Anyone who’s visited Santa Barbara can attest to the city’s dramatic imagery. Jagged tan and green mountains smash abruptly into the blue Pacific. Red-tiled roofs and Mediterranean architecture surround quaint paseos and exotic gardens. Beautiful people crowd the sidewalks, frolic on the beaches, and wander the parks beneath the usually clear, windswept sky. It makes sense, then, that an astonishing number of acclaimed photographers—those artists tasked with capturing visual drama—call Santa Barbara home. Yet despite some of modern photography’s most prolific and talented professionals living within a stone’s throw of each other, it’s been over a decade since the best of these Santa Barbara shooters have been assembled under the same roof.
That all changed this July, however, when the Santa Barbara Museum of Art opened a sprawling exhibit called “Made in Santa Barbara: Contemporary Photographs,” featuring 106 images from 45 Santa Barbara-residing photographers. A testament to both the value of timeless, classic documentation and to the technological breadth of 21st century digital photography, the show—which runs through October 7—should be seen again and again, if only because it takes multiple visits for the more than 50 years’ worth of work to sink in.
The exhibition was in the planning stages for about two years, according to the museum’s photography curator Karen Sinsheimer, who scoured SBMA’s own impressive collection before enduring visits to 30 artists’ studios to cull the photographs. The resulting collection features well-known talents such as Macduff Everton, Jesse Alexander and Joseph Muench doing what they do best, but as Sinsheimer explains, “We’re hoping to surprise some people, too.” She’s referring to the previously uncelebrated photographers who are showing in a museum for the first time—such as Kate Connell’s looks at Kyoto frontyards and Sven Walnum’s 1960s parade-watcher photos—but also to the famous pros, like Richard Ross, whose featured works are nothing like what their fans have come to expect.
With such a wealth of hometown talent, “Made in Santa Barbara,” which also includes a crisp accompanying text with artist statements, seems like a no-brainer. But when asked if there’s a reluctance on the part of museums to feature artists from their own community, Sinsheimer nods effusively, explaining, “Oh yes, if only because it promotes the idea of ‘happy hands at home.’ Museums always want to have shows of international and national importance.” To rely on the local stock could potentially undermine that commitment. Thankfully, that is far from the case with “Made in Santa Barbara.”
Sinsheimer explains, “I want to disabuse people of the idea that these are local artists. They are important photographers in other museum collections. They’ve received important awards and fellowships. But we also want to show that we do support and collect from artists living in Santa Barbara. There is always the perception that we don’t support local artists, but about half of these works came from our permanent collection.” In short, SBMA is killing two big birds with one show: putting on an exhibit of international significance while simultaneously supporting its neighbors, a rare combination for a museum in a relatively small town.
Says Jesse Alexander, perhaps Santa Barbara’s most famous shooter for his racing images of the 1960s, “It’s a major deal. There’s a tremendous variety of imagery. It’s a major photography show, and anyone who is interested in photography would really love it.”
The show, which “took its own shape” as Sinsheimer assembled it, is broken into four categories. There is, of course, the “Classic” collection of landscapes, still lifes, and traditional portraiture, typified by the exhibit’s theme-setting centerpiece: Joseph Muench’s shot of fireworks exploding over the illuminated Santa Barbara Mission. This is also home to the early landscape photographs by the world-traveling MacDuff Everton, the ambrotypes of fiddlehead ferns by Luther Gerlach, the sandscapes of Robert Werling, and the seascapes of Ines Roberts, who’s probably better known in London than she is in her own backyard. Portrait-wise, attorney Gerry Spence breaks from the courtroom to deliver haunting looks at Southern folk while Eric Skipsey dusts off his 1950s photos of Sammy Davis Jr. and Igor Stravinsky, whose smoke wisps bisect a black-drop.
Turning the corner, exhibit-goers will find the “Altered Landscapes” collection, consisting of photographs depicting humankind’s impact on the environment. The Santa Barbara-centric highlight of this section is a study of light and lines from a parking garage behind the museum where David Paul Bayles captured a swirling exit ramp encircling a lone palm tree. Aerial master William B. Dewey juxtaposes that against the Owens Lake confluence, whose depictions of red oxides from high in the sky remind the viewer of gutters rushing with blood. Meanwhile, Bob DeBris continues finding humor in the weirdest places—specifically, carousel horses in a bean field, Soviet-esque busts of the Bush family in the forest, and human-sized beer bottles on a lawn—and architectural photographer Peter Malinowski sets his lens upon abandoned structures in the Southwest.
The altered collection meanders into the “Constructed Realities” set, where the digital possibilities of 21st century photography are revealed. Most astonishing here is the work of Hilary Brace, who created cloud cave dioramas out of cotton balls, and Stephen Harrison, a psychiatrist by training who digitally pieces together images of power plants into dark, futuristic depictions of a coming ecological apocalypse. Other standouts include Jane Gottlieb’s hand-painted on neon alphachromes and the 20-year-old black-and-whites of Wayne McCall, featuring recently inserted color images. As Sinsheimer explains, “Photography has never really been a true documentation, but now, no one believes that it is... Photography has expanded so much that these are really artists using photos now. That’s just the starting point.” From Virginia Barry’s manipulated birds on faces to Barbara Parmet’s dreamlike portraits, this section of the exhibit proves a lesson in extreme photographic techniques yet does so tastefully without tipping over into manipulation.
Notes psychiatrist-cum-photographer Harrison: “It’s the first time in history that photographers really can compete with artists. Before, we were so constrained by the camera, so confined by technology. I think photography is breaking from that old tradition of being representational. We almost got assigned that task before, to provide a literal recording of what you see, and it was cheating if you did anything else. But Ansel Adams never made a straight image. It’s the first time in history that all bets are off.” Thus, it is this section of the exhibit that holds the greatest current significance for the photography world at large.
That’s not to take away from the massive “Documentary & Photojournalism” collection, however, which occupies an adjoining room and includes a subset of images depicting war and protest. There are some familiar names here: Jesse Alexander, whose 1960s racing photos, including the iconic image of Jim Clark, grace the walls; Richard Ross, who eschews his usual large format pieces for a look at Kentucky horse racing; Santo Visali, who makes a snow-covered Korean War Memorial look like the real thing; and Kevin McKiernan, whose film “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds” will be showing continuously on a television screen.
Santa Barbara’s globe-trotting ways come alive here as well, through the blurry nighttime shots of the Sani people’s reindeer roundups in the Arctic Circle by Birgitte Aarestrup, Scott McClain’s intimate views of Tibetan temples, and the clash of tradition and technology on the subways of Tokyo as depicted by Sky Bergman. In the realm of war, Nik Wheeler shows us the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975, and Phillip Koplin reminds us of French Canada’s violent move for independence while Don Calamar’s negative prints of his World War II battalion remain both haunting and poignant.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which turned the bayou into something resembling the war-torn Third World, gets special treatment from photographers Jeff Brouws and Keith Fishman. Nell Campbell also makes a trek to her native South to capture the horrors of the Ninth Ward, where a smashed car sits in front of a dilapidated structure upon which someone has spray painted the word “Baghdad.”
After walking through the documentary section of “Made in Santa Barbara,” one is left with the impression of having witnessed a bit of living history on the walls of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. There is beauty here, much like the town that surrounds the museum, but there is also the grit of global reality and the spirit of groundbreaking creativity. That the artists all come from the same town is merely a compelling coincidence.
“Untitled (IV B)” 2005
Pigment print. Courtesy of the artist
Photo: courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Art