Photography is at once art’s most literal and most deceptive medium. The camera began as a recording device, designed to capture scenes as they appear to the naked eye. But in the hands of more than a century of artists, the instrument has become as expressive as the paintbrush, producing images that are as consciously composed and intentionally controlled as those in any painting. Yet no matter how thoroughly they have been manipulated, photographs remain the result of the mechanical exposure of some surface to light reflected from a subject.
Made in Santa Barbara: Contemporary Photographs, now on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), is a study in exposure, and not only of the photographs’ subjects. The show is comprised of 106 images representing the work of 45 photographers, all of whom either live in the Santa Barbara area now or have based their careers here at some time. If you think you know what Santa Barbara photography is, think again, and stop in to SBMA this summer to expose yourself to the range and depth of the region’s photography scene.
Many of the professional photographers who call Santa Barbara home are really wandering visionaries. In their quest for subject matter, stories, inspiration, and opportunities, they travel across the nation and the world, carrying home film canisters and memory cards loaded with exotic imagery. At other times, they turn their lenses on subjects closer to home, but don’t be fooled-this is not stereotypical Santa Barbara art. SBMA Curator of Photography Karen Sinsheimer is eager to emphasize this point. “I’d like to disabuse anyone of the misconception that this is a ‘local’ art show,” she announced shortly before the exhibit’s opening. “These are photographers with significant careers-with national and international reputations.” A list of biographies of artists included in the show and its related programs reads like a who’s who of American photography: Guggenheim Fellowship recipients, Emmy winners, photojournalists with Time and Newsweek magazine covers, and installation artists whose work has been shown at the Pompidou Centre.
Sinsheimer is also quick to point out that half the work on exhibit comes from the museum’s permanent collection; for decades, SBMA has been collecting photography by Santa Barbara-based artists. When Sinsheimer joined SBMA in 1992, she inherited the legacy established by Fred Parker, who between 1978 and 1984 organized a series of photography exhibitions for SBMA including the 1979 show, Attitudes: Photography in the 1970s, which included the work of more than 248 artists, and 1982’s Contemporary Photography as Phantasy.
Speaking from his Sonoma studio, Parker, who will give a talk at Made in Santa Barbara‘s official opening on Saturday, July 14, noted that the fine art establishment had little interest in contemporary photography at that time. “There were no galleries of photography in Southern California in the early ’70s at all,” Parker said. “There really weren’t any curators of photography on the West Coast. People had a hard time getting exhibits. It wasn’t until the mid ’70s that people began to pay attention, even to artists like Ansel Adams. What you see today isn’t at all what it looked like then.”
Despite the relative lack of recognition, fine art photographers were living and working in Santa Barbara as early as the 1950s and ’60s. Josef Muench, Ines Roberts, Jesse Alexander, and Don Calamar were among those producing work in Santa Barbara at that time, and all are represented in the show. In the years following Parker’s tenure, SBMA continued to present photographic exhibitions. Gordon Baldwin, former curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum, noted of SMBA, “The reputation of the museum-its exhibition program for photography in particular-is really extraordinary. The number of shows and publications they’ve done is incredible; Santa Barbara is somewhere one wants to go in order to see the photography show at the museum. The department has done wonderful work, and it’s due to Karen Sinsheimer’s efforts.”
Despite a strong program of photography exhibitions, it wasn’t until 1994 that SBMA compiled an exhibit dedicated to the photography of artists residing in the area. Santa Barbara Connection, cocurated by Sinsheimer and Diana du Pont, featured the work of 10 area artists. About two years ago, Sinsheimer began considering pulling together a similar show for the 21st century, and started sifting through the museum’s permanent collection for works. Once those images were gathered, Sinsheimer joined forces with Rita Ferri, visual arts coordinator of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, and began visiting photographers in their studios. What they found surprised them. “I was astonished at the talent here when we started doing studio visits,” Sinsheimer said, noting that they based their selections on the perceived quality of the work rather than seeking out specific themes or subjects. Their initial plan was to include 20 artists, but the number grew to 30, then 40. Over the course of more than 30 studio visits, they discovered photographers employing processes and techniques ranging from the archaic ambrotype print to cutting-edge digital installations based on computer-driven algorithms. “We didn’t begin with any idea of how it would come together,” Ferri explained. “But we would look at a large body of work, and then each pick out the same three images. When you’ve been looking at art for as many years as we have, you just kind of see what’s good-the most sincere, innovative, visionary work jumps out at you.”
Some of the artists included in the show were referred by other photographers working in the community. “Artists are very generous people,” Sinsheimer noted. “They’d often say, ‘You should see my friend so-and-so’s work.’ Eventually we had to limit the list, but we could easily have included others.” Once studio visits were completed and the selection of works finalized, Sinsheimer and Ferri found themselves with 106 images that seemed to fall into four distinct categories: Classic Genre, including pristine landscape, still life, and portraiture; Constructed Realities, which are images whose subjects have been in some way manipulated by the artist; Documentary, including images of war and social protest; and Altered Landscapes, a category for landscapes that emphasize the impact of human activities on the natural environment. Despite their similarities, the works within each of these categories are as distinct from one another as are their makers.
