The Art and Philosophy of Harry B. Chandler
Harry Brant Chandler's love of art began at an early age. To hear him tell it, he had a small savings account, some 14 or 15 dollars, which he used to buy a Kodak Brownie camera. "My family did trips," recalled Chandler, an imposing figure of 6-foot-3 who sports a neatly trimmed reddish blonde beard flecked with grey. "We also had a home movie camera, so I quickly became the family photographer who would take home movies, set up the slide projector, those kinds of things."
Of course, Chandler's family is not just any family. A fifth generation Angeleno, Chandler is the son of the late Otis Chandler. Otis was the publisher credited with catapulting the Los Angeles Times, his family's newspaper since its founding circa 1881, to the top tiers of daily journalism during his 20-year tenure beginning in the 1960s.
And while the younger Chandler did not pursue the path of an ink-stained wretch, at 62, he has been thriving for the last decade as a painter, photographer, sculptor and digital artist. He also authored, "Dreamers in Dream City" (Angel City Press, 2009), a coffee-table book that combines his love of history with visionary figures who came to Southern California to pursue their dreams.
The book was followed by exhibitions at the Autry National Center of the American West and Sacramento's California Museum. Among Chandler's 54 subjects are bold-faced names, such as Walt Disney, Frank Gehry, Amelia Earhart and Ed Ruscha, while others, like Bob Mitchell, a space navigator at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Reeves Callaway, the creator of a high-performance sports car, the Callaway C-16 Speedster, may not be as well known.
But Chandler being Chandler, the book also includes portraits of his great-grandfather and namesake, Harry Chandler, a developer and early civic booster of L.A., as well as his grandmother, Dorothy Buffum Chandler, the arts advocate who spearheaded the building of the Music Center by raising nearly $20 million for the cultural venue that bears her name, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which opened in 1964.
"I don't remember the Music Center being built," admits the blue-eyed Chandler, who lives in a 12th floor studio overlooking MacArthur Park, where spectacular views of the lake, the city and its surroundings are nothing short of awe-inspiring, "but I was at the opening. I sat in the front row with my family and went to many, many events, as I continue to do over the years.
"When I graduated college," added Chandler, "my grandfather Norman had just passed away [in 1973], and my grandmother, Dorothy, was alone and wanting an escort to go to the Music Center, so I became her main escort. I would drive and she would introduce me to all her friends and well wishers. It was quite a remarkable experience to see it through her lens, as the founder."
Chandler, like the subjects of his book, considers himself somewhat of a dreamer, as well. "Maybe I'm not a dreamer on the scale that many of them are, but I'm always trying to remake something."
One thing he hasn't tried to remake, though, is his family's dynastic name, which comes with both rewards and burdens. "It's a burden when peoples' expectations are about my ability to donate money, or a burden when people are sort of unwilling to be casual," said Chandler, "but for the most part, it's a great legacy to have and one that I've enjoyed immensely."
Chandler also loves his hometown and weaves it into his art when possible. Apart from attending high school at Massachusetts' Phillips Academy Andover, he has lived exclusively in California, graduating from Stanford and then doing graduate work at UCLA Film and Television School.
Eschewing the family business, Chandler spent some 25 years producing movies and television for 20th Century Fox, Showtime, CBS and Hearst before running his own production company, Dream City Films.
After making TV movies with titles like, "Drop Dead Gorgeous," "The Fatal Image" and "Daughter of Darkness," Chandler said that the economics of film were in flux and the time was right for him to make a change.
"I left just as Netscape browser was about to be invented and AOL had started. And even though the Internet wasn't what it is today, I sensed that the new media was about to explode. So I left the entertainment business and went to the family company and helped them launch LA Times dot com."
That brush with newpapering lasted from 1994-1999, and, sensing more change coming (the Chandler family sold the Times in 2000), Chandler segued into Overture, Inc., as executive vice president for the Pasadena-based technology firm.
If all this seems very corporate, it is. But Chandler, who must have art and philanthropy in his DNA, managed to leave the button-down world of business, and circle back into the three passions that have always informed his artistic pursuit of beauty: magic, photos and technology.
"I did magic shows in grade school for friends and family. I love the sense of illusion and entertaining people. As for technology, when I was a kid, there wasn't much. But as soon as the PC was available I bought one. I've always felt a kinship to the high-tech engineering world at work, and obviously, one of the big successes in technology has been the Internet. So in my art, I've tried to bring technology both as a vehicle as well as a subject."
Chandler pointed out that for his book, "Dreamers," he wanted people who were alive and making significant contributions, but also those from the past who had unique visions. "Rather than just featuring the top lawyer in town, the top CEO or top filmmaker, I wanted people who were doing something bold and who really had a dream.
"A dream," added Chandler, "that also related to the social experience. I ended up with half the people I photographed and the other half from history. I took black and white photos from the past, re-colorized them and made them my own."
The final image is a composite of water engineer William Mulholland (originally taken in 1924), with Chandler manipulating photos he shot of the Alabama Hills looking toward Mt. Whitney and then adding a ripple effect to capture Mulholland's reflection in a pool of water, resulting in a provocative portrait.
