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Visual Poetry

This is a big season for photography in Los Angeles. LACMA recently unveiled “Ghost in the Shell,” a hugely ambitious exhibition of portraiture that is the culmination of 33 years of work on the part of curator Robert Sobieszek. Across town at the Getty, and at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography at Bergamot Station, is a rich selection of work by legendary Southern artist William Eggleston. Hailed as the father of color photography, Eggleston was the subject of a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 that conferred a legitimacy on color photography, which had previously been dismissed as vulgar. He‘s been the subject of dozens of exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout Europe and the eastern U.S., but his work has never been seen in depth in L.A.; that makes this an auspicious and long overdue occasion.

The Getty exhibition, “William Eggleston and the Color Tradition” showcases Eggleston’s pictures, along with work by 13 artists who‘ve made color photographs over the past 30 years in territory he pioneered. “William Eggleston: 7090,” at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography, features previously unexhibited work from the ’90s, along with several signature images from the ‘70s. The current issue of Los Angeles Magazine also features a spread of Eggleston’s photographs of the Getty, selected from a work in progress.

To mark the occasion, the artist has come to town. When Eggleston visits L.A., he usually sets up camp at a Westside hotel that may have been elegant when it was built in the 1920s, but whose glory days are long past. It‘s a place of mismatched furniture, broken lamps and threadbare rugs, but the 60-year-old artist finds it comfortable and appreciates that his modest room is equipped with a dusty old record player in a big wooden cabinet (he is also an accomplished musician). This eccentric hotel is the perfect setting for Eggleston, who has the genteel charm of a ’40s film star. He has a reputation as a hard-drinking rogue, but you‘d never guess it to look at him; tall and lean, he’s a soft-spoken man with a sweet Southern drawl, and he‘s impeccably dressed today in beautifully cut navy-blue trousers and a crisp, white shirt.

Eggleston describes himself as a democratic photographer, and what he means by that is that everything on Earth is equally worthy of being photographed. A beautiful face, a broken cup, vast landscapes, discarded appliances, dirty cars, abandoned buildings, roadside attractions, mud puddles -- Eggleston transforms it all into visual poetry that evokes an America rapidly disappearing into the mist of nostalgia. That Eggleston manages to take pictures of the formidable Getty, pictures infused with the same lyrical warmth that courses through his best pictures -- a shabby bar with a pink neon sign awash in the violet light of dusk; a young boy standing arm in arm with his staunch-looking mother, dressed in her Sunday best -- is some measure of his gift. The Getty doesn’t exactly lend itself to a down-home interpretation, but Eggleston comes close to achieving that.

“I don‘t go up there with anything in particular in mind,” he says of his intentions in photographing the Getty. “I’m just real open, and I‘ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve been given permission to photograph anything I want, but many of the pictures I‘ve taken so far were shot in areas off-limits to the public -- the research labs, parts of the libraries, the incredible X-ray apparatus used for restoration. I was up there several months ago when there was an opening for an exhibition of photographs by Degas, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen photographing the preparation of the food. The place is like a giant military complex, the only difference being that no matter how many layers you peel back, you never find any dirt.”

Strikingly, much of the Eggleston work on view in Los Angeles has never been seen before -- here or anywhere else. “I go through periods when I won’t take any pictures, but my archive of unexhibited work is still pretty enormous,” he says. “There are 38,000 existing negatives, and maybe 15,000 of them have been printed. There are inevitably some experiments that didn‘t work, but not very many, and because of the way I work -- I only take one picture of a thing -- a roll of 36 exposures will have 36 completely different pictures on it. I try to use everything. That’s always been the guiding idea behind my photographs.” a

At a glance, LACMA‘s “Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850--2000” appears to be about portraiture, but this show has bigger fish to fry. An inquiry into the changing definition of what constitutes a human soul, the exhibition attempts to chart how man’s sense of himself has evolved, fractured and expanded to accommodate multiple views of the self. Freud‘s theory of the subconscious is largely responsible for this shift in perception; however, the 158 images on view here suggest other factors contributed to the change.

The show took root 33 years ago when Sobieszek was researching the 19th-century photographer Oscar Rejlander and came across some pictures by Duchenne de Boulogne. “Duchenne was a French neurophysiologist who wanted the exactitude of science to inform artistic depictions of beauty,” explains Sobieszek over coffee at the LACMA cafeteria. “Toward that end, he conducted experiments that involved giving electrical shocks to specific muscles of the face. The pictures of his experiments looked like something out of Metropolis or Frankenstein, but his work was driven by an idealistic desire to teach artists how the face moves, and was grounded in the belief that one can know a person by what one observes in the face. That belief is the starting point for the show, which goes on to suggest that what you see in another’s face is not what is there, but what you project onto it.”

Sobieszek lights the next in a continuing series of cigarettes and prepares to elaborate. Both exhausted and exhilarated to be putting the finishing touches on an exhibition that‘s been on his mind for decades, he clearly loves talking about “Ghost in the Shell.” “In Duchenne’s day, people believed the ‘real’ could be depicted in photographs, and we no longer believe that,” he continues. “Moreover, an essentialist philosophy -- the idea that there is a true, essential self -- isn‘t too tenable today either. Artists, philosophers and psychiatrists now say we’re many different things, depending on the context. I‘m one person when I wake up, when my wife wakes up I’m another person, and when I get to work I become a third person. It‘s not role-playing either. You’re genuinely a different person.”

“Ghost in the Shell” concludes with the suggestion that as this convulsive century winds to a close, we‘ve come to embrace the power to manufacture selves of our own design through cosmetic surgery and psychopharmacology. Sobieszek underscores that point with a series of photographs of the provocative French performance artist Orlan, whose “art form” is the surgical transformation of her face.

Though the seed for the exhibition took root for Sobieszek in the early ’70s, he points out that it took three decades for the idea to bear fruit because “The art had yet to be made that would flesh out my idea. Cindy Sherman is particularly crucial to the show because she personifies the disassociation that‘s so prevalent today. I’m not saying, by the way, that we‘re more disassociative than we were 100 years ago. However, we are more aware of the condition. J.G. Ballard once commented that ’The greatest tragedy of the 20th century has been the death of affect,‘ and I agree there has been a numbing. After what we’ve seen in this century, how could there not be?”

“William Eggleston and the Color Tradition” continues at the Getty through January 30, 2000. “William Eggleston: 7090” continues at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography at Bergamot Station through November 27. “Ghost in the Shell” continues through January 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


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