“the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time."
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets
I suppose that the desire to depict one's place and culture is innate; in Anatolia, 7000 B.C., a map of houses with a background of an erupting volcano was sketched on a rock. Since then innumerable community visual explorations have been made - in Egypt, Greece and Rome. In the last 100 years several monumental photographers, Eugene Atget in the 19th century and Robert Frank in the 20th, incised particulars of people and place. More recently, organizations in Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, among others, have commissioned contemporary photographers to examine their cities. The desire to understand better, to see anew, to produce a heightened perception motivates such endeavors. It was particularly provocative to imagine what cultivated, serious photographers would reveal about Santa Barbara. In a way, Focus/Santa Barbara is a curious vanity indulgence, like having your portrait painted by Francis Bacon!
To achieve this investigation of Santa Barbara, six photographers, Walter Cotten, Larry Fink, Lee Friedlander, Mary Ellen Mark, Richard Misrach and Richard Ross, were asked to participate. The assignment was to respond in their own unique style to different aspects of this remarkable Southern California city nestled between the ocean and mountains. They were asked to produce from 10 to 20 photographs for exhibition. The five out-of-town photographers had open-ended invitations to stay as long as they needed to complete their work. Their visits ranged from Mark's two, brief transcontinental trips to Misrach's forays lugging his awkward view camera off and on for over a year's duration.
In addition to selecting photographers whose previous body of work had merit and distinction, an attempt was made to provide an interesting variety from many points of view. Having achieved international recognition, Mark, Fink and Friedlander from the East Coast, are already a part of photo history. They are mature and experienced in working on assignments for magazines, books and other exhibitions. None had spent much time in Santa Barbara.
Fink had never even been here. So, their impressions were fresh and spontaneous. Mark and Fink, engrossed in photographing people and social encounters, often make photographs which produce visceral reactions in the viewer. However, their approaches are entirely different, Fink tends to chiaroscuro interior scenes of personal drama which sometime communicate pathos or tenderness. Mark, a documentary photographer, relates to daytime events (the Solstice celebration) and life in society's institutions, (Casa Dorinda). On the other hand, Friedlander roams around with just his Leica around his neck, omnivorously covering the natural and made world.
The three California photographers, Cotten from Los Angeles, Misrach from the Bay area and Ross from Santa Barbara, have varying degrees of regional presence in the photographic world. Familiar with Santa Barbara Misrach has taught at UCSB, Cotten lived here for ten years while Ross is a long-time resident - their knowledge of the community and their contacts assisted their access.
Working in color, the three look intently at the landscape from varying personal perspectives. Cotten, an artist who draws on his visual repertory with media other than photography, employs a formal, highly structured and wry approach. Misrach, in contrast, illuminates the ocean 'scape through evocative soft focus poetically edged with society's menace. The romantic notion is Ross' gift, huge pictures mainly of lush gardens each defined by an empty bench aptly described by him as "set designs for an undisclosed play."
What the six photographers share defines them as much as their differences. They all find "place" important as a trigger in their art. Indeed, that tendency was one of the criteria for their invitation to this project. Each camera artist has his or her own style; yet, the range in Focus/Santa Barbara is deliberately narrow. Their appetite is to describe the minutiae and the panorama of existing situations here and now in the manner of straight" classical tradition. There is no evidence in the exhibition of popular, experimental photographic techniques, such as multiple exposures, verbal overlay, or studio constructions. And, none of the six uses photography as a persuasive weapon aimed at changing society. They care and comment, but they accept the world.
I urge you, the viewer, to beware of Focus/Santa Barbara, especially if you already think you know what is visually exciting in Santa Barbara. Preconceptions can blind, and expectations might be disappointed. Although Santa Barbara is very photogenic, we have been overexposed to stereotypical reproductions of the County Courthouse, the red-tiled roofs, and the sunsets appearing in calendars, newspapers, postcards and real estate brochures. These images usually emanate from chauvinism or a desire to sell our city.
The Focus/Santa Barbara picture makers bypass the easy picturesque in favor of editing reality through their psychological and aesthetic focus. They skip the obvious Santa Barbara symbols, though the sheer, palpable beauty of Santa Barbara is inescapable and evident throughout the exhibition. They astonish by revealing essences about Santa Barbara, about photography and about themselves. What we see in the photographs, of course, is not what we would see as observers on the scene. In changing three to two dimensions, instantaneous decisions about light, space, form, color, and emotion are made by the photographer. Camera vision is the result of one person manipulating light, through an optical, mechanical and chemical process. The key, however, is the "person' because it is through the personality, concerns, imagination and insight as well as visual vocabulary of the photographer that our attention is refocused on the final image. Focus/Santa Barbara is all about five men and one woman making that gallant attempt.
