WHEN ACTOR JEFF BRIDGES started snapping pictures of his costars on movie sets—starting with the 1976 remake of King Kong—he probably didn’t figure those photographs, taken with an odd little Widelux camera, would one day line the walls of an art museum. How could he? That was before Bravo, Nancy O’Dell and E! True Hollywood Story legitimized America’s stargazing fetish—back when wanting to know what movie stars did on the set during those long hours before “action” and after “cut” was called voyeurism, not special features.
“Jeff Bridges: Pictures,” an exhibition of 71 black-and-white photographs from the four-time Academy Award nominee’s personal collection, visits the Museum of Photographic Arts November 17 through March 13, letting us blur the line between admiring a unique body of work and just plain gawking. Is it Bridges’ ability to grab all the shades of gray in a panned-back shot of Rosie Perez doing a wardrobe test for Fearless that makes us stroke our chins thoughtfully? Or is it the novelty of seeing a movie star at such a vulnerable moment? It’s hoped, says Carol Mc- Cusker, curator of photography at MoPA, it’s a little bit of both.
“When you look at these photos, you see not only the star in the foreground but also all of this activity going on around the edges,” says McCusker. You see moviemaking with its shirtsleeves rolled up, functioning on three hours of sleep, a tiny bit slaphappy. But beyond their heady, behind- the-scenes content, the images have a rich narrative layering that invites the eye (and mind) to wander from a focal point to the far reaches of the background—and back.
Bridges accomplished this rare perspective by intentionally misusing a camera introduced in 1948 for taking group photos and capturing sweeping panoramic landscapes. The Widelux camera pans nearly 180 degrees, using a slow-moving slit instead of a traditional shutter to expose the film. In Bridges’ interpretation of panorama, pictures tell stories you can practically read from left to right.
In one photo, a spotlit Michelle Pfeiffer stands on a piano in a ballroom scene from The Fabulous Baker Boys, surrounded by crew, surrounded by extras. Another shows a sea of mannequins filling in a grandstand scene for Seabiscuit. “The Widelux is a fickle mistress,” Bridges writes in the introduction to his coffee-table book, Pictures (the precursor to this exhibit). “Its viewfinder isn’t accurate, and there’s no manual focus, so it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality.”
It’s also cumbersome to carry, slow to load and extremely delicate. Consequently, getting your picture taken with such a temperamental device is no simple pointand- click affair. It harks back to the days when photography was a novelty and people had to actually hold still for a shot, which might explain why so many of Bridges’ subjects—from Tobey Maguire (Seabiscuit) to Julianne Moore (The Big Lebowski)—have such bemused expressions on their faces. Ready for their close-ups, they look like they’re having fun beneath all that pancake makeup and flop sweat. After all, pictures don’t lie.
Then again, this is Hollywood.
CIRCLE OF LIFE
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE ALL ABOUT remembering. Posing for their mother’s camera at the fountain in the courtyard of Balboa Park’s House of Hospitality, two little boys become the unplanned yet perfect preamble to the experience of “Circle of Memory,” an installation of images, straw and salt at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
Because the experience is olfactory and audible as well as visual, it is possible to come away with straw in one’s hair, tears in one’s eyes and a heart that’s somehow lighter, despite the fact that “Circle of Memory” concerns grieving—in particular, grieving the death of a child.
As noted at the entrance, the death of a child is one of the most painful events a family or community can suffer. “Circle of Memory” seems especially apropos for our times when one considers the parents and siblings of those lost on September 11 and in the Iraq war.
Conceived and realized by Eleanor Coppola, Jean McMann, Robilee Frederick, Elizabeth Macdonald, Richard Beggs and Alexander V. Nichols, “Circle of Memory” is a straw-bale construction that was inspired by the ancient memorial cairns of Ireland. Inside such a cairn, Coppola and her friends Macdonald and McCann conducted a ceremony to speak the names of their deceased loved ones. Coppola and her husband, film director Francis Ford Coppola, lost a son 18 years ago.
