Untitled, from the Los Angeles Documentary Project, Max Yavno, 1979-1980
“Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s”
By Mark Rice
CHAPTER FOUR: Bringing It All Together: The Four Surveys of Greater L.A. (Excerpt)
The Los Angeles Documentary Project was one of the most ambitious of all the photography surveys supported by the NEA. In addition to including more photographers (eight) than any of the other Greater L.A. surveys, Los Angeles presented a larger subject than any of the other NEA-supported surveys of cities. The application noted that the project would be “a visual examination of the sociological and topographical diversity of one of the most dynamic and unusual cities in the world.” In their application for an NEA Photography Survey Grant, the directors of the survey were aware that Los Angeles signified more than just itself, and called Los Angeles “the ultimate city of our age.” The description goes on to address the importance of understanding what Los Angeles had become by the 1970s:
“For many years it has been the focal point of the American Dream, a mecca for dreamers and opportunists alike. It now forcefully and graphically exhibits the chaotic results of unplanned urban growth, unbridled and massive industrialization, and a population resultant of one continuous and several mass migrations. Its landscape is one of incredible extremes; a dichotomy of its glossy and superficial façade and the underlying and harsher realities of the demands of its industrial machine.”
Juxtaposing the illusion that Los Angeles provides the followers of the American Dream with the grimmer realities of contemporary urban life, the survey echoes many of Soja’s central observations about Los Angeles’s significance in postmodernist urban theory.
While the Los Angeles Documentary Project shared Eber’s interest in examining the social impact of growth and change on the city, the surveys were very different. Unlike Eber, who was interested in recording a disappearing working class community, the Los Angeles Documentary Project focused on what the city was becoming, mixing the nostalgia inherent in the city’s bicentennial celebration with a focus on indicators of the city’s future. Moreover, in many ways the L.A. survey took a more distanced approach than did Eber. While the L.A. survey included photographs of people, there was no effort to allow those people’s voices into the representation of the city. Instead, the survey was more interested in the photographers’ visual and visceral reactions to contemporary Los Angeles.
The spirit of Paul Cattleman lurked in the grant application survey, which stated that the project’s goal was “to produce a major document of contemporary life in what must be the most contemporary of cities.” Without using the term “postmodern,” the survey application indicated that the project would be a record of something radically new and important—that Los Angeles was different from other cities, linked not so much with the past as with the future, and that it pointed toward the direction that other cities would increasingly take in their own growth and expansion.
The survey was ambitious in its efforts to capture the overwhelming visual diversity that the city presented, and the structure of the survey highlighted the impossibility of ever fully capturing Los Angeles. Instead of a comprehensive survey, the survey directors felt “that the documentation of topic areas (e.g., Hispanic community, transportation) and specific sites (e.g., Venice, Hollywood) representative of or unique to Los Angeles will result in a cohesive and definitive survey.” The struggle would be to create cohesion out of the disparate approaches of the photographers, and to assert the definitiveness of the survey beyond the fact that it had the imprimatur of a federal agency on it.
The project photographers were Gusmano Cesaretti, Joe Deal, Robbert Flick, Douglas Hill, John Humble, Bill Owens, Susan Ressler, and Max Yavno. Alan Jutzi, the project director, chose them “on the basis of their familiarity with Los Angeles and on the strengths of documentary work already accomplished in this city.” These photographers brought to the project diverse approaches and photographic sensibilities, ranging from Max Yavno’s traditional documentary photographs of the ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles to Susan Ressler’s ironic images of the interiors of corporate boardrooms. From July of 1979 to June of 1980, the photographers pursued their own visions of the city, with few restrictions other than the preparation of “15-print photographic essays” that resulted from the directive “to explore Los Angeles and to develop new photographic techniques” (FDR). The work culminated with the exhibition, “Year 200: New Views of Los Angeles,” exhibited first at Mount St. Mary’s College from February 16 to March 29, 1981, and then at Grossmont College from June 22 to July 30, 1981. The results of the survey were widely anticipated and the project was important enough that a Camera Magazine issue served as the exhibition’s catalog.
Because of their similar subject matter and politics, the photographs of the Long Beach Photography Survey and the Los Angeles Documentary Project can profitably be studied as dimensions of a wider examination of Greater L.A. Both projects operated under the belief that documentary surveys cannot be objective, thereby freeing the photographers to concentrate on what each saw as key elements of Long Beach and Los Angeles that represented life in the city. The resulting images are a fertile cross-section of photographic practices that help paint a portrait of the rising postmodernism of urban America and of American photography. In addition, photographs from both projects include a similar range of photographic approaches and styles, from social realism through cool formalism and into forms of postmodernist representations self-consciously derived from other media images. The photographs from both projects resonate back and forth, accumulating into a telling vision both of L.A. and of important new directions in photographic representations of the nation.
