The war photographer looked uneasy. Sitting at a café, sipping a cold beer beneath the glass towers of Century City, where the tables around him were filled with afternoon chatter, laughter and booze, Emilio Morenatti nevertheless seemed to be counting the minutes. At 40, he has seen the world’s trouble spots up close, been witness to revolution, conflict and death. He was once kidnapped in Gaza, and now lives in Pakistan, awaiting the next terrible event to erupt in front of his cameras. What concerned him now was neither tear gas nor Taliban. All he could talk about was getting back.

An hour before, he stood in the new Annenberg Space for Photography, with its gleaming 10,000 square feet of gallery space and high-tech digital screening rooms. He was a bearded man in black who had traveled three days to be there, to offer humble thanks for being named Newspaper Photographer of the Year by the annual Pictures of the Year International (POYi). Being away from his post made Morenatti nervous. He hadn’t wanted to come. The Associated Press sent him anyway.

“I told my boss the situation in Pakistan is very complicated right now,” the Spanish photographer said at the café. “Anything can happen and I don’t want to miss it.” He’d felt that leaving Islamabad at this moment in history “to get some award, to me is against my principles.”

But then he showed his work at the Annenberg: pictures from his world back in Pakistan; of an attorney escaping police tear gas by leaping over barbed wire; of a near riot as women pressed desperately against the glass doors of a market. There was horror in his series of portraits, as Pakistani women opened their scarves to reveal flesh burnt and melted from acid and unrestricted male rage over small slights and rejected marriage proposals. The villains were boyfriends, stalkers, uncles, fathers. Almost none had been punished.

This was the week the entire Western media were obsessed by the death and funeral of Michael Jackson. In 2009, celebrity sensation trumps serious photojournalism, and no one is surprised. But at his POYi lecture in Century City, Morenatti’s pictures had the rapt attention of at least one esteemed venue in Los Angeles, and a roomful of people who might have otherwise never seen the pictures and the real-world stories they told.

“I did not expect to see this center for photography,” Morenatti said afterward in accented English. “I do not go to many places like that. I think this is the top. It’s a big privilege to take part in it.” Still, he was still anxious to get back.

Los Angeles is a city rich with photography, a home to important artists and major collections but with no public institution dedicated exclusively to the medium. That is, until this year, and the March opening of the Annenberg Space for Photography, a modernist, high-concept pavilion with a ceiling shaped like a giant camera aperture and brochures that promise “more humanity per pixel.”

It’s not a traditional gallery space. Up to 80 prints can be comfortably hung on the walls, but the real showcase is the center room, where twin screens offer state-of-the art digital projection. The emphasis here is on the human condition. This is the essential mandate from trustee Wallis Annenberg, who greets visitors in a recorded message from the big screens and was the guiding force in the center’s creation. “She really wanted to do something special for photography,” said Patricia Lanza, the venue’s talent and content manager, and a former photo editor for National Geographic. “It’s perfect timing in the world of photography. Photographers were wondering where photography is going. It’s been an interesting time of transition. How many newspapers this year folded? All these amazing photojournalists, where are they going to be seen?”

In that way, the presence of POYi makes a substantial statement about the new space. The awards and exhibition, hosted for 66 years by the Missouri School of Journalism, is already set to return to the Annenberg next year. By design, all of the images are fresh from life, unflinching in the presence of difficult subject matter and working conditions, even if they’re not all about bad news or graphic scenes of war. The best are not mere illustrations to news stories but essential documents of their own.

Speaking on the first day was Balazs Gardi, 34, winner of the Global Vision Award. He had the look of a frontline Bohemian with a short beard and loose pullover shirt. Unlike most of his contemporaries, the Hungarian-born photographer remains committed to shooting film, intentionally taking himself out of the game of instant delivery of photos.

“I’m a reporter, I’m a photographer, an artist,” Gardi told the crowd, as his grainy, black-and-white images flashed on the screen behind him. He is a rare news photographer who not only shoots traditional 35mm film but also carries a panoramic camera and the quirky, low-fi Holga, beloved for its random light leaks and uncertain focus. His pictures with American soldiers in Afghanistan were raw, contemplative and very much of the moment.

He stood in a temple of photography funded by the Annenberg Foundation, devised by the late ambassador Walter Annenberg, publisher of TV Guide, Seventeen and other print assets, who sold his company to Rupert Murdoch in 1988 for about $3 billion. A third of that was used to create Annenberg’s charitable foundation to support causes in education, the environment and humanities. When the Foundation moved its offices two years ago from Westwood to the 10th floor of the redeveloped 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Annenberg took over an unused space downstairs set aside as a cultural pavilion, and invested millions building out the thematic interior. The program’s emphasis on photography would be an extension of the old family business.

Guest curators will be brought in to guide each four-month show, and there will be no permanent collection other than the digitized content that will likely be made available online in the future. The Annenberg estimates it’s had more than 50,000 visitors. “The foundation is doing this to crack open a conversation about our lives,” said Leonard Aube, executive director of the Annenberg Foundation. “That’s what we really hope to do here.”

The debut show, L8S ANG3LES, was the work of eight Los Angeles–based photographers gathered into a statement on the city, with 1,100 images included in the digital presentation. The show was anchored by the architectural photography of Julius Shulman (who died July 15 at age 98). His pictures of glass houses, the LAX Theme Building and Los Angeles City Hall lined the first wall of the gallery, setting the scene.

There was Douglas Kirkland’s Marilyn Monroe wrapped in a bed sheet, Greg Gorman’s frail Bette Davis having an elegant smoke in her final days, and Lauren Greenfield examining youth culture and severe eating disorders. There were current and historic photographs from the Los Angeles Times, and a wall collecting the vivid portraiture and political Polaroids from Catherine Opie. Only mixed-media selections from conceptual artist John Baldessari reached beyond the traditions of documentary and portraiture.

After POYi comes a show on sports photography, celebrating the fine work of Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss, though it suggests a pattern that leaves little room for more controversial statements from the likes of a Sally Mann or Andres Serrano. Is there no Immediate Family or next-gen Mapplethorpe in its future?

“I think that’s coming,” said Lanza. “We’re going to push the envelope. We’re just beginning. There is so much creative potential here.”

At the café outside the Annenberg, Morenatti was having a second beer with his wife, Marta Ramoneda, and Gardi. The next day would be an awards dinner, and then the long trip back home. The two men argued over how graphic a photograph should depict death, and wondered how long any of them could continue this line of work.

“Being 50 years old, and working in Pakistan and doing what I’m doing right now?” said Morenatti. He looked at his wife. “Can you imagine, Marta, to be there 15 years more?” He laughed but added, “She has to be covered in Pakistan, so I feel completely guilty. But we enjoy it very much.”

While Ramoneda must remain under a veil whenever outside their home, she is working on her own project: photographing transsexuals in Pakistan, deep in a region notorious for religious extremism and sexual oppression. Morenatti opened his laptop to show off his wife’s pictures of men in flamboyant colors and makeup, moving freely within their community, singing, laughing. “We were in shock at the underground crazy people,” he said. “They don’t care about the Taliban, they don’t care about nothing.”

They were three photojournalists far from home, bringing back some coveted awards and new lines for their résumés. Yet as they gathered around a laptop, nothing excited them more than the prospect of another photograph of the unknown and unbelievable.

Pictures of the Year International, through November 1. Annenberg Space for Photography. 2000 Avenue of the Stars, #10, L.A. (213) 403-3000. www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org. Wed-Sun: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Admission is free.

LA Weekly