Throughout the exhibit there are writing materials to be used for memorial notes. Further, visitors are invited to leave small images of loved ones. Tucked into chinks between straw bales, the tributes and memorials will be incorporated into bales used for future installations of “Circle of Memory,” thus becoming part of a larger ritual that might—and does—comfort others.
Inevitably, one is drawn down a sapling- thatched straw-bale corridor, around Frederick’s translucent door to the interior. Sit and contemplate the lighted stream of salt that falls from the ceiling, forming a mound that will grow as the weeks go by. It’s like being inside the hourglass of eternity.
The importance of this exhibit,” says grief counselor Dr. Ken Druck, “is its existence in a culture that does everything in its power to hide, deny, repress and hurry grief, which is society’s messy business. We’d just as soon get people over it, sanitize it, and go back to the illusion of a life where every problem can be fixed, every pain has a pill, and every emptiness has a diversion.” (Counselors from the San Diego Bereavement Consortium, of which Druck is a member, are on call for “Circle of Memory” visitors who feel they would like to talk about their experience.)
The size of “Circle of Memory” is surprising; so are its intimacy, earthy odor and its invitation to linger and be embraced as if by a circle of friends who understand.
(Through November 7, Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-238-7559, www.mopa.org.)
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
THE BLURRED FACE OF A BOY floats in murky blackness, like a ghost seen through a peephole.
Tanya, Lisa, Samantha and Jacaranda get ready for another night on the town in a series of stark interior shots that seem simultaneously gloomy and joyful.
A stoneworker repairing the floor of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, beneath glass cases displaying ancient artifacts, pauses and looks unflinchingly into the camera. Shame on us for staring.
Each of these portraits, part of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s “Eye Spy: Photography from the Permanent Collection” exhibition, invokes a stormy love triangle among the viewer, photographer and enigmatic souls who stand before the lens. Forget everything you’ve come to expect from photography in its pure and simple Ansel Adams form. The 14 pieces comprised by this exhibition hint at hidden meanings, construct elaborate realities and present maddeningly subtle scenarios—whatever it takes to keep you from that satisfying hit of clarity you get when you look at a photo titled Man on a Horse and you see a man on a horse.
“The camera sees a world we can’t see with the naked eye,” says curator Stephanie Hanor, who describes “Eye Spy” as a “small but provocative” display of photographs from the museum’s collection. The show also gives the museum a chance to flaunt a few recent acquisitions, such as three playful images from Anne Collier’s Aura Photo series and a diptych by celebrated South African photographer David Goldblatt.
“At first glance, these photographs appear to be very straightforward,” Hanor says. “But when you know a little more about the artists and how they work, you realize that they are actually quite controlled.”
When you know, for example, that Ohio artist Ann Hamilton is best known for creating large, site-specific installations that people experience more than merely observe, then her blurry piece titled face . . . emmett takes on a new layer of meaning. Using a miniature pinhole camera that fit inside her mouth, Hamilton recorded the image by using her opening and closing mouth as an aperture. The resulting photo (one in a series) captures a moment of haunting curiosity and off-kilter perspective as the mouth becomes the eye.
Sharon Lockhart’s three photos of proud Enrique Nava Enedina: Oaxacan Exhibit Hall, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City tug at the heartstrings, while El Paso artist James Drake’s depiction of Mexican transvestites Tanya, Lisa, Samantha and Jacaranda in Que Linda La Brisa (How Lovely the Breeze) is a dark valentine to people living on the shaky edges of society.
Activist/artist Armando Rascón, who made his mark on the local landscape by leading a community effort to beautify an imposing 2-mile wall along the Mexico/United States border, makes an appearance in this exhibition. So does the legendary Texas photographer Nic Nicosia, whose grim suburban portraits and slightly bent art films have confounded fans of conventional photography and garnered comparisons to filmmaker David Lynch.
Of his photo Real Pictures #7, featured in the exhibition, Nicosia will only say, cryptically, “I made this picture to reflect what it feels like to kill something.” And of course we wouldn’t want Nicosia to give away anything more than that. Because the rest of the story lies as much in our imagination as it does in his.
(Through January 30, 2005, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-1625; www.mcasd.org.)