The FDR for the Los Angeles Documentary Project stated: “Our original purpose had been not to document L.A. stereotypes and clichés but to show the city that few had cared to photograph.” What were these stereotypes and clichés? And what was the city that few had cared to photograph? One answer to the first question can be found in the photographs of Max Yavno. For his contribution to the survey, Yavno, a long-time documentary photographer with a resume stretching back to his days as the head of the New York Photo League in the 1940s, decided to photograph life in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, and he worked in a tradition of straight photography that emphasized the expressive black-and-white print achieved through extensive darkroom manipulations. In many of his photographs, Yavno relied on signs and murals to help convey the meanings of his images. One photograph showed a Hispanic couple sitting on a sidewalk while their child looked down at the ground; above them a mural warns about the dangers of drug use. A different photograph shows a girl ironing in a darkened room whose walls are covered in graffiti. Another image juxtaposes the sensuality of a Black Velvet whiskey billboard with a homeless man walking along the street. Yavno does not give voice to any of these people; they come across as downtrodden individuals, objects meant to elicit our sympathy instead of autonomous actors making their way through the world. His overall message seemed to be that L.A. is a lonely place full of marginalized people.
Yavno’s participation gave the project a sense of continuity with past documentary practices but his photographs revealed how dated those practices had come to feel. Moreover, Yavno’s style makes his photographs feel curiously divorced from the social realities that he wanted to reveal. For example, his photograph of a clothing store (figure 4.4) is similar in its subject matter to the photograph Eber made of Rose Cline’s second-hand store seen in Chapter Two. Like Eber, Yavno photographed a storefront with its hand-painted sign, filling the entire frame with the shop, providing no visual context for how the shop fits in with its wider surroundings. But where Eber manages to humanize her photograph by including the store’s owner in the photograph (as well as the owner’s own words), and by showing the details we see of what the store owns, Yavno’s photograph alienates both its subject and the viewer. The photograph is taken from across the street, creating a sense of distance between the viewer and the scene. The open door is dark and cavernous, allowing no glimpse of what is inside, even though Yavno burned the print’s edges so that our eyes are pulled toward the entrance. The car in front is another shrouded mystery; we can tell it is a sports car, but we don’t know whose it is or why it is located in such a seemingly incongruous spot. The people in the photograph add to a sense of alienation; the figures on either side face away from each other and from the entrance, and the woman in the doorway is frozen in a tentative pose, seemingly uncertain which way to go. Finally, where the name of Rose Cline’s store has a sense of whimsy, the name of the store in Yavno’s photograph, “Sir George of California” comes across almost pathetic in comparison with the store itself.
Another Yavno photograph (figure 4.5) has a similar composition and looks like it might have been made by Walker Evans in the 1930s. A once-grand building stands gated and empty, its multiple incarnations signaling prosperity, a period of decline and, finally, abandonment. Shot straight on, with no indication of what is adjacent to it, Yavno forces us to look only at the building’s details: a broken window, stained columns, overbearing signs calling out to the poor and desperate to borrow money, pawn their jewelry, sell their radios. But the pawnshop didn’t last here; the signs give the new address. Has it moved to larger quarters, a newer building? Has it downsized, falling victim to an economic upturn that has been paradoxically bad for pawnshops? Yavno provides no way of knowing. The photograph’s composition is strong, and the final print is glossy and polished, with crisp details and sharp tonal ranges, but it feels airlifted from another era, as though Yavno is nostalgic for a particular kind of hard times that belongs more to the past but that he has found vestiges of in contemporary L.A.
In his review of the survey exhibition, James Hugunin noted that “Yavno’s sensibility is distinctly rooted in days past,” and he went on to compare the melodramatic quality of Yavno’s photographs to newer photographic styles: “Years ago Yavno’s approach must have seemed excessively objective. . . . But compared to Humble or Flick it . . . appears to be excessively stylized” (“Monads” 20). Another critic, Mark Johnstone, echoed Hugunin’s appraisal, writing that Yavno’s “images superficially conform to stylistic motifs from the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Los Angeles is rather predictably portrayed as a tough, dirty, unfriendly and worn-down series of places. People are pictured within the context of a dated and cliché-ridden view of the landscape” (“Documenting” 13). These remarks dramatically highlight a central challenge posed to documentary photography. Because representation is so entwined with cultural values, as a culture changes, its preferred forms of cultural representation will likewise change. That a photographic style could so easily shift from being viewed as a mark of objectivity to being written off as clichéd vividly illustrates the contingent nature of photographic representation.
Yavno’s film-noir take on Los Angeles stemmed from older traditions of documentary photography that, in the 1970s, were steeped with a nostalgia that Yavno likely did not intend. In the Long Beach survey, Judy Fiskin took a very different approach than did Yavno, deliberately evoking nostalgia from the worn out relics of the city in a much more contemporary photographic style. Fiskin turned her camera to a single site—the Long Beach Pike, an amusement park that was being demolished in conjunction with Long Beach’s redevelopment (figure 4.6). Although her photographs were among the last taken of the Pike, Fiskin’s purpose was not to simply document the Pike, nor to make an overtly critical statement about the Pike’s demolition. Her photographs are small (measuring about 21/2 inches square) and high in contrast (a result of her preference for shooting in bright sunlight and her use of bleach in the printing process). These formal decisions combine to elicite nostalgia by making the viewer move in close in order to see the photograph and by removing many of the scene’s details, so that what is left appears like an image seared in one’s imagination, a fragment of memory.
Fiskin’s Pike photographs fit into a larger body of work that had occupied her for much of the 1970s—photographing various forms of vernacular architecture dating to different periods in the development of L.A. In that extended work, Fiskin “focused on objects and scenes from the recent past, devoid of any contemporary human participation, encouraging her viewers to imagine themselves in that nostalgic era.” Her images of the Pike provided “glimpses of the Long Beach of the 1930s which still exist in the contemporary cityscape” (Rechtin 19). Although she had a distinct photographic style, marked by the use of a 35-mm camera modified to expose square negatives, Fiskin’s compositional approach recalls that of Walker Evans, while her detachment drew from the new topographical photography of the 1970s. Indeed, Fisking consciously modeled her approach to photographing the built environment on the style of Evans. Like Evans, Fiskin’s frontal compositions isolated her subjects from their larger contexts, creating historical documents while imbuing her subjects with an iconic, almost mysterious aura.
