Horace Bristol: Fortune, Life, and Time. At the East/West Gallery. Shows through January 15, 2007.
Reviewed by Brett Leigh Dicks
In wandering the East/West Gallery’s latest exhibition, a retrospective that explores with passion Horace Bristol’s contributions to Fortune, Life, and Time magazines, two things become readily apparent. The first is Bristol’s stunning perception of light. The second is his equally impressive discernment of life. Adorning the walls of this stylish exhibition space is a selection of monochromatic prints that strikes at the expressive core of photography. In the course of some 30 images, Bristol turned his discerning vision upon a diverse selection of subject matter. The resulting legacy of work is as insightful and persuasive as it is impeccably conveyed.
From early wanderings through his native California, across explorations of Depression-era labor camps, and to the trials of war and then postwar Asia, Bristol’s canvas was broad, but his brush strokes were succinct. Be it an elegantly dressed figure standing in splendid solitude among the supporting beams of a bridge, or three priests with umbrellas at the foot of an ornate shrine, Bristol’s vision smolders in its luminosity. While in the former image the interplay between the afternoon light and shadow allows the contextual juxtaposition to radiate, the softness of the light in the latter piece allows the tenderness of its subject to float freely. Such was Bristol’s command of his craft.
Not only did Bristol execute his photographic undertakings with the attention of an artist, he approached them with the inquisitiveness of a journalist. He wandered the labor camps of California’s Central Valley with both his camera and John Steinbeck. He was part of a select group of photographers who documented World War II under the direction of Edward Steichen. And he was an empathetic purveyor of images of a war-torn Japan as it struggled to find its identity in a vastly changing world.
While there is certainly no questioning the poignancy of Bristol’s pre-Japan exploration, there is a deep connection that resonates in images from his Japanese period. Whether he turns his lens to the haunting devastation inflicted by war or captures beautiful cultural prose arising from a nation trying to come to terms with its fate, Bristol’s Japanese work is clearly an assignment from the heart. Bristol remained in Japan until 1956, when he promptly turned his back on the medium after his wife’s suicide and destroyed all the negatives and prints he had at his side. It wasn’t until he remarried and settled again in the States that his interest in photography reignited: His son, Henri, was reading The Grapes of Wrath, which inspired Bristol to revisit some of his surviving work. Fittingly, it is now Henri Bristol who presides over his father’s remarkable legacy at the East/West Gallery.