Photographs of the Back Lot

More than thirty years ago, a UCLA Extension class on photography ended and an adult student approached his instructor. The student inquired about a studio visit—not to his own studio, mind you, but to that of the instructor, who was an artist—the photographer Robert Cumming. On view now in the Hammer Building is The Continuity of Robert Cumming, a collection of some of Cumming’s photographs from the 1970s. Cumming was known for making fabricated tableaux—photographing them with an 8 x 10 view camera and making flummoxing photographs that play with perception.

Robert Cumming, Composite boulder with lifting port, backlot, April 1, 1977, 1977, gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in., gift of Sue and Albert Dorskind

The student was Albert Dorskind, then the vice president of Universal Studios, a passionate photography collector, and an amateur photographer. Seven years after that class, Mr. Dorskind, as president of the board of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, was instrumental in persuading Parsons to initiate funds to establish LACMA’s photography department—a matching grant was given to LACMA in 1983 and the department became its own curatorial division in 1984.

Robert Cumming, Mishap of minor consequence, 1973, gelatin silver prints, gift of Leland Rice

After visiting Cumming’s studio (which was the photographer’s residence in Orange, California), Mr. Dorskind invited Cumming to visit his studio—Universal Studios—to do some shooting. Cumming took him up on the offer and set off to wander the back lot of Universal, his 8 x 10 view camera in tow. At the time, Universal was in the middle of production on Roy Scheider’s next turn as police chief Brody in Jaws 2 (swearing he sees another shark out there!). The submarine thriller Gray Lady Down, starring Charlton Heston and Stacy Keach, was in production. A huge cross-section of a sub loomed like some postmodern jungle gym on stage #12.

Robert Cumming, Studio Still Lifes, complete portfolio, gelatin silver prints on board, gift of Sue and Albert Dorskind

Cumming shot for six months at Universal Studios, pretty much doing whatever he wanted. More than one hundred negatives later, he had the basis from which he selected twenty-five images for a limited-edition portfolio titled Studio Still Lifes. He also printed two copies of every single one and mounted and hand-titled them on board, binding them with extra long screw-and-post-style fasteners into two massive books. Cumming kept one of these books and gave the other to Mr. Dorskind. Years later, Mr. Dorskind donated his copy of the bound set of prints, along with a copy of the limited-edition portfolio,  to LACMA, where a selection of those photographs is now on view outside of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department.  They are photographs that Robert Cumming has deemed “documents of the hardware employed by the ultimate illusion”—otherwise known as the twentieth-century film industry.

Sarah Bay Williams

One Response to Photographs of the Back Lot

  1. laura marie says:

    What a fabulous tale. Seems right out of Hollywood…
    Photography students are studio heads and rocks have trap doors.

    It is worth [Robert] Cumming to the museum for just this exhibit.

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