Monday, March 2, 2015

Q & A with Michael Jang

Michael Jang by Amanda Boe
Michael Jang is a photographer based in San Francisco.

One photo of yours that struck me when I saw it was the Willie Mays shot which I remember from the Early Works show last year put together by Laura Moya and Laura Valenti. You took that when you were 9? Were you already into photography at that point?

Apparently I had paparazzi tendencies at an early age. I may even have been a decent sniper. It’s funny how the verb associated with taking pictures has always been “shoot” and a sniper usually works alone, maintains close visual contact with the target and remains totally focused until making the shot.

What do you mean? Were you a shutterbug as a kid? Or interested in celebrities? Or both?

My dad usually brought a camera to the ballpark. I started borrowing it to take some pictures. At Candlestick Park the players entered and exited the field through the only door in right field. Knowing this- I waited there for Willie after pre game batting practice- when he approached- I yelled “Hey Willie!” He looked up, I snapped it- complete with finger smudge on lens. 

Candlestick Park, 1960, Michael Jang

Was your dad a serious photographer? 
Serious hobbyist. He was a businessman in the sense that he had a little department store in a small northern California town, Marysville. He just liked buying cameras and taking movies to document his own family- and there you might have the beginning of a story (why I take pictures). 

Michael Jang's father

Do you still have the photos and films he made back then?

Yes. I have shown his work from the 30’s Depression Era through the 1960's to people who have seen The Jangs and they are amazed at how American our lifestyle was back even then. 

Michael Jang (right) with his sister Gaynor, circa late 1950s
So you grew up around cameras. And you were taking photos at 5. That's quite young. When did photography begin to assume greater importance for you? 

I only took one picture at 5. I could tell he gave me the camera to take a shot of HIM and my sister- it's hilarious- the perfect snapshot: blurred, pole coming out of his head- her looking down with a bonnet so you couldn’t see her face. I got my first camera- a Pentax Spotmatic for Christmas in high school and immediately took it to a Jimi Hendrix concert. 40 years later an image that I took from that concert ended up being on a Hendrix CD- his last unfinished album. I took my first actual photography class at Cal Arts in the early Seventies and did the Beverly Hilton series as  student homework, followed by the Jangs- family photos.

One of the photos you sent shows you in a band. I'm assuming that interest was related to you later shooting musicians and doing light shows, etc. What sort of music were you playing and listening to then?

It was 50 years ago! And this week something great happened- The singer in the band sent me a few Polaroids that were taken with my dad’s camera. We also have a reel to reel tape of  10 songs- some Rolling Stones, 2 Yardbirds, a Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gloria by Them, Little Latin Lupe Lu- AND a cult fave: You're Gonna Miss Me by The 13th Floor Elevators- all at age 15- in a small town of 10,000. I’m amazed at how we managed to take pictures and record ourselves- It could be one of the earliest records of an American garageband. Apparently we practiced at the drummer's house- in his garage. His dad had a vending machine business, so we had all the free cigarettes we wanted- and he also had juke boxes stored in the garage- explaining how we learned the songs- we just played the 45’s over and over.

Free cigarettes at 15? Great! Do you still play music now?

I still have the guitars and amps- they look like something Jack White would use. We got cheap gear from Sears and Montgomery Wards.

Michael Jang (right) in his band, circa mid-1960s

You mentioned The Jangs a moment ago. That was the first project of yours I saw. It was showing in San Francisco in 2013 in the 49 Geary building. It made a strong connection because I also shoot my family quite a bit. Did you have a sense at the time you were shooting these that they'd be a body of work later? Or were you just caught up in the moment shooting whatever people were handy?

I had no idea of any importance they might have decades later. It started simply in workshop I took one summer with Lisette Model. Diane Arbus had just died and I had heard she was Diane’s teacher. I thought I was going to do street photography but I realized my cousins (who let me stay with them) were great subjects.  So the Beverly Hilton series at Cal Arts was my first project that I did for class- but certainly The Jangs followed shortly thereafter. I put the work away and didn't do anything with it for decades.

