The streets of Los Angeles, especially under the cover of darkness, can supply an endless array of characters and tales to keep a photographer busy for a number of lifetimes. For J. Bennett Fitts, the thoroughfares of the urban jungle led him to some very unexpected realms within the metropolis: the luminescent nighttime fairways of the truncated golf courses of LA. For over two years, Fitts has captured the greens and glows of the city’s courses. His work is featured in this month’s exposures.
Par for the Course
by Edgar Allen Beem
Over the past two years, Los Angeles –based J. Bennett Fitts has photographed a strange series of nocturnal studies of golf courses at night, turning floodlit urban links into near-lunar landscapes. ”Golf,” exhibited this spring at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in LA, consists of 20 color prints in which greens and fairways are illuminated by an eerie, otherwordly glow, golf balls seem to sprout from the greens like moon mushrooms, and flags and pins seem to have been planted by colonizers from outer space.
“In LA,” explains Fitts, “there’s no room for full-size golf courses in the middle of the city, so there are all these little course lit up at night to look like daytime. The strange lighting makes them look so fake, like film noir.”
Fitts, 28, began photographing the urban golf courses in 2003, just a few months before he graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but the roots of his interest in artificial landscapes can be traced back to childhood.
J. Bennett Fitts, whose friends call him J.B. or John, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1977, but he grew up in Dallas and Colorado Springs. In Colorado, he just happened to live in a townhouse overlooking a golf course.
“I didn’t shoot anything there,” he says, “but I got to look at this unbelievably artificial landscape in my own backyard everyday. So when the series began, it was memory-driven.”
And apparently, golf courses weren’t the only man-made landscapes that seeped into Fitts’ subconscious. His larger body of work consists of photographs of warehouses, parking lots and motel pools, all aspects of the built environment associated with urban fringe-odd, industrial places devoid of histories and speaking of American transience.
Curiously, given his attraction to golf courses and swimming pools, Fitts’ father was in the hotel management business and Fitts himself initially trained to go into hospitality management at Santa Monica College. A junior college course in photography, however, convinced him to transfer to Art Center College of Design.
At Art Center, Fitts found himself out of step with photography majors already focused on shooting celebrity portraits, cars, food and product photography.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “ I was so scared the whole time I was there. I thought I was the only one at school who didn’t have a focus.”
In his final semester, Fitts took a fine-art photography course and, more or less on his own, discovered the work of New Topographic photographers such as Lewis Baltz and the industrial landscapes of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
“The industrial landscape is all around here,” Fitts says, “but no teachers were bringing this work into the classroom.”
Fitts’ series of warehouse photographs, done while still in art school, pays homage to the Bechers’ seminal workscapes. His far more ambitious, on-going series entitled, “No Lifeguard on Duty” owes an aesthetic debt to Ed Ruscha’s own pool pictures, but, as with the golf courses, Fitts has managed to make the pools his own.
Over the past year and a half, Fitts estimates that he has traveled 20,000 miles from California to Arkansas in search of motel pools, some neglected and decaying, others simply deserted. He first discovered the pools through skateboarding. Skateboarders are always on the lookout for empty pools that can be cleaned up as a skate park, and Fitts started by photographing skateboarders in action. Eventually, however, he began to focus on the pools themselves- an interest that speaks both of his temperament and technique.
“I’m a stand-off photographer,” Fitts explains. “I don’t like a lot of interaction with a subject. This is work I can do on my own. I’m not as comfortable shooting people at this time. I rarely photograph people I don’t know. That is why I’m always in abandoned places.”
Alone on a golf course at night or poking around an empty motel pool, Fitts can take his time, undisturbed, while working with his Ebony 4x5 field camera. He uses no artificial lighting of his own; he just shoots with available light or sulfurous glow of outdoor lighting. While his earlier warehouse photographs were all done using digital output, he now uses low-contrast Kodak 160 NC and makes the color prints himself, usually printing the 30” x 40”, though lately he has been making prints as large as 50” x 60”.
“Ed Ruscha has done it,” Fitts says of motel pools, “but I liked the paradox of really beautiful sunsets combined with the banal pools. I loved the combination of the sunset and the ugly foreground. The larger these images are the better they look.”
Fitts hopes to find a publisher for his “motel pool” imagery but feels the “golf” photographs may have too narrow a range of imagery, making them more suited to a small monograph or artist’s book.
Photography consultant Susan Baraz, who works with Rhoni Epstein Associates, agrees that Fitts’ images are “very compelling.”
“J.B. Fitts takes images in commonplace locations such as a golf course and, through his photography transforms it into a completely alien environment,” Baraz says. “Fitts’ subjects are all familiar to the viewer, but we feel as if we are looking at them on an alternate, mysterious planet.”
And, of course, the ability to see the strange in the familiar is one of the chief attributes of an artist.