BY ULRICH KELLER
Geography is destiny one is tempted to say when looking down on the city of Santa Barbara from the Santa Ynez mountain ridge. Most American cities are flat, plainly and simply, refusing to cooperate with the ingrained human endeavor to create distinctions. On even ground, cut into identical squares by the usual grid of streets meeting at 90 degree angles, only a railroad track or a river bed can be used to classify neighborhoods, even though the soil and the air is still the same on both sides of the dividing line. Flying over such a city by plane reveals little of its housing patterns and income distribution - except, perhaps, for rows of tiny blue rectangles marking the areas where swimming pools upgrade the quality of life.
Santa Barbara is not like that. Millions of years ago, violent geographical upheavals created a complex configuration of mesa and beaches, mountains, valleys and canyons which waited to be settled to give the differentiation of human society a solid geological underpinning. When the Spanish appeared 200 years ago, the city immediately grew up around different foci. The Franciscan church with its colony of Indian neophytes was built on the high ground presiding over the sloping plane to the ocean. Halfway down the slope, the Presidio became the center of the Spanish soldier and merchant town. And beneath the Mesa lay an old Indian village, inhabited by natives opposed to Christian faith and forced labor. Ever since, the social flora extended between the principal geological formations has grown increasingly diverse. The old money in Montecito, the new money in Hope Ranch, the comfortable middle class on the East Side and up and down the Riviera, the tourists round the harbor, the artists in Summerland, the students in Isla Vista, the white collars in Goleta, the service class on the West Side and in rental housing all over the place; and in lieu of a slum the big old fig tree downtown where homeless people could stay until sleeping in public places was decreed a felony.
In spite of the enormous physical and social differentiation of this city, Santa Barbarans themselves, at least for official purposes, like to describe their habitat in other terms, as "America's Eden," for example, as an undivided place, that is, a realm of happiness sub gratia, before the original act of sin introduced all kinds of differences, between the sexes, between classes, between gardens and deserts. And admittedly, the town has done a lot to make itself attractive to upper-class tourists, retired Hollywood stars and similar paradise seekers. Where a luscious decor of bougainvillea, oleander and hibiscus greets the eye today, there was only an expanse of yellow grass with dots of crippled oak trees a century ago; and the town that used to be indistinguishable from any other Yankee settlement of comparable size within a radius of 3000 miles has reconstructed itself into Spanish-Colonial elegance. Local pride has firm foundations here, not to mention that it is an economic necessity for a major tourist center.
As Mark has pointed out herself, she photographs not because she travels, but she travels because she photographs. Describing herself as a 'transient" in relation to the cultures through which she passes at a rapid pace partially on fellowships, partially on commercial assignment - she brings home (but where is home?) pictures in which the inhabitants of those cultures have left transient traces in relation to her, the observer. Sometimes topical, more often private views - Bangladesh prisoners, hash smokers in Goa, beggars in Katmandu, desert dancers in Niger, mourning mothers in Oaxaca, gypsies in Ainsalah, praying Hindus in Benares, London junkies, angry Belfast mothers, the 90-year-old Eastern princess in a bikini at the beach of Nice, the stripper in Hollywood and the female recruit in survival training in Alabama - Mary Ellen Mark has seen them all and committed them to photographic paper with their odd stares, exaggerated smiles and bizarre body language which assure us that other (sub)cultures exist out there, intense, tragic, grotesque but alive, thank God, providing an alternative to the blandness of the American domestic scene.
This year, Mark found room in her tight schedule for two visits to Santa Barbara on occasion of the annual Solstice Parade, one of the festivities which reinforce the city's image as a fun-loving community of half-Latin lightheartedness. It is a costume parade, inviting people to reinvent themselves, and so they do, lavishly, if not always coherently, providing plenty of food for a hungry camera. Mark's sense for the odd sadness and merriness of human life comes through as usual here. A grin for the sake of the camera, a forlorn stare and a mask of unconscious pain quickly alternate, just as the heads of dinosaurs and ostriches alternate with children's faces, black and white. The details of ornate costumes clash with equal force: bulging bras and tangled trestles, glistening beads and rustling gauze, naked skin and shiny latex are scrambled into an entertaining visual omelette.