Did you make visits to your cousins only to photograph? Or was it more of an immersive thing in which they were always around?

I still had a couple more years at Cal Arts and probably kept doing family when visiting home for the holidays etc. The Jangs paralleled Bill Owens' work on Suburbia which was done at the same time, but I didn't know about him until later.

They look similar in some ways. But his were made of strangers mostly. A different dynamic.

Yes, I think Bill was a newspaper and event photographer so he had great access to everyone in his community. You get in, get the story, move on.  My series was more about following one family, sort of like the The Louds in the 1971 PBS documentary An American Family.

What did Lisette Model think of The Jangs?

I can't remember-40 years is a long time - I got Honors and I remember she said I would have been a successful Life or Look photographer. 

from The Jangs

What was your general impression of Lisette Model? 
I thought she was a witch. BTW- I taped the classes and transcribed them into a Notebook- I may do a project/book with it.

She was mean?

No- not mean- but she was eccentric looking and possessed a power- just witchy in a mysterious "I know something you don't" way. I sensed she had access to a parallel universe- but that phrase wasn't part of my vocabulary back then. Once at a party thrown by one of the students, I photographed her- no one else dared. I placed a long stemmed flower in her hand- she knew what I was doing and called me on it, but let me shoot anyway- then— for the first and only time EVER— I developed the film in.... fixer. She had cast her spell. 

Wow. So you have no photos of her? Bummer. I've screwed up my film just about every way possible but I don't think I've ever developed in fixer. That's a new one.

No photos. I’m fine with just the memory.

When you were shooting The Jangs did you have lines you wouldn't cross? Did you ever encounter scenes that you felt uncomfortable photographing? Or turn up photos later that you didn't want to make public?

Good question- but this wasn’t Behind the Rolling Stones on Tour, our families were/are still pretty conservative in behavior. But to answer your question, I tended to cross the line first- and if there was a problem, then I wouldn't do it again. No, nothing was shot that was edited out.

What do you mean "problem"? Did the act of you photographing ever create tension?

Once my uncle was having his morning coffee and reading the paper- I took his picture and he put up his hand (I have the shot) and firmly said: "No. Not now." Totally reasonable. A boundary had been set up and I respected his morning time.

But you still took the photo.

He got very cross, and instincts said shoot.

Photography is odd. It has an inherent power dynamic I think. Maybe that's why your photo of Model didn't turn out. She was cursing the natural order. But sometimes it sets up a weird relationship of using people. So applying the same approach to shooting Beverly Hilton celebrities as your own family has tension possibly.

Too deep, Blake :)

Doesn't photography use people?

from Beverly Hilton

If you shoot a can of peas, are you using it? It's just a choice of what you point your camera at.

Well, a can of peas has no feelings.

Oh right, your question was about people- but my point, from the photographer’s perspective- is that it’s all the same- whether you are looking at a wall or a baby, you just try to make the best image possible. I suppose if I was a paparazzi and shot celebs for $- that could be using- but often they are using you for publicity too.

Sure. That's the tension. I think photography has a built in power dynamic. So it sometimes creates issues when shooting family. For me at least.

So your question really is not about the photography/photographer- but about people's feelings if they are the subject? Too deep.

Too deep but surely you've thought about it?

Look, I extend the antennas to detect pools of energy, respond and react with little if no thought, shoot like a blind man with ADHD and bail. Or maybe not ADHD but Aspergers where I understand empathy might be an issue. That’s another subject.

Is that what good photography requires? Some level of ruthlessness? I think it might. What do you think?

Look, photography is enjoyable to me as long as I don’t have to analyze it. 

What happened to The Jangs after you shot it? Why did it stay buried so long? And when and why did it resurface?