Art and technology also coalesce in Chandler's recent series of painted photographs, "Autopia," which will be the subject of an exhibition at the revamped Petersen Auto Museum this year. Initially, though, Chandler made use of a rather old technology: In order to shoot overhead photos of freeway interchanges, he went for a ride -- in a blimp.
"In 2012, I'd been given a ride in a Zeppelin as a present. The nice thing is that it goes 15-20 miles an hour and you can open a window and take a photo straight down. It's a great place to do aerial shots, so I brought a big camera and began taking photos, not sure what would become of them.
"I took one of this freeway interchange near downtown that I liked the shape of," Chandler continued, "but as a photo it lacked something. In between the interchange, there were ugly warehouses, so it remained an incomplete image in my mind. One day I decided to print it out on watercolor paper and paint over it with oils.
"The result was instant," Chandler enthused. "I took a mundane landscape and transformed it into something more mythical -- that was the genesis of this series."
Chandler then used Google Earth to look at all the intersections in L.A. and San Bernardino Counties. "I made a map of the ones I liked and had a helicopter take me up, and I photographed over 15 different intersections in one day."
The results are lush, Hockneyesque compositions, with mesmerizing detail. To date, Chandler has done nearly three dozen paintings (some with acrylics), ranging in size from small (30 inches) to large (60 inches).
With "Autopia," Chandler produces mythical SoCal landscapes, where the splash of colors represent agricultural fields of the 1920s and co-exist with aerial photos of today's serpentine freeway interchanges.
"Beauty meets magic realism meets photography meets saturated colors," added Chandler, "at least, that's what I'm trying for."
During the last decade, Chandler has also been working on a series called "Pairings," which, he explained, began with his fascination with Renaissance wedding photos, "where a couple would engage a portrait painter to paint them separately, and after the wedding they would be hung next to each other. I like the idea of these side-by-side portraits, but created separately."
Chandler said he began collecting photos of art history portraits from Egyptian times to the 20th century, which he would then pair with people who were "not often alive at the same time, let alone probably not ever having met," adding, "I made assumptions about their features and who they might be. Essentially, I played matchmaker. These 32 people for whatever reason visually, looked like they could have been an interesting couple."
Chandler then put them in side-by-side gold frames that rotated the portraits digitally. "It was successful and I decided the next leap was to do video portraits. My latest work is called 'Desert Lovers,' which I'm just finishing."
For that piece, Chandler photographed 120 volunteers in extreme slow motion and separately, at the 2013 Burning Man Festival. He later decided who would make intriguing couples.
"These were people who didn't come in together and who had presumably never met. Most of the pairings," added Chandler, "are on for about a minute, and the whole piece is just under an hour in length. There's this slow motion, erotic relationship between them as they look at each other."
The work -- audacious, sensual and enigmatic -- allows the viewer to fashion his or her own narrative. Chandler said it was quite an enterprise. "Challenge number one began with taking controlled, studio-type photos in the middle of the desert with an expensive high-speed camera that does not do well with dust."
The artist said he also had to build a special domed studio to keep out the wind, as well as bring a portable air conditioner to make it cool. "I had to Rotoscope a lot of them to separate them from the green screen background. Then I had to resize and flip them so that their eye-lines matched. It took several hundred hours of work to get the final result -- lovers and strangers in a slow-motion ballet of movement in the desert."
Chandler is currently tweaking "Desert Lovers," as well as working on more "Autopia" paintings. He also has another half-dozen pieces in early stages of gestation, including sculptures he calls, "Sirens," a series exploring ultra-beauty and its effect on men.
In addition to making his art, Chandler sits on the boards of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, LACMA and the Getty Museum. He is also an intrepid traveler, his cameras always at the ready, and was recently in London, where he shot a piece for a yet-to-be-determined video project.
"I have fantasy acts taking place in front of famous locations, and I created an imaginary fox hunt on Westminster Bridge. We have buses, taxis and bystanders, and my actors are chasing another actor who was a fox. People pretend to ride horses across the bridge. It's quite fun and impossible to recreate on a soundstage. That is still a work-in-progress."
And so is Harry B. Chandler, who may be one of L.A.'s foremost champions of his native burg.
"As an artistic creation center, I think Los Angeles is unrivaled. Between the art, the new media, and obviously the film and TV industries, there's no city like it. We'll never catch up to the great old museums of the world, the Louvre, the Met -- you can't rebuild collections like that -- but in terms of artistic energy, it's really wonderful here."
"One of the things I observed when I was writing my book, was that I put a good deal of thought into why L.A. has been known as a free spirit from decades earlier. It wasn't always an artistic haven, but it was [like] a free spirit where cult religions would start, health fads would start, people would be much more entrepreneurial."
"There's no short answer," added Chandler, "but there are some really solid reasons why this landscape and this city evolved into being the center in the U.S. -- if not the world -- in terms of artistic and freedom of self-expression."