Seeing How Los Angeles Was Made Modern

The Getty's Pacific Standard Time Presents at the Huntington Library is now online. (Click here to open). The exhibition's organizers* -- Bill Deverelll (USC) and Greg Hise (UNLV) -- have this ambitious goal:

(W)e had the pleasurable task of identifying curators: thinkers, scholars, artists, and writers whose own curiosity about the built landscapes of greater Los Angeles has sent them wandering through the archive's compelling imagery. Our instructions were deliberately mild, even vague. Take a theme, and few preconceived notions, for a journey through the archive; search by key word, search by date, search by photographer, search any way you choose. Assemble a small collection of images, twenty to thirty, and bring to them an essay (a single narrative, a set of captions, even fiction). Together, our nearly twenty photo essays do, we think, a remarkably good job at highlighting the scale, pace, and impact of infrastructural change within the landscapes of modern Los Angeles and, at the same time, offer tantalizing hints at the range, depth, and breadth of a stunning visual archive.
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Form and Function: Exhibitions (page design by Kris Mun)

The exhibition is broadly about modernity and how Los Angeles became more modern in the middle third of the 20th century as earlier images of a romantic and exotic city retreated and dichotomies of light and dark, noir and sunshine took their place.

My contribution to the exhibition is a brief "film noir" (here) mashing up as many noir tropes as possible in 30 or so moody, black-and-white images. It's a parody of those conventions -- part "Double Indemnity," part "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- and a demonstration of everydayness being rescripted as paranoia. It seems to me, that for some of us Los Angeles is haunted by our distrust of the familiar -- part of the hallucinatory qualities that some of us find in living here.

As Deverell and Hise note, looking at Los Angeles in the Edison collection can have a corrective effect:

Edison photographers recorded all of it: this archive documents urbanization, production, consumption, and abundance visually; hence it affords researchers and an interested public alike a rare, seemingly comprehensive glimpse into a post-war society remaking cultural and social history. Revealed here are the intricacies and intersections of design, material culture, and everyday use of interior space within the city, its suburbs, apartments, tract houses, and open spaces. Untethered from their original corporate record-keeping origins and functions, the images have an aesthetic resonance and potency all their own.

"Form and Landscape: Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Basin, 1940-1990" suggests more than a dozen different ways of seeing our place anew -- from street trees to highway signage -- with the help of beautiful and sometimes enigmatic images from more a hundred years of looking at Los Angeles.

* The curators of the exhibition are Eric Avila, Claudia Bohn-Spector, William Deverell, John Eder, Jared Farmer, Dianne Harris, Greg Hise, Hillary Jenks, Jessica Kim, Mark Klett, Martin H. Krieger, Alan Loomis, Catherine Opie, Marguerite S. Shaffer, Emily Thompson, D. J. Waldie, Jennifer A. Watts, and Peter Westwick.

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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