I didn't think my work was anything special and after graduating I just got on with life. Three decades later I heard you could drop your portfolio off at SFMoMA. It seemed harmless and I wouldn't have even felt any rejection since it had been so long since I was a student. That's how it all started. Sandra Phillips, SFMoMA’s head photography curator, called me in for a chat. They plan to show a small sampling of The Jangs when the Museum reopens in 2016.

Very cool. So that's how it happened? That sounds like a fable. You drop work off randomly. Someone powerful sees it and Boom. Does that ever actually happen? I guess so.

I am a very lucky person and I live in gratitude every day.

It makes you wonder. The work was high quality. It was out there. But it required someone in power to endorse it. It demonstrates that the work alone isn't enough. Someone needs to vouch for it.

Well, there’s always plain ol’ chutzpah. I remember trying to get any kind of photo related jobs, and I noticed that certain New Yorkers just ran circles around us California kids. I always envied that. It was like I didn’t get the gene. But I eventually got better at it, thirty years later. That's THAT world- Now I spend time with Hamburger Eyes and the PHOTOCOPY Club (from London) where they offer big Xerox prints for a few pounds. 

In unlimited editions I assume? What's the thinking behind the big Xerox prints? Is it a backlash against photography as precious fine art hidden behind glass? 

I feel honored that Ray at Hamburger Eyes and Matt at Photocopy Club allow me to participate in the DIY world. I'm just along for the ride while they call the shots. The Photocopy Club sells prints as 1 of 1 BTW.

The SFMoMA talk makes me wonder about this comment you made in another interview:
"You get this freedom when you don’t have a reputation, you can do whatever you want. I wouldn’t be showing in high school hallways and Pirate Cat Radio if I was at a certain level." 
Do you think your reputation has changed recently? I mean, you're in SFMoMA now! And if so, has it taken away some of your photographic freedom?

Being in the SFMoMA wasn't my only goal. It's all equally important to me. I mean I do recognize the level of difference but they are all nourishing in their own ways. You hear about well known film actors who yearn to get back to the stage- back to basics- stay hungry, stay challenged. I don’t think anything’s changed except each year more people discover the work.

Your work is easy to find online now. But why do you have two separate websites? It's sort of confusing.

Do I? and One is a sort of portfolio site and one is modeled after a Google Search page.

Oh- the dot info- was...there was a story on that- didn't know it was still up-  It was a goof- done for fun years ago- Everything is a link to projects, even the pop-up ads on the right and the map, videos, etc along the top.

Right. I saw the article which is how I found that. Is it not current? It actually has more links than your other site.

Well, that was the point- It had to have anything and everything as if you Googled my name. At that time people were fearful I would be hearing from Google. Plus my daughter worked there and I didn’t want her associated with any trouble caused by me. But I took the risk figuring it was too small a thing for them to worry about. I mean, how would they look going after an artist? As it turns out, their legal department spends almost all of its time fending off suits against them. My regular site is edited for just the more important articles. I should probably take the .info site down.

It's quite clever. I have found a few quotes there and in a few other places. Can I run a few by you? For example in the Wired article you say,
"I noticed photographers who had started out as fine artists. The more successful they got, they paid a price. Their eye had to switch over and get totally cleaned up. And then when they would try to do fine art the pictures were just neutralized in some way." 
What does "cleaned up" mean? And is it bad? I keyed on that phrase because I think it's pretty wide spread. I don't know if it's because of commercial work or whatever. But I see a lot of photography, even non-Photoshopped work, which seems "neutralized". I think that's why I like The Jangs so much. Because it's real, or seems real. That's my two cent critique of the photo world. There's a tendency to use the camera to put the world in a nice clean box and frame it up and color correct and whatever. That's not how the world looks to me. 

Oh- your partial quote leaves out a key part which was about artists who did full time commercial work very successfully after art school. I have friends who went to fine art school, then they had to get regular $ jobs. Weddings, portraits- advertising work, etc. A lot of us did. If you do that too long, your subconscious can go from edginess to Hallmark cards- Photoshopping for salable perfection, losing the original grit and soul. It can become your norm. So you venture back into an art project and you find yourself cleaning up a skin blemish, trash on the street, or a powerline that’s in the way- just because you can.

