The Getty: ‘Where We Live’

Photographs of a door, a movie theater seat and a tricycle may not sound like the most captivating visual representations of American culture in the late 20th century, but with the Getty’s new exhibit, ‘Where We Live: Photographs of America From the Berman Collection,’ on display through Feb. 25, photographs collected by Warner Brothers executive Bruce Berman present diverse and thought-provoking slices of Americana that can be enjoyed by art connoisseurs and neophytes alike.
Mitch Epstein’s ‘Office Door, 2000’ reinforces the idea that beauty is all around us, waiting to be discovered. The photograph is a close-up of the word ‘PRIVATE’ on a translucent glass door. Light shining from behind the door, bathes the word in a white glow. The stark capital letters of the word ‘PRIVATE’ contrast with the simple, beautiful, firework-like pattern repeated on the door.
Epstein’s ‘Miniature Golf, Mountain Park, 2000′ is one of the most powerful photographs in the exhibit. An abandoned miniature golf green with two humps before the hole is almost overshadowed by the plants and trees appearing to take back the land around it. The reasons for the artificial grass’ lingering presence and for the golf course’s abandonment are mysteries.
A tricycle is the unassuming focal point of Joel Sternfeld’s ‘4421 Gibson Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri, August 1993.’ Parts of two red brick buildings and a stadium in the background frame the tricycle and a ‘For Rent’ sign in one of the building’s windows. The mood of the photograph is transformed when one reads that a young Christopher Harris was playing on the steps of the building on June 7, 1991 when a drug dealer used him as a human shield in a shootout with fatal results. This knowledge gives new life to the overturned tricycle and seems to make the red brick buildings more oppressive than before.
Sternfeld photographs landmarks of America which mark the scenes of tragic events. ‘Aisle 2, Row 3, Seat 5, Texas Theater, 231 West Jefferson Boulevard, Dallas, Texas, 1993’ shows the seat in which Lee Harvey Oswald was sitting when Dallas police arrested him for the murder of John F. Kennedy.
‘I had to know if America is more violent than it was in the past, if it is more violent than other nations,’ Sternfeld said in 1996. ‘I realize now that these questions are not the crucial ones. Each tragedy demands its own remembrance. Each of them is ours.’
The pervasiveness of advertising in American consumer culture is amusingly portrayed in Camilo Jose Vergara’s ‘Former Werth’s Appliance Center, Then a Church, State Street, Hammond, Indiana, 2000.’ A massive red sign from the 1950s advertises the wares of the former Werth’s Appliance Center and stands out from the duller hues around it. Look closely and you might see the small sign in the corner indicating the building’s new religious function.
The youths pictured in Adam Bartos’ ‘Hither Hills State Park, Montauk, New York, 1991-94’ ooze attitude and wear stereotypical 1980s clothes. One blonde female stands with her weight on one leg, smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke in the direction of an adult. A male to her left sucks a sucker with more emotion than I’ve ever seen anyone eat anything. The snapshot captures the moment’s emotion for the teens, turning what was probably an ordinary day hanging out in a park into a visceral experience for the Getty’s visitors.
George A. Tice’s ‘Petit’s Mobil Station, Cherry Hill, New Jersey’ from November 1994 is reminiscent of Chris Van Allsburg’s breathtaking drawings in ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.’ The enigmatic and artful photograph shows a Mobil Service Station basking in its florescent lights. In the dark behind it lurks a menacingly large water tower which almost appears to have been drawn by hand.
Berman’s extensive collection highlights a number of American neighborhoods, from Mulholland Drive to county fairgrounds to suburbia. While the apparent lack of significance of some of the photographs may be confusing, for the most part, the photographers in ‘Where We Live’ turn the ordinary into evocative art.