What Do We See When We Look at Los Angeles?

Sight Unseen
Sight Unseen | USC Library Digital Collection

It's easier than ever to take a long view of Los Angeles.

There's Nathan Masters' illustrated histories at L.A. as Subject (part of KCET's Updaily online community). The photographs that illustrate Masters' histories come from the USC library digital collection (searchable online here). The Los Angeles Public Library hosts another collection (searchable here). The website Noirish Los Angeles makes use of both collections to examine historical photographs with a forensic thoroughness.

And there are several more collections and online communities that assemble and curate the image of the city.

It's easier now to look into the past of Los Angeles, particularly into the continuities of its everydayness. But what do we see there? I've been trying to answer that question to my own satisfaction for as long as I've been looking at photographs of the city.

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When I spend some time with "Panoramic view of Los Angeles looking east from the Court House, showing the orphanage building in the distance, ca.1890," I see the plain facts that the USC digital catalog assigns to their photograph:

Los Angeles 1890
Los Angeles 1890 | USC Library Digital Collection

What's on the photo's surface isn't all there is. I see a big "small town" of low-rise commercial blocks (few over three floors) rapidly flattening out eastward into a mix of businesses and residences, and past them and a bend in the Los Angeles River, barely visible in the haze on rural Boyle Heights, the Los Angeles Orphanage. I see an image that serves many purposes -- a historical document, an instigator of nostalgia (perhaps), a partial record wanting details -- but among them is a deepening of my imagination.

It's too easy to believe that everything in this 120-year-old photograph is gone today. But that's only partially true. The river is still there, even constrained now as a flood control channel. Boyle Heights still rises over the river (although most of the hills west of the river have been flattened). You can still intimate the civic and cultural distinctions between west (the city) and east (still unincorporated territory). The proportions of building height and neighborhood spread are still much the same. The "suburban-ness" of Los Angeles is still there, has always been there.

I'm not sure exactly what I see -- and don't see -- when I look at Los Angeles, either in historical photographs or from the passenger's side of car, but a the habit of looking closely makes me ready to see the city when it reveals itself.

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

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