Step Into the Tender World of a Hollywood Cameraman


LOS ANGELES — Part time capsule, part love letter, the exhibition If We Can’t Fix It—It Ain’t Busted at Arcane Space is a tender reconstruction of the world of Hollywood cameraman Arthur Gerstle.

Gerstle, curator Morleigh Steinberg’s grandfather, was an inveterate tinkerer. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is first immersed in a recreation of his workshop (the exhibition’s title is taken from a sign that used to hang in the space). With a fastidiously arranged spread of steel tools and wooden cabinetry — one even fashioned from reused cream cheese tins — the viewer is invited to admire the objects not only for their utility but for their formal beauty. The tools, which Steinberg meticulously photographed for the accompanying publication, are in some ways remnants of a lost era of craftsmanship.

If We Can’t Fix It—It Ain’t Busted at Arcane Space (photo by Morleigh Steinberg)

We see the objects from Gerstle’s time in the Golden Age of Hollywood: a multitude of cameras, union cards, technical manuals, old footage, and black-and-white film stills. During his career, which spanned over half a century, Gerstle worked with Hollywood icons like John Wayne, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, and Frank Sinatra. As the technologies were still developing for the growing film industry, the resourceful Gerstle often invented or rejiggered the camera equipment he needed — hand-cut mattes, or a custom-made device for a handheld camera. It was highly technical, and often uncredited, work. And while the spotlight often tends to shine on big names, this exhibition provides a history of the film industry from the perspective of someone who worked behind the scenes.

If We Can’t Fix It—It Ain’t Busted (photo by Morleigh Steinberg)

Also on display are the whimsical dollhouse miniatures Gerstle made for this three granddaughters and his prodigious stamp collection — he would filch the exotic stamps from the fan letters sent to the studio. There was seemingly nothing he wouldn’t try his hand at, whether it was leather working, stained glass painting, or whittling. (He also loved making bolos, and every member of the family had one.) While the results were often not perfect, their magic is in what they reveal about the love of tinkering itself.

Steinberg hopes the show, with its DIY ethos, will inspire visitors to rethink their own relationship to objects. In a culture where many things are designed to be disposable, and machines of ever-increasing complexity have lessened the need for the handmade, the exhibit is a testament to the virtues of ingenuity and repair.

If We Can’t Fix It—It Ain’t Busted at Arcane Space (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

If We Can’t Fix It—It Ain’t Busted continues at Arcane Space (324 Sunset Avenue, Venice, Los Angeles) through November 28. The exhibition was curated by Morleigh Steinberg.

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