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East Meets West

Horace Bristol: Fortune, Life, and Time. At
the East/West Gallery. Shows through January 15, 2007.

Reviewed by Brett Leigh Dicks

Brakeman-1.jpgIn 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.

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