PUBLIC FACES, PRIVATE SPACES AT THE GETTY
Mary Ellen Mark, Bill Owens and Anthony Hernandez

2006

 

“The best documentary images, like all great photographs, have always had a place in the world of fine art. This is very important, especially now when we no longer have the opportunity to see these pictures in magazines.”

                                                                     * Mary Ellen Mark, 2000

 

            The Getty museum will soon begin presenting larger exhibitions from their ever-increasing collection of photography. The museum is set to unveil their new, expansive Center for Photographs on the Terrace level of the West Pavilion on October 24th. Where We Live: Photographs of America from the Berman Collection promises to be a blockbuster event, with 168 images from 24 photographers on display. As an opening act, the Getty’s current exhibition Public Faces, Private Spaces: Recent Acquisitions opened on October 10th in far more intimate fashion. In the same small space where the Getty has in the past two years displayed exhibitions of pure photojournalism and dared to elevate discarded snapshots to the level of fine art with their 2004 vernacular show Close to Home, we find the works of Mary Ellen Mark, Bill Owens, Anthony Hernandez and Donald Blumberg. Here we are treated to another collection of images that photography connoisseurs will enjoy lingering over, and common folks will connect with on the most visceral of levels.

The disappointingly small glimpse we get of Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise collection is easily the highlight of this show, though Bill Owens’ Suburbia is far friendlier, and will likely earn the most appreciative response from unsuspecting viewers for its Arbus-lite quality. Donald Blumberg’s figure-ground representations of worshippers leaving a New York City Cathedral bring a requisite sense of artiness to the room, while the large-format, static studies of streets corners and bus stops captured by Anthony Hernandez in 1980’s Los Angeles are intentionally banal and thus an acquired taste.

Mark’s contention that documentary deserves to be considered fine art because “we no longer have the opportunity to see these pictures in magazines” is certainly true, but would carry more weight if museums and galleries would feature documentary-style work being made today. The work of the four photographers on display are all dated from the 1960s through the 1980s, and it could be argued that like all photographs, the passage of time bestows an aura on these works that even Walter Benjamin might find difficult to deny. Mark qualifies her statement by conceding that fine art status belongs only to the “best documentary images.” Let’s assume that if an image has been framed, captioned and displayed on the hallowed whitewashed walls of the Getty, they must consider it Fine Art, if only for the duration of the exhibition. Unlike the world of documentary and photojournalism, where the print media and books are still the main source of dissemination, photographs displayed in this manner are judged by modernist standards: at least as much for their formal qualities as for their content. Like all other media, the photographer/artist’s reputation and status also figure into the equation.

To explore these criteria further, I’ll compare two images from this show: Tiny in Halloween Costume Blowing Bubble, by Mary Ellen Mark, and Public Transit Areas #12: Los Angeles, by Anthony Hernandez. Both images (I’ll refer to them as Tiny and Public Transit) deal with urban society, though in strikingly different ways. Mary Ellen Mark's involvement with the runaway children of Pike Street in Seattle began when she and a Life magazine reporter were assigned to do a feature story on street kids. Her portrait of the girl who came to be known as Tiny is just one of several images she would make of the teenager, who would later become a key character in the Oscar-nominated film Streetwise that Mark would work on with husband Martin Bell. With it’s centered subject direct gazing directly into the camera, and the shallow depth of field forcing the viewer to confront the girl head-on, Tiny serves as a revelatory look at the kind of person Mark has referred to as the “unfamous.” 2 Along with the candid images and environmental portraits Mark made of Tiny and the other street kids, this image can stand alone, but is better understood as part of a narrative that relies on the context of a journalistic exposition. Both formally and in terms of content, it is a classic example of the photographer’s style and approach, for which she has become a renowned documentarist.

In contrast to the intimacy and latent aggressiveness conveyed by Mark’s image, with Public Transit the viewer catches what at first glance appears to be an informally composed, static, almost furtive look down a sidewalk in urban Los Angeles. The image was in fact made with the deliberate contemplation characteristic of the large format camera, and its most striking characteristic is not the people looking into the camera from a safe, impersonal distance, nor the various iconographic elements, but the sweeping vanishing point perspective that dominates the composition.3 Public Transit is one in a series of similar images by Anthony Hernandez, an artist whose career is distinguished by a concern with public spaces, sometimes depicted in a decidedly abstract fashion. In 1988 he would begin the series Landscapes of the Homeless, documenting hidden places that homeless people retreat to. While photographing these encampments he made sure that no one was about, so as not to disrupt the life of its inhabitants. By avoiding the confrontations that can make socially conscious photography so potentially invasive, in both of these series Hernandez is a voyeur looking in.4 Unlike Mark, it is the places more than the people that interest Hernandez. Public Transit is therefore evocative of both the Walker Evans’ school of vernacular Americana, and the street photography aesthetic of Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander. The static, banal quality that leaves the image with a listless air is thus intentional, and as mentioned above, an acquired taste.

The Getty is of course to be congratulated and encouraged for championing photography to the extent that it does, granting neo-vernacular, street and photojournalistic styles artworld status. One only wishes they wouldn’t go to such lengths to justify what we are looking at. In their earnestness to make these photographic styles accessible, and to educate the public on their place in Art’s grand pantheon, the Getty people display an earnestness for establishing narratives that often overreaches or oversimplifies. In the case of Public Faces, Private Spaces, an obvious question arises. What brings these four seemingly disparate styles into the same room? The artists are promoted (re: advertised) as four “mid-career American photographers who share a commitment to observing the people and places that define community.” Each of them, we are taught, uses the camera “to capture moments that oscillate between the public and the private, between the newsworthy and the everyday.”5 This umbrella-like premise could be applied to countless photographers, past and present.

 

 ENDNOTES

1 Light, Ken. Witness in Our time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. 2000. Pg 83.

2 Fulton, Marianne. Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years. Bulfinch Press, Canada. 1991. pg 25.

“The primary concern of Mark’s work has always been people such as Tiny, to whom she refers to as the “unfamous.” Noncelebrities, unpretentious people who are generally out of the mainstream, the unfamous represent the successes and trials in everyone’s life.”

3 Getty Museum (pamphlet). Public Faces, Private Spaces: Recent Acquisitions. 2006.

            “Made in 1979 and 1980, the photographs in the Public Transit Series juxtapose the vulnerability of commuters immersed in their own private worlds with the city’s invasive sensory elements. The overall composition of each photograph is virtually the same—the placement of a single or multiple figures emphasizes the one-point perspective of the street as it recedes into the distance—while the specifics of the architecture and signage lining each street change. By employing nearly identical compositions, Hernandez encourages us to absorb even the seemingly inconsequential details of our surroundings . . .”

4 Zellen, Jody. http://artscenecal.com/ArticlesFile/Archive/Articles1997/Articles0597/AHernandez.html

“The intersection of the natural and the man-made is the subject of Anthony Hernandez’s photographs.”

5 Getty Museum (pamphlet). Public Faces, Private Spaces: Recent Acquisitions. 2006.