Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Soft-Sell Conclusion

Bruce Hall is an intimidating physical presence. He's about six three with a thick build and a trim goatee on the business end of his chin, and when he has a camera in his hands he feels free license to get in your face. There is a bit of Texas swagger about him supplemented with beach bluster from years of living and surfing in Southern California. It's my wave, Buddy. Back off. It goes without saying that the guys without that swagger don't get many rides.

Such an attitude can lead to friction when shooting photos. One person's wave might be considered another person's face. Or kids. Or privates. Did you shoot me just now? Yeah, and what are you gonna do about it? I've photographed alongside Bruce many times and I've seen squabbles arise. Actually it happens just about every time we go out. In some ways Bruce is just a fight waiting to happen.

So how is that he makes photographs of such extraordinary sensitivity? One look at the photographs in this book and it's clear they aren't made by a raging bull. They're made by a butterfly. Don't mind me, says the camera, just floating through. And oh yes, nailing it. Time after time he's in the right spot, paying attention to the right thing. Friction? Did I say friction? These pictures have as much friction as maple syrup. They look downright inevitable.

So that's the paradox of Bruce Hall. He's both a surf punk and wallflower. But how? What's the secret? Simple. Bruce went native. Living in Los Angeles for a decade, he became finely tuned to its rhythms. He learned the light and the characters and the plot, he could guess who would likely be where, when, and how. He became a regular fixture downtown, the big guy with the camera. 

Many of these photos were made on Broadway in downtown LA. In the 1980s it was a ramshackle artery of vendors, grit, marquees, and hopes in limbo. I'm guessing that what attracted Bruce is that there was no gloss, no false veneer. In the center of a city built on image, Broadway was just…well, Broadway. It lay there naked. No layers to undress. For a photographer that was appealing. The Promised Land. So Broadway and the nearby streets became his stomping grounds. And throughout the eighties the photos in this book accumulated. 

Normally photographs from 30 years ago would serve as a timepiece. They'd show a past world that had since changed and we could compare then and now. The irony with this work is that Broadway has changed very little since the 1980s. You can go there today and see pretty much what Bruce saw. The Promised Land? Visiting Broadway today, that phrase seems less societal pact than declaration of unfullfillment. Yes, fashions have shifted, and cars, and a few other cursory traits. But the infrastructure of Broadway is largely intact. More importantly, the mood is the same. It's a place that feels bypassed. It's a place that feels like it will always exist in black and white.  

The same might be said of street photography itself. It may still have some adherents, but it's a genre that has largely been bypassed by other photographic currents. The idea of just walking downtown with no plan, looking for moments —the core of this book— would be considered passé if practiced today. So perhaps this book belongs in the past, along with Frank and Model and Faurer and all the other tough, sensitive souls capturing shit that will never ever happen again, will never be recorded with such gut-wrenching fidelity, and that no one could ever imagine if they hadn't shown us. 

Because, Dude. Once you surf that wave it's gone.

—from my afterward to Promised Land, a new MagCloud publication by Blue Sky Books featuring photographs of 1980s Los Angeles by M. Bruce Hall. Preview/Order here

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