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Editorial

Local Museums Host Three Contrasting Photography Shows

by Sura Wood

Works by Annie Leibovitz, Gordon Parks and Rose Mandel explore a range of subjects and social issues.

A largely forgotten photographer who fled her native Poland during World War II; a renowned African-American photojournalist whose groundbreaking pictorial essays documented the changing socio-economic landscape of black America; and a successful celebrity portraitist who's nearly as famous as her glamorous subjects--all have work that is showcased at local museums this summer.

Annie Leibovitz

In contrast to the slick, theatrically staged celebrity layouts Annie Leibovitz shoots for "Vogue" and "Vanity Fair," her latest exhibition, "Pilgrimage," is the product of a personal quest that sprang from a project originally conceived with her partner, the late writer Susan Sontag. The pair had formulated a list of places that were meaningful to them and planned to visit each destination. In 2009, five years after Sontag died from cancer, Leibovitz set out on her own; she has said the journey and the resulting body of work, which informs the show now at the San Jose Museum of Art, helped her regain her equilibrium. It's composed of 70 digital color pictures of iconic landscapes, from Niagara Falls and Gettysburg to Monticello and Yosemite, as well as the homes and objects that belonged to influential, deceased, mostly American figures, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, Louisa May Alcott, John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Sigmund Freud.

There are no people in these images, only things and places they left behind. Leibovitz photographed Virginia Woolf's ink-stained desk and the river that swallowed her when she piled rocks in her pockets, and Ansel Adams' red-lit darkroom in Carmel as well as a trio of crisp, small-scale images of Yosemite vistas he immortalized, seen at twilight, sunset and with threatening clouds looming over the peaks. A section on Abraham Lincoln includes the tattered top hat and weather-beaten gloves he wore the night he was assassinated, as well as his presidential memorial, where Marian Anderson sang after she was denied permission to perform at Constitution Hall, which then had a "whites only" policy. Leibovitz laid Anderson's soiled and torn concert gown on the floor and shot it in segments that were later assembled into a single image. Searching for Elvis, Leibovitz traveled to Graceland and discovered Presley's battered old television set in a storage bin; its screen had been shattered by a bullet. (Apparently, whenever Robert Goulet appeared on the set, Elvis went for his gun.) In a group of moving photographs relating to Georgia O'Keeffe, there's a picture of a rattlesnake skeleton, a collection of pelvic bones and a drawer containing the artist's pastels, a palette echoing the bleached-out colors of the Southwest desert. Leibovitz recalled going "weak in the knees" when she entered O'Keeffe's adobe lair. That experience ushered in her next project, artists in their studios, which will return the photographer to her most fertile source: famous people.

San Jose Museum of Art, through Sept. 8.

Rose Mandel

Rose Mandel's career trajectory couldn't have been more different than Leibovitz's. She was trained in art and child psychology in Europe, but, like many Polish Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, was forced to abandon her homeland and her aspirations. She arrived in New York in 1942, having lost friends and family to the Holocaust. She soon made her way to the Bay Area, where she became known as a poet with a camera. "Everything I can't say in words," she once remarked, "is expressed there in my photographs."

Despite the admiration of colleagues and a number of well-received exhibitions including one at SFMOMA (1948) and another at the Legion of Honor (1954), as well as the publication of her work in prestigious journals, Mandel is relatively unknown today. The de Young hopes to remedy that with "The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel." A reassessment of her work and an attempt to elucidate her role in the history of modernist photography, the show features portraits, tonal explorations of the merging of sea, shore and sky, landscapes, street scenes and surrealistic motifs blending psychology and abstract expressionism. The exhibition's title, taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson, refers to a 1950s sequence of plant studies that she shot close-up in alternately sharp and soft focus. (A selection from the series is on view.)

As a student at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the late 1940s, her strikingly original photographs impressed her mentors, Ansel Adams and Minor White, whom she befriended along with fellow classmate Richard Diebenkorn. It was Diebenkorn who invited her to shoot the half-dozen uncredited photos that complemented a 1956 article in "Art News" magazine showing the notoriously private artist toiling in his Berkeley studio. Several are in the show and also line the entry to the museum's concurrent Diebenkorn exhibition, which inspired this reexamination of Mandel's work.

Her imagery, primarily of natural phenomena--swirling waves, branches, twigs, buds, a nocturnal, moonlit Berkeley Marina--is delicate, sensitively observed and finely crafted. But it's the disconcerting psychological photographs, where she combines the rumblings of an unsettled psyche with the vicissitudes of nature, that compel attention. In "Jerrold Davis" (1955), for instance, the subject is blurred and recedes behind a bare, gnarled branch that's in razor-sharp focus; it's as if we're looking at him through a pane of broken glass. The distortion, produced through a double exposure on a single sheet of film, evokes a disoriented mental state. A disturbing picture of a baby bassinet swathed in gauzy white fabric, sitting unattended in a dark room ("Untitled" 1952), summons Mandel's grave personal losses and the lingering horror of a war that abruptly transformed her life. These and other photographs express her painful legacy and the traumatic history she couldn't escape.

At the de Young Museum through Oct. 13.

Gordon Parks

Composer, writer, political activist and director of hit movies such as "The Learning Tree" and "Shaft," the late Gordon Parks was a renaissance man. He may be best remembered for his revelatory photo essays for "Life" magazine, where he had the distinction of being the publication's first African-American staff photographer. He worked there for 24 years, shooting everything from Paris runway shows and a sweaty Muhammad Ali training for a fight in Miami to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, before he turned his attention to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Chicago's South Side and other areas of urban blight. In honor of his centennial, the Museum of the African Diaspora is presenting eight Parks photographs from its permanent collection. Half were taken while on assignment for "Life", such as "A Visit with Papa Rage," his 1970 essay on the Oakland-based Black Panthers. For the piece, Parks traveled to Algiers to meet with Eldridge Cleaver and his wife, Kathleen, who were hiding from U.S. authorities; they strike a defiant pose beneath a star-framed picture of Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton.

It was Dorothea Lange's pictures of migrant workers that initially inspired Parks, who was born into poverty, to become a photographer. Like Lange, he got to know his subjects intimately; one such relationship developed when he worked on "A Harlem Family" for "Life." It's a sobering, unvarnished perspective of urban deprivation that shocked the largely white readership of the magazine when it was published in 1968. It portrayed the Fontanelles, a family of 10 living in squalor and despair in a Harlem tenement. In a representative image from the essay, several of the children and their mother, desperate and exhausted, wait for assistance at the local welfare office. "I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most: racism, intolerance, poverty," Parks writes in exhibition text accompanying his 1963 self-portrait. "I could have just as easily picked up a knife or gun, as many of my childhood friends did…but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself."

At the Museum of the African Diaspora through Sept. 28. www.moadsf.org‎