Charles Brittin: Revolutions: in collaboration with Gallery 169

22 September 2018 - 26 January 2019

He was an absolutely critical figure in Los Angeles, because he was at the intersection of so many things that were happening. He also was one of the great civil and political photographers of the age.

- Andrew Perchuk, Director of the Getty Research Institute

Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1928, photographer Charles Brittin is widely recognized for his intimate and hard-hitting images of Los Angeles from the 1950s and 60s. When he began using a camera in the 1950s his compassionate style and liberal political leanings led him naturally toward two significant social revolutions unfolding in the city. He captured the profound cultural shift embodied by the California Beat Generation and as the Beat movement gave way to civil unrest in the 1960s, Brittin took his camera to the frontlines of antiwar protests and political actions, producing raw, provocative images of the social change sweeping the country. 

Brittin’s photographs convey the creative spirit and collaborative ethos of L.A.’s Beat Generation and the turmoil and triumphs of the civil rights movement, not merely as an observer, but as a passionate participant. He was the unofficial house photographer for an inner circle of likeminded artists, musicians and poets who gathered at the Ferus Gallery and Venice West Cafe including actors Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell and poet David Meltzer. His portraits of the movement’s key luminaries like Walter Hopps, Ed Kienholz, and Wallace and Shirley Berman are highly personal and reveal a deeply felt camaraderie while documenting a critical moment in L.A. art history. "A lot of the people Charles took pictures of ended up becoming legendary figures," says Craig Krull of Craig Krull Gallery. ”His photographs are more than just documents of artists and events. They are very incisive and powerful and poetic and tough.”

In the 1960s Brittin’s commitment to activism intensified, becoming the focus of his work. From a young age he identified with oppressed people and wanted to do his part to change the world. As social tensions in America gave way to acts of widespread resistance, Brittin and his third wife, Barbara, worked with the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.), traveled to the deep South to register black voters and supported and chronicled the Black Panther movement. Before the civil rights movement, Brittin has said he did not have "the confidence to exploit the opportunities that came my way. Then, something more important than my personal comfort was at stake, so I was able to be aggressive and do things that seemed unnatural to me.” The results are forceful and unambiguous. His image of the splayed legs of a black female protester being gripped by a white officer from a 1965 protest at the Federal Building in L.A. or the stoic grace of a black man being taunted by neo-Nazi protestors convey dramatically and precisely what is taking place.

Brittin was not only a chronicler of his time by way of his photographs, but also by way of his storytelling. For decades his photo archive was a prominent part of his home on Entrada Drive in Santa Monica Canyon, where he lived for nearly 40 years. Visiting his home was an essential pilgrimage for curators like Walter Hopps, Kristine McKenna, Julian Cox, Craig Krull and others, who would sit at Brittin’s dining table, pouring over boxes of prints while listening to his corresponding tales. That archive is now permanently housed at J. Paul Getty Research Institute and Brittin’s stories can be heard as part of their oral history project.


Since his solo show in 1999 co-curated by Walter Hopps and Craig Krull in Santa Monica, Charles Brittin’s work has generated widespread acclaim. In 2005 his portraits were included in the ground- breaking exhibition on Southern California art "Semina Culture, Wallace Berman and His Circle," curated by Kristine McKenna and Michael Duncan. His work and ephemera from his archive were exhibited as part of the J. Paul Getty's city-wide initiative, Pacific Standard Time in 2011. His photographs continue to be exhibited and published extensively and are the subject of a major monograph: Charles Brittin: West and South; Hatje Cantz; 2011. Brittin died in 2011 at the age of 82.