12. Everything visible

L.A. photographer John Humble lay on his back and pulled himself through a gap under a chainlink fence. The fence - marked No Entry - lines the bank of the Los Angeles River near its official source (two streams that have been engineered for this purpose).

There are few access points to the river. None of them is meant for public use. The river is a potentially dangerous place. It’s made for the transmission of millions of gallons of water an hour when winter storms pile up against the San Gabriel Mountains. When it rains, the river channel fills quickly. In a few minutes, the water can be higher than your head and flowing faster than you can run.

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(After a light rain in late 1997, just before the school day began, seven teenagers loitering in the channel further downstream were pulled under the suddenly rising water, and three drowned. The Los Angeles County Office of Education and Department of Public Works shows school kids a film called No Way Out to warn them of the risks.)

But only a little slick of greenish water covered the sheet of concrete at the confluence point when Humble walked west up the riverbed with his camera and equipment. No one saw him approach. No police official ordered him to leave. Humble positioned himself at the point where the two curving walls of the twin tributaries intersect in a pure demonstration of Euclidean geometry. The arcs - one white, the other black - merge in a terrible beauty.

Los Angeles once was merely picturesque, when its landscapes, if they were composed in a movie camera viewfinder, could stand in for any place - the Old West, Shangri-La, the south of France, the Serengeti plains, or for that other place where you longed more to be.

Diminished in the next 50 years to a slick iconography of palms-surf-freeways-Hollywood sign-mountain-peak, the landscapes of a tourist’s imagination are now a concealing screen. When the screen is pulled back, as in Humble’s photographs, commonplace Los Angeles appears, in geographer Jérôrme Monnet’s words, “alien, troubling, menacing and cut off ” by our lack of satisfactory images of the everyday.

But it is our failure of imagination that renders Los Angles a city of regrets for the formerly enchanted.

Other photographers have crossed Los Angeles - notably Ed Ruscha and Robbert Flick. They turned over the work of photography to their cameras, which repeated back in funny, desolate, and melancholy images the weight of the city’s unwanted banality. Ruscha has said of Some Los Angeles Apartments, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and 34 Parking Lots in Los Angeles that his books were exercises in filling up pages, as if calling into question both the making of images and the act of looking at them, and I suppose, the idea of looking at anything at all.

Humble’s fitted a van with reinforced roof to make an elevated camera platform for some of his early photographs and waded through streams of waste water to complete his series on the Los Angeles River. His 4x5 cameras are relatively awkward to use, conspicuous, and slow. His color images are deeply saturated, as if they were absorbed in looking.

Humble’s photographic practice is in the heroic tradition of American landscape photography. Through it, what is indistinguishable on the freeway at 70 miles an hour acquires an identity and discloses habits that can be considered and connected across the whole flawed, tragic, and humanizing body of the city. In Humble’s photography, Los Angeles is a real place even if it fails to be real in any other sense.

Fixed in Humble’s photographs - particularly those of the river - is the paradox of nature in Los Angeles. An investigation of the nature of the city’s “nature” might seem merely ironic: All the city’s hills are scaled with houses; all its rivers are concrete; the air overhead is a petrochemical byproduct; the city’s tap water flows from a criminal conspiracy; and pavement marches to the horizon in every direction. Beneath the easy sarcasm are the complex natural systems of the city In them, Angeleños have always been participants.

It might better be said of the relationship between nature and the city that Angeleños since the 1880s have bound the city more - not less - to its rainfall, fire, and tectonic forces. The elements of its nature penetrate the city at every off-ramp on the web of its freeways and on every block within the framework of its gridded streets, just as Humble shows.

We who live here are embedded in nature, too, and made out of the city’s nature. It is not an ideal of unspoiled wildness, but a compromised nature in which we have our anxious home beneath the electrical towers and by the side of the freeway.

Humble lives in an imperfect city, the city of the commonplace where everything of its garbled inauthenticity is visible in the uniquely still air and particularizing light. His city is not beautiful. It is not sentimental. It does not appear to be consoling. But it is our home.

A version of this post originally appeared in Urbanisme in July 2008.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user bORjAmATiC. It was used under Creative Commons license.

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