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Mirrors, Moons, and More Light in LA

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I went the other day to the Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge to talk about the light.

You get to the Descanso Gardens by taking the 2 Freeway through the gap between the Verdugo Mountains and the San Rafael Hills. Even in this summer of drought, the hillsides along the freeway were thick with tawny chaparral punctuated by adobe-colored rock outcrops.

You enter the gardens around a spur of the San Rafael Hills and into an eastward facing bowl of what had been, long ago, a massive landslide. In historic times, the bowl had been an open oak forest, cultivated by Native Americans who periodically burned the understory of shrubs and seedling oaks to improve the acorn crop on which they subsisted.

Only five or six of those original oaks remain. The rest perished in a fire in 1874.

What we know of the valleys and hillsides of the Los Angeles Basin begins in fire. On October 8, 1542, in the light of a Los Angeles autumn, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's galleon San Salvador crossed the curve of San Pedro Bay. To the east and south, Cabrillo saw a belt of gray-brown haze that obscured the mountain range in the distance.

Because of the haze, he named what he saw "Bahia de Las Fumas" or in other accounts, "de Los Humos y Fuegos.

Either "Bay of Smokes" or of "Fumes and Fires," what Cabrillo had seen was one of the effects of the famously still air over the Los Angeles basin. The light of Los Angeles nearly 500 years ago was filtered through the smoke of Native American fires trapped by the inversion layer overhead.

Along with still air, bright light, and contrasting shadows, air pollution is our heritage.

I'd been invited to the gardens to speak at the Surt Haaga Art Gallery, along with Aaron Giesel and Tim Thompson, at the closing of "California Light," an exhibition of paintings and photographs - some contemporary, others older - that take the light of LA as their starting point.

Giesel had two, large format photographic pints in the exhibition. One of them was based on an essay - "L.A. Glows" - by the New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler.

Weschler had written in 1998 that the light in Los Angeles once brought him to tears.

The day of that infamous slow-motion Bronco chase - actually it was already past sundown here in New York as I sat riveted before the glowing little TV monitor in our darkening kitchen, utterly transfixed by the steadily unfurling stream of bob-and-wafting helicopter images, hot tears streaming down my cheeks - my then-eight year old daughter happened upon the scene, gazed for a while at the TV screen and then over at me, at which point, baffled and concerned, she inquired, "What's wrong, Daddy? Did you know that guy?" "What guy?" I stammered, surfacing from my trance, momentarily disoriented. "Oh, no, no. I didn't know the guy. I don't give a damn about the guy - It's that light! That's the light I keep telling you girls about." You girls: her mother and her. That light - the late afternoon light of Los Angeles, golden pink off the bay through the smog and onto the palm fronds. A light I've found myself grieving after almost every day of the two decades since I left Southern California.

I know what Weschler means. I've lived my whole life here, in the light of Los Angeles.

Or rather, lights. Toward the end of this essay, Weschler included my list. I told him there're at least four lights in LA.

To begin with, there's the cruel light of August. Its glare cuts pitilessly through the general shabbiness of Los Angeles. Then there's the false glamour of the golden light of autumn. It turns Los Angeles into El Dorado, a city of fool's gold. There's the gunmetal light of May and June, as if the sky was freshly poured concrete. Finally there is the light that comes after a full day of rain, as clear as stone-dry champagne. Everything in that light is simultaneously particularized and idealized, each perfectly specific tract house, one beside another. That's the light that breaks my heart in LA.

Giesel had keyed one of his photographs in the exhibition to my taxonomy, basing his photograph on the golden light of unearned nostalgia, the autumn light of El Dorado. The photograph appears to show the pearly disk of a full moon behind a range of brush covered hills.

But that's not the true picture.

What we don't see is Giesel's assistant standing not much more than a hundred feet away, hidden behind a mound of gravel and dirt and holding up a 30-inch mirror, bought at IKEA. The assistant is holding the mirror toward the camera, reflecting the light of dawn. It only appears that a moon is rising (or setting) over faraway hills beneath a lemony sky.

Giesel's setup plays with how we understand distance and size in a photograph. If the moon is small on the horizon, then the horizon must be far away from the camera. A ridge of dirt could be a mountain range; a bedroom mirror becomes the moon.

As the science of perception tells us, we see what we expect to see if even a few of the expected cues are there.

Tim Thompson, a docent at Mount Wilson Observatory and formerly of JPL, showed the same deception, this time with the actual moon. When we see the full moon riding on the horizon (as apparently in Giesel's photograph), our mental apparatus gives the moon a size that's larger than the moon overhead, where there's nothing around for comparison.

There's no change in size, as Thompson showed in his photographs. The full moon overhead is the same size as the moon seen behind the buildings of downtown or the San Gabriel Mountains. Our expectations deceive us into inflating the moon's disk.

We fool ourselves, just as Giesel tricked me into seeing a mountain in a mound of dirt.

The light in LA has a lunar deceptiveness too, but it pulls its tricks with a set of mirrors we can't even see.

Weschler wrote about this form of LA light in 1998 and he came back to the reasons for it when he interviewed the photographer Michael Light for The Believer magazine in 2010. Light is an aerial photographer whose subject is often Los Angeles.

Weschler reminded Light that:

It's not for nothing that Los Angeles is where the light-and-space movement in art begins. Those are the things of L.A.... light and space. My other primary associations with it, by the way, are its atmospheric reflectivity and glare. I once talked to Glen Cass, an environmental and chemical engineer at Caltech, about his interest in the optical properties of smog. He didn't care what it did to his lungs, he just wondered why when he went on the roof of the geophysics building at Caltech and looked toward the San Gabriel Mountains--the tallest rise from basin to peak anywhere in the world, and only two miles away--he couldn't see a thing. So he does all this work and he figures out that there are different sizes of emissions particles, little tiny ones, bigger ones and the biggest ones. He realizes that it's the middle ones that happen to be exactly the size of the wavelength of light. And so light bounces off them--at that point he said to me that "It's like having a billion suns in your eye."

Because at lot of this finely sintered stuff is precisely of the size that lingers in the generally motionless air of LA ... and this is the important part ... precisely the size most likely to interact with a wavelength of daylight, when the sunlight from over your shoulder hits one of these suspended particles, the light ray reflects off the particle and back into your eye.

There are billions of such particles in the line of sight between you and the mountains - each of them with the potential to bounce white sunlight directly back, making the scene beyond invisible.

That's what this luminous but opaque stuff is. It's reflected light and not exactly a material substance at all. And there's a technical term for what we see. It's called airlight.

The next day, after witnessing this disappearing act on the beach at Malibu, when the mountains were present one moment and replaced with a white wall the next, Weschler described the experience to Dennis Phillips, a poet. Weschler tried to explain the business about the rays and the wavelength of daylight, He described the effect as if the air was filled with a billion tiny suns.

And the poet at this point corrected Weschler. "No, no," the poet said, "Not suns. You mean a billion tiny moons."

Some 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 but a substitute light that cancels out the possibility of finding what we've sought, an ignorance born of brightness.

Like Giesel's mirror and Thompson's moon, some light in LA is beautiful and deceptive.

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