I first went to the Getty Villa sometime in the early 90s. I saw great antiquities mixed with more contemporary works, relatively speaking, like Van Gogh’s Irises. As it turns out, other than landing at LAX on layovers to Antarctica that first trip to the Villa would be the last time I was in Los Angeles until 2012. I’d taken a job in Bakersfield and my first trip over the Grapevine was to the Getty Center to see Irises.
My joy at finding one of my photos had been selected for the #GettyInspired blog was like that of a sailor reaching shore after a long time at sea.
Going to see artworks you haven’t seen in a long while can be like going to see an old friend.
The Center sits on a ridge and the weather was a stunning SoCal fall day with a light haze over the Pacific and across the Los Angeles basin. I took the architecture tour. The docent pointed it out the architect Richard Meier had designed the darkened vertical windows on West Pavilion to reflect the Getty Center’s white Travertine marble walls, trees in the courtyard, and the sky, giving the impression of a set of giant black and white negatives hanging from the roof. In this pavilion, we were led to answer, housed the Center for Photographs.
I love photography and had always wanted to take it up as something other than our normal cultural uses of it. Susan Sontag wrote that photography, “like every mass art form…[is] not practiced as an art…[but used] mainly [as] a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” I wanted to create more than the usual snapshots, documenting family rites of passage and keeping distant or dead relatives in memory or as the trophies of tourists. Not to say these are bad. They are all good reasons, and I have and do participate in that type of photography. But what of transcending the ordinary, of inviting viewers to consider what’s under the surface, what’s outside the frame, why the photographer decided on this composition and presented in this way.
Inviting viewers to wonder, to be astonished, to be drawn into another time and place, to skew reality with what is ostensibly a moment of reality captured.
The photography exhibits in the Getty Center on my first trip were The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design and In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe. In retrospect I needed to see both of these photographers’ work. Not like I underwent a sudden strike of illumination as I moved through galleries, but like a slow burn of fire in winter. I returned several times. I took in Metzker’s fifty year development beginning on the streets of Chicago and his later experiments in composition and exposure. His “devotion to photographic seeing as a process of discovery is also deeply humanistic in its illumination of isolation and vulnerability.” The exhibit also featured photographs from the Institute of Design’s faculty and students from it’s founding as the New Bauhaus. The images of László Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes, Arthur Siegel, and Metzker’s mentors, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind on the walls drew me into the possibilities of photography in the everyday world.
To have Mapplethorpe’s work in the next room with his carefully composed images made a great juxtaposition. His iconic image of Patti Smith, the flowers, his self-portraits, and the nudes, all re-imagined the past art forms. I gazed at each photo, luminous, balanced, exuding sexual energy, and challenging me by transforming something familiar into something edgy and dangerous, full of sexuality. I had always loved Classical Greece; hence my first trip to the Villa years before. Mapplethorpe’s use of models to recreate the ancient mythic sculptures in photographs twined for me the universal with the particular and the ancient with the contemporary. With Mapplethorpe, I saw photographs not of the outside world, but of an artist interpreting the reality of his world through photography. The manipulated reality.
It is funny how I’d always accorded painting and other arts the latitude of surrealism or abstraction when all along photography was the true medium of the surreal, as Sontag wrote. I was beginning to see photography in ways other than photojournalism and the documenting of society and culture as with the Farm Security Administration, National Geographic, Time-Life, fashion magazines, or any of the other ways we consume photos. By the spring I’d dusted off an old Nikon N-60, went down to Henley’s Photo in Bakersfield, bought some film, got some advice, and started shooting.
I couldn’t afford a digital outfit, so the film camera was going to be my way or I wouldn’t start at all. And I had to start.
As I think about the image the #GettyInspired staff choose, I remember Metzker and Mapplethorpe. The stark black and white. The re-seeing of abandoned equipment shot in such a way as to obscure its purpose, unidentifiable, and for viewers to interpret it as they may. Portals let in harsh light illuminating the interior as light blocks off the view beyond. A passage to the underworld? The hanging chains of Prometheus escaped? The still life of spider webs, glowing in sunlight with no prey? Let me extend an invitation to wonder. What is it you see, feel, interpret?
Those first exhibits didn’t directly inspire my image, but one can see the influences of those photographers on how I started to look at the world. Those artists who opened my eyes to the possibilities of light.