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For photographer Gil Mares, the Port of L.A. is his supermodel

For photographer Gil Mares, the Port of L.A. is his supermodel
"Hull Reflections" by photographer Gil Mares. (Gil Mares / Michael Stearns Studio 347)

Gil Mares' striking photographs may appear at first glance as abstract expressionist paintings of the 1940s and '50s, but upon closer inspection, the saturated hues and sleek, minimalist lines are the steel sides of cargo ships and freighters.

His compositions of hulls, anchors and bows form the heart of "Shipping Out: The Photography of Gil Mares," going on view at the Michael Stearns Studio 347 in San Pedro on Sept. 1.

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Born at the Presidio in San Francisco, Mares began collecting art books at age 18. He was captivated by the bold colors of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí and the planes of analytical cubism, but it was of the stark work of Edward Weston that made the biggest impression.

A Los Angeles County public defender for 26 years, Mares didn't start photographing ships until 1999, when a colleague took him out into the Los Angeles harbor.

Mares was immediately drawn to the worn hulls and rusted anchors. "They had gouges and scrapes like the battles scars of a great whale," he said.  "It was like I struck a gold mine in color and form."

Boat paint keeps the saltwater from quickly corroding a ship's exterior, but the paint can be expensive — so sometimes the handiest color must do. For Mares, mismatched shades create an illuminating blend of reflections, resulting in minimalist geometric patterns and textures. Numbers and cryptic markings on the vessels add subtle, painterly details.

"Hull Reflections" is a luminous scene with exacting horizontal layers of brilliant color.

"The interplay of the water, ship and light make the brightly covered hulls appear delicate, even transparent," Mares said of the reflecting bands of turquoise, amethyst, deep purple and silver.

Captured in "Organic Hull": A machine had just finished scraping the ship clean, leaving raw stripes on the bulbous hull. It looked something like a giant sci-fi mollusk.

"My photography is really all about composing what I see on the water," Mares said. "Is it simple and balanced, but most of all: Does it capture the attention of the viewers? That's what it all about."

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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