Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I Come From Nowhere

I've made three photo trips to LA in recent years. With each visit my circle of exploration has expanded slightly. During the first visit with Bruce Hall in 2012, we stayed in a small motel on 7th between downtown and McCarthur Park. We had no car and we explored only the places we could reach on foot or by subway. That turned out to be Broadway, Hollywood, Alvarado, and Watts Towers. We had a great time, and Bruce found downtown to be mostly unchanged from the early 1990s.

7th and Hill, Los Angeles, Bruce Hall, circa early 1980s

7th and Hill, Los Angeles, Google Street View, 2015

The second visit was in the summer of 2013. I stayed with Bruce downtown on the edge of skid row and my mental map of LA expanded to include the toy and fashion district, Chinatown, and the river. We saw where Bukowski had pissed and Robert Frank's St. Francis statue. We also had access to Richard Bram's car for one day and visited Santa Monica and Venice. It was a fun trip but left me hungry for more. 

My recent visit in January was the longest of the three, 10 days total, shuffling between two AirBnBs, one old hotel, and a rotating mix of 8 roommates. The last 5 days there we had a car, and that opened the city up. I played Neal Cassady to Matt Stuart's Kesey. We rolled the windows down, cranked 93.5 KDAY, and acted as if we'd lived in LA for years. I drove. Matt shot everything that moved out the passenger side. If we saw a good place to walk around we parked and explored. 

One of the more interesting places to explore on foot was Rodeo Drive. That's pronounced Ro-Day-O and don't you forget it. It's Prada, not cowboys. But I don't own any Prada so I dressed there the same way I do every day. I wore an old t-shirt, shorts, sandals, and uncombed bedhead hair. This is a standard outfit most places, but on Rodeo it's comparable to wearing a magic invisible suit. The rich people there have their heads so far up their asses they can't see anything! Within a few minutes walking around I realized that included me with my camera. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. I could walk right up to people and shoot them point blank, and with beard and dirty T-shirt I didn't exist. Matt and I had a lot of fun there, although I have to say Matt was dressed slightly better. He's European after all, and the Rodeo folk are trained to pick up on that. 

Olvera Park, Los Angeles, 2012

Together we were able to see the main boulevards and neighborhoods of West LA in some detail. Sunset, Melrose, Beverly, 3rd, Wilshire, Fairfax, Olympic, Pico, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice, Glendale, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Farmer's Market. Every day we found new things and my mental map of LA expanded slightly. But after 10 days I'd still only seen about 1% of the metro area, and they were mostly the white hip parts. I still have no idea what Compton or Pasadena or Inglewood or Long Beach or Burbank looks like. In my mind they remain full of potential, and LA itself is an untapped land of possibility. The more I see of it the more mysterious it becomes. I guess that's why people move there. They're helpless to resist the dream impulse.

The irony is that I grew up hating LA. Where I lived as a kid on the far north coast of California everyone did. LA was Babylon. Cars, traffic, smog, plastic, crime, and everything bad. Worse than that, it had the population base and could thus control the state's political world. The rural hills of the north coast felt like another state entirely. In fact there was a movement to secede from Southern California and create a new state, where everyone would grow their hair out and live on nuts and carrots and pot. It never worked out but that was the context for me to judge LA. It was the distant overlord. We had nothing in common, or so I thought.

Top: Robert Frank, 1955; Bottom: Garry Winogrand, 1955

Three decades later the place has begun to grow on me. Not that I could ever live there, but as a photographic destination it has enormous potential. Just look at downtown, for example. Within six blocks it transitions from financial skyscrapers to the grungiest skid row imaginable. The mix of people in between is beautiful. Why hasn't someone made that a project? Who is shooting good photos there? If downtown has been relatively ignored it's probably because LA is a driving city. You need a car to see it, and once you have one you realize that downtown is only one of about 300 promising destinations. 

LA is the kind of place you stumble on random famous shit occasionally (except for downtown which is mostly unknown to the outer world). Oh yeah, there's that restaurant from that show. There's so-and-so from that movie. There's Jeff Garlin with his Leica. 

Photographers aren't immune. Last week I hit three photo landmarks by accident. The first was Gursky's 99 Cent Store on Sunset Boulevard. I guess I should've known where it was because I'd written about the thing several weeks ago. But but the time I arrived in LA I'd forgotten all about that. We were shooting Hollywood Boulevard and needed some film. So George, Faulkner, and I decided to walk to Freestyle Photo on Sunset, another photo landmark of sorts but definitely second rank. 

