JUST INSIDE THE ENTRANCE to the current LACMA exhibition "California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way," are two modest vintage aerial photographs. Both depict the section of Wilshire Blvd that the museum itself occupies today, and the horizon stretching to the west beyond. Black and white, and yellowing, they're plain enough to almost disappear, especially because they are installed next to a glimmering restored Airstream trailer. Juxtaposed, what is compelling about the photographs is their discrepancy. In the first image, taken in 1922, there are only a handful of buildings visible, mostly cabins and sheds on a vast open plain. But in the second image, taken just seven years later, the entire landscape is filled with residences, cars and paved sidestreets. As a preamble to the exhibition, the conspicuous contrast between the two images is clearly meant to suggest that the California design boom of the 30s and 40s was demand driven. Houses had been built, and people needed to furnish them. The pictures drive home the breakneck pace of 1920s real estate development with a quiddity that mere statistics might never furnish. A photograph can force one to adjust one's view, one's image of history in ways that no written paragraph can.
But the purely factographic aspect of a photograph can never be all, especially in an art museum. How could we begin to talk about what these images mean as pictures, as art? (The curators duck this question. Notably, the wall text credits the images to Spence Air Photos, not the photographer Robert Spence who took them.) Personally, I find myself drawn to the earlier image. The pleasure lies partly in how thinly painted the strokes of civilization are, in the romance of wild, barbaric nineteenth century Los Angeles. Both the image and its subject are primitive, tentative. In an art culture that has thoroughly embraced topographical photography as both a strategy and a historical precedent within neo-conceptual art, the buckeye ruggedness of the two prints is strangely alluring. There are, of course, many images like Spence's in local photographic archives (the public library's online photo archive is especially strong) though perhaps not as many as one might expect. This kind of image is attractive partly because it is crude by today's standards, but its aesthetic appeal is ultimately inseparable from the larger narrative that encompasses the growth of cities in the West, and one's own personal gut intuitions about society, nature, urban living, and the idea of progress.
Across the way in the same exhibition, a spread from a 1949 issue of Life Magazine gets a slightly different treatment. Unlike Robert Spence, photographer Julius Shulman is identified by his name, not the name of his company. The image in the magazine is Shulman's iconic view of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. As has been documented in a steady stream of books, Shulman actively constructed his architectural photographs, furnishing foregrounds with trees and shrubs, and decorating interiors with chairs, tables, vases, and rugs, often from his own personal collection. As a designer (which he never would have called himself), he had a knack for using decor to soften the aridity of high modernism, making it accessible to mainstream tastes without disrupting its essentialist forms. His mo...read more