Saturday, 30 August 2008


at Apex Fine Art, Los Angeles

Note: I wrote this piece in February 1999, after returning from LA, and sold it to the FT.But it missed its scheduled slot, and by the time they got around to revisiting it, the exhibition was nearly over and in LA anyway, and so on and so on and scooby-dooby dooby. So it appears here for the first time, too late, but really, I feel as if I'd just seen the exhibition, and the photos of course are timeless....

With the recent death of Andreas Feininger, the last of the generation of photojournalists who shaped our view of the world in the first half of this century is gone. Feininger died, ironically, the same day this major exhibtion, primarily work from Life Magazine, opened in Los Angeles. The outstanding selection of his work, along with those of Life’s most famous contributors, Alfred Eisenstadt and Margaret Bourke-White, and others like Nina Leen, Carl Mydans, and Leonard McComb displays images that are now so familiar as to be iconic. But at a time when many argue that photography replaced painting as the major source of representational views of the world, and thus accelerated painting’s move to greater abstraction, it emphasizes a deeper, cross-pollinating effect between painting and photography.

Both Eisenstadt and Bourke-White started in industrial and architectural photography. Bourke-White joined Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine in 1929, the same year Eisenstadt turned professional. Eisenstadt’s early work on display includes the amazing “First Lesson at Treumpy Ballet School, Berlin” (1930), a Degas painting captured from life. His “Premiere At LaScala” is impressionist, “Ice Skating, Winter St Moritz” almost surreal. Eisenstadt fled to the US in 1935, and almost immediately was taken with the sweep and energy of the new world. The aggressive angles of “Future Ballerinas of the American Ballet Theatre” (1937) contrast markedly with the Treumpy photo. By 1943, in “An American Block, Hamilton Ohio” he produced the photographic equivalent of Norman Rockwell’s pastorals.

Meanwhile, Luce started Life Magazine to showcase Bourke-White’s work. “The images she created for Fortune were so incredible, Luce decided to make a magazine devoted to them,” says Apex’s David Barenholtz, who worked with Eisenstadt late in his career in New York. “He couldn’t have chosen a more remarkable combination of photographer and journalist than Bourke-White. She did the Life’s first cover, and Eisenstadt did the second.”
Starting with her amazing industrial abstracts, such as “Welding Tire Rims” (1933) or “Oxford Paper Company” (1932), or her famous 1931 Chrysler Building series, Bourke-White helped create a modern style which painters like Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler also achieved using photography as a tool. Her “Elliptical Stairway, Supreme Court Building” (1935) literally takes the breath away.

But it was as a war correspondent Bourke-White found her metier. Stalin invited her personally to be the only westerner reporting the siege of Moscow. “Moscow Bombing” (1941) uses the Nazi flares to create a brilliant, abstract beauty alongside raw destructive power. Bourke-White crossed the Rhein alongside Patton when the 5th Army liberated Buchenwald, the only death camp in Germany. Many of those shots are horrifyingly familiar now, but “Buchenwald Prisoners” (1945) on display at Apex, is unusual for the lighting which she uses to give the prisoners the dramatic pose of actors, elevating them from mere victims into active protagonists.

Carl Mydans’ war photography on show (“MacArthur Landing at Luzon” and “Japanese Surrender on USS Missouri”) is justly famous, but Life’s changes after the war set the tone for its time. Bourke-White continued with photo-essays, of Gandhi and India’s partition, of South Africa at the start of the apartheid era, of the Korean War with South Korean soldiers, before the onset of Parkinson’s disease in 1952 slowed her career.

Meanwhile Life moved Eisenstadt on to celebrity portraits, with marvellous results. Represented here are an impish Churchill (1951), a fragile, sexual Marilyn Monroe (1953), and an earthy, exuberant Sophia Loren (1961). Feininger, meanwhile, as befits one who studied at the Bauhaus his father had founded, was always taken with the architecture and the life of his adopted city.

Using lenses he developed himself, he had already captured the essence of the city in “42nd St. Viewed from Weekhawken” (1942), with the powerful rise of the skyscrapers made mythical by smoke and fog from the Hudson River. Apex features “Brooklyn Bridge at Night” (1948) and the Reginald Marsh-like “Coney Island July 4, 1949” from his most prolific period. The recent Picasso exhibition at the Barbican showed his famous “painting” with lights photographed in a dark room. Feininger managed to do the same thing, earlier, using lamps of the ends of a helicopter’s rotor to create one of the world’s outstanding abstract images (“Navy Helicopter at Night”, 1949).

Feininger’s “Queen Elizabeth in NY Harbour” (1958) marks the end of the steamship era, which was the beginning of the end of Life’s era as well, as television began to dominate the visual currency, and the weekly picture magazine went the way of the weekly newsreels. The Apex exhibtion ends with Feininger’s Hopper-esque “Route 66, Arizona” (1953--see the column header) and Eisenstadt’s wonderful “Central Park After Snowstorm” (1959), which seems to turn New York City into a quiet wonderland, which would have been taken for granted in that year. Given its sad timing, this show serves as a monument to Feininger, but it also shows off some of the greatest art America has yet engendered, from an era when that art was taken for granted, while on canvas Abstract Expressionism was conquering the world.

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