Cedars-Sinai through a doctor’s lens

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For four decades, endocrinologist Dr. Roger Lerner walked the halls of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center solely to attend to patients. But when he bought a first-generation iPhone six years ago, he began to see his hospital surroundings in an entirely different way.

That’s when he began snapping photos of the buildings on campus, offering a unique look at a hospital through an artistic lens. His carefully composed images show light reflected and refracted through windows and against walls, creating sensitive explorations of the surrounding space.

Thousands of photos later, his work is being shown in “…Light, Interrupted,” an exhibition at Sulkin/Secant Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica running through the end of September. (An earlier show, “Roger Lerner: Form in Light,” took place in August at Couturier Gallery in Hancock Park.)

We met one evening at the hospital’s north tower on a terrace overlooking Gracie Allen Drive, and he held up his iPhone 6 to show me a picture he’d taken the previous evening.

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“You can see the sunset, the Pacific Theatres, and you can see these lights,” Lerner said, pointing to the dim glow of streetlights in the distance. “And that’s the kind of picture I like to take, because it tells you something about the hospital and how really attractive the architecture is.”

The photographs are abstract representations of the architecture. Light and shadows play off each other, lines intersect and run parallel, and it’s only upon close inspection that the forms appear as railings, exposed pipes, or the reflections of other buildings in glass windows.

“When I see something while I’m walking, I simply stop and take a picture. I don’t compose it, I don’t think, ‘Gee, I want to come back at 6 o’clock at night because the sun will be perfect,’ or anything like that,” Lerner said. “I just simply take the picture.”

None of the images are cropped or edited. Of roughly 4,000 pictures, a couple dozen black-and-white photos are currently on display at Sulkin/Secant Gallery in Santa Monica.

While Lerner has always been drawn to the buildings at Cedars-Sinai, it was just in the last few years that he started seeing them differently.

“About five years ago, they painted everything off-white, and the buildings now just have a whole different look,” he said. “And the architecture really interacts with the space and the light in amazing ways.”

None of the images include people, giving them a slightly dystopian quality, as though they are of a pristine yet abandoned place. Some of the images resemble closed-circuit camera images of sidewalks and lobbies.

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“I wouldn’t take pictures of people because it’s a privacy issue here. I never take pictures of equipment. I never take interior pictures if there are people around,” Lerner said. “I think the buildings are far more interesting.

“I think the people have too much on their minds, and I don’t want to get into doing candid photos, especially because I’m walking around here dressed as a doctor. I can’t do that. That would really be interfering with their privacy. Forgetting the legal issues, just the ethical issue of giving people their own space, you know?”

Lerner, who is Jewish, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Connecticut. He has been an amateur photographer since he was a child. He remembers his mother buying him a Kodak Baby Brownie camera when he was about 10; it took him a couple of years to save up the money to develop the pictures, he recalled. In 1959, he used a Kodak Pony, a small rangefinder camera, to take pictures on a road trip through Arizona.

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He continued to shoot with film cameras until his first iPhone purchase. The advent of smartphone cameras opened up a whole new world for Lerner.

“Nothing compares to a 35 mm single-lens reflex camera with quality lenses in front, but it does stand up. I think it really looks very good, and it’s getting better,” he said.

His first gallery show came about because of his long-standing friendship with Darrel Couturier, owner of Couturier Gallery. Couturier also was Lerner’s patient and he took an interest in the project.

“I think it’s intriguing to use an iPhone to entirely document a hospital, of all places,” Couturier said. “It was fascinating, what he was interested in capturing, all these abstractions, and to see them at all times of year and in all kinds of light.”

1 IMG_0002After Lerner showed him the photographs, Couturier had about 70 photos printed in a book.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Lerner said. “He did that because he wanted to show me that you couldn’t get the feel for the pictures until they were printed out in real photographs. You couldn’t see them on your iPhone or even on a laptop because there were limitations to the size.”

The show at Sulkin/Secant also happened because of a personal connection — Lerner has been gallery owner Jeffrey Sulkin’s doctor for over 25 years, and cared for both of Sulkin’s parents until their deaths as well. Sulkin, a professional architect, had been trying for years to convince Lerner to exhibit his work.

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“He’s a very humble man, and I don’t think he perceived himself as a professional photographer,” Sulkin said. “This is a man who’s looking for peace and comfort in his life, for his patients, and in his surroundings. This is not an architecturally significant building, and the fact that he’s able to extract these images and this sense of peace, this sense of light and the beauty of it, that comes from him. He’s that way with his patients.”

Sulkin compared Lerner’s work to that of Ansel Adams, known for his black-and-white landscape photographs of the American West, and the Depression-era photographers Imogen Cunningham and Margaret Bourke-White.

So, now that he has two gallery shows to his name, has Lerner thought about switching careers?

“No,” Lerner said with a laugh. “I don’t have that kind of talent. I do it really for fun and because I think things are interesting and beautiful.”

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Roger Lerner’s photo exhibition, “…Light, Interrupted,” runs through the end of September at Sulkin/Secant Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. For more information, click here.

This article was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.