What Do We See When We Look At L.A. Again?

Looking Down
Looking Down | Photo: Spence Airphoto

I've finished a project for the city I used to work for. It's a selection of photographs for publication by a company that produces local history books composed mostly of old photographs. I sent the city's project -- 186 photos -- to the editor today.


Although the city has a sizable collection of images that might be called historic, many of the photographs are much the same -- aerials of the unbuilt landscape that would be built on and more aerials of the building itself. Down on the ground, the photographs are mostly culled from newspapers or advertising campaigns. Those photographs present the past as all surface.

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I also completed a project with old photographs for the Getty's survey of Los Angeles architecture called Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940 -1990. I'd been asked, along with several others, to sort though the Huntington Library's collection of photographs donated by Southern California Edison and to assemble some for an online gallery.

The Edison collection -- stretching from the end of the 19th century into the 1970s -- contains a lot: advertising, construction records, shots of working men and women, examples of exterior and interior lighting projects, tests of equipment, and celebratory images of industrial progress.

I chose to tell a story with the photographs that I pulled from the Edison collection, stringing 35 of them together into a nasty, pseudo-noir account of murder, illicit romance, and existential boredom. It was surprisingly easy. Black-and-white photographs of Los Angeles streets and houses in the 1940s, a few ad shots, an accident scene, an Edison employee with an odd expression and you get dread.

Or 186 black-and-white photographs from the 1940s through the 1970s of my town and you get nostalgia at worst.

Some of those photographs were taken by the noted aerial photographer William A. Garnett. His photographs of the building of my town are spectacular but he chose, I was told by a researcher who had met with him, not to keep much of that early work.

Graders | Photo: W. A. Garnett

There are just a few images -- the abstract and slightly hallucinatory ones -- which he kept. The few Garnett aerials the city has were randomly saved in a file folder somewhere, kept because they recorded some facts on the ground that someone wanted to remember (although even these facts are in beautiful images).

The book of old photographs I put together for the city tries to tell a story -- not the one Garnett ruthlessly edited his work to tell; not the joking manipulation of the everyday into something sinister that I made out of Edison's blandly industrial photographs. We're schooled in how to look at old photographs to see mostly their surreal qualities.

Do the six or so aerial photographs that Garnett saved tell the story of building my town? Do the few more saved from the city's files tell a different story or a better one? Do the 186 old photographs I assembled for publication tell a truer story or only another one?

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.


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