Landscape photographer Macduff Everton has lived and worked in Santa Barbara for decades, but his photographs often originate elsewhere. He’s sometimes on the road for as many as 250 days a year, capturing images at once exotic and universal. Included in the current show are three of his atmospheric landscape panoramas from the museum’s permanent collection: Maui’s Haleakala Crater, Mono Lake after a snowstorm, and sunshine cutting through rain clouds in the English Lake District. “I look at landscape photography the same as portrait photography,” the artist explained. “Lighting completely changes the mood. All three of these shots were taken when the light was odd, and when most people wouldn’t have been out with a camera. If you don’t go out, you never have a chance to see something like this. It’s like when someone you know for years suddenly reveals something of themselves they’ve never shown before.”
While Everton’s revelations are caught by chance and in the field, the light illuminating Hilary Brace’s artificial cloudscapes is more crafted than discovered. Brace began her career as an artist in traditional media, creating elaborate, highly detailed drawings based on pure imagination. In order to make the subjects of her drawings more tangible, she began to build model clouds in her studio using cotton balls. “I was looking at how light fell on form,” Brace explained, “and then I wanted to have a two-dimensional picture to look at when my back was turned.” When she looked more carefully at the resulting photographs, Brace decided she didn’t need to draw them after all. Since 2005, she has been exhibiting this cotton-ball photography, and she was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to develop her work.
As a photographer, Brace has developed a working relationship with another artist in the show, Stephen Harrison, whose apocalyptic visions of smokestacks and power stations are created using Photoshop. “Stephen didn’t have a background in the kinds of things I bring to photography, like changing an edge, or showing perspective,” Brace reflected. “Those things are already there in photography-the artist doesn’t have to know how to produce them. I knew nothing about the technical aspects of digital photography. It led to an interesting association between us-he had to move toward drawing and I had to move toward using the computer, so we taught each other.” Brace acknowledged that she started out with a strong resistance to manipulating a photographic image. “In the works you see in the show, I stayed very true to the model,” she said. “I felt it was important to do that. Since then, I’ve broken through that prejudice. Now I think it doesn’t matter how you make an image-the image is what matters, and how you arrive there is less relevant than the strength of what you present.”
Whether art is a reflection or a distortion of reality-and whether it matters-is a debate with a long history. As Made in Santa Barbara makes clear, curators Sinsheimer and Ferri have no prejudice against overt manipulation and distortion of the image-Constructed Realities comprises one of the show’s larger sections. Just how the pictured reality is constructed varies widely, from Jane Gottlieb’s hand-painted Cibachrome print of a Bentley draped in gold lame, to Susan J,rgensen’s spare, Zen-like snowy egret with its head nestled against its breast. First you notice the clean, tear-drop shape of the egret’s white body against the dark background, and only then do you realize that it’s dead. “There are so many ways of working,” J,rgensen reflected. “I find it exciting that we all share the same basis, and yet we take it so many places.”
An entire gallery is devoted to documentary, but few of these pictures are of Santa Barbara. Cal Poly instructor Sky Bergman traveled to Japan to shoot in subways and trains, capturing intriguing juxtapositions, such as a young man in traditional Japanese dress seated next to an elderly woman in Western garb. Although Bergman splits her time between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, she has a strong sense of the photographic community here. “I’m really fortunate in that I had a great mentor in Richard Ross, who was my teacher at UCSB,” Bergman noted. “He introduced me to a lot of people-Macduff Everton, Jesse Alexander-and I went to work for them after graduate school. That was wonderful, because that connection is still there for me.” Bergman believes UCSB and Brooks Institute of Photography play a strong part in attracting young photographers to the region, and also notes that the age of digital information has changed the way artists work. “What I have seen in the last 10 or 12 years,” Bergman said, “is you used to have to be based in New York or San Francisco, but with the advent of the Internet, it’s easier to be elsewhere.”
Around the corner from Bergman’s shots are works by her mentor, Richard Ross, professor of photography at UCSB and another recent Guggenheim Fellowship recipient. Ross echoes Bergman’s take on the appeal of Santa Barbara. “I happen to own a home here; I raised my kids here; I walk my dog here. I can’t think of a better place on the planet. But I hope I’m no prisoner of paradise,” he said. Ross recently returned from a trip to Iran and will leave soon for China. The works by Ross exhibited in this show are from Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, where he was for a time immersed in the culture of horseracing. “I liked the challenge of doing something I’d never done before, like working with animals rather than totally depopulated spaces,” said Ross, who characterizes his more typical architectural work-particularly the images he produces in an ongoing relationship with the Getty Museum-as “really square-format, quiet stuff.” Of the exhibit, Ross said, “Photography is always a very populist medium, and Santa Barbara has a lot of voices-it’s nice to see an inclusive show, with old ones and the new ones in relationship to them.”