Mark uses a special approach to heighten the expressiveness of the pictures. Moving up close to her subjects, she bursts flashlights right into their faces (a Diane Arbus technique); in combination with the bright sunlight the paraders are thus caught between two fires and numerous details are aggressively highlighted. Moreover, Mark shoots from a very low angle, sometimes less than knee-high, an angle which, at close range, produces perspective distortions contributing to the bizarre intensity of these scenes. It could be said that due to the artificially demoted viewpoint the two dogs in the park come across as the only human beings in the series.
In contrast to the queer but vital parade reportage the two Casa Dorinda pictures are dominated by a cold and stilted choreography. We are looking at the carefully fenced-off playground of the rich and elderly, and in Mark's frog-eye approach this exclusive subculture has few charms to offer.
No doubt, Mary Ellen Mark uses lens distortions very consciously. Much like Friedlander and Fink, who also bank on the camera's peculiarities such as the compression of space and the creation of puzzling formal relationships, she exploits the "noise," the eccentricities of the medium as a heuristic principle. But the overall result is different. Instead of producing by means of this strategy surprising symbioses between things and people, she ends up imposing on her subjects the character of alien beings, confirming her own status as an eternally transient observer.
Untitled, Santa Barbara, 1985, silver print, 11x14
MARY ELLEN MARK
Born 1940, Philadelphia, now living in New York City.
B.F.A., Painting and Art History, University of Pennsylvania, 1962
M.A., Photojournalism, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, 1964
Fullbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey, 1965-66
U.S.I.A. Grant to lecture and exhibit in Yugoslavia, 1975
National Endowment for the Arts, 1977, 1979-80
New York State Council for the Arts CAPS Grant, 1979
Commissioned Artist with the Bell System Photography Project, 1978
Page One Award for Excellence in Journalism The Newspaper Guild of New York "Children of Desire" The New York Times Magazine, (September 30, 1979), 1980
University of Missouri First Place Feature Picture Story "Mother Teresa in Calcutta" Life Magazine, (July 1980), 1981
Robert F Kennedy Journalism Award First Prize "Mother Teresa in Calcutta" Life Magazine, July 1980, 1981
Leica Medal of Excellence, Falkland Road, 1982
Canon Photo Essayist Award - "Streets of the Lost," Life Magazine, (July 1983), 1983
First Place Magazine Published Picture Story - University of Missouri Pictures of the Year, "Streets of the Lost," Life Magazine, 1983
Robert F Kennedy Award - Honorable Mention - "Streets of the Lost," Life Magazine, 1983
Robert F. Kennedy Award First Prize "Camp Goodtimes" Life Magazine, 1985
1976 Photographers Gallery, London
1976-77 Gallery Forum, Stradpack, Graz, Austria
1977 Santa Barbara Museum of Art Port Washington Library
1978 Castelli Graphics, New York, 'Ward 81'
Boise Gallery of Art, Boise, Idaho
1978-79 Photography Gallery, Yarra, Australia
1979 Museum of Art, University of Oregon, 'Ward 81'
Gallery Nagel, Berlin, 'Ward 81', 'Bars'
1981 Castelli Graphics, New York, 'Falkland Road'
Olympus Gallery, London, 'Falkland Road'
1982 Seson Art Gallery, University of California, Santa Cruz, 'Falkland Road'
California Museum of Photography, Riverside, 'Falkland Road'
Drew University, New Jersey, 'Ward 81 'Bars'
1983 Gallery of Fine Arts, Daytona Beach Community College Friends of Photography, Carmel, California
BOOKS BY MARY ELLEN MARK
Passport, Lustrum Press, 1974
WArd 81, Simon & Schuster, 1979
Falkland Road, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981
Mother Teresa, Her Missions in Calcutta, The Friends of Photography, 1985
Streetwise, to be published in 1985
MARY ELLEN MARK, Untitled, Santa Barbara, 1985, silver print, 11 x 14
MARY ELLEN MARK, Untitled, Santa Barbara, 1985, silver print, 20 x 16
MARY ELLEN MARK, Untitled, Santa Barbara, 1985, silver print 20 x 16