What Big Art Is All About: Conversations with Robert Landau and Enrique Vidal

I recently sat down with photographer Robert Landau and billboard artist Enrique Vidal to discuss the billboards on view in the exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. In addition to telling me more about the history of the billboards and the labor of creating them, they each spoke of their great admiration for billboard art. This passion drove a teenaged Robert to photograph the billboards on the Sunset Strip for over a decade, a project that profoundly influenced his artistic vision. It also led Enrique to make a living “painting big,” first as a billboard artist and later as a muralist for cultural sites around the world. Hear more of their fascinating stories in the videos below, plus read some of my favorite moments from our conversations.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Excerpt from my interview with Robert Landau, Photographer:

Can you tell me a little more about how you came to document the rock & roll billboards?
I had an old Nikkormat, which was kind of a poor man’s Nikon camera in those days. But the smartest thing I did was shoot color transparency film. I shot Kodachrome slides, because my main purpose in shooting them was that I would have slide shows for my friends. That’s as far as I thought the images would go. I’d invite all my friends in—they lived in other parts of the city, they never saw these things because [the billboards] came and went so frequently—and I’d have slide shows and show [my friends] all these great billboards.

I began just by trying to take good pictures of the billboards when the light on them was good. I was crossing the Strip every day: Every time I went anywhere in the city, I had to travel on the Strip. So I’d see them. I was traveling early to go to school. I’d see the crews out there, so I got to know the sites, and when and where and how [the crews] changed [the billboards] and all that. Very quickly thereon, I realized it was just as interesting to see what was happening around the billboards. Some of the first art photographers that I was interested in were mostly French street photographers . . . and I thought that they were capturing so well that city and that time. I thought I could try to do the same thing with Los Angeles.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

What specifically drew you to these billboards?
My father, Felix Landau, was one of the early art gallerists in Los Angeles, on La Cienega. He started in the late 1940s, but throughout the ’50s and ’60s [he] had a very influential gallery Continue reading

I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970.
Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

Continue reading

President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2015

When it comes to rock & roll music, I can’t claim much familiarity. I grew up with the music of Israeli folk dancing, which still moves my heart (and my feet!). The world of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana was known to me only through my children. I was well aware that this music had become a worldwide phenomenon, but I knew very little about how it happened.

Photo From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938, Gelatin silver print.

From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938.

Now, with the Skirball’s presentation of the exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, I am finding out. I am learning of the life and legacy of a remarkable Jewish immigrant, orphaned by the Holocaust, who did as much as anyone to launch that revolution and transform it into a communal experience and a social force.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, Bill was in many ways a classic example of the American success story: a young boy with no advantages, rising from obscurity to the pinnacle of success solely on the strength of unstoppable personality, drive, and determination. Continue reading

Exploring Light and Shadow: Film Noir and Photography

 ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists


ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists

The Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, now on view through March 1, explores how European exiles and émigrés helped create some of the most classic Hollywood films during and immediately after World War II. Film noir is one of the genres from that era that was heavily shaped by these film artists. Noir films present thrilling stories involving intrigue, suspense, disillusionment, and corruption. Characters are often immersed in dark worlds full of tension and uncertainty. As a companion to Light & Noir, the exhibition The Noir Effect looks at a range of contemporary fine art, film, graphic novels, and games that have taken noir in a new direction and redefined it for audiences today. A large section of the exhibition includes contemporary photography by a diverse group of artists who embrace and experiment with the aesthetics of film noir.

Among these artists is the Los Angeles–based photography duo ROUSE & JONES. Partners in life as well as art, writer/director Mitchell Rouse and photographer/producer Brittany Jones began collaborating in 2009, and soon developed a photography series called NOIR based on their love of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The pair’s work combines several elements of film, photography, performance, and storytelling.

Rather than re-creating films that already exist, ROUSE & JONES create a new story in the film noir style using a distinct sequence of techniques. First, they write an original, noir-inspired script that includes setting, action, and dialogue. Then, they ask actors to perform the story, directing the actors’ lines and gestures as they photograph the unfolding scene. Several “takes” of each scene are photographed, shot from different angles and using multiple lighting setups. The actors are encouraged to improvise so that the tension and realism of each scene are heightened.

