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photo-eye Book Reviews: West and South

West and South, Photographs by John Mathews.
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
West and South
Reviewed by John Mathews
Charles Brittin West and South
Photographs by Charles Brittin. Edited by Kristine McKenna, Lorraine Wild, Roman Alonso, Lisa Eisner.
Hatje Cantz, 2011. Hardbound. 216 pp., 150 duotone illustrations, 9-1/2x13".

West and South begins in the late 1950s by looking at an idiosyncratic group of young artists, actors and writers living in Venice Beach, California. This ragtag bohemian community is drawn together by the artists Wally and Shirley Berman who feature throughout the series. Photographer Charles Brittin successfully captures the offbeat characteristics of this group -- their exuberance, individuality and playful sense of defiance. The images have an innocent and melancholy tone to them, as if the people within them have been captured in a fragile state of transition. The enigmatic nature of the Venice series is accentuated by Brittin's technique of interspersing haunting images of the area such as empty fairgrounds or black clad nuns wandering an otherwise deserted beach. However there is an underlying tension within the area, which is evident in a number of images showing the harassment and closure of beat venues by local authorities.

West and South, by Charles Brittin. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
West and South, by Charles Brittin. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
 In the second half of the book, Brittin dramatically shifts gear by transporting the viewer away from the pensive mood of the artist colony and into the turmoil of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These images are the most dramatic within the book and graphically show activists struggling for racial equality within areas such as LA, Louisiana and Alabama. Brittin explores the poverty within these communities that motivated the formation of action groups such as CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) and the Black Panther Party and documents the fear and aggression these groups were confronted with. A memorable example is an image from a 1964 CORE protest that shows a group of African Americans peacefully campaigning against segregated housing in Los Angeles while an intimidating group from the American Nazi party dressed in full Nazi military uniforms stage a counter protest. These two groups march in opposing directions and are separated only by a thin stretch of perfectly manicured lawn.

West and South, by Charles Brittin. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
 Feeling an affinity with those on the margins of society, Brittin goes on a journey of self-discovery, developing his style and finding his voice through the beat generation of Venice. Brittin's approach and subject matter quickly mature as he takes a more politicised stance by documenting the civil rights movement. West and South is a testament to Brittin's growing awareness and is a poignant social document of turbulent times within the United States.—John Mathews
John Mathews is an artist and curator from Belfast, Northern Ireland.