The Passing of Photographer Charles Brittin

Industry Perspective

The Passing of Photographer Charles Brittin

by Ron Leach

Relatively unknown outside of Los Angeles for most of his career, Charles Brittin was an important documentary photographer known for his political activism. In commemorating Brittin’s recent passing Andrew Perchuk, Deputy Director of the Getty Research Institute noted, “he was one of the great civil and political photographers of his age.”

Born in 1928, Brittin grew up in Cedar Rapids Iowa until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 15. In 1999 he told the Los Angeles Times that his political views changed in liberal Los Angeles and he decided he was “on my way to changing the world.”

Brittin bought his first camera in the early 1950s and began exploring Venice Beach and LA’s emerging art scene and beat culture. He eventually befriended a number of actors and avant-guard artists who gathered regularly at LA’s famous Ferus Gallery and he became known as one of the most influential photographers of the beat generation. Many of his friends, like actors Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper, gained considerable notoriety.

As the civil rights movement became gained momentum Brittin turned his attention to documenting the unrest—both in Southern California and in Mississippi and Louisiana where he and his wife spent several months in 1965. In the ‘60s he produced notable work chronicling anti-war protests and the Black Panther movement. From the mid-60s to 1970 Brittin also worked as the official photographer for Charles and Ray Eames—known for their groundbreaking architectural and furniture designs.

Brittin was eventually sidelined by failing health. He had liver and kidney transplants in the 1990s and died last month of pneumonia at the age of 82. His wife Barbara passed away in 2003 at the age of 74.