Artist Robi Hutas unveils archival photographs that reveal bygone worlds, as well as a master at work
Hutas has lived in an apartment building near downtown Hermosa Beach for so long – since 1964 – that the place has been dubbed “the Hutas Hotel” by locals. He has an old VW van and an older Ford van – circa 1963 – that only burst into action on carpet-cleaning expeditions across town or visits to blooming wildflowers a bit further afield.
Mainly he can be found pedaling his bicycle up and down the beach and over to Redondo Beach’s Cannery Row Studios, where he has shown his work as both a painter and photographer for more than two decades. He has documented life in the beach cities more comprehensively than any other artist, ever.
Beginning in 1958, Hutas began steadfastly documenting the disappearance of Old Redondo as the wrecking balls did their destructive work. For four years in the late 1960s, he photographed all four corners of every single intersection west of Pacific Coast Highway in Palos Verdes, Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan, and Venice Beach. A few years later, he photographed the construction of the Manhattan Village from 13 different vantage points from its beginning to completion.
Hutas is perhaps best known for his panoramic and action shots of nearly every major beach volleyball tournament since 1968. They adorn the mantels and walls of hundreds of local businesses and homes. He is such a well-known and well-loved character that he rarely pedals more than a block without hearing multiple shouts of “Hey Bull!”
Fellow photographer John Post said that Hutas’ work is unparalleled. He said that Hutas, who fled the revolution in Hungary in 1957, has never stopped seeing the South Bay with fresh eyes.
“As far as I know, Robi was the first one to document the South Bay in photographs,” Post said. “I mean, the things he has seen in his life…He’s one of the people who can really appreciate the area for just what it is. Too many people live in a different kind of world and just don’t enjoy the place for what it is. And Robi has always done that.”
But there is another side of Hutas work that few people have seen. His new show at Cannery Row Studios, “I Did it My Way: Unseen World of Robi Hutas Jerry Young” (see page 33 for a profile on Young), contains some of his local work but is largely dominated by devastatingly beautiful photographs of his journeys elsewhere – to the desert, the mountains, Mexico, and Hungary.
This show documents Hutas himself – not just as a documentarian, but as an artist possessing a keen eye for fragile and quickly disappearing worlds. Some of this work recalls Ansel Adams in its austere depictions of the American West, but with a significant difference – even when there are no people in the photographs, there is the warm, beating heart of human presence.
Take his photograph of an abandoned homestead in rural California, taken five years ago. A tangled tree reaches out in the foreground; threadbare shacks lean in the background. No person is present, but Hutas has somehow infused the shot with humanity.
“People came out west, did their stuff, got old and fucking died,” Hutas said in an interview this week. “And then it was all gone. You will never see this again.”
Hutas, who is 76, has amassed an archive of roughly 700,000 photographs. As he prepared for his annual show, fellow Cannery Row artists Emiko Wake and John Cantu visited his Hermosa home and helped him sift through these archives. What they discovered astonished them.
“I’d never seen Robi’s photographs fully,” said Wake. “It was almost shocking. It’s really hard to believe. It’s like a piece of paper, a photograph, a slice of life – his photos have depth and life. Some happy photos, but sometimes it’s the really tough reality of life. And I thought, ‘It’s just like Robi himself: tough and warm, full of love.’ It’s just so deep. It’s a world. It’s his life – as an artist, as a photographer – and I wanted him to show how he lived, how he saw, how he felt. And how he photographed.”
Still life with Bull
Hutas himself came from a disappearing world.
He grew up during WWII. As a young boy, he went out into the streets of war-torn Budapest and collected shells, brought them home, put them in a vice and squeezed the bullets open in order to provide his father with ammunition. Years later, as a young man, he was again in the streets, this time as a freedom fighter in the 1956 revolution that briefly overthrew Communism in Hungary. Months later, as Soviet tanks rolled in to brutally reassert Communism’s rule, Hutas attempted to leave his native land.
He was lucky to escape several rounds of machine gun fire but he did not escape the border patrol. He was subsequently imprisoned, and the story of Robi Hutas might very well have ended there but for the fact that he somehow made a human connection with a Soviet officer.
“This Russian soldier came into my cell,” Hutas recalled. “He wanted to know why a young guy like me wanted to leave the country. I had four years of Russian in school, so I told him why. I just didn’t see any future. He kind of listened to me. ‘I have a son just like you. He’s your age,’ he said. And he shook my hand and padded me on the shoulder as he’s walking out.”
Huta looked down the hallway as the Russian left and noticed two odd things: the usually ever-present guard was not there, and the officer had left the gate open. “That was all I needed,” Hutas said. “I ran outside and took off into the cornfields…He probably understood my situation and left the door open. I was really lucky. I made it.”
A few weeks later he hid in the back of the farmer’s truck and crossed the border in the middle of cold winter night.
