Friday, June 19, 2009
Life After the Law: Gil Garcetti Shifts His Focus to Photography
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti says he has found his picture-perfect role in life after leaving elected office as a critically acclaimed urban photographer.
His hobby-turned profession “has been a perfect melding of the talents” of a prosecutor, elected official and artist, Garcetti explains, allowing him to “put together projects that are meaningful to a larger community.”
While he claims he has always been a bit of a shutterbug, carrying a camera with him everywhere he went and snapping off an occasional picture, he admits he never imagined it would become his profession.
The turning point came after he lost his bid for re-election in 2000 to current District Attorney Steve Cooley and a career change “was forced upon me,” he says with a grin.
Faced with the choice between entering private practice and “trying something new,” Garcetti says he decided to make a change and found “there is another life after the law.”
An exhibition of Garcetti’s work opened Wednesday at the Manhattan Beach Art Center. Entitled “Frozen and Fluid,” the exhibition is slated to remain on display through Aug. 6.
Training and Development
Garcetti recalls that he began taking pictures as a young boy of 12 or 13, simply for fun, and after his first child was born, he decided to take some classes.
He enrolled in classes at Reseda Community Adult School, and later took some courses with the Brooks Institute and at UCLA.
His career as a professional photographer began one day in June 2001, he recalls, shortly after his son, current Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti won a seat representing District 13.
The elder Garcetti recounts that he was driving by the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was then under construction, and was struck by the image of an iron worker crawling along a beam suspended high above the skeletal metal framework for the building.
The next day, Garcetti says he returned to the construction site early in the morning and sneaked onto the back part of the adjacent Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to await the ironworkers’ arrival.
Over time, Garcetti was able to develop a relationship with the workers and accompanied them as they worked, creeping cautiously along with his 35 mm camera in tow and capturing images of the laborers.
“That began my career, but I didn’t really know it,” he discloses.
Garcetti recalls he had been giving copies of the photographs to the ironworkers, and one of his subjects asked that he publish the images as a book so that the building would not only be associated with architect Frank Gehry, but also the myriad of workers who completed Gehry’s vision.
“I said if the photographs are good enough, I’ll do it,” Garcetti says, “And guess what, they were good enough.”
His first photography book, entitled “Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall” was published in November 2002 and received favorable reviews. It also drew the attention of the Victor Hasselblad AB camera manufacturer, which contacted him and offered to loan him a camera to use, Garcetti adds.
“The first time I looked though that camera, I felt I became an artist,” he claims, and new camera in hand, he began experimenting with different lighting and angles.
“Luckily I’m fairly agile,” the still-svelte 67-year old jokes of some of the contortions he tried while shooting.
Garcetti says he took his photographs to his “mentor,” Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Kennerly, whom he had met while Kennerly was covering a high profile trial during his tenure as District Attorney.
Kennerly told him he had “turned a corner” and insisted that he publish another book with these new photographs, Garcetti says, and “Frozen Music,” a compilation of 45 panorama lithographs interpreting abstract art created by the finished subject of his first book, was published in November 2003, coinciding with the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s grand opening.
In 2004, Garcetti displayed photographs from both books in his first solo exhibition, a six-month run at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. This exhibition is still touring around the country.
Garcetti claims that all his inspiration since seeing that lone ironworker suspended above him has “come serendipitously.”
His third book, 2005’s “Dance in Cuba,” was launched from a chance encounter with a dance troupe he and his wife saw on their first day visiting the country, he says.
Lacking the resources to advertise their upcoming performance, the troupe was cavorting down the narrow streets calling out to bystanders to come watch that evening, Garcetti says.
“This is a dirt poor country, but when they dance, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Garcetti remarks, explaining that this was what he wanted to capture on film.
“I want you to look at their faces…that’s where you can feel their joy,” he says.
Homeira Goldstein, chairman of the board for ARTS Manhattan and curator of Garcetti’s current exhibition, says that this photograph is one of her favorites on display because “you can see all the emotion,” and it captures “the spirit of those people.”
The inspiration for Garcetti’s most recent book, due out in October, was also a fortuitous encounter with a well-dressed woman on her bicycle in Paris.
“I was standing on a corner near Place du Concorde, when a gorgeously dressed woman came up on her bicycle,” he recalls. “She was dressed to the nines.” Then a few minutes later, he saw another woman, and then another.
The resultant images are not just of beautiful women going about their day, Garcetti maintains, but a way to raise awareness about the problems of pollution and congestion and a possible solution.
“I’m putting on the political hat again,” Garcetti discloses, working with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, French consul general and various cities to increase the usage of bicycles.
Art and Politics
Having been a prosecutor and public official, Garcetti suggests that he has a “broader view” of what can be done with his work than other artists and that the “chief purpose” of his photographs is to “try to do something” and “raise awareness” of issues raised by his subject matter.
One of the issues he has focused on is the importance of water for rural villagers in Niger, Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Garcetti recounts that he accompanied his wife and members of the now-defunct Conrad N. Hilton Foundation—a philanthropic organization sponsoring a project to improve water safety—to West Africa, where he documented the plight of residents unable to access a sustainable potable water supply.
He returned five more times, capturing images of drought and disease, as well as elation and relief brought by newly tapped wells. He published photographs and interviews taken during these trips in 2007s “Water is Key.”
While Garcetti says he draws on the skills he honed as a public official and attorney in interviewing subjects and pushing a social agenda forward with his work, he insists he has no plans to return to the legal or political arena.
“I did it for 30 years, and it was a great career, but there are other things in life to do,” he says.
And while his photography would not allow a lavish lifestyle, Garcetti acknowledges he is more than covering his expenses, and he contributes the proceeds from much of his work to various causes related to the subjects of the images.
Sales of “Iron,” currently on its third printing, support an iron workers’ scholarship fund, while any profit from “Water is Key” is given to various non-governmental organizations working on safe water projects in West Africa.
Garcetti also serves as a consulting producer for TNT’s crime drama “The Closer,” and released a book in 2006 with the same name illustrating the work behind putting the show on air. He says his current projects are portraits of elderly men and abstract photographs of the color orange.
Being a photographer “takes discipline and hard work,” he admits, “but lawyers should be used to it.”
He insists that “everyone has some creativity in them … if they’re willing to let go.” While Garcetti supposes it is hard for lawyers to leave the “comfort zone” of the legal field, he encourages anyone so inclined to follow their artistic pursuits.
“I’m here to tell them to take the chance,” he says. “It’s worth it.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company