by Laura Shingles
Lou Stoumen: The Naked Truth
Museum of Photographic Arts | 4/7/2009
At the Museum of Photographic Arts, a single wall displaces the roughly 3,000 miles separating California and New York. Santa Monica is suddenly Times Square’s neighbor. Bicoastal warriors emphasize the dissimilarities between the two, alleging a resident of one could never survive the other. As a former Pennsylvanian who defected almost a year ago, I dismissed the cultural differences within a week of living in Southern California. The only change I noticed was the weather. But after seeing the two worlds side-by-side in Lou Stoumen: The Naked Truth, I realize the battle rages on.
The 1940s New York Stoumen captures is effortlessly glamorous. It’s traffic, excitement, and innocence. Men in hats and women with gloves. It’s the original New York, the one Woody Allen and cinematographers replicate in films inspiring millions to live a big life in the big city.
But then there’s the real New York. The one that’s never as beautiful as it looks in the movies and requires some resolve to enjoy. New Yorkers are supposed to be the most cynical people in the world, but it takes patience and an open mind to merge the romanticized version with the real one. I guess I’m too cynical for that, which is why I chose California.
In the exhibit’s only California image, a woman sits on a park bench and a thick fog covers everything else. Men walking, backs to the camera, are barely identifiable. It’s mystical and tranquil, without needing a discernible subject. The photo’s title, “Journey to Land’s End,” parallels the dreamy atmosphere Stoumen captured. Glancing from this photo to Times Square, I remembered why I moved here. California isn’t exhausting or overwhelming. Its beauty isn’t hidden—it’s pervasive.
Stoumen carefully selected his subjects, knowing they would become relics of another time and place. He chose masses of people to depict New York, but a park bench and a hazy sky to represent Santa Monica. Stoumen’s work is the photographic counterpart to the geographic clash, highlighting the most basic, and most important, difference between East and West: surroundings.
Stoumen ultimately chose California, moving here to teach at University of California, Los Angeles then retiring to Northern California.