Keen eye for detail

Imagine carrying a 450-pound camera with tripod around in the back your truck, then dragging it out and hauling it up hills or down embankments for the chance to take a photo. Doug Busch, a Malibu resident for more than 10 years, has been doing just that off and on since the 1970s. Wrestling the big contraption over the countryside, or under freeways, sometimes with the help of assistants, or his wife, on wheels, as bystanders often mistook it for a popcorn machine. 

Along the way, he’s made a name for himself in the world of fine art photography with critically acclaimed work exhibited in shows at major museums and galleries across the U.S. and Europe. His works have been acquired for permanent collections by more than a dozen major museums, including the J. Paul Getty, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Atlanta; as well as many corporate collections. A dozen books of his photos have been published. 

The exhibition of Busch photography currently on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, “Scene on the Street,” came about when the museum’s curator of photography, Karen Sinsheimer, a long-time friend, was visiting Busch in Malibu and began sifting through reams of photos in his files that had never been published or exhibited. She was so fascinated by his street scene photos from urban environments, she made it part of a “Vantage Points” series at the museum. 

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“I like his very large format, which is an anachronism today,” Sinsheimer said, “It’s anything but candid, and the clarity and details render it more real than real.” 

The large format photography favored by Busch uses early camera technology originating in the 1840s. The negatives are the same size as the actual photos, usually ranging from 8-by-10 inches to 14-by-17 inches. The 450-pound camera was designed by Busch himself to hold a 40-by-60 inch film sheet. He holds several patents for camera innovations, and also knows the equipment and chemistry of the darkroom quite well. 

The advantage of a large format camera, which generally uses black-and-white film, is higher resolution and the ability to take longer exposures, making it well-suited for landscape and architectural photos. “The big camera is so full of detail,” Busch said, “Beyond the artistic end of it, you have the historical point of view. You can go back [decades later] and see license plates on cars, bumper stickers and price signs like ‘12 roses for $1.99.’” 

Because of the long exposures, sometimes as long as a half-hour to two hours, pedestrians, cars and other objects moving through the scene do not show up in the final photo. 

“You’re creating imagery that doesn’t exist, which I found exciting,” Busch said, “People disappear.” 

During an interview with art theorist/professor Colin Gardner at SBMA last month, Busch told the audience he doesn’t mind the time it takes to set up his large format photographs. “If you can’t make a commitment to that image, there’s no power. A photographer who takes 3,000 pictures a day—I don’t understand that. There’s no commitment to any of it.” 

Busch earned fine arts degrees from the University of Illinois in the 70s, then served as an assistant to several well-known large format photographers, including Al Weber and Ansel Adams. 

“I learned by looking at his prints all the time, talking to him about the photos, and going to his seminars,” Busch said. “At five o’clock, it was always toddy time at Adams’ house. He was jovial and loved life. He was a concert pianist, too. That’s what he really wanted to do.” 

In the decades that followed, Busch completed more than two dozen photo projects that resulted in books and exhibits both nationally and internationally, with themes that included gardens, sea and sky, streams, urban landscapes (Denver, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow, etc.), nudes, and tattoos. 

In the 90s, Busch began a successful foray into architectural design, completing more than two dozen projects in Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and nearby. His own home at the top of Trancas Canyon Road has been featured on HGTV and in several magazine articles. He also received recognition for homes built for the photographer Steven Siegel, photographer, director/producer Paul Haggis of “Crash” fame and producer Michael Shamberg, who owned Jersey Films with Danny DeVito, among others. 

On the transition away from photography, he said, “I got bored with photography and lost the vision. I’d always designed my own living spaces, and I ended up becoming this goofy boutique designer for the rich and famous.” 

Busch is now returning to his roots in photography. Several years ago, he tried his hand at digital color photos for the first time, resulting in the publication of “Silent Waves”—abstract images of Malibu’s ocean and sky. (Malibu images are also included in his books “Tides and Time” and “Retrospective.”) His next project will be photographing the campers and RVs at campgrounds along the Pacific Coast Highway. 

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is located at 1130 State St. in Santa Barbara. The “Scene on the Street” exhibit runs through Dec. 2. 

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