Describing Evans’s photographs in a 1982 lecture, Fiskin said: “Evans . . . insisted on the materiality of his subject matter in his frontal shooting style. When photographed this way, each object becomes an isolated whole, divorced from its surroundings and subjected to the blunt revelation of the direct lighting which Evans consistently favored. We are seeing not places, but things” (Fiskin 5). In comparison, one reviewer of Fiskin noted that her work was “[r]igorously frontal . . . uniformly composed” (Armstrong 90), and that her approach to her subjects isolated them from the larger context of the urban surroundings. Although this particular reviewer called Fiskin’s work “decidedly ahistorical,” Mark Johnstone felt that her photographs were “nostalgic in a manner evocative of period snapshots” (“Unfinished” 13). Fiskin’s photographs of the Pike walk a tightrope between creating historical documents of Long Beach and creating evocative images of the individual “things,” the rides divorced from their presence and disappearance in the city itself. She wanted “to present objects both familiar yet difficult to identify, forcing us to search our own memory for personally relevant experiences” (Rechtin 19). She was aware that many viewers of these photographs would have some kind of childhood memories of amusement parks, and she wanted her photographs to provoke viewers to connect their individual memories to this particular Pike, allowing them to draw their own conclusions about what significance there might be in the disappearance of this remnant of Long Beach’s amusement past.
Unlike Fiskin, who stayed in one place to raise a number of questions about the history of Long Beach, Anthony Hernandez moved around the city, photographing people waiting at bus stops and presenting them as symbols of urban America. Like Fiskin, Hernandez’s photographs are not overtly political, and he lets viewers reach their own conclusions about systems of power in contemporary American society (figures 4.7 and 4.8). Standing on the sidewalks of streets throughout the Long Beach, Hernandez positioned his 5 x 7 inch view camera to frame his subjects in mid-distance, standing or sitting while they wait for their rides. He keeps the horizon in the middle of the frame, allowing light posts and telephone lines to punctuate the sky. Lines radiate out from the transit signs, pulling the viewer into a vortex where waiting is the norm. His tightly controlled approach resulted in a series of images that, while documenting particular moments in exact locations, also served “as metaphors for all the lonely corners of the auto culture everywhere” (Glenn 6).
The people in Hernandez’s photographs are marginalized spectators in a region of the country that exemplifies the American passion for mobility. They sit passively indifferent to Hernandez’s presence, seemingly powerless to alter their situation in the face of their reliance on public transit. Somewhat surprisingly, the streets in these photographs tend to have little traffic; there are few cars, few pedestrian, and, most importantly, no buses present. This emptiness reveals the alienation of his subjects; he captures them in a ritualized (in)activity that is being enacted throughout the city. His control of formal elements—the stabilized horizon line, his insistence on facing north (which, deliberately or not, meant facing Los Angeles), and the serial nature of the images—underscores the endless repetition of this ritualistic waiting. Hernandez provides no answers to the questions of power and isolation that his images raise. Instead he, and we wait with the prospective passengers who are caught both by Hernandez’s camera and by the urban forces that compel them to rely on outside sources to transport them to their homes, their jobs, their schools, their markets.
While Hernandez approached the city from street level, Susan Ressler’s contribution to the Los Angeles survey was a series of photographs that examined the environments inside corporate high-rise offices, the centers of power and style. Her photographs served as the culmination of her project, “American Business Interiors.” Ressler stated that her initial attraction to Los Angeles stemmed from her awareness that “Los Angeles seems poised on the future” and her conviction that L.A. “would embody the sleek, modern look” that she wanted to photograph (Camera 40). Ressler’s attraction to the city was complicated. She didn’t ardently embrace the future that L.A. implied, nor did she condemn it outright. Instead, she adopted an ironic stance that coolly examined the intersections of technology, design, power, and wealth. Her choice of businesses spanned the spectrum of contemporary sites of power and influence, ranging from personal style (Vidal Sassoon), to the built environment (Architectural Digest), to energy (Atlantic Richfield), the interiors of which are stark sites of contemporary design devoid of any actual human presence.
In her photograph of the international finance corporation, the Capital Group (figure 4.9), Ressler composed the scene so that it is divided neatly in half, one side much brighter than the other, and includes a series of curves bridging the divide and reflecting each side back toward the other in an almost yin-yang fashion. We can easily imagine a meeting of power brokers gathered on the curved leather sofa around the marble table, planning their next move in capital accumulation. A graceful sculpture rests on a pedestal at the far wall, its curves echoed by a round form in front of the window. This second round form is the most striking detail of the photograph, as well as the most ominous. It appears to hover just behind the sofa with no visible means of support. It is likely a glass sphere, but the flattening effect of photography compresses it into two dimensions. An ocular form, it could be a negative image of an eye staring at us. It is also a lens, and we can see through it down to the city below, the tops of other buildings visible, though distorted and vague. Ressler’s photograph shows us that while we have a privileged view into the boardroom of the Capital Group, real privilege and the real power to survey and to control the world outside resides in spaces that we can look at, but have no real access to.
