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Anton Wagner’s Walk Through Depression-Era Los Angeles

Of the many Angelenos pounding the pavement in Depression-era Los Angeles, Anton Wagner was an exception. Armed with his Zeiss Ikon camera and a notebook, Wagner walked the streets of Los Angeles not in search of employment, but of images of Los Angeles – the city’s industries, natural landscape, neighborhoods, subdivisions, and ethnic communities – to support his geographical investigation of a city that had grown from a pueblo of 44 settlers in 1781 to a metropolis of more than two million by 1930 despite its obvious geographical and environmental challenges.

[Looking north from City Hall tower]. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.
[Looking north from City Hall tower]. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.

From August 1932 to February 1933, Wagner covered a swath of the Los Angeles Basin, roughly following the 110 freeway’s north-south trajectory from Pasadena to the Los Angeles Harbor, with jaunts to posh Beverly Hills, the rugged Santa Monica Mountains, and the outlying Pacoima Dam (to which he most likely hitched a ride with friends.) A PhD candidate at the University of Kiel in Germany, Wagner took hundreds of photographs to use as research materials for his 1935 dissertation, “Los Angeles: Werden, Leben, und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien (“Los Angeles: The Development, Life and Form of the Southern Californian Metropolis”).

Using both his striking images of the Los Angeles environs and in-depth conversations with “people born in the landscape, members and descendants of the old local aristocracy, immigrants from over eight decades, many of whom have themselves participated in the evolutionary process of the various periods,” Wagner sought to explain how a city in such a “disadvantageous geographical setting” could grow and prosper with such robust vigor. [i],[ii] In particular, Wagner deemed Los Angeles as spatially deficient due to its basin being cordoned off on three sides by mountain ranges and its relatively narrow margin of living space where the basin meets the Pacific Ocean. Adding to these challenges, Wagner observed, the city’s coastline possessed no natural harbor and its semi-arid climate could not provide enough water for its millions of inhabitants, many of whom hold their breaths in anticipation of the next big earthquake, as the city fitfully rests itself on innumerable fault lines.

 Compton. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.
Compton. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.

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In the introduction to his dissertation, which Gavriel D. Rosenfeld translated into English for the Getty Research Institute in 1997, Wagner states his objective: “to observe the activity of man and to see how nature opposes and works against him, until it conquers him.”[iii] Although this perspective seems dramatic, even dire - and despite the desperate economic times during which his study was calmly conducted - Wagner presents a geographical history of Los Angeles that might be described as upbeat, showing how Angelenos have adapted to their environment’s topographic and climatic challenges, and have, in fact, thrived. Wagner’s conclusion identifies the city’s inhabitants themselves as its main asset in combating the challenges nature, climate and geography presented, observing that “Los Angeles has produced the active spirit of the citizens in the awareness that the welfare of the individual depends upon the thriving and importance of the communal.”[iv] A very poignant message indeed, as Depression-era Los Angeles faced not only environmental but also social and economic challenges.

[Old oil wells still producing at Adobe Street]. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.
[Old oil wells still producing at Adobe Street]. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.

Wagner took more than 438 photographs of Los Angeles to complete his research, organizing them into albums, along with typed notes detailing where they were taken. The photographs document an unusually broad urban swath, including Los Angeles’ many ethnic communities and its neglected, unromanticized, outlier places. While Wagner’s study emphasizes change, volatility, and the contest between humanity and nature, his pictures have a still, banal quality, with buildings, streets, and other inanimate features dominating a landscape that otherwise seems devoid of human activity.

Reservoir near San Fernando, L.A. city water. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.
Reservoir near San Fernando, L.A. city water. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.
Slums on Hewitt Street. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.
Slums on Hewitt Street. Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.

[i] Anton Wagner, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben, und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien (Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut AG, 1935), 7.

[ii] Wagner, Los Angeles, Preface.

[iii] Wagner, Los Angeles, 1.

[iv] Wagner, Los Angeles, 207.

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