Remembering Charles Brittin (1928–2011)
When Charles Brittin acquired his first camera in the early 1950s, he had lived in Los Angeles for less than a decade. The photographs that he took were some of the most iconic representations of the Beat scene in Southern California, and of Los Angeles more generally. Brittin arrived in Los Angeles from Iowa with his mother in 1944, attending high school in the Fairfax district, then in Pomona, before enrolling at UCLA. While a student, he began to shoot pictures near his home in Venice and Ocean Park. The resulting photographs provide both a valuable social record and a poetic portrait of the rapidly changing landscape of postwar California. "Many things in my photographs are gone forever," he once remarked, "so they have a romantic resonance." At once social document and intimate personal memoir, his photographs depict his immediate surroundings and his friends—Wallace Berman, George Herms, and other artists, poets, writers, and musicians who gathered at iconic venues like the Ferus Gallery and the Venice West Cafe.
Throughout his career, Brittin was a political activist. In 1962 he joined the Campaign for Racial Equality and soon afterwards he began to photograph the social protests that characterized the postwar decades. "I suddenly realized I was compelled to do something because the times demanded it," he explained. Over the course of the next decade, he produced powerful images of the civil rights movements, the Black Panthers, demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, and the resurgent labor movement. During this time, Brittin supported himself with work in the Washington Boulevard studio of designers Charles and Ray Eames, and a short stint at the University of Southern California. Brittin's lifelong photographic practice is recognized as historically and aesthetically significant, and is a vital part of the Getty's recent scholarly focus on art in postwar Los Angeles.
The Charles Brittin archive was acquired by the Getty Research Institute in 2005. It contains prints and negatives of a large number of his photographs. In many cases, these stand as the only record of galleries, homes, and artworks that have since been destroyed, or of significant artistic and historical events. The archive also includes printed ephemera and gallery invitations, rare books, booklets and periodicals, letters, mail art, collage, and assemblage art objects. It is an indispensable resource for the Pacific Standard Time project, allowing scholars to piece together details of the art scene in the 1950s and 1960s to create a better understanding of the networks and collaborations that characterized art production during that period.