The Los Angeles survey’s application noted the dichotomy between the shiny skin of Los Angeles and the harsher realities of the city’s economic structure. One result of this dichotomy is the increased need of the city to assert its power in the defense of property. Indeed, Soja tells us that one symbol of postmodern urban development is the carceralization of city life, an observation that Mike Davis echoes in his essay, “Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Public Space.” As resources become less equally distributed, systems of power are called to service in order to safeguard the privileges of the status quo. Consequently, an increasingly powerful police force is one important symbol of contemporary life, and the training of cadets for the L.A. police department was the subject of Gusmano Cesaretti’s work in the Los Angeles Documentary Project (figure 4.10). In his original statement of intent, Cesaretti said he planned “to document the cultural and social changes that occur along the length of Sunset Blvd., a street which runs through some of the most exclusive areas in Los Angeles (Bel Air and Beverly Hills), through the infamous Sunset Strip, all the way into the Barrios of East Los Angeles” (Camera 42). His shift toward documenting Los Angeles in terms of law enforcement suggests his awareness of the centrality of the police to the urban experience; in his statement in the exhibition catalog, Cesaretti called the LAPD “one of the most visible and vital of the city’s agencies, represent[ing] a microcosm of urban life” (Camera 42).
Critics attacked Cesaretti’s photographs more than any other in the Los Angeles survey. Hugunin argued that Cesaretti’s photographs overlooked “the results (positive and negative) of that training as it is applied on a daily basis by officers on duty in the field,” and said that the images show “the team pride and resolution of the future officers in their training period” (21). Hugunin wished that Cesaretti had taken the opportunity to visually represent the “social interaction between the colonizer and the colonized” (21). Johnstone added his opinion that Cesaretti’s “print quality is distressingly poor throughout the group, and as components of a photographic essay, many images are too dumb and elementary” (“Documenting” 13). Johnstone also pointed out that Cesaretti was “best known for the photographs made in the barrio of East Lost Angeles”—suggesting Cesaretti’s sensitivity to issues of class and ethnicity in the urban environment—and he went on to muse, “I wonder why he deviated from [his] stated intent and created the present body of images which seems uncharacteristic” (13).
What should we make of Cesaretti’s choice to photograph police cadets in training? At first glance, Cesaretti’s photographs can be read as statements about team pride—a puzzling fact, given that Cesaretti’s original intent indicated his interest in representing issues of economic inequality and ethnic diversity in the contemporary city, presumably including some of the people who might find themselves at the receiving end of police batons and bullets. It could be that his decision to instead focus attention on the police is an indicator of his awareness of the carceral nature of the postmodern city. Perhaps during his forays, Cesaretti noticed an increased presence of police all along Sunset Boulevard, keeping Bel Air and Beverly Hills (and the denizens of Ressler’s business interiors) “safe,” while maintaining a show of force in the barrios. The police were clearly a salient presence in greater L.A., a reality underscored by one of Eber’s informants who noted that African-American males were routinely harassed by the Los Angeles Police Department, and who told her, “you can’t even walk down the street without them sayin’ somethin’ to you makin’ you put your hand over your head or layin’ on the ground” (Eber 2).
Upon closer examination, Cesaretti’s photographs reveal themselves to be critiques, not celebrations, of the LAPD, and labeling his prints as “distressingly poor” misses the point. He printed his photographs in high contrast on matte paper, resulting in images that were not luminous or pleasing to the eye in the way that Yavno’s photographs are. The harsh print quality serves as a form of critical commentary about the police, and the compositions of many of images reinforce his discomfort with the police presence. He photographed the marching cadets from behind, avoiding individualizing features and casting them as robotic clones. Even close-ups of individual cadets are not celebratory; they are disconcerting in their apparent militarism and their tight focus on faces, handguns, sweaty tee shirts, batons, etc. (figure 4.11). The photographs feel as threatening as the situations they imply; they likely wouldn’t work well as recruiting posters for the police force. Cesaretti’s perception of the LAPD as “visible and vital” in Los Angeles was certainly accurate, and his decision to concentrate on the LAPD may, in the end, be a more significant and accurate insight into 1970s Los Angeles than would have his documentation of Sunset Boulevard, which could easily have devolved into a series of photographs as clichéd as Yavno’s.
While Cesaretti shifted his focus in response to his growing awareness of the postmodern restructurings of L.A. the photographers from the Los Angeles and Long Beach surveys who chose to look at the visual interplay of the natural and built environments tended to not veer far from their original plans. Douglas Hill made cibachrome prints of new houses clinging to the hills of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel ranges, examining “the relationship between the natural and man-made landscapes” (Camera 41) that Paul Cattleman exclaimed about in unknowing delight in The Nowhere City, and that typified the development patterns around L.A. John Humble also worked in cibachrome, “documenting the ways in which the people of Los Angeles have adapted to massive industrialization, specifically the integration of industrial and residential areas” (Camera 22). Using a telephoto lens that flattened the spatial plane, Humble composed his images in order to layer forms one on top of the next; in one photograph bungalows appear to be pressed right up against parking garages, with high rises towering over them both. Leland Rice chose a similar subject and approach for his work in the Long Beach survey, photographing primarily around the Signal Hill area of the city. As written in the exhibition catalog: “Signal Hill, undergoing constant metamorphosis, urban-to-industrial-to-urban, with transitions so rapid that that the remains of the old are juxtaposed with the components of the new in often startling configurations” (“Leland”) provided Rice with the materials for images that showed brand new apartments and houses sitting next to storage tanks and oil wells, as though the area was built up without any coherent thought toward usage.
