Prints in the Sand

A beachfront photo fair focuses on the West and beyond.

Outside the Photo L.A. exhibition in January, coastal California was its usual crazy self: crowded, overbuilt and, at least in Santa Monica, under the surveillance of a spinning boardwalk Ferris wheel.

By contrast, the scene-stealer inside, at least for a moment, was a subdued color photograph of a modest seaside cottage in Normandy.

Displayed by the dealer, "Ravenoville" was a fine little photograph in a series by the German photographer Götz Diergarten. The tiny houses, promoted to monumental stature by their placement front and center in the pictures, are identical in their boxy structure and pointed roofs--almost like a child's drawing of a house. Each differs from its neighbor only in the details: Shutters are variously painted in pink or green; doors alternate from ice-blue to gray.

A well-heeled customer's eyes lighted up with art lust at the pictures' pale Mondrian-like geometries, and the savvy dealer held up each alluring picture in turn, the better for his customer to gaze on their beauty. The man was clearly smitten.

"How much?" he managed to stammer. On hearing the price of $2,200 for the portfolio, he asked, "Any way we can work on that?" The dealer glanced around, covered his mouth with his hand, and muttered a number inaudible to the curious onlookers. Before long, a deal was struck, the credit card was crunched and the box of French seaside cottages was on its way out into the bright California ocean light.

The German scenario was something any of the 80 photography dealers exhibiting in the 12th annual beachfront exhibition would have been happy to repeat. Officially called the Los Angeles International Photographic Print Exposition, Photo L.A. is the biggest photo fair on the West Coast. But this year, it took place in the middle of a serious economic downturn and on the eve of a threatened U.S. invasion of Iraq. The fairgoers were numerous, forming long lines at the entrance each of the three days, but not all dealers were having the success of the Germans. Art becomes a luxury in jittery times.

Still, the boisterous show had its usual charms, including a contingent of movie stars. Meg Ryan and her pal Laura Dern perused classic color Beatles photos in the booth of Portland's Photographic Image Gallery, both gold-tressed movie actresses only minimally disguised by their dark glasses. Diane Keaton, an Arizonan who's a collector and a published photographer, circulated as well.

The exhibition ranged all over the medium's 150-year history. Romantic Edward Curtis shared space with outrageous Joel-Peter Witkins at the booth of Tucson's Etherton Gallery. Lewis Hines' exquisite black and whites of child laborers in early 20th-century factories were stacked up under Mark Mann's moody color images of swimming pools and motels at the booth of Manhattan's Laurence Miller. In the photojournalism category, the black civil rights photographer Ernest C. Withers, still alive at age 80, exhibited at the Panopticon booth, offering stirring images from the bad old days of the desegregation wars.

The Europeans made a strong showing, and not just at The contemporary Russian Alexey Titarenko, whose work is represented by Nailya Alexander in Washington, D.C., was a real find. In the 1990s, Titarenko made the haunting series "Black and White Magic of St. Petersburg." These soft-edged lyrical works evoke the age-old city, hushed and still in the snow, with lonely pedestrians making their way through an urban landscape of light and shadows. In the 1995 "Untitled (Woman in the Sun)," sheets of light slant down onto a solitary woman as she trudges down the street.

If any overarching theme could be detected in this photographic potpourri, it was the New West. To be sure, an Ansel Adams booth, manned by Adams' grandson, was filled with the master's classic images of the pristine West. But the show also celebrated a new genre of Western landscape photography that records the depredations of humans upon the land. Mark Klett, an ASU prof, has made a lengthy series of works re-photographing the West from the vantage points first used by the 19th-century expedition photographers. What his camera finds, of course, is not always felicitous; the land is likely to be scraped bare by bulldozers or built upon or trashed. Klett doesn't excuse himself, either; oftentimes, he photographs his own presence on the land, even if it's only his shadow. Represented at Photo L.A. by the Etherton Gallery, Klett was showing a gorgeous color image of a campout and cookout at Salt Lake, Utah, the waters of the lake and the rocks glowing at sunset. On the shore, in the foreground, is all the detritus dragged onto the land even by the most environmentally conscious camper.

L.A.'s Michael Dawson Gallery, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century photographs of California and the Southwest, showed strong work by a couple of artists of the new landscape. The photographer Rudy VanderLans wanders throughout the desert Southwest, taking large-format color pictures of human marks upon the land. His beautifully pigmented pictures detect rusted orange signs decaying among the green cacti, and record roads slicing into the infinite horizon. "Railroad Crossing Near Rosamond, California" metaphorically demonstrates how the West was won: The automobile has beat out the train. The railway tracks are a narrow band of lines stretching horizontally across the picture plane; the paved road, huge in comparison, occupies the central portion of the photo. The pavement has conquered and covered the tracks, not to mention the land.

Dawson also was exhibiting Kaucyila Brooke, a photog professor at CalArts. When lightning set fire to a canyon in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, the photographer recorded both the destruction and the rebirth that followed. Early on in her series, called Burned, the large-format color photos document blackened hillsides and vegetation in breathtaking detail; every blade of grass, every leaf is visible. Soon, though, death cycles back toward life, plants send up new shoots, and springtime colors of green and lavender crowd out the black.

Brooke's pictures artfully record a real event in nature, but they can also be read as a commentary. Much of the modern West is built on fragile land. California houses occupy hills whose grass is meant to burn. Throngs of Arizonans occupy lands of little water; they dam up rivers into unnatural lakes whose water is piped to thirsty cities and farms.

It was especially apt for these new environmental pictures to be on view in Los Angeles, city of water swaps and swipes. The megalopolis by the sea is as distant in miles and mentality as it could possibly be from the modest oceanside villages of Normandy.

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