American Photography at the Getty

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It would be safe to say that most of the visitors to the Getty Center are planning their trip there around having a good time---strolling through the gardens, enjoying the birds-eye view of our city---a view so spellbinding---particularly at sunset---that naming the city after the angels doesn't seem to be an exaggeration. Of course, people also want to see the art collections. During the weekend, the museum galleries are crowded with more visitors than at any other museum in the city. The collection of French Impressionism is the biggest draw, but the expanding collection of Old European Master paintings and sculpture also provides a knowledgeable visitor with a sufficient amount of excitement.-

But it's the Getty's collection of photography that truly deserves to be called excellent. And though the photography department has only four galleries in which to exhibit excerpts from its vast holdings, I always think of this department as The Little Engine That Could. Its latest offering is two handsomely installed exhibitions illuminating the history of American photography in the 20th Century. One exhibition presents 75 works by Paul Strand (1890-1976), one of the pioneers of American photography, who incorporated the aesthetic principles of modernism into his art. Breaking with the prevailing traditions of pictorialism, he favored unsentimental but carefully arranged compositions, be it a city view, a portrait of an unsuspecting bystander, or a still life composed of decidedly unglamorous objects. Judging by the selection of photos at this exhibition, Paul Strand could do no wrong. Practically every image has an iconic power that grabs, and more importantly holds, your attention. So much of today's photography, with it's indulgence in size and color, looks in comparison, very uncool and sooo last century. Interestingly enough, Paul Strand was very much appreciated during his lifetime and his photographs were sold for then-unprecedented sums of money-up to $1000.-

The second exhibition is devoted to Frederick Sommer (1905-1999), a lesser-known American photographer, who never-the-less carved a distinctive niche for himself in the history of American art with his bold experiments in technique and in expanding the medium of photography by crossing into drawing, sculpture and even music. Born in Italy and raised in Brazil, he later became an American citizen and settled in Arizona where he spent most of his life. His unsentimental desert landscape and the--even by today's standards--shocking still lifes of discarded chicken parts or of a woman's placenta, attest to his uncompromising aesthetic and, to a certain extent, give us a sense of him as a man known for being rather difficult. His portrait of Max Ernst, where the naked torso of a poet seeps through the stone, is probably one of the best visual embodiments of Surrealism.

In the coming hot days of summer, I couldn't recommend a cooler thing to do than perusing over the treasure trove of black and white images by these two American artists.-

Three Roads Taken: The Photographs of Paul Strand
The Photographs of Frederick Sommer: A Centennial Tribute
The Getty Museum
May 10-September 4, 2005
Telephone: 310-440-7630