Double exposure of history and art, in a shutter's click

Times Staff Writer

The J. Paul Getty Museum, best known for its contested antiquities, Impressionist irises and gorgeous grounds, has been diversifying in gruesome black and white.

Since 2003, the museum has bought up several photographic prints that count among the 20th century's most iconic journalistic images of death by violence: Malcolm Browne's picture of the 1963 self-immolation of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk; a print from the Zapruder film of the 1963 shooting of John F. Kennedy; Robert Jackson's photography of the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald; a Boris Yaro image of the 1968 killing of Robert F. Kennedy; three Eddie Adams pictures of a Vietnamese execution in 1968; and Robert Capa's 1936 image of a Spanish soldier, taken at the moment he suffered a fatal gunshot.

This doesn't mean that the Getty has gone tabloid, curators say. In fact, they note that the killing pictures, now in storage, are just eight images in a broader effort to bolster the documentary holdings in a photography collection that includes tens of thousands of landscapes, portraits and other more placid scenes. The idea, they say, is to explore the borderlands between art and news.

But these purchases also stand as stark evidence, experts say, that nearly 80 years after New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired its first photograph and 30 years after photojournalists began getting serious attention from museums, curators are still widening their view of what makes a picture museum-worthy.

In museums that show photography these days, "there's a willingness to start opening up" and less hand-wringing over what is and isn't art, said Carol McCusker, curator of photography at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

"We really do follow where the artists are leading us," said Tim Wride, curator and interim head of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Nothing is as clean as that's art and that's not.... Those lines continue to blur."

Further evidence hangs on those institutions' walls. Through Jan. 14, MOPA is running a show of photographs of immigrants by Don Bartletti, a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times. Through Sunday, a LACMA photo essay show includes 10 images of Baghdad in 2003 by war photographer Simon Norfolk.

Weston Naef, the veteran Getty photography curator who engineered the recent purchases, acknowledges that when he was a fledgling curator at the Met 35 years ago, "pictures of this kind would have been unthinkable as acquisitions."

Since then, he said, he's had an "elevation of understanding." These days, the Getty fills its photography galleries (which expanded in October) with such projects as its 2005-2006 exhibitions on street photographer Weegee and "Pictures for the Press," which included the assassination and Vietnam images.

When Naef ponders acquisitions, he said, "the highest priority is when beauty and history overlap and coincide in a single work." For instance, he said, the RFK picture, shot by then Times staffer Yaro, "is built from the classic components of works of art, as we've evaluated them from the Renaissance. It's a picture made up of bold patterns of light and dark. You've got the actuality of the dying man, and the emotion of all the people around."

In part, he said, these purchases show recognition that lines can blur between news and art, especially with passage of time. On a second level, they represent a pivotal period in photography's history, after the advent of highly portable cameras and wire transmission allowed photographers to get better pictures, avoid censors and give the public a more realistic view of war and violence than was possible in the early 20th century. But there's a third element too, which Naef called "the opportunity factor." As newspapers, magazines and other media outlets turn to digital photography, curators say, some are selling or donating their archives, and the prints in them can be treasure for a collector or museum tracing the history of photography.

In 2001, New York's Museum of Modern Art acquired 300 photographic works from the New York Times. In 2005, the Time Picture Collection Inc. donated 1,000 works, including many photographs from the heyday of Life magazine, to the International Center for Photography in New York. In a series of donations from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections acquired the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives, a collection of more than 1.5 million prints and 3.5 million negatives from 1918 to 1990.

On a smaller scale, San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts in 2006 took in donations of works by Esther Bubley, Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Eisenstaedt -- all snapped up for the museum by collectors buying from archives that were "unloading," McCusker said.

She added that the journalistic history of the prints themselves adds an element that modern digital images won't have, from photographers' notes to editors' markings to stamps bearing dates of publication.

"You can read the back of them and get such a rich sense of the period," McCusker said. "With some of them, it seems almost as if you should exhibit the front and the back."

Britt Salvesen, curator at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, suggested that any comprehensive photography collection needs to have pictures like those the Getty has been buying "both to represent an important aspect of photography's history and to provide a context for images generated in today's media." As for the territory that lies between art and news, Salvesen wrote in an e-mail, "museums have a responsibility to explore that boundary, and to generate discussion about where it is and who drew it."

It was in 2003, Naef said, when a dealer with access to New York Times archival images offered the Getty a chance to buy a print of Browne's "The Self-Immolation of Thich Quang Duc, Saigon, Vietnam," a photograph taken June 11, 1963.

Browne, a correspondent for the Associated Press, had been tipped by a phone call the night before that something important would happen at that Saigon intersection. He went, as did New York Times reporter David Halberstam, and they saw a 67-year-old Buddhist monk use gasoline to set himself afire in protest of religious suppression by the U.S.-backed Diem regime.

The Getty bought. Then in 2004, the Getty bought a print of Jackson's image of Oswald's assassination and a more unusual print (about 7 by 12 inches "with black ink applied by hand") made from the 230th frame of Abraham Zapruder's famous 8-millimeter Kodachrome film of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. The print had been made for Life magazine, and the seller, Naef said, was a Los Angeles dealer with connections to the magazine's picture archive.

In 2005, the museum bought one Yaro image of the fatally wounded Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel and received two more Yaro images as gifts.

In March 2006, it bought the three Adams pictures. On the second day of the Tet Offensive of 1968, Adams had found himself standing by, camera ready, when South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan raised a handgun to the head of prisoner Bay Lop and killed him. The photographer took a series of shots, and the second image was transmitted to newspapers worldwide and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Adams, who died in 2004, made very few prints of the shots taken just before and after the famous one, but in this purchase, the Getty seized a chance to buy prints of the "before" and "after" pictures, along with "the earliest print known to experts" of the famous picture, from a Los Angeles dealer representing the Adams estate.

Then in April, the museum bought at auction five Capa prints, including his iconic image of a Spanish Loyalist militiaman at the moment he was shot on Sept. 5, 1936, at Cerro Muriano during the Spanish Civil War.

None of the acquisitions, Naef said, cost more than $15,000.

If there's an obvious gap on that grim list, Naef said, it's the 1968 image by Joseph Louw of the fallen Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., his associates pointing toward the possible source of the fatal shot.

"We'd love to have it," said Naef. "We can only deal with what the market presents."

Meanwhile, he said, he knows not everybody is ready to acknowledge these acquisitions as art with a capital A. But in time, "the answer is probably going to be yes," Naef said. "Art is what people look at, are compelled to look at, and come back to again and again."

When viewers first encountered the pioneering black-and-white images shot by Timothy H. O'Sullivan on Civil War battlefields, Naef noted, "they didn't know if it was art at the time, but today it's unambiguously art. Time is the measuring stick."

And time may be moving faster now, at least when it comes to the institutional appreciation of images torn from the headlines.

Though the Getty has no immediate plans to put the "killing" pictures up again anytime soon, curators are planning an exhibition next summer of work by Luc Delahaye, a veteran war photographer who declared himself an artist in 2001. Curators hope to include a large-format Delahaye image of a dead Taliban soldier, taken in Afghanistan in 2001.

But the Getty curators don't need to buy the image. They plan to borrow it from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which bought it three years ago, when that ongoing war was still new.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

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