ROUSE & JONES believe in nurturing the noir genre for future generations; on February 26, as part of the “Light & Noir in Los Angeles” high school residency at the Skirball, the pair will meet with students to discuss their work and share techniques. But before they do, I thought I’d check in with them on SkirBlog and see if they could provide a few more insights into their fascinating way of working:

 

What is it about film noir that you are so drawn to? Why do you think this type of work that draws from noir themes is still so relevant and compelling today?
We love film noir because it’s all about “painting with light,” as the great noir cinematographer John Alton would say. Obviously that’s true of every image ever created, but the noir aesthetic is probably the most dramatic example of how light can be used to tell stories and create emotions. Light and shadow are always “characters” in noir imagery.

Noir themes are still relevant today because they are universal. Noir explores the dark side of man (and world), and those are things that every person faces in their lives. There’s an interesting balance between light and dark within every person, Continue reading

Lost and Found: A Noir Adventure

In November, children and their families participated in “Skirball Playdate: Mildred’s Purse,” a morning-long adventure offered in connection with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950. The program included a special performance by Skirball educator Anna Dresdon, who played the title character based on the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce. Having lost precious items from her purse, “Mildred” asked the children to help her do some detective work. Armed with special hats and magnifying glasses, they all worked together to search the exhibition for the missing items.

Before heading out into the galleries, the young detectives made their own 1940s-inspired hats. SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_1

 

What’s this? A clue on the red carpet? SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_2

 

I found it! One little boy discovered Mildred’s lost Oscar inside the office of Hollywood agent Paul Kohner, which is re-created as part of the Light & Noir exhibition. SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_3

 

Beads from Mildred’s prized necklace were discovered rolling around in the Casablanca section of the exhibition.  Continue reading

Light & Noir: Through the Curator’s Lens

Red Carpet Season is well underway, and if you watched the Golden Globes last night, wasn’t it nice to glimpse a bit of classic Hollywood glamour?

Here at the Skirball, we’re approaching the halfway mark of our own homage to the Golden Age of American filmmaking, Light & Noir: Exiles and Emigres in Hollywood, 1933-1950. As KCRW’s Edward Goldman says, “From the get-go, it’s a winner.” With only about seven weeks to go until the proverbial credits roll on the show, I sat down with curator Doris Berger, who conceived of the exhibition and worked tirelessly on it for more than two years before its October “premiere.”

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light and Noir.

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light & Noir.

 

Is there one particular object in the exhibition that moves you especially deeply?
There are so many objects that move me in this exhibition. It was really hard to decide sometimes what to include and what to leave out. The correspondence of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, to his extended family in 1938 is incredibly affecting—full of humility and conviction to help others. In a letter to his nephew William Wyler, Laemmle pleads for him to do everything he possibly can to help other refugees. Here’s a quote from that letter: “The Jewish situation in Germany has been getting on my nerves for a long, long time. I feel that these poor, unfortunate people need help the worst way. … If you want to do something really big—something that will give you an immense amount of pleasure—issue one or more affidavits, as many as your means permit. … I feel that every person in America, Jew or non-Jew, with a heart, should do his bit, and thereby get an immense amount of satisfaction and possibly save one or more lives.”

Laemmle also wrote a simple Christmas card to other family members on which he writes, Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2015

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections, University of Southern California Libraries. On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections,
University of Southern California Libraries.
On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

 

I had the privilege of knowing Marta Feuchtwanger, pictured above with her beloved husband, Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958), the famed German Jewish writer. She and I were friends for two decades in her later years (we met in 1964; she died in 1987). From her I learned of Lion’s celebrated novels and plays, his outspoken opposition to the Nazi regime, his rescue from Nazi-occupied France, and his new life with her in Los Angeles. Their magnificent home in Pacific Palisades is now known as Villa Aurora, and stands as a memorial to the exiles and émigrés who found refuge from Nazi persecution in the United States.

Marta told me how Lion spoke out against Adolf Hitler as early as the 1920s. Continue reading

Light & Noir: A “True Hollywood Story”

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in <i>Light & Noir</i>

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in Light & Noir.

For the European exiles and émigrés featured in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Hollywood was much more than the glamorous place of fame and fortune we often think of now. During those years, in juxtaposition to the turmoil brewing in Nazi Europe, Hollywood was a place where these émigrés could take refuge and start their lives anew.