“I was so happy when we finally made it across those frozen cornfields, making all this noise in the middle of the night, I took off my coat and gave it to the farmer…I was standing on top of this two-and-a-half ton truck, and I said, ‘Here, take it with you.’ I am colder than hell and I gave him my coat I was so goddamned happy.”
He lived in a refugee camp in Austria, took a boat to America, and landed at Fort Kilmer, New Jersey, the disembarkation point for refugees arriving in the Port of New York. One of his memories from that time was his amazement when he and some fellow refugees walked into American food markets for the first time.
“I had never seen a banana,” he said. “The only banana I had ever seen was in a book, so the first time I walked into a market and notice a girl pushing a cart of these goddamn things…The first banana I bought, I bit into it and said, ‘Man, this is tough.’ We finally figured them out. We peeled the damn things.”
He was given 20 dollars and a train ticket to Phoenix, Arizona, where he had an uncle who ran a shoe repair shop. He spent $17 on oranges before he left New York – a single orange was worth a week’s wages in Hungary, where he’d been working in a steel mill and had never had the money to taste an orange. He felt like a king.
Hutas said he’ll never forget pulling into the train station in Arizona.
“Looking out from the window, you know, all I see is nothing but oranges, big navel oranges,” he said. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? You could just walk off the train and take one? Now I know why people think money grows on trees.’”
The abundance of America was stunning, although he couldn’t make any sense of the English language. For a full year, he remembers ordering hamburgers whenever he ate at a restaurant because he couldn’t pronounce anything else on the menu. In 1958, in exchange for a place to stay, he agreed to drive two Hungarian friends to California in a ‘52 Studebaker he’d bought. He lived in a garage in south Los Angeles and looked for work. It wasn’t an easy time; his two friends, homesick and unable to learn English, returned to Hungary.
“The English language is so difficult in so many ways,” Hutas said. “There are so many ways to pronounce things totally different…and the spelling, I mean, that is just nuts. When those two guys left, they said, ‘Bobby, you will never be able to speak this language.’ They gave up. I got a letter from them – they got three years in jail when they went back.”
Hutas wouldn’t give up. And while applying for a job at Metlox Pottery in Manhattan Beach, he met a man who would utterly change his life. Bill Thomas, who was also applying, noticed that Hutas was unable to understand the application forms and helped him fill it out. The two men became fast friends. A short while later – after both were hired by Metlox and Hutas moved to Redondo Beach – Thomas gave him his first camera. It was an Argus C3, the low-price cameras produced in Michigan that became the best selling 35 millimeter camera of all time.
“I didn’t have any money,” Hutas said. “I worked at Metlox for 90 cents and hour, so I really basically made enough money to pay my rent, eat, barely, and go to the Fox movie theater for a quarter. That was my entertainment. And then one day my friend gave me a camera. He said, ‘Hey Bob, you are welcome to have this.’ That is where this whole thing started.”
Hutas soon formed a habit. He wandered around the South Bay and took photographs. His first sustained subject was the passing of Old Redondo. The old waterfront district was being torn down as part of a misbegotten “urban renewal,” and Hutas documented the destruction of every old business and every old home.
“From then on, what came over me is: don’t stop doing it,” Hutas said. “Because I almost had a feeling, a premonition…I hated to see these old buildings being knocked down, and they built those rotten condominiums over there. From then on, I got involved in a lot of things. From then on, I documented the whole South Bay.”
In 1961, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Instead of being sent to Vietnam, he was first sent to guard missiles and then deployed as a military policeman in the racially seething American South.
“Here is a guy from California who can’t speak English and they send me, after basic training, to Seneca, New York to guard intercontinental ballistic missiles,” Hutas said. “And I wasn’t even a citizen. I’m telling you, they are crazy.”
When James Meredith became the first African American to enter the University of Mississippi, Hutas was one of the soldiers who escorted him. “I’m the guy who guarded him in the classroom so he could walk from one class to the next class, all the way to the door with an M-14,” he said. “I had never seen so much hate in my life…From a revolution into a goddamn race riot. I couldn’t believe it.”
Hutas returned to Hermosa Beach in 1964. He rented an apartment a block from the beach – on 8th Street, where he lives to this day – and resumed his love affair with the beach. But he also undertook a larger and less well-known love affair with the rugged country of the American West and Mexico.
Travels with Bull
Hutas became a fixture in the burgeoning South Bay art scene of the 1960s. People frequently had the same disconcerting experience upon meeting him: first they were terrified by this large man with muscles fairly .popping out of his shirt and a voice like bullhorn. Then they were won over by his warmth.
Painter Wilfred Sarr’s first instinct upon meeting Hutas in 1962 was to run like hell.
“He looked like Mr. Clean without the earring,” Sarr said. “…I met him through a friend, and he seemed really rough, so I didn’t open up to him right away. Then I began to realize there was this really soft side to the guy, this soft underbelly. He’s really a tenderhearted guy. Once I saw that, it was all over.”
