A few years ago, Charles Brittin nearly died of a liver ailment. He never expected to see a survey exhibition of his photographs such as the one that opened at the Craig Krull Gallery this weekend. As the photographer leafs through his show’s catalog, published by Krull and Smart Art Press, he muses, “It’s unbelievable that some people, because they like my work and they like me, have taken the step that I never did, which is to promote my work as art.”
Barely recognized today, even among contemporary artists, Brittin had a wide-ranging career during the 1950s and ‘60s as both an artist and documentarian. Yet when Brittin initially presented his work to Smart Art editor Susan Martin, she asked, “What is the theme?” Brittin laughs at the recollection, adding, “The theme is the process of time passing.”
At 70, Brittin sports a tan and wears his long white hair in a ponytail. With his wife, Barbara, to whom he’s been married for 38 years, he lives in an airy home near the beach in Santa Monica Canyon. The dining-room table is covered with photographs and collages he has compiled since the early 1950s; pictures document various decades of his life, first as a member of the Beat generation, hanging out with the likes of artist Wallace Berman and curator Walter Hopps, who organized this survey and wrote an introduction in the catalog.
There are moving prints documenting the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, as well as photographs taken at Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, when he was also working for designers Charles and Ray Eames. Along the way, he took surrealistic still-life images and portraits of women that he considers his art.
Although Brittin’s pictures were prominent in Krull’s celebrated 1996 exhibition “Photographing the L.A. Art Scene,” this is Brittin’s first solo show since 1952, when Berman hung his prints in his Semina Gallery in Northern California. “It was an abandoned house in Larkspur with no rooms, no doors, no window glass,” Brittin says. The current exhibition includes a black-and-white print of the free-standing walls hung with Brittin’s photographs. “Everyone wants my picture of that, because it reflects an attitude toward art that nobody is aware of right now. Wally had one-day shows for his friends. They went up, went down, you sent 40 announcements to your friends. If I hadn’t taken pictures, they would be in only a few people’s scrapbooks as announcements,” Brittin says.
Brittin came to photography in a round-about manner. He attended UCLA for five years studying political science, anthropology, sociology and philosophy, but he was unwilling to complete a major. He moved to Venice when there were stretches of empty beachfront lots and the Beats were thriving. He married Justine Carr in 1951 and traveled in the Yucatan, but on their return, he still had not decided the direction of his life. “The rest of our friends had become upscale professionals, and I’m sure that was one factor that caused our separation. I wasn’t looking like I was going anywhere.” After the divorce, in 1952, he met Berman and his wife, Shirley Berman. “They were my next family. I had already dropped out. I think they confirmed that there was a small community of people who were doing this and surviving in terms that were so much more congenial than the alternative.”
While hanging around with the Bermans, living on Speedway, Brittin photographed his friends but did not want to be associated with the Beat movement as described by Lawrence Lipton in his book “Holy Barbarians.” “We moved away from him after he wrote that book. We said, ‘Now it’s commercialized and we don’t want any part of it.’ The people I knew were quiet and reclusive and wanted to do their thing. I don’t think everybody thought of it as important art, but as an expression of our feelings through artistic means. Technically, we were part of the Beats, but our consciousness was that if there was a Beat movement out there, we didn’t want to be identified with it.”
Berman proved to be a role model for Brittin, as well as being a close friend. “You didn’t have to do anything to make the grade, though I assume he was selective about this,” Brittin says. “Once there was a rapport, you spent effortless time with him listening to music, talking, looking for flying saucers. He was widely versed in art and literature, probably erratically, but you could always discover something you hadn’t quite grasped yet.”
Raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Brittin came to L.A. with his mother and siblings after his father died during World War II. His mother had visited L.A. in 1904 and continued to correspond with friends here. In 1944, they offered her shelter until she got settled in the new city. Brittin was enrolled in the 11th grade at Fairfax High.
