The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years at Annenberg Space for Photography Offers more than 125 Minutes worth of Brilliance!

Photo Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography

Photo Courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography

In the heart of Los Angeles’ glamorous Century City where restaurants’ days of repose ironically comprise both Saturdays and Sundays, where majestic fountains dot overly-manicured lawns amidst alternately running Boulevards and where Los Angeles’ Twin Towers rub noses to form three triangles from an aerial vantage point (trust me, I googled it, it’s a *thing*) resides a small, yet sophisticated space resembling a concrete bungalow.

Photo Courtesy of Annenberg Space for Photography

Photo Courtesy of Annenberg Space for Photography

Said arena: The Annenberg Space for Photography.

Nestled behind the Twin Towers on Century Park East and to the rear and left of the old Schubert theatre inhabiting Avenue of the Stars, it is both an idyllic and challenging place in which to mount any given photographic exhibit incumbent up volume, proportion and how one prefers to view photography.

My expert guest for the day:  Noted actor, director and photographer, Parker Stevenson.  He observes shadows where they escape my attention, light where I see dark, and possesses a very grounded and meditative vision regarding how best to observe photographic artistry.

Upon first entering the building, the outer halls beckon and reinforce the inner sanctum that is the main exhibit.  Detaining the observer visually (not to mention, suspensefully) from the muffled sounds of the continually looped film that comprises the central display, these fortifications, that are the curved walls of The Annenberg Space for Photography, serve a dual purpose in aesthetic and soulful entertainment as photo after photo adorns nearly every conceivable inch.

An aerial view of Yellowstone’s Caldera begs our attention sporting vibrant greens, turquoises and ambient earth tones, the pulsing intensity of which might color any environmentally emphatic, googley-eyed hippie’s most bodacious acid trip.

A cluster of tumbleweed the size of a Buick hovers fluidly above a dirt road somewhere in the southwest as though powerfully punted by a New York giant—(no really…an actual giant…from New York!)  (Magical!!!)

A child bride stares innocently up at an adult cradling her preciously serene face and you wonder how she can maintain the facade of such calm amidst the turmoil (both inner and outer) that is her imminent fate. (‘Cause if that was me, I am quite certain my entire body would be writhing and contorted in a perpetual scream and not a photo would be capable of being captured devoid of such an expression!)

We then move on to a woman in what looks like a dark red burqa, in what resembles a glowing desert, sporting a cage of birds on her head to which Parker calls my attention.  He informs me that there is a “Bird Lady” out in Venice Beach.  “Ever been to Venice?”  he asks.  I tell him I haven’t been there, since…’69—“EIGHTEEN sixty nine” I think to myself as an afterthought, but demur milking the already-expressed joke any further despite his good-humored congeniality.

“Now, what do you see when you look at this photo?” I ask.  The woman is awash in sunlight.  It glints off her birdcage, accentuates the sheen on the birds’ wings…and almost makes her royal red burqa glow like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak being unfurled upon its first extraction.

“Shadows…I look at shadows…”

(“Shadows?  Huuuh?  Who are you and what are you talking about?  Ummm…do I even know you…?” I muse jovially for a half second.)

I regard the image again and focus on what I hadn’t before.  There are indeed shadows, particularly where the as-yet-unseen shaded area begins to her lower right, and extends, ever so subtly, up to the left of her body.  There are creases and gathers where there were none before and, had I not asked, would never have experienced the full breadth of depth and texture emanating from this otherwise light-infused photo.  I see the light now…I totally see the light…regarding this heretofore unperceived aspect of darkness…and it makes all the sense in the world…

The pictures are, indeed, arresting not to mention awe-inspiring and, despite the populated interest that encompasses the outer sanctum’s audience, I can sense only calm and wonder amidst the virtual crowd.  Everyone browses at their own pace, and like a halcyon tank of fish, moves in and out of the way instinctively so as to make room for fellow onlookers swimming to and from varying and sundry vantage points.

Photo by Jim Richardson │ National Geographic

Photo by Jim Richardson │ National Geographic

We come to the end of the hall, however, and are transformed from serenely floating fish into deer caught in some colorfully vibrant headlights as the first hint of static gridlock overtakes us at the mouth of the multi-media infused inner-sanctum.   The so-called lights in question?–The first of many automatic slideshows that will pervade the remainder of the exhibit.  As arresting as all prior photos, so are the slides.  Included in all their backlit glory are colorful captions and circa years.  But they are all on a timer and stay up for as long as I might have to check a few facebook status updates, if I wanted to.  But I don’t want to. It would ruin the vibe.  I am here to soak in as many pictures as possible in the limited amount of time I have.