Perhaps the biggest name included in Made in Santa Barbara is Santi Visalli, a Sicilian photojournalist with a celebrated New York career, scores of national magazine covers and publications to his name, and a series of coffee-table books dedicated to the cityscapes of major American metropolises published by Rizzoli. Visalli retired and moved to Santa Barbara 10 years ago, and he continues to produce a book a year for Rizzoli.
Visalli’s images selected for the show include two of Vietnam War-era protests, and a third, ghostly image of the Korean War Monument in Washington, D.C., which is part of his book about that city. “The monument didn’t mean anything to me in the summer,” Visalli said. “It was pretty dull. Then I read a lot about the Korean War, and learned that the soldiers suffered a lot because of the climate. That picture was taken in a storm at 20 degrees below zero. I wanted to feel a little bit of what they felt, and I enjoy that picture a lot. The other two are historical pictures. When I shoot photographs, I never think of taking a picture, per se; I think about recording 1/500th of a second of history.” Of Made in Santa Barbara, Visalli said, “I personally didn’t know there were so many photographers working here; such a tremendous variety of things. It’s almost too much to absorb in one pass.”
Visalli is right-this exhibition warrants return visits. Certain images make an immediate, striking impression, like Josef Muench’s shot of the Santa Barbara Mission illuminated by fireworks, Jeff Brouws’s images of Hurricane Katrina survivors, Jesse Alexander’s portrait of Scottish Grand Prix champion Jim Clark, or Bob DeBris’s glimpse of carousel horses in an Iowa bean field. Others require time to sink in, such as Luther Gerlach’s luminous, antique-like ambrotypes of unfurling ferns, Barbara Parmet’s levitating seed pods, or Keith Fishman’s beautiful Carbon giclee prints of architectural spaces.
The excitement of the artists whose work is being recognized by the museum and made visible in this exhibition is matched only by Sinsheimer and Ferri’s satisfaction at seeing the show hanging on the gallery walls after two years of researching, assembling, and organizing the works. Never before has the museum presented the work of Santa Barbara-based photographers on such a scale, and the quantity, quality, and diversity of the work is staggering to artists, visitors, and curators alike. It is as if a curtain has been drawn back, exposing an artistic community that tends to be seen only in bits and pieces, but never as a whole.
“What has been most exciting are the discoveries,” said Sinsheimer, adding, “When you talk to an artist and you’re in their space, you understand the perseverance of people who have been so dedicated to their work. It can be difficult to get gallery space and recognition, but they continue.”
Just as a photographer turns the camera’s lens to face a subject and opens the aperture to let the light shine in, Made in Santa Barbara opens an important aperture on artists who make or have made Santa Barbara their home, and who help keep the artistic community here vibrant. Visit the museum this summer, and you’re likely to discover, as Sinsheimer has come to realize, that “there’s far more sophistication and accomplishment in Santa Barbara than we know.”
July 14-October 7
Starting on July 14, a series of recorded interviews with 15 artists whose work is featured in the show will be available online at sbma.net/podcast/podcasts.asp.
As part of July’s Nights event, organizers have been accepting public submissions to the Cell Phone Cinema. Selected images that were taken on cell phone cameras will be projected inside the museum during the event on July 19, from 5:30-8 p.m. Revelers attending Nights are also encouraged to bring their phones loaded with photographs to contribute to the interactive installation. The evening will also include a “tacky monuments” postcard-making workshop inspired by the Altered Landscape portion of the exhibition, a confessional booth that uses algorithms similar to those employed by Made in Santa Barbara installation artist George Legrady, and an opportunity to pose for a portrait shot by Bob DeBris, one of the exhibition’s featured photographers. Tickets to July’s Nights are selling fast-call 884-6414 or visit sbma.net/nights.
August 2, 9, & 23
As part of Made in Santa Barbara, curators selected the work of Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Gordon Forbes, who spent four months embedded with the U.S. Marines Alpha Company in Baghdad. His film Alpha Company: Iraq Diary-which includes the episodes “Strangers in a Strange Land,” “In the Wilderness of Zaidon,” and “The Rules of Engagement”-will screen for free at the Mary Craig Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. on three Thursdays in August; each episode is approximately 50 minutes long.
Since Nepal opened its borders to foreign travelers in the 1950s, much of its sacred art has been stolen and sold on the international art market. Lost Souls, a 2007 film directed by Natalie Sanderson and Sumnima Udas, tracks the removal of icons and statuary from their point of origin and their transformation into collectable fine art objects. The film is one hour long and will show in the Mary Craig Auditorium for free at 5:30 p.m.
In association with September’s 1st Thursday event, more than a dozen photographers whose work is featured in the exhibition will be present in the galleries from 5-8 p.m. to sign copies of their books as well as the exhibition catalog and to discuss their work with the public.
The Complete List of Photographers Represented in Made in Santa Barbara
Alexander, Jesse L.
Bayles, David Paul
Rubi, Danielle; & Bury, Graham