Do you need to keep that commercial brain separate from the creative/personal side?

I did simple portraits on a grey drop with one light for my work- so it was apples and oranges- didn't really get confused with taking out a Leica and hitting the streets with total freedom. I’ve slowed down on the commercial work now as my kids are done with college. Now I’m taking up where I left off when I was 30. I just skipped 30 years, that's all.

Congrats putting kids through school, by the way. Not easy to do as a photographer!

Yes- I tell people that's a lot of 8x10s to sell to raise a family. I’m spending more of my days now working on organizing my archives for people to view- please come by when in SF!

OK. Since we're talking about your archives can I ask about your earlier street photos? I saw some early SF street work of yours somewhere. From the 1980s? How active were you as a street shooter then and what about now?

I once saw my Planet of the Apes beauty contest photo online and it was attributed t0 Winogrand- what an honor that was!

I think I know the photo (of the apes). One of your other photos shows a guy in a suit on an SF street corner. What was the context behind that photo? Were you an active street shooter then or now?

Oh that suit was me- a self portrait done in the Seventies. My left arm is holding the Leica and a 21mm lens made it look like there’s more distance between me and the camera. 

A selfie before the word was invented. What was the context? Did you shoot a lot downtown back then?

from The Jangs

I was still a student and had seen Lee Friedlander’s Self Portrait book. I tried a few rolls- not a lot.

Is that part of your life now? Do you take photo walks with your Leica?

I still shoot and as always just put it away- lately I’ve been going to more local shows. I’ve had my fun and it’s time to support others.

That question is related to another quote of yours:
"How often have you taken the camera and gone out, just walking around shooting? Go back to the six- to eight-hour days that you’ve been at the computer over a year or two or three and you will find that you probably are not shooting that much." 
That resonated with me because I find that world creeping into my own life. My shooting/computer ratio has definitely become smaller in recent years.

Can't remember saying that- was it here?  

It's from the Wired article I'm probably your worst nightmare. An interviewer pulling up old quotes and asking what you meant by them.

You seem like a more interesting person to interview than me- hope you've had your shot?

I've been interviewed a few times. No grand revelations.

Small interviews are good practice- See what works, what resonates, what needs to be done to make it more interesting next time. I recently spoke at the Battery in SF for Stephen- It was fun to get up and wing it- showing photos and videos- it was quite fun.

Do you think your photos are funny? 

I get an occasional chuckle.

I think your sense of humor comes through them. It's one of the things which activates them for me.

I think we have to remember that when we talk about my work or me- it's in the past tense as in 3 or 4 decades ago. Maybe I was a bit ruthless back then in a sense of just shooting and going for the shot at all costs. Now-I’m a much more warm and sensitive being and so my pictures quite boring. Haha, like that?
I'm assuming you saw the Winogrand SFMoMA show last year. What did you think? 

The only thing I can tell you about Winogrand is once I was walking with him in North Beach here in SF. He walked up to a playground that had a cyclone fence. He poked his lens through an opening, took a shot and walked on. I decided to look through the exact place where he put his camera. At first it was a typical Garry shot with lots going on- kids on swings etc, but then I saw it- a couple going at it under a park bench.

Do you think he was ruthless with a camera? Did he have a conscience?

Being around him- and Lee- It wasn't like you were around "artists". I'd been in painting classes in art school and these two seemed like just regular guys who enjoyed shooting all the time like some people exercise or eat- they didn't talk about art ideas or the work that much. I wonder what he would have said if someone had asked him if he was ruthless or had a conscience. I have no idea. These two dodged any artsy questions like the plague- It was just "I just shoot to entertain myself and I don't care what you think."

What's the notebook book you mentioned?