Joe Deal photographed in both the Los Angeles and the Long Beach surveys and, like Hill, Humble, and Rice, he photographed the physical arrangements of the built environment. For his Los Angeles photographs, he originally planned “to make panoramic views of Los Angeles that deal with this city’s peculiar interface of vernacular and contemporary architecture” (Camera 22). As he worked, however, he narrowed his focus to the new bedroom community of Diamond Bar. Deal explained his choice:
“Diamond Bar is a new community of housing developments and shopping centers at the eastern edge of Los Angeles with no apparent plan, history, or evidence of regional influences from older neighbouring communities. . . . I chose to photograph Diamond Bar because it is one of the newest outposts in the network of communities connected by freeways characteristic of the manner in which Los Angeles has evolved. More particularly, I chose to survey recently occupied houses and back yards in Diamond Bar as the most recent expressions of a new landscape, given its broader outlines by developers and filled in and particularized, not necessarily according to any known conventions, by the residents. (Camera 22)”
Diamond Bar illustrates what Soja had in mind when he described the sprawling, ungovernable exopoli ringing Los Angeles, a constellation of settlements whose existence depended on the city, but whose residents likely worked and shopped in other edge cities spread out across the hills and valleys. For Deal, Diamond Bar was not unique, not an aberration, but was a fitting representative of the future of life for many people in L.A.
Deal photographed the backyards of Diamond Bar from an elevated perspective—looking down into people’s yards and filling the frame with the house and its small plot of land, eliminating the horizon and most of the context that would link the house to its wider community (figure 4.12). Deal had used a similar perspective in his photographs of Albuquerque in the New Topographics exhibition, and explained his choice of perspective in that exhibition: “Many of the conscious decisions made while the series was evolving had to do with denying the uniqueness in subject matter or in one exposure as opposed to another”(Jenkins 6). Just a few years later, he employed the same perspective for a different reason—to seek out signs of uniqueness in the efforts of homeowners to personalize their fenced-in lawns, to assert their individuality in a housing development that resisted such efforts. Indeed, had Deal been interested in denying the uniqueness of the Diamond Bar homes, he could have traveled to similar developments around the city, showing how Diamond Bar was interchangeable with any one of a number of places. His elevated perspective allowed viewers “a viewpoint that is otherwise unnatural in the day-to-day experience of Los Angeles. This is a landscape predicated on horizontal lines and movement” (Johnstone, “Abstract” 13) not from elevated perspectives and the unblinking stare that Deal provides. Like Hernandez, and not too unlike Edward Ruscha’s images of parking lots and gasoline stations, Deal employed a serialized approach, keeping a tight rein on the formal elements in repeated images of similar backyards throughout Diamond Bar.
In his Diamond Bar photographs, Deal explored the efforts of people to create place out of placelessness. As the cultural geographer J.B. Jackson said about Deal’s work, “he shows us the beginnings of a landscape, the first gropings for form and permanence” (Jackson 5). Jonathan Green describes Deal’s work as being about “the intersection of the social and natural world,” a place that “has not yet solidified into urban center or suburb” (173). As forlorn as the backyards might appear to the viewer, and as invasive as the photographs appear, Deal was not wholly critical of the residents of Diamond Bar. He did not share Hugunin’s condescending dismissal of the residents’ backyards as “hideous attempts at personalizing” by people who had no “taste” (“Monads” 22). Although Deal resists suggestions that he was sympathetic to the efforts of the owners of the homes to give individual shape to their yards, he recognizes the worthiness of such efforts, saying that his interest “is as much in how individual homeowners shape the space of their backyards as in the larger phenomenon of suburban development” (Deal).
Borrowing from the novelist Frederick Barthelme, Deal explains his approach to photography:
“Doing this work, you begin to be refreshed, to see how beautiful stuff is, regular stuff, the byproduct of our reputedly disgusting culture, the snail trace of the villain capital grinding up the natural world . . . instead of looking for major natural beauty to jut up, instead of ignoring (or moaning about) the byproduct of 60 kinds of venal and reprobate corporate behavior (all of which you too abhor, more or less), you look around, you let yourself be touched. (Barthelme 26-27)”
On one level, the Diamond Bar photographs recall Bill Owens’s look at suburban life in Suburbia; one review said of Owens’s work,“in spite of the monotonous tract homes and all the other pressures of sameness and materialism, Owens has succeeded in capturing the individuality and diversity of the people” (“Bill” 13). Deal, too, sought to reveal the individuality of the people living in Diamond Bar. Deal, however, was not interested in the intimacy and folksiness that he felt characterized Owens’s work (Deal). Whereas Owens recognized that he was a part of the suburban life he documented in Suburbia, photographing his friends and neighbors with their consent, Deal’s photographs have the distinct feel of an outsider peering in.