We'd gone just a few blocks from the Hollywood/Western subway stop when there it was: Gursky's 99 Cent Store, 5270 Sunset. Turns out there are many 99 Cent stores in LA but this one was immediately recognizable. It had palm trees in the right place between the clerestory windows, and amazing lines of fluorescents. Gursky's Photoshopping notwithstanding, the place felt real. I went inside but it proved impossible to get an upper view of the aisles. So I settled for an exterior shot.

The second photo landmark was La Brea and Beverly. This is another corner I've written about so I know it well from various photographs. But finding it in LA came by accident. We were driving down Wilshire to LACMA, we passed La Brea, and I realized the corner must be close. A little ways up the road and there it was. We all piled out of the car to get a good look.

This photo is shot from the same vantage as Shore's and shows Bruce, Missy, Steve, and George in the foreground near the iconic sign. This was right before Bruce managed to get scolded for hip shooting a passing woman on a bike. She called him on it but instead of saying anything about the Shore photo —which may have soothed her but doubtful— Bruce went into denial mode. Who, me? What photo? Poor decision. So are the coffee stains above.

Before visiting this corner I'd always wondered about Shore's choice of location. On a map this seems like no-man's-land. There are no big buildings, no famous shops, nothing noteworthy. It's just two gas stations. Why that spot? But when you visit this corner you realize it's sort of the perfect center of LA, or at least White-Upper-Class LA. Beverly and La Brea are main corridors. Where they intersect, nothing much happens, but that's the story of LA. It's all about the void, and cars, and space. Symbolically, this corner could be city hall. In fact we passed La Brea/Beverly by chance several times later in the week driving here or there. There's some sort of magnet there and you wind up circling the spot involuntarily. Maybe Shore had a similar experience there and that's why he shot it. Or not. Who knows. Either way I can check that photo landmark from the list.

The last landmark I found by accident was on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. This was during our street shooting workshop on the last weekend in January. We picked a Starbucks on Hollywood as a meeting point, and everyone went off to find photos. 

I knew this would be my last time in Hollywood for a while and I was determined to find the location of  Winogrand's photo of three women with wheelchair guy and shadows. Unfortunately I was going from memory and I didn't know the photo by heart. The only helpful detail I could remember in the photo was a sidewalk star which pinned it on Hollywood, but I had no idea which cross street. 

This is where the magic of smart phones (maybe I'll have to get me one) kicked in. No image is ever out of reach. One of my students looked up the photo on his phone and it was a simple matter to see the Vine St. sign in the upper right of the frame. Voila! The corner turned out to be just across the street from our Starbucks meeting point. 

By afternoon in late January this corner is completely shaded. Winogrand must've shot it during summer months in the evening, shooting due west into the sun. The buildings in the photo are still there, and maybe the tree, although it's hard to say because the entire sidewalk is now lined with large palm trees obscuring the sky. The sidewalk and lamppost remain unchanged. I scoped out the location from several angles but by this time my Instax had broken down, so I can't show any instant photos. Here is it in Street View:

All in all it was a good trip. I'm gradually going through the film now. Whatever turns up will be only part of the LA story. I'll need to return at some point...


Marilyn Andrews said...

I share your attraction to LA, much to look at there!!!

Perro Perdido said...

My shot from 7th and Hill is from the early 80's, not the 90's. That corner has not changed much, but LA and downtown in general, has changed immensely since then. Also I didn't hip shoot the girl on the bike. I raised the camera, focused and shot the picture as she was turning to look at me. I then asked her if I could shoot her. She said you just did, then called me a psycho as she pedaled off. Just wanting to clarify to the best of my recollections. I love your picture of the 99 cent store. I had a great time with you guys down there. You're right; it's a fascinating place that will always present a myriad of photo opportunities. Outside of Mexico it's one of my favorite places to walk with my camera. I'm looking forward to going back soon. I found a cheap hotel in East LA near a metro stop on my last day so it may be sooner that later.

Joe Reifer said...

Have you seen Los Angeles Plays Itself?

Blake Andrews said...

Sorry, Bruce. I guess I got a few facts wrong but you gotta admit it made the story better. Facts Schmacts. Can't wait to see your recent pix.