This clip from the PBS documentary Cinema’s Exiles gives some context about what émigrés were fleeing from. You can watch the full film on the big screen here at the Skirball on March 1.

But, as is still the case, immigrating to the United States was no simple task. In addition to the geographical distance they had to overcome, émigrés also had to comply with the United States’ strict immigration laws. Many of them came on visitor visas that would expire after a certain amount of time. If they wanted to legally extend their stay—and, unsurprisingly, many of them did—they needed to file a Declaration of Intention. Not unlike what is today called a “green card,” the Declaration granted permanent residency in the U.S. And while it wouldn’t automatically grant these émigrés citizenship, it was the first step they had to take if they wanted to acquire it.

On loan from the National Archives at Riverside, the original Declaration of Intention forms currently on display in Light & Noir reveal some lesser-known facts about people we know well by different names. For instance, actress Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express, A Foreign Affair) and director Henry Koster (It Started with Eve, Harvey) were actually born as Maria Magdalene Sieber and Hermann Julius Kosterlitz. Marlene_Dietrich_Declaration_of_Intention

Not every category could be answered as matter-of-factly as one’s name… Continue reading

Top 10 Items in the Femme Fatale’s Arsenal

Group1With the exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect in full swing, noir is in the air here at the Skirball. Inspired by the seductive femme fatales of film noir, I’ve selected ten alluring items from our Light & Noir Holiday Pop-Up Shop that are perfect for the mysterious woman on your gift list. There’s no need to go on a manhunt for a creative Hanukkah present or saucy stocking-stuffer this year. Skip the bedlam at the mall and slip into the boudoir at the pop-up shop for some of these sassy and clever gifts.

  1. The Perfect Red Lipstick
    As the chaotic holidays approach, I heed this advice from Elizabeth Taylor: “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.” Red lipstick (and perhaps a little gin!) really is the perfect pick-me-up. During WWII, cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden encouraged women to wear red lips as a symbol of victory. (The beauty company even released a line of cosmetics for the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, which included the shade “Victory Red” to coordinate with their uniforms.) Personally, I look to locally-based Bésame Cosmetics for long-lasting, classically glamorous shades of red. One of my personal favorites is Red Velvet. Every Bésame product is re-created from popular vintage formulas and lovingly packaged in a retro style. Learn for yourself how to apply that perfect femme fatale look on Sunday, December 7, when Bésame Cosmetics founder Gabriela Hernandez gives a makeup talk and demo in conjunction with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.
  2. An Alluring Perfume
    Perfumer Margot Elena created this irresistible “Femme Fatale” collection of fragrances, part of her TokyoMilk/DARK line. Each fragrance is stunningly packaged in matte-black bottles featuring charming lithograph illustrations for each scent. My favorite is “Everything & Nothing” No. 10, with its light hint of citrus. I’m also a fan of the coordinating hand creams.
  3. Compact Mirror
    A slim, stylish compact mirror is a must for every glamour girl to ensure her makeup is always in place. I myself designed the pattern featured on this cute compact from LucyLu as a nod to the iconic film noir motif of striped shadows. The compact is accompanied by a protective silver leatherette pouch with a magnetic closure, which helps keep the outside of the mirror shiny and scratch-free. Continue reading

Dressed to Kill: Film Noir Fashion

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive.

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive. 

Taking a historical and aesthetic approach to film noir fashion, educator Kimberly Truhler has connected the dots between the realities of American life in the 1930s and 1940s (a harsh economic climate, social and cultural trends, wartime struggles) and the amazing resourcefulness and creativity of cinematic costume designers. Her informative and visually appealing website GlamAmor demonstrates how these classic trends have endured and continue to influence today’s fashion. In conjunction with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Truhler appears at the Skirball on December 7 to give a lecture on “The History of Fashion in Film Noir.” Below, we ask the style maven about the origins of her passion for film fashion history and for a sneak peek at some of the films and designers she’ll be discussing.

What was the first film noir you watched, and what did you think of it at the time?

My father has been a police officer all of my life, and he loved to watch film noir when he came home from work. As a result, I saw movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Thin Man when I was just a child, and I absolutely adored them. I was drawn to the mood and mystery of these films first, and then started to really appreciate their overall style. Film noir was my introduction to classic cinema and it began a lifelong passion for it. I suspect it’s that way for many other people as well. Continue reading