Deal’s use of the camera—angled down into people’s backyards without the owners’ consent—is troubling. As Johnstone notes, “the viewer of these scenes is made to feel like a voyeur” (“Abstract” 13). Developments like Diamond Bar were increasingly the norm around Los Angeles. Deal stated that there was nothing unusual about Diamond Bar, and he chose Diamond Bar to represent the new Los Angeles. Although people are mostly absent from Deal’s photographs, his peering over fences clearly built to ensure privacy undermined the efforts at establishing privacy by the people we don’t see, denying them the ability to live the private lives that likely compelled some of them to move out to the suburbs. In fact, Deal’s photographs are like the surveillance photographs that have become ubiquitous in contemporary society. While seeking order in the unfinished, vernacular landscape being carved out of hillsides, Deal’s photographs seem to also be saying that efforts toward establishing an individual existence in this brave new world are futile; even in the privacy of their fenced-in backyards, people are accessible and visible, their facades stripped away to reveal what goes on in the hidden corners of their lives.
Not all of Deal’s photographs are without people, however. In “Recently Occupied House” (figure 4.13), an image that is almost the inverse of Eber’s photograph, “Reflection on Development” (figure 4.3), Deal captures the reflection of two people in the upstairs window of a newly constructed house. Although we have no way to verify it, this image tells us that the people are the owners of the house, but they are only reflections. Their presence is evanescent and as soon as they walk away, the house will once again become unoccupied, a blank slate waiting to be filled in. Like all the photographs in his Diamond Bar series, this photograph is complicated. Deal’s camera almost seems like an objective recorder of the physical landscape even as his carefully controlled framing and angle of view is apparent in each photograph. In “Recently Occupied House,” however, the couple framed in the window heightens our awareness of Deal’s control over his representations with the shape of the window more typically photographic than Deal’s preferred square format. As a result the reflection appears looks more like a photograph than the photograph itself, drawing our attention to the fact Deal is as much interested in questions of representation and image making as he is documenting Diamond Bar.
Deal’s Diamond Bar photographs were part of an extended project of photographing different areas of southern California, in order to visually apprehend one of the most contemporary regions in the country. His series of photographs in the Long Beach survey was another chapter in that series (figure 4.14). Long Beach provided Deal with a new set of challenges. For one, Long Beach didn’t provide the same sort of tabula rasa as he found in Diamond Bar—did not, that is, provide him with the “beginnings of a landscape.” Unlike Diamond Bar, Long Beach had its own long history and had begun its existence more or less outside the orbit of Los Angeles. Like Diamond Bar, however, the redevelopment of Long Beach meant that a new cityscape was being created at the time of the survey. Deal approached Long Beach much as he did Diamond Bar, seeking form in the midst of the chaos of contemporary Long Beach. Here, again, he used the same elevated perspective that he used in Diamond Bar. But with no suburban backyards to peer into he relied instead on windows, carports, and balconies as points of entry to reveal the worlds of offices, trailer parts, and apartments. Long Beach and Diamond Bar presented Deal with a chance to link two disconnected sites through his lens, integrating two landscapes of this megalopolis.
The importance of movement in contemporary American society informed the chosen subject matter of several of the photographers in the Los Angeles and Long Beach surveys. Deal’s movement across the city from Diamond Bar to Long Beach juxtaposed his unblinking stare with his own mobility. Anthony Hernandez used the stasis of bus stops and a gaze as fixed as Deal’s to create a different kind of juxtaposition between the people dependent on public transportation and the culture of movement. Robbert Flick took still another approach to this subject, one centered on his freedom to move about the city in an automobile. Discussing a later series of photographs similar in style and approach to those in the Los Angeles survey, Flick said, “my representation of Los Angeles was totally based on being in the driver’s seat” (Dear 17).
Flick’s images are the most visually arresting of any of the photographers in the four surveys of Greater L.A. Believing that a series of individual photographs meant to represent Los Angeles would inadequately represent his ideas about the city’s dynamic nature, Flick chose a different approach, using a grid approach of 100 contact-size 35 mm images to capture slightly different perspectives of a single site. Like Cesaretti, Flick’s photographs in the survey do not reflect his original plan, which he said was to “document the ways in which the influx of islands of high-rise municipal buildings has altered the topography of the community of Inglewood, resulting in major sociological and ethnological changes” (Camera 39). In other words, Flick originally planned a photographic examination of the impact of the growth of particular edge city environment, a goal similar to that of the Arlington Documentary Survey Project. In the end, however, Flick didn’t concentrate on Inglewood at all, and high-rise buildings weren’t a significant factor in his photographs for the Los Angeles survey. Instead, he called attention to the fragmented glimpses of the city that people have as they move about in parks, at beaches, and on highways. Flick emphasizes the horizon line and the sprawling, teeming nature of the city. Flick photographed throughout Greater L.A., moving from downtown Los Angeles (figure 4.15) to Venice Beach to the Los Angeles Expressway, and his grids made each site co-equal with the others. This fact, coupled the lack of a centering anchor in any one of the grids, highlighted the decentered nature of the city itself: “What has always struck me about the city is the possibility of the scan. . . . I was concerned about the fracturing of the urban spaces” (Dear 17). Flick’s scan of Los Angeles becomes the viewer’s scan of both the city and his photographs.
Flick’s approach to photographing Los Angeles directly challenged both the static nature of photography and the primacy of the single perspective inherent in individual photographs. Many of the photographs in any one his grids are nearly identical to other photographs in the same grid, with only a slight shift in camera angle, or the flow of people across the frames distinguishing one from another. Flick could easily have taken an approach similar to that of the other photographers involved in the survey, which would have been to isolate such images, to print one or two from the Manhattan Beach or the Centinela Park Expressway series, and use those as individual representations of the city. But Flick’s point is that reality is not seen that way, that movement and glances are the way Los Angeles is usually experienced.
