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Fresh with a Ph.D. in History from Harvard, Elliott Barkan came to the West Coast and saw a history rising.
With the meticulous care of a curious scholar, Barkan began taking photographs of the region as soon as he arrived to teach at Cal State San Bernardino in September of 1968.
"I was teaching in the field of early America, but becoming more aware of civil rights," he says, recalling showing films about conditions in urban America. After receiving a doctorate in early American history, he shifted focus to to contemporary American situations. It became, what he calls, "a dual regime of very early America and very modern America." He taught those parallel courses for 38 years.
"My training in early America gave me a broader perspective for understanding earlier immigration," he said.
His passion for photographing urban enclaves came while he was a Manhattan cab driver. "That prompted me to search out other communities in New York City, but especially in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and Detroit."
Then he found the murals. The history professor may not have completely known all the nuances of all the political subtext of his newly found subject; still, he began scouting for art from San Bernardino to Los Angeles, and as far north as the Bay Area. He knew that it was evidence of a culture's self-identity.
At first, there were no murals in the cities he visited, including the parts of Los Angeles he first toured. "I became aware of the murals in East Los Angeles, and combined my urban photography with a focus on murals. The more I searched, the more dramatic were my findings," said the professor of his discovery of the source of California Chicano murals. He claims that this model of mural making was picked up from other communities, both non-Latinos and Latinos, and notably San Francisco.
Barkan's photographs of the Chicano murals painted by the first wave of Los Angeles artists are now being exhibited at the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art at Cal State San Bernardino through May 25.
The exhibit, titled "Chicano Muralists in Southern California, 1968-1985: The First Generation of a Cultural Revolution -- Through the Camera of Elliott Robert Barkan," features photographed works from a litany of prominent muralists, including Judith Baca, Charles (Cat) Felix Jr., Gronk, Willie Herron and David Lopez.
Operating from his academic post at Cal State San Bernardino, Barkan had the opportunity to capture a number of works located away from the urban core of Los Angeles. Many were eventually lost, some by artists that otherwise may never be documented.
Barkan, now professor emeritus in history at Cal State San Bernardino, recently sent the originals and digital copies of the photographs to the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) to be archived.
"Every collection is significant in documenting and preserving the legacy of muralism in Los Angeles," said Pilar Castillo, Archivist at SPARC, citing the loss of public funds to commission new works, and muralists' difficulty in producing legal public works since 2002. "A large percentage of historic L.A. murals have been destroyed, whitewashed and neglected into decay."
"Public art works these days survive at the mercy of a new generation, the shifting political landscape and the greater elements," Castillo continued. "The only way to ensure the survival of these works beyond our personal memories is to amass collections such as Mr. Barkan's photo documentation," adds Castillo, who considers properly archived collections are a "glimpse into a golden-era of our mural history."
The year is off to a productive start for Barkan, with two major projects coming into fruition in January. "I just completed about fours years-plus designing and editing a four volume encyclopedia on U.S. immigration history," he said. "It covers the years 1600-2010, with chapters by over 100 scholars. It's 2,000 pages, and over 1 million words."
A reception for the exhibition will be held Feb. 23 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the The Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art.
"Chicano Muralists in Southern California, 1968-1985: The first generation of a cultural revolution - through the camera of Elliot Robert Barkan" runs from Jan. 26 - May 25, 2013. Curated by Elliot R. Barkan and Eva Kirsch.
Top: "Virgen de Guadalupe" (1973) by David Lopez. East Los Angeles, Maravilla Gardens Housing Project. Photo by Elliott Barkan.