When photographer William Reagh first landed in Los Angeles in the 1930s, the city still seemed a string of unconnected thoughts: an expansive outpost -- both wild and urban; idyllic and rough-hewn -- still discovering itself as it stretched out across the basin, rambling and loosely punctuated.
Los Angeles's juxtapositions -- and the contradictions that lived side-by-side them -- gave the former Kansan rich fodder for visual exploration -- high/low; have/have-not. Just what was Los Angeles bent toward being? At face value, it was difficult to discern.
While history and memory tell us one piece, images of the city in its boom years -- a place that moment to moment, reinvents and shape-shifts -- deepen that narrative. They underscore if not gird those memories. They make real and contextualize moments and memories we question, the details we thought were gone forever, altered "in a blink."
If not for Reagh and his meticulousness, so much of not just L.A.'s evolving brick-and- mortar profile, but even more important, its more intimate, episodic sidewalk stories, would be lost. Reagh intuited that it wasn't simply the city's shifting skyline or the at-a-glance atlas-view depicting the necklace of bedroom communities fanning outward that told Los Angeles' story -- but rather the incremental evolution, close-up, block by block day-by-day: the street view.
Last Fall, the Book Club of California published an evocative, time-trip: a limited-edition of Reagh's photographic work -- "A Long Walk Downtown: Photographs of Los Angeles and Southern California, 1936-1991." With an introduction written by historian, archivist and antiquarian book dealer, Michael Dawson and an essay by Reagh's son Patrick (who is responsible for the book's elegant design and letterpress printing), the volume provides an intimate tour of day-in day-out Los Angeles as seen from the ground up. "My earliest memory of him is with a camera," remembers Patrick Reagh, "It was always with him. He was very consistent."
Reagh was on the streets: Looking. Lingering. Documenting. He walked Los Angeles and consequently saw Los Angeles -- offering a different perspective than the mere suggestion of place so often gleaned in motion or generalized shorthand. He circled neighborhoods, returned to some locations year after year, charting their evolution. And though, until his death in 1992, he became one of Los Angeles' most prolific visual documentarians, he didn't set out to be a photographer, nor was his trove of L.A. images meant to be a formal paean to Los Angeles. A painter and philosopher, by training and inclination, photography was something that he "picked up," while in the service, a proficiency, that overtime became, at turns, poetic -- though he, says his son, would never see it as such.
Through his eyes, frame-by-frame, his photos open a window in on the city's former self: the vast, now-gone Victorian kingdom of Bunker Hill shooting up from its perch in slate grays and inky blacks, the vivid street-life cacophony of Pershing Square, the almost audible sigh of stacked up, retired streetcars at Terminal Island. But Patrick's remembrances of his father's fortitude and focus shed light on not just the man who made the images but on the city he was attempting to wrap his mind around. "There were thousands of images that I wasn't able to use," admits Patrick, "Enough, really, to do several other books."
His father's arrival in Los Angeles, coincided with the city's most vigorous years of growth, as well as its many phases of urban renewal. For years, his day job was work as a commercial photographer -- shooting products, catalogues, art collections "whatever the clients called for," his son recalls. But the weekends were dedicated to solely to prowling Los Angeles, uncovering and documenting its very disparate parts, assembling a sense of the whole.
To say there was a goal, a plan or even an organizing thesis to his images, would be to overstate his process, Patrick suggests. His father, he says, was a wanderer who would lose himself within the intricate folds of the city, "wherever his muse led him." Patrick remembers the meanderings of his father. "He just loved to wander downtown and walk around the streets and shoot. Sometimes it might be a streetscape, sometimes it might be people. He'd often shoot from the hip, hold the camera low. He was very good at taking pictures of people without them knowing. But really, he was so non-threatening, such a friendly guy -- even in the seediest of neighborhoods -- he would make everyone feel at ease."
While Saturdays often meant a solo trek -- perhaps crisscrossing the freeways by car, touring surface streets on foot for inspiration -- on Sundays, Reagh might take Patrick and his sister along. It was an opportunity to see the city through his eyes -- the places he felt were important to document, even if he couldn't articulate why in words. "Train yards, he loved. Shipyards. Amusement parks, the Pike and Pacific Ocean Park," Reagh recalls. These were places at the edge of things -- of the city or the coastline -- and, metaphorically, our imaginations. The transit hubs in particular provided an interesting opportunity to see behind the scenes -- an end on one story, beginning of another.
Each setting called for a different set up. "If he was downtown shooting people, he'd have his reflex, or another smaller camera, maybe his Leica. At the train yard or shipyard, he'd bring his tripod and set up his big Speed-Graphic. Back then there were no security guards asking questions: who you were and what you were doing. I would climb on stuff, those piled up streetcars. There was broken glass all over. He'd be off shooting. I'd climb. Back when you could do that sort of thing."
Often they would stumble upon magic, places like Pershing Square, before it was paved over and reimagined as concrete, antiseptic. "Then it was the most exotic place in the world. This is where people would meet -- outcasts, homeless, elderly people. It was a place you would go and you could speak your mind. Hear new ideas." But it wasn't just the words, it was the visual expression, and impressions. "One man named Hook because his fingernails were two feet long," Patrick remembers. "He never cut them. He could drag them along the sidewalk. My father never took a picture of him for some reason. He was so vivid. There were transvestites and hobos -- just guys living outside of the norm. But those were the kinds of people who were yelling out at the world," remembers Patrick. "He was always interested in the underdog."
By the 1960s, a windfall in the form of a family inheritance, opened up both time, space and opportunity. Reagh was able to quit his day job and pursue his own photography ventures full-time. The family moved from their Echo Park home to Los Feliz, where Reagh was able to set up a full darkroom at home. As he worked, he'd turn up the stereo -- listening to West Coast jazz, classical music -- or baseball. "Never the Dodgers. He didn't like Walter O'Malley, the whole Dodger Stadium deal," Patrick says. "He was a dedicated Angels fan."
The timing also happened to coincide, Patrick Reagh recalls, with the height of urban renewal, when the physical changes in Los Angeles were fast and often complete. If you study the span of photographs, the L.A. he arrived in versus the concrete-and-steel dream of the future he later documented, they come across as two wholly disparate planets. Those elegant Victorians gave way to the open crater of Bunker Hill; the modest skyline became a chessboard of dwarfing concrete and glass towers that re-oriented the focus -- no longer human-scale, but served as metaphors for ambition -- the city stretching, reaching further.
If his father had any feelings about all of this, Reagh says, they remained elusive. "You'd think he would have been upset," he says, "but he had a detached attitude. He wasn't an ideologue. He loved Cartier-Bresson and the concept of photographer as stroller. But, I think he thought of himself as a preservationist; someone who just needed to be doing this. He seemed to feel somebody had to."
Decades later, the work reveals his heart. And what the images, taken as a whole, most eloquently preserve is not just sense of place, but a sense of the city's humanity, its particular vernacular -- its feel, pace, space; its leisureliness, and idiosyncratic visual language. "He was just interested in the passing parade." says Reagh, "He let the camera do the talking."