Los Angeles has long held a fascination with the visual; beholden to looks, surfaces and images, it is a city where even the buildings seem to strike a pose. So it might seem surprising that until now, there’s never been an institution here devoted to photography. But that all changes this week with the opening of the stunning new Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City.
Located on the site of the former Schubert Theater, in the shadow of the CAA “Death Star” offices at 2000 Century Park East, the Annenberg Space is a freestanding, 10,000-square-foot facility. With free admission and inexpensive validated self-parking, it is a community space, inviting residents and tourists alike to engage with print and digital images. More than anything it is a “Temple of Photography,” as Wallis Annenberg herself called it recently, celebrating an art form, but also a means of seeing the world we live in.
Form meets function in the design for the space, by architects DMJM Design: A central exhibition space for digital exhibits — circular in form and with a ceiling that resembles a camera aperture — is surrounded by galleries filled with photographic prints. The floor plan consciously suggests a camera, though at the same time, walking through the print galleries reminds one of a piece of film threading a camera spool. Other references to the medium can be found in the gray metal finishes throughout the museum and floors made from recycled tires that remind one of camera grips.
There’s also a full-service kitchen and an area for classes and workshops.
Interviewed at the opening press event, Annenberg explained that her passion for photography is a response to an upbringing surrounded by art, where the focus was always on “the beautiful.” Her parents collected Impressionist paintings (which were donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). Given that she believes “life was far more complex,” Annenberg said she was drawn to photography that expresses “the full range of human emotions and gives us insight into our own souls.”
That is a pretty fair way of describing the opening exhibition,”L8s Ang3les,” a collection of work from 11 Los Angeles photographers. The show reminds us of the power of photography to show beauty and horror in all its forms and asks us to marvel at how the eye and the instrument can capture a story or encapsulate a whole life in an instant.
Included are the conceptual work of artist John Baldessari, the social reporting/portraiture of Catherine Opie and Lauren Greenfield, architectural photography by Julius Shulman and Tim Street-Porter, celebrity portraits by Douglas Kirkland and Greg Gorman, and the photojournalism of Carolyn Cole, Lawrence Ho, Genaro Molina and Kirk McKoy, all staff photographers at the Los Angeles Times.
One wanders from Kirkland’s images of Marilyn Monroe, to Greg Gorman’s portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio, to Catherine Opie’s images of members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community, to Lauren Greenfield’s portraits of girls at their quinceañera or a bar mitzvah boy yearning for gifts he imagines will lend him status, or a young girl in the Barney’s shoe department. Then there are Coles’ searing images of the brutality of war, the reportage of the other staff photographers, which bring our world home to us. What sticks, in the end, is a sense of the humanity captured by these works.
The Annenberg Space, Kirkland told me, represents “the dawning of a new time for photography,” adding that he believes the Annenberg will come to equal the renown International Center of Photography, a museum and school in Manhattan .
Greenfield, who grew up in Los Angeles, told me she sees the educational potential of the Annenberg Space in the power of “photography to speak directly to kids.” She feels photography is an art form that kids understand intuitively and immediately. What impressed her about the Annenberg was that “everyone will feel welcome. No one will be intimidated.”
All the photographers I spoke with stressed that the Annenberg Space’s technological breakthrough lies in its ability to display so much of an artist’s work at once — a feat accomplished by using digital projection screens and by a series of tabletop touch screens that allow the visitor to examine an artist’s work in depth (plans are being made to allow one to order prints from the tabletops, as well). Having a center in Los Angeles where they could see the work of their peers and participate in workshops that will create a greater sense of the photographic community excited them all.
The Annenberg Foundation was established in 1989 by Walter Annenberg, whose father, Moses “Moe” Annenberg, owned the Daily Racing Form and acquired the Philadelphia Inquirer. Walter Annenberg expanded the empire with such publications as TV Guide and Seventeen and was canny enough to sell out at the right time to Rupert Murdoch in 1988 for a reported $3 billion (recently TV Guide magazine changed hands for $1 — I kid you not).
Walter Annenberg, who died in 2002, served as Richard Nixon’s ambassador to Great Britain, and Leonore, his second wife, studio boss Harry Cohn’s niece and chief of protocol for the State Department under Ronald Reagan, died just this month. Wallis, Walter’s surviving child, and several of his grandchildren, Lauren Bon, Charles Annenberg Weingarten and Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, serve as trustees of the Annenberg Foundation, which is one of the largest private foundations in the United States and which supports a wide range of charitable activities both in the U.S. and abroad, many of which are the specific passions of its trustees.
Although the name of the Annenberg Foundation is well known to anyone who watches public television, or from their endowments to museums, universities, schools and hospitals across the United States, several local projects dear to Wallis Annenberg are set to open over the next several months: This week’s opening of the Space for Photography will be followed this summer by the Annenberg Community Beach House, located in Santa Monica on the site of the former Marion Davies estate, the only public community beach club on Pacific Coast Highway — or as I intend to refer to it, my beach club. And next year, the former Beverly Hills Post Office will be rebooted as The Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts.
If ever we needed to be reminded of the power of art and community to lift our spirits, it is now. The iconic American photographer Edward Steichen once said that “photography is a major force in explaining man to man.” The Annenberg Space for Photography gives Los Angeles a place to enjoy the artistry of the surface image and the humanity that lies beneath.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week and his new Tommywood (the blog) appears daily, pretty much.