Light in Los Angeles

Unearned Nostalgia
Unearned Nostalgia

The light brought us all to a stop the other day. We were crossing the plaza level of the Getty Center after having spent the day discussing the architecture of Los Angeles. And now (as is often in L.A.) a conversation about abstractions was trumped by the physical beauty of this place, manifested in the grainy yellow/gold light near sunset on a warm October day.

And that reminded me of another conversation about the light in Los Angeles the writer Lawrence Weschler had.

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Weschler wanted to know something about the light in Los Angeles and he had been told by Steve Wasserman, then the editor of the Los Angeles Times book review, to look me up.

This is the odd thing . . . the ineluctable thing . . . I actually had been thinking about the light in Los Angeles before he called.

And this is what I told Weschler about the light in Los Angeles, which was eventually processed into a piece for the New Yorker magazine in 1998:

Let me break off a moment from quoting Weschler quoting me to say that I probably said exactly that, including the "Ah, yes" at the start, as well as the bits that sounds like S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall as a "Mitteleuropa" schoolmaster.

But getting back to Weschler, getting back to me:

But my slightly stiff rhapsody isn't what's interesting about the light of L.A. What's really interesting is an entirely different phenomenon of L.A. light. Weschler was finding that the light of L.A. also can be a dense fluid, more substantial seeming than the buildings of downtown.

The composition of that substance intrigued Weschler. To probe its nature, he wanted to talk about pollution, since one of the essences of L.A. is, and always has been, impurity. So, Weschler talked to a professor at Caltech who had been studying (and computer modeling) air pollution for more than thirty years.

This researcher, Weschler found, knew why the light in L.A. could be bright and simultaneously opaque. Or, to put it in Weschler's words quoting his expert source: "Exactly why it is that some afternoons he can go up on the roof of the Miliken Library there at Cal Tech, gaze out toward the towering San Gabriel mountains less than five miles to the north, and not make out a thing through the bright, white (shadow-obliterating) atmospheric haze."

And it turns out that this condition . . . this disappearance . . . isn't as simple as pollution blocking sight of the mountains.

The Caltech professor took Weschler's notebook and sketched for him how a ray of light reflected off the mountains behind Pasadena interacts with the particles of everything in the air: from sea salt to the decomposing granite of the mountains themselves to the emissions of internal combustion engines in the L.A. basin.

And much of this stuff -- the finely sintered stuff of which L.A. is made -- is precisely of the right size to hang suspended in the generally motionless air of L.A. and . . . this is the important part . . . precisely right the size most likely to interact with the wavelength of daylight.

And the Caltech scientist told Weschler:


The next day, after seeing this remarkable disappearing act on the beach at Malibu, when the mountains ahead of him are present one moment and replaced with a white scrim the next, Weschler described the experience to Dennis Phillips, a poet, and Weschler tried to explain the business about the rays and the billion tiny suns, and the poet corrected the atmospheric scientist . . . and Weschler, the honest reporter.

"No, no," the poet said, "You mean a billion tiny moons."

The 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 like fog, but a changed form of light . . . a subsidiary and substitute form . . . that cancels out the possibility of seeing what we've sought.

And that's some of the light in L.A.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user juy_socal. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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