For a project called "Lineman" (2009), artist Michael Parker tagged along with technical trainees hoping to become line workers for the Los Angeles power system. Parker himself participated in their various exercises, which he documented both with text and with color photographs; these included learning the various ins and outs of wiring diagrams and knot-tying skills, as well as how to ascend and descend utility poles. Many of his fellow class members, he learned, were former high school athletes or people who had trained in engineering and logistics and were now looking for a career change.
In an accompanying booklet produced for the project, Parker includes short biographical statements about each trainee – and, among these, one in particular stands out. A man named Joshua Mullen remarks to Parker that his interest in working the power lines came from something of an aesthetic conversion, a moment of sublimity involving the larger Los Angeles electrical system.
“Mullen had an interesting experience taking the bus from Huntington Beach to L.A.,” Parker writes. “He noticed, while on the 105 east carpool interchange to the 110 north, which is the highest viewing point in South L.A., that power lines exist throughout the city. ‘It was quite an amazing picture to see early in the morning, just as the sun was peaking over the San Gabriels, it was something beautiful seeing all the power lines in a picturesque setting.’”
The history of public electricity in Southern California is much easier to see, of course, through the lens of technical invention, land deals, and semi-secret political machinations, but this notion that there is also something – something sublime – hidden in plain sight is an arresting one.
Indeed, the Southern California Edison collection at the Huntington Library contains a treasure trove of electric line infrastructure photos, documenting the strangely sculptural appeal of these early networks. Many of the structures – distribution routes and towers, substations and regional grids – are quite beautiful in their own right, scattered across the landscape like monuments to electromagnetism, all assembled and maintained by roving bands of workers dwarfed by the scale of their own accomplishment.
Today, the vast and ever-growing spiderweb of electrical lines that powers Los Angeles is there for any of us to see through Mullen’s eyes – the way sunlight on an Alpine crag or the broad valley of the Hudson River once tantalized early landscape painters. It is a fabric of cables and wires built to supply us with artificial illumination, but that itself sometimes shines with its own glow.