{It is at this juncture that I feel the need to make and aside like I’ve never felt the need to make an aside before in my entire life.  (Okay, I exaggerate but that doesn’t take away from the supplementary emphasis of the following.):  I very much enjoy the years included with the captions via the slideshows–an element notably omitted from the wall-mounted photos.  When it comes to looking at pictures, historical or otherwise, I heartily appreciate having a sense of what was going on in the world at the time of their capture; to see the big picture, if you will…behind the picture.  Was Nixon visiting the Chinese?  Were we dancing to the Bee Gees?  Had the Mets won the World Series or were the so-called “cooler” kids pretending not to like 98 Degrees?  The idea that we are all connected within time’s tapestry, inextricably interwoven via the loom of life’s largest events is a notion I find consistently haunting and invigorating…} 

 ~sigh~ If only there was a way to view all these things at our own pace and/or view all displays simultaneously like one big giant mind meld!!!

As we commence deeper into the central display, I am arrested most notably by the documentary film running continually on two large screens on either side of the central arena.  I settle near the screen to my right but can’t help but notice Parker milling around as though searching for something; deep in thought…wheels turning…

“Hey, I found a place where we can see the film and two of the slideshows all at the same time,” he will come and inform me moments later.  And that Folks is yet another reason to bring a guest expert with you!  In one slick move he has assessed the entire room and determined the optimal place for us to stand in order to soak in as much brilliance as possible!–Not only is he a top notch photographer, he also majored in architecture and clearly has command of spaces and how to evaluate them, quite the stealth combination!

I have to admit I focus primarily on the film but still remember to look at both slide shows intermittently and somewhat regularly.  Is it my optimal choice in terms of photo observation?  No.  I prefer to peruse static images accompanied by years (and perhaps even captions) I can view at my own pace, but the Annenberg has only so much wall space and the curators of this exhibit have been as creative and forward thinking as possible concerning the breadth and volume of the copious amounts of artistry in question.

Photo by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel │ National Geographic

Photo by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel │ National Geographic

Photographs that stand out in my mind range from the early 1900s to the early 2000s. (Wouldn’t it be weird if I said something later than that?):  Carl L. Lomen’s Nome Alaska Eskimo man circa 1900, wearing a parka made of walrus intestine that shines like space age material (“Michelin Man to Outer Space”, I will come term it.),  Robert E. Peary’s 1909 portrait of an American  explorer claiming to be the first to reach the North Pole, Hugo van Lawick’s famous 1965 portrait of Dr. Jane Goodall availing her hand to a seemingly clingy chimp looking at something or someone out of frame as if to say, “Hey Mom…Mom I’m going with her!  This lady’s nice!  Gives me bananas whenever I want …dinner appetite be damned!”  Steve McCurry’s 1991 post-Gulf War, Kuwait portrait exhibiting camels foraging for uncontaminated plants and water, as scarlet clouds of fire and smoke from burning oil fields rise in the background of their silhouetted humps, Jim Richardson’s 2008 image of light pollution and fog enveloping New York’s Central Park and Paul Nicklen’s 2012 Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Manatee, where this hale and hearty gal poses precociously like any supermodel-among-manatees should!

Photographers featured in the film include:

Marcus Bleasdale, noted British Photojournalist and human rights activist.  Having spent twelve years covering the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he subsequently published “One Hundred Years of Darkness” (a photographic rejoinder to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) and “The Rape of a Nation” focusing on the issue of diamond and gold exploration and its insidious effect on the surrounding populace.

