Light in Los Angeles

Unearned Nostalgia

The light brought us all to a stop the other day. We were crossing the plaza level of the Getty Center after having spent the day discussing the architecture of Los Angeles. And now (as is often in L.A.) a conversation about abstractions was trumped by the physical beauty of this place, manifested in the grainy yellow/gold light near sunset on a warm October day.

And that reminded me of another conversation about the light in Los Angeles the writer Lawrence Weschler had.

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Weschler wanted to know something about the light in Los Angeles and he had been told by Steve Wasserman, then the editor of the Los Angeles Times book review, to look me up.

This is the odd thing . . . the ineluctable thing . . . I actually had been thinking about the light in Los Angeles before he called.

And this is what I told Weschler about the light in Los Angeles, which was eventually processed into a piece for the New Yorker magazine in 1998:

"Ah yes," Waldie said cheerfully, when I reached him at home. "The light around here is quite remarkable, isn't it? In fact, I gave the matter some thought on my walk home this evening. And it seems to me, actually, that there are four -- or anyway, at least four -- lights in L.A."

Let me break off a moment from quoting Weschler quoting me to say that I probably said exactly that, including the "Ah, yes" at the start, as well as the bits that sounds like S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall as a "Mitteleuropa" schoolmaster.

But getting back to Weschler, getting back to me:

"To begin with, there's the cruel, actinic light of late July. Its glare cuts piteously through the general shabbiness of Los Angeles. Second comes the nostalgic, golden light of late October. It turns Los Angeles into El Dorado, a city of fool's gold. It's the light the tourists came for, the light, to be more specific, of unearned nostalgia. Third, there's the gunmetal gray light of the months between December and July. Summer in Los Angeles doesn't begin until mid-July. In the months before, the light can be as monotonous as Seattle's. Finally comes the light, clear as stone-dry champagne, after a full day of rain. Everything in this light is somehow simultaneously particularized and idealized: Each perfect, specific, ideal little tract house, one beside the next. And that's the light that breaks hearts in L.A."

But my slightly stiff rhapsody isn't what's interesting about the light of L.A. What's really interesting is an entirely different phenomenon of L.A. light. Weschler was finding that the light of L.A. also can be a dense fluid, more substantial seeming than the buildings of downtown.

The composition of that substance intrigued Weschler. To probe its nature, he wanted to talk about pollution, since one of the essences of L.A. is, and always has been, impurity. So, Weschler talked to a professor at Caltech who had been studying (and computer modeling) air pollution for more than thirty years.

This researcher, Weschler found, knew why the light in L.A. could be bright and simultaneously opaque. Or, to put it in Weschler's words quoting his expert source: "Exactly why it is that some afternoons he can go up on the roof of the Miliken Library there at Cal Tech, gaze out toward the towering San Gabriel mountains less than five miles to the north, and not make out a thing through the bright, white (shadow-obliterating) atmospheric haze."

And it turns out that this condition . . . this disappearance . . . isn't as simple as pollution blocking sight of the mountains.

The Caltech professor took Weschler's notebook and sketched for him how a ray of light reflected off the mountains behind Pasadena interacts with the particles of everything in the air: from sea salt to the decomposing granite of the mountains themselves to the emissions of internal combustion engines in the L.A. basin.

And much of this stuff -- the finely sintered stuff of which L.A. is made -- is precisely of the right size to hang suspended in the generally motionless air of L.A. and . . . this is the important part . . . precisely right the size most likely to interact with the wavelength of daylight.

And the Caltech scientist told Weschler:

"Here, we're to a certain extent speaking metaphorically, light being a quantum phenomenon and hence simultaneously a wave and a particle, such that the best we can do is speak in probabilistic terms . . . but when the sunlight from over my shoulder hits one of these particles, the light bounces off the particle and right into my eye.
There are billions of such particles in the line of sight between an eye and the mountain -- each of them with the potential to bounce white sunlight directly back into my eye. It's like having a billion tiny suns between you and the thing you're trying to see. That's what the white stuff is. And we have a technical term for it. We call it: Airlight."

The next day, after seeing this remarkable disappearing act on the beach at Malibu, when the mountains ahead of him are present one moment and replaced with a white scrim the next, Weschler described the experience to Dennis Phillips, a poet, and Weschler tried to explain the business about the rays and the billion tiny suns, and the poet corrected the atmospheric scientist . . . and Weschler, the honest reporter.

"No, no," the poet said, "You mean a billion tiny moons."

The light in L.A. has this lunar power to replace the objects in our sight . . . or, I should say, the objects of our desire . . . to occult them with an opaque whiteness . . . a purity delivered by impurities . . . not a material screen that blocks sight like fog, but a changed form of light . . . a subsidiary and substitute form . . . that cancels out the possibility of seeing what we've sought.

And that's some of the light in L.A.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user juy_socal. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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