“It was the greatest culture shock I could imagine happening to an Iowa boy. I wasn’t the smartest kid in the class anymore, and I couldn’t stay Republican much longer,” he says. “After six months, I became a Marxist and was on my way to changing the world. I met all these good liberals who were also good socialists, and mostly Jews, who I had never known anything about. It was all very congenial.”
The experience fueled his life-long activism, a commitment shared by his second wife, Barbara. One Christmas, they decided to donate money to all the political causes they supported. The people who answered the phone at the Congress of Racial Equality asked them to donate their money in person. “When we got there, they invited us to a meeting. We went and they asked, ‘Who is prepared to be arrested this week?’ In six months, Barbara was teaching techniques of nonviolent resistance, and I was taking political photographs,” Brittin says.
Brittin’s black-and-white prints of L.A. police abusing protesters, or standing nonchalantly next to a swastika-wearing member of the American Nazi Party, found their way into national magazines and the New York Times throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. “Before, people had been very supportive and loved having their pictures taken,” he recalls. “In the political arena, you are threatening. Attorneys would try to grab my camera and destroy it. I was roughed up by the police. Barbara was beaten around the head and hips and was laid up for months. But what I was doing was so important that I was able to overcome my reluctance to make work widely seen. It was also to document events for use in court cases.”
Brittin did not realize at the time that he was a witness to history. During a trip to Louisiana in 1965, they saw disturbing demonstrations of racism and returned to L.A. a week before the Watts riots. “We realized that nonviolent resistance was not going to work in L.A. anymore,” recalls Brittin.
Some of Brittin’s most astonishing pictures document the Black Panther movement. Asked whether he didn’t feel that to be a dangerous milieu, Brittin says, “I was always much more aware of how dangerous it was to be with them because of the people from the outside who might try to kill you. I never felt they were a hazard to their friends. There were street people in the Panthers, or just criminals, but you can’t take the Democratic or Republican parties without finding a few of those. We found them very principled and straight on race relations. They had no white-skinned prejudice like some of the black groups who rejected white cooperation. The Panthers were Marxists, and racism has no place in that, so they had a lot of white supporters.”
The Brittins’ politics did not go unnoticed. They recently used the Freedom of Information Act to retrieve files kept on their activities. Brittin looks through a folder and pulls out a page with text entirely blacked out but for his name.
From 1963 to 1970, Brittin worked in the Washington Boulevard studio of designers Charles and Ray Eames doing darkroom work and photography assignments. During the evenings, he used their studio to produce political posters.
“They were very supportive in a funny way because their big clients were Westinghouse and IBM. They probably had some memory of their youth when they were more liberal,” he recalls. “They gave money to liberal causes but never used their names. Even though the FBI and the police came to their office about what I was doing, they didn’t fire me. One afternoon, Ray told me to take down all my civil rights photographs because IBM executives were coming to the studio. But I put them all back the next day.”
Throughout this activity, Brittin took refuge in photographing still lifes composed of unlike objects--a woman’s high-heeled feet with an iron-link chain, worn-out dolls, bizarre window displays or graphics torn from ads and newspapers. Hopps writes in his introduction to the show, “Walker Evans once said that one of the most important things for a photographer to know is where to stand, and this is something Charles understands intuitively.”
In the 1970s, Brittin’s health began a precipitous decline due to a disease that caused liver damage and left him unable to work. Eight years ago, he had a liver transplant. He was on daily dialysis until two years ago, when he received a kidney transplant. During the last few years, as he recovered, he began photographing again, often taking pictures of his fellow dialysis patients. The show includes a portrait of a woman with multiple scars that is harrowing and heroic.
As Brittin flips back and forth among the images in his catalog, he muses, “each picture gives me almost instant access to the thing that happened. How did I get from there to here? All the tragedies that turned out to be good fortune. Things that had to happen that I couldn’t believe I could withstand but looking back turned out to be to my advantage. I have a feeling that there was a conspiracy, but it was all in my favor. It challenged me and knocked me down in order to get me to the next step and lift me up again.”
“CHARLES BRITTIN: A RETROSPECTIVE,” Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Dates: Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 27. Phone: (310) 828-6410.