–Nature Photographer Joel Sartore, most famous within the context of this exhibit, for his capture of a surprised looking five month-old mandrill.  Wide energetic eyes, hand over mouth, the primate reacts to “a visitor” near a bushmeat market in Malabo, a city on Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea.  Somewhat comedic upon first glance, the photo serves as a grim reminder of illicit poaching still prevalent in much of the world today, exacerbated dually by the perceived huggable qualities of the creature and its soulfully arresting eyes…  A twenty year contributor to National Geographic, Sartore’s first inspiration came from an article in his mother’s Time-Life picture books regarding the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

–Martin Schoeller, former apprentice to Annie Leibovitz who, in the mid-nineties, perfected his craft of the “big head” portrait technique in the style of “hyper-detailed close-ups”.  His Twin series is featured heavily in this exhibit along with captures of certain celebrities.  It is as though the images are hyper-lit without distortion and instead of washing the subject out like an overexposed flash, renders all facial features sharper, yet effervescent.  Any variations in skin tone and skin texture are enhanced, but at the same time, softened.  Eyes glow like something intriguingly alien; souls appear to jump off the page (or the screen) at the perceived moment of capture like a heavenly hiccup.  It is eerie and ethereal all in one (etheerieal?).  Other than that, it’s hard to explain…which is, I guess, why they are meant to be experienced as photos, not as words.  Therefore, I shall shut up now…

And last but not least—the one female of the group—and one of the gutsiest as far as I can tell:

–Lynsey Addario.  It is one of the first things I see as I pass the screen of the film in progress; stories and pictures of women, mostly in blue burqas.  Abuse is the primary theme here along with male domination.  A distressing photo of a permanently disfigured Afghani woman’s face stares helplessly out at the viewing audience all because she tried to leave her husband.  (“I will not cry, Iwillnotcry, I will not get upset,” I think to myself as I pinch my inner arm.)  Another photo of two women in burqas hovering over two folded blankets in the desert, and a photo featured prominently in this exhibit, tells the story as follows:  “Noor Nisa, about 18, was pregnant; her water had just broken.  Her husband, whose first wife had died during childbirth, was determined to get her to the hospital in Faizabad, a four-hour drive from their village in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province.  His borrowed car broke down, so he went to find another vehicle.  I ended up taking Noor Nisa, her mother and her husband to the hospital, where she delivered a baby girl.  My interpreter, who is a doctor, and I were on a mission to photograph maternal health and mortality issues, only to find the entire story waiting for us along a dusty road.”

Photo by Lynsey Addario │ National Geographic

Photo by Lynsey Addario │ National Geographic

Her photographic career has spanned roughly 18 years while she has striven tirelessly to expose women’s rights abuses.  Having worked in places such as Argentina, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, the Congo and Haiti, her life has been in peril more than several times; most notably in March of 2011 at the hands of the Libyan government where she went missing for several days.  She reports being blindfolded and bound, groped, abused both physically and psychologically and told repeatedly she was going to die.

In November 2011 The New York Times issued a letter of complaint on Addario’s behalf to the Israeli government concerning her treatment at the hands of Israeli soldiers at the Erez Crossing where she was allegedly strip searched and mocked.  She says she was then forced to go through an X-ray scanner several times despite the fact that she was clearly pregnant.

About an hour after we’ve left the exhibit, Parker will ask if I think photography is dead.  I ponder this a second and tell him “no” but don’t have as articulate of an answer as I would like as to why this is my answer.

Well…I have it now.  And here’s what I know…

In reference to the old joke that nobody likes looking at other people’s vacation slideshows (ah, the tyranny of the slideshow) I know that this is certainly not so much the case today.  With multi-media in all its varying manifestations, the observer can now browse at his or her leisure and exercise a little autonomy over his or her viewing choices.  I know that, pertaining things like facebook, pinterest, instagram etc… this has made all the difference and that people, now more than ever, are sharing, delighting in, and commenting on each other’s photos like never before.

I know that photography isn’t dead the same way cinema and video are hardly on the brink of extinction.  After all, if audiences can be captivated by two hours of imagery within film, why would 1/25th-1/1000thof a second’s worth of imagery be any less valuable or compelling?

And finally, I know that if one woman with a camera is enough to cause a near International incident, photography has to be one of the most powerful, change potentiating things we could ever imagine!

“The Power of Photography:  National Geographic 125 Years” runs until April 27th 2014 at the Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA 90067, (213) 403-3000, www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org

Hours:  Tuesday through Friday:  11 am – 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday: 11 am – 9 pm, (hours now extended due to popular demand) closed Mondays.  Admission is freeParking with validation is $3.50 Tuesdays – Fridays and $1.00 on weekends.

To view some of the most vibrant and textural headshots/photos I’ve ever seen (or simply partake of a most serenely Zen experience as it is one of the more relaxing websites I’ve ever encountered) please visit Parker Stevenson ShadowWorks at:

http://www.parkerstevensonshadowworks.com/

Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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