Hutas began embarking on trips into the country with his camera. He often brought girlfriends; they had no idea what they were getting into.
“I put them through a lot of heartache,” Hutas said. “I had these old cars with no breaks. One in particular was a 1955 Volkswagon Bug, and my breaks wasn’t really working too good. I stopped and went up this mountain to take a photograph of this tree. As I looked back, my car was rolling away. I yelled, ‘Bobbi! Bobbi! Push the break!…Poor thing, I scared the shit out of her.”
His first trip was to Yosemite, and it lifted the roof off the top of his head. “I had never seen anything like it in my life,” he said. “Unbelievable. Fucking unbelievable.”
John Post met Hutas in the early ‘70s and became a frequent travel companion. Post said that one time, in Yosemite, Hutas was surrounded by a busload of Japanese tourists who sought his autograph.
“They thought he was Ansel Adams,” Post said.
As “I Did it My Way” reveals, however, Hutas’ attention was often drawn less to the grandeur of places like Yosemite and more to more woebegone places and things – an abandoned trapper’s cabin, a disorganized fruit strand, a rusted out truck, a gnarled tree in a field of wheat. He was mostly self-taught except for a handful of classes at El Camino College. His photos reveal a natural gift for composition, a documentarian’s eye for detail, and something more ineffable.
As he looked through his archives one day last week, Hutas frequently uttered the same expression as he came upon another old photograph. “Oh man,” he’d say mournfully. “It broke my heart.” And this is what comes through in these photographs: a man with a large enough heart to have it broken daily by the passing beauty of the world.
“I think he has done some really beautiful things and he doesn’t even know it,” Sarr said. “Being an artist is one thing; being a human being is another. I think he is an amazing human being.”
Sarr recalled a trip he took to Gorman, California on April 22, 1992 with Hutas. The poppies and other wildflowers were in full bloom. When they arrived, Sarr, who had recently broken his foot, could barely keep up with the exuberant Hutas, who was running through the fields of flowers like he’s just entered paradise.
“I was dragging my ass,” Sarr said. “I was limping and hobbling and following this guy around. He was so excited.”
Hutas has thousands of photographs of wildflowers (“Oh man, I got flowers coming out of my ass,” he said), many which look like Georgia O’Keefe paintings. But he still remembers that day.
“Overwhelming, it was just so overwhelming you didn’t know what to think,” he said. “I couldn’t see the ground. Hey, you couldn’t get those flowers in your dreams. You couldn’t describe them with words at all. Then there was this movie industry woman riding a black stallion with incredible clothes on through that poppy field. I got photos of all that shit. Yeah. That was beautiful.”
They drove 50 miles to Lancaster in search of more poppies, then returned to find the field had switched from blazing orange to blue – the poppies had dimed that quickly, and lupus stood out in their place. The two men were damned near speechless at the beauty of it. “It was quite a day,” Sarr said.
“Photography, I think, is timing and light — when you take it, you are lucky that you are there,” Hutas said. “It’s a lot of searching.”
But it’s more than that, of course. Hutas returned to Hungary in 1972. He took photos of his home country, and especially the people he knew there who were still living, and what comes through is no accident of timing or light. What comes through is a hard-earned dignity, humor, and love.
Wake said that Hutas own experiences – the true hatred he observed in the deep south, the frailty of people surviving war and revolution – inform his work.
“People don’t understand Robi,” she said. “Because he dresses like that, he only has two teeth, he’s always swearing, and he’s using words his own way. He’s often misunderstood, but he’s a true gentleman. He has dignity, he has compassion, he has true generosity, and he’s very respectful and patient and he is very graceful. His photographs are not about timing or luck. It’s about him, about his heart, his emotion, his eyes. He understands from a situation what kind of life, history, what kind of thing happened there – he can see it. That is what makes him a great photographer.”
Artist and Cannery Row founder Richard Stephens said Hutas has “a special pulse” for when to snap the trigger for a photograph. But he too said that what truly sets Hutas apart is his heart.
“He’s the best friend to so many people, once they get to know him,” Stephens said. “And he appreciates what people do for him. And he always gets in there and gets things done.”
Wake believes this show will mark the beginning of a new and richer understanding of Hutas’ accomplishments as a photographer. But whether it is a new beginning or the end of something else – Cannery Row Studios itself, after all, is threatened by a proposed development that would surround it with retail stores and a carwash – one thing is certainly true. As Hutas frequently said, looking at his archival photos, “You will never see this again.”
See an audio slideshow of Hutas talking about his work. “I Did it My Way” opens August 20 at 7 p.m. and runs til Sept. 4. Cannery Row Studios are at 604 N. Francisca Ave. See canneryrowstudios.com for more info. ER
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