form, and thus the content tends to carry the show.
Historical interest is a given here, partly because Kennerly has had access to inner sanctums and critical junctures in recent history. Some of the more intimate shots come from his Ford years, in which the trivial moments of that interim president's life take on voyeuristic charm.
Images range from a shot of Ford with his foot on the Oval Office desk, just after taking over from Nixon in 1974, to a startling photo of Betty Ford dancing on the table of the Cabinet Room, a giddy indulgence just before the Fords moved out to make way for Jimmy Carter.
From other global corners, Anwar Sadat is seen in a tight close-up profile, smoking a pipe in a stately manner. And there he is in a different sort of profile, standing amid the Giza pyramids, a modern Egyptian leader in a business suit flanked by a backdrop of antiquity. Fidel Castro is reduced to a charismatic grin buried in a graying beard.
Other stolen moments of history are represented here, as in one of those special Time-LIFE books chronicling an era (which this show resembles): Vietnam, Jonestown--the only living beast being a mocking parrot--Desert Storm.
And look, there is Steven Spielberg resting on a triceratops model in Van Nuys during the making of "Jurassic Park." Life's rich pageant, as documented by the mass media, is present and accounted for.
An unofficial mini-narrative assembles in our minds with another series of shots, lurking on the periphery of Watergate and Nixon's resignation. There is Nixon, playing piano at the refurbished Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and in a series of exuberant postures during a press conference. These shots were taken just months before another image, his final salute before boarding the helicopter that would whisk him away from his Watergate nightmare and his presidency.
In one classic image, we find John Mitchell, a portly man seen in profile, his tight lips around a pipe, while his wife Martha is seen in gaudy sunglasses, facing the camera with her mouth wide open. This image, like the shot of Joe Frazier delivering a punishing blow to topple world champ Muhammad Ali, represents the true power and beauty of photojournalism and its ability to freeze-frame a feeling and give history a memorable picture.
Through this whirlwind tour of the last 30 years of media events and faces, Kennerly emerges as a craftsman nonpareil. He understands that being in the right place at the right time, with plenty of film and a quick focusing hand, amounts to half the battle in this trade. Art can wait.
CHINESE REFLECTIONS: Also at CSUN is "Art and Craft of Southwest China: Paintings by Shanye Huang," a two-tiered exhibit illustrating the symbiotic relationship of a contemporary artist and her traditional source.
The back gallery is given over to several examples of the impressive embroidery by the Dong and Miao women of Southwest China. These fastidiously embroidered squares take on heightened personal meaning as romantic emblems and personal crests to be used on baby cradles. The craft serves as self-expression and becomes cultural and familial symbols.
This embroidery tradition has had a direct influence on the paintings of Shanye Huang, lavished with vividly colored decorative patterns that echo and ripple over the compositions. Faces and figures appear as design elements, and also buzz with a gleeful hint of surrealism.
"Photo-Op: Selections From the David Hume Kennerly Photographic Archive" and "Art and Craft of Southwest China: Paintings by Shanye Huang," through April 18 at the CSUN Art Dome, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Hours: Monday and Saturday, noon-4 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; (818) 677-2226.