In a 1980 interview, Flick said: “Events exist in a continuum. The photographer does likewise. The connection between those two makes the photograph. The photograph is then separated, and the viewer deals with it. But it is still a part of that continuum, that process. The viewer may want to go into subject matter, or form, or whatever” (Colpitt 11). The seriality of his images emphasizes the notion of the continuum, forcing the viewer to see more than once. The city is not made random or chaotic through these photographs, however; the arrangement of his images seems to confirm that order and meaning can be found through photographs, though not without effort, and certainly not through a single image. As Johnstone says of the photographs, Flick’s “patterns point to the nature of objectivity as a sequence of subjective decisions” (“Documenting” 13). Only through multiple perspectives can something approaching truth be found.
Flick’s approach to Los Angeles has garnered widespread interest by photography critics and theorists. Hugunin devoted more of his review of the exhibition from the Los Angeles Documentary Project to Flick than to any of the other photographers involved, and pointed out that “if living in Los Angeles is like watching a movie profuse with montages, Flick’s pieces on exhibit here are examining the film frame-by-frame, allowing the viewer of L.A.’s social reality to really study the phenomenon of perceiving their environment” (Hugunin, “Monads” 20). Hugunin’s statement was prescient, for in the years following the Los Angeles survey, Flick continued to document the city in a similar style, but switched from using a 35-mm camera to selecting frames from continuous video footage made while driving around in the city. As a review of Flick’s later work noted: “At the heart of Flick’s work lies both a deep distrust and embrace of photography that’s at once heretical and lovely. The weight of photography’s past is evidenced by his emotional attachment to place, nature, social issues and formalistic devices. . . . Yet all the while he undermines the solitary propriety of the still photograph” (Mallinson 101). Flick continued his approach to photographing Los Angeles into the 1990s. The 1996 book Rethinking Los Angeles contained a portfolio of Flick’s images called “On Pico Boulevard Looking North.” The book’s primary editor, Michael Dear, interviewed Flick, and opened their conversation with the exclamation: “Robbert, the first time I saw your work, I immediately thought, ‘That’s it, that’s Los Angeles!’ That’s exactly how I see this city. From the street, and at speed, it’s a punctual, linear experience. . . . The city is perceived essentially as an interrupted sequence” (Dear 17).
Kenneth McGowan and Grant Mudford’s photographs also represent life in Greater L.A. as a cinematic experience, residing somewhere between Yavno’s film-noir photographs and Flick’s more contemporary, frame-by-frame vision of the city. Both McGowan and Mudford composed their images in a cinematic fashion. Seemingly random scenes around Long Beach, their photographs appear staged, leaving viewers uncertain whether they are seeing something “real” or something made to look real. McGowan’s photographs were gaudy cibachrome prints, and he selected and framed his subjects so that they come across as items on a Hollywood soundstage or back lot. Mudford often chose scenes that looked like stills from movie or television. For example, “Near Shoreline Drive, Looking West” (figure 4.16), is a photograph of an oil platform just off shore. The platform is as contrived as a movie set, the wells hidden in hollow structures made to look like office buildings, and palm trees transplanted in order to give the feel of a tropical island. At one level, Mudford is simply puncturing the myth of pristine California beaches by showing the oil platform and revealing the cynicism of corporate and political leaders who thought that “disguising” the oil wells would fool people into thinking that they were looking at a tropical paradise.
By using a very wide-angle lens, Mudford includes not only the oil platform, but also a souped-up Ford Mustang and a solitary figure at opposite edges of the image. The photograph’s dimensions direct us to look at this as a movie scene; we wait in suspense for someone else to arrive to set the scene in motion. The photograph becomes suspenseful because we are familiar with such scenes from movies and television. A similar feeling of suspense is felt in “From Ocean Boulevard” (figure 4.17). Here, again, oil wells inhabit the scene, mingling with the graceful curves of tire tracks and the dark slashes telephone poles. But it is the two cars that demand our attention, asking us to consider what it is they are doing. Mudford’s choice of perspective and the isolation of those two cars so close together compels us to draw from our knowledge of movies like The French Connection or television programs like Starsky and Hutch in order to conclude that we are witnessing something nefarious. Of course we “know” that nothing of the sort is taking place, and that this is likely an utterly banal scene, but in a media-saturated society, Mudford’s photographs are highly suggestive of the dark undercurrents of popular culture.
Bill Owens provides an even more obvious appropriation of media images than either McGowan or Mudford in order to engage head-on some of the contemporary clichés of Los Angeles. Owens, whose photographs in Diablo Valley in Focus already departed in some measure from the relatively traditional documentary style of Suburbia, moved even farther from his earlier style in his photographs for the Los Angeles Documentary Project, and his evolving approach to documentary photography provides a narrative arc revealing shifting ideas about photography in the 1970s. Using a large-format camera and color film, Owens photographed staged tableaux that he felt represented some of the common stereotypes of the city. Many of Owens’s photographs recorded typologies that conformed to standard media representations contemporary life in L.A.: a racquetball court, a sushi bar, the aerospace defense industry, a swimming pool, an angry lawyer, well-dressed women snorting cocaine.
His photograph, “Artist”(figure 4.18), though obviously posed, is meant to look like a spontaneous scene inside an ultra-modern L.A. home that we are privileged to witness. An elderly man stands facing a closed door at the end of a hall, while an elderly woman (his wife?) stands near the stair landing on the floor below, looking up at him with her hands on her hips. It is a photograph about disappointment and the alienation of artists in contemporary society, but it is also a photograph about modern art—including photography. One abstract painting hangs in the middle of the scene, while another painting—an ominous black diamond—cuts across the upper right corner. Owens’s use of framing and lighting makes the stairs, hallway rug (bright red in the original color photograph), walls, and doorways into their own abstracted forms. In this, and similar photographs, Owens appropriates clichés about the city in order to subvert them, and he underscores this approach with other photographs in his series that even more obviously called attention to the artificiality of contemporary life—images showing the manufacturing of prosthetic eyes, a replica of the Statue of Liberty in a junk shop, and the application and painting of fingernail extensions—thereby revealing the artificiality of his media-inspired images. Moreover, by signing his photographs on the front, he is up front about his role as an artist creating images.
In his statement of intent, Owens said, “as a documentary photographer I bring a bias to the photographic situation. I want a broad view, with an emphasis on all aspects of the city. . . . I wanted to show the city from the inside-out (not the the tourist view)” (Camera 42). Because he so obviously set up his scenes, Owens’s photographs barely qualify as documentary, but that is part of his point. By positioning his images as one way of looking at Los Angeles, neither more, nor less, authentic than the representations offered by the other seven photographers involved in the survey, Owens challenged viewers to question the received wisdom about Los Angeles. Indeed, on one level, his approach was similar to Connie Hatch’s in the South of Market Survey. This is not to imply that the photographs by Owens and Hatch are visually alike, but to point out that the motives of both photographers stemmed from their recognition of the power of media-derived images to shape contemporary understandings of complex social realities.
Owens’s use of the cliché in order to achieve what he called an “inside-out” view of the city caused great consternation for the exhibition reviewers. Some critics pointed out the similarity between Owens’s photographs and glossy magazine layouts of Los Angeles. Some of his photographs do appear as chamber of commerce-type boosterism when first viewed. For example, the photograph “L.A. Freeway” (figure 4.19) shows an idealized vision of Los Angeles, with blue sky, gleaming modern buildings, and a highway with cars moving freely, unbound by the traffic jams for which the city is infamous. Except for the use of color, this photograph could have been made by Martin Stupich in his celebration of Atlanta’s modernization. In the context of the other photographs in Owens’s series, however, the image takes on a more complicated meaning. For one thing, although Owens has titled the photograph “L.A. Freeway,” the image appears to be less about the freeway than about the buildings beyond, whose shiny surfaces reflect either the morning or the evening sun. The highway itself is viewed obliquely; the buildings straight on, drawing our eyes away from the horizontal movement below to the vertical inclination of L.A.’s downtown, which is not densely built up, but seems to exist in isolated towers.
Moreover, the central building is the newly constructed Westin Bonaventure Hotel. As Fredric Jameson has pointed out, many of the monuments of postmodern urbanism do not “attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system of the surrounding city, but rather seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically ‘learned from Las Vegas’” (39). Jameson goes on to argue that the Bonaventure seeks to be a “minicity” (40) separate from, and rising above, the actual city. Mike Davis adds that the “Bonaventure reconstructs a nostalgic Southern California in aspic orange trees, fountains, flowering vines, and clean air” (“Urban” 112). Placing Owens’s photograph alongside Jameson and Davis, we can see that Owens’s photograph of the Bonaventure fits neatly in with his other photographs, in that the hotel and retail complex is, likewise, an artifice whose shiny skin mimics the other shallow, artificial figures of contemporary life that he photographed.
The critics, however, seemed not to understand the kinds of visual statements Owens was making. To Johnstone, Owens’s photographs failed in their critique of contemporary clichés and “function[ed] as illustrations of a tourist’s idealized attitude about the place” (“Documenting” 13). Hugunin mused about the women shown snorting cocaine, “was this image posed with models, friends, or what? Working in a large format, it could hardly have been a lucky shot. . . . In what sense is this a document or in what sense is this a fabrication?,” before writing off the photographs as “[t]he weakest work I have seen Owens do” (21). Many of Owens’s photographs have a level of artifice that brings to mind Cindy Sherman’s highly regarded series of untitled “film stills” made at about the same time as the Los Angeles survey. Like Sherman, Owens’s images reflect Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s observation that postmodern photography often involves “issues devolving on the simulacrum, [and] the stereotype” (115). Owens appropriated media-inspired ideas about the city for his photographs, creating what amount to simulacra of clichés that effectively called into question the modes of social realism found in his earlier work while also successfully “documenting” the artificiality of the postmodern urban experience. In the end, Owens straddles the line between the two trends noted by the editors of Photography Year; his Los Angeles photographs are simultaneously grassroots, and fictional photographs.
(This Chapter Four excerpt is brought to you by ASX and Author/Historian, Mark Rice)
Mark Rice is chair of the American studies department at St. John Fisher College. His work has been published in such periodicals as Exposure, Explore, and Reviews in American History.
Through the Lens of the City.
NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s.
Text by Mark Rice.
University Press Of Mississippi, Jackson, 2005. 257 pp., Numerous black & white illustrations, 6¼x9½”.
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