It has transcribed notes from when I was a student (I taped the classes) with people like Lee Friedlander, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand, A.D. Coleman, and Ralph Gibson. It might be interesting for people to get a sense of what it was like to be a student in the golden age- when these people taught/visited your classes in the Seventies.

I can't speak for others but from that description I would be interested.

One vote!

You call that the "Golden Age" of photography. 

The golden age of being a photo student perhaps but not necessarily photography in general. 

What do you think is going on now? How will this period be described in 2050?

You get to chime in- what do you think this period will be known for?

I was afraid you'd ask that. I think it's pretty exciting now because the bar between high and low art has been removed. It's all swimming in the same soup and some really interesting stuff is floating to the surface. But also a lot of crap. A LOT of crap. So good luck to future photographers sorting it all out. My philosophy is to make physical objects of the things I want to last. Books and prints will carry on I think. Which is sort of counter to the everyday idea. Most photos I see now are not in that form. So it's working against the tide a bit. Actually I have doubts if civilization will be around in 2050. Humans are doing a good job destroying the world.


Self Portrait by Michael Jang

I've spent parts of each summer for the past 25 years on glaciers in the northwest. I know for a fact they'll be gone by the time my kids are old. That just crushes me. Too depressing. Sorry.

I totally get it- I don't read the articles anymore. You don't have to- you see the photo and get sick. 

You're not the first to refer to the 1970s as a photographic golden age. I think many people feel that way and I'm wondering what was going on then. Was it something actually special or just nostalgia?

Oh that will take some time but I can start- First- you could pick a subject that hadn’t been overexposed yet or maybe even be the first. Tract housing, prison- Try that now. So I think there was not only a hope and excitement in the air- but you could explore visually a subject without having a clue to its outcome. Now- since we've seen so much of everything- I think we already 80% know what the images are going to look like.

Hindsight is always 20/20. Thirty years from now we might look back and wonder at all the new directions and subjects photography has explored since 2014. I guess I'm saying it always feels like things have been done. But there's always room for new stuff.

Certainly hope so.

But maybe it felt less like that in the 1970s. Who knows. I wasn't a photographer then. Born in 1968.

An interesting question- Do you ask a senior citizen about the future or a 20-something?

Maybe neither. Someone who's 50 is probably thinking most clearly about the future. Which might color the photographs of young people. They generally have little sense of posterity so they don't imagine their photos in a future context. It makes the photos stronger and also worse. Maybe.

from Garage Band

Michael Jang (left) holding guitar, circa early 1960s

Then maybe I’ll ask Alec Soth when he turns 50.

What about now? What have you been up to recently?

If there’s a show or person that intrigues me, I read up on the creativity involved, what they went through to get where they are now. Anthony Bourdain, Lena from Girls. We’ve all heard it a million times- do what you love etc- and throw in “no fear- and try not to compromise” Been watching Anthony Bourdain's show- and he was recently on Rose- The ingredients for a rewarding life's work is in his method.

And what are the ingredients for a rewarding life's work?

His sort of Mission statement- It's a quality of life issue- have fun, surround yourself with people you like. He surrounds himself with people he wants to be with, hangs with his team of 14 years. Are you proud of what you're doing? Do we have anything to regret when we look in the mirror tomorrow?

The have fun-be happy part is the stickler. It sounds simple. But getting to that point is the end of a very long process which is sometimes tough. Yeah, just be happy. Why can't we all do that? Duh. Not so easy.

Oh sorry, we have to get philosophical a bit now- there is no “end”. You of course know that. Especially in art. Always best to just take a day at a time- be in the moment as they say- and so you might as well appreciate today, instead of thinking we might be “happier” later- When? When we’re a little more famous or well-known? We all know that doesn’t always work. 

Bourdain insists on having the freedom to do what he wants, to be as creative as they want to be- He'll see a Wong Kar-Wai movie in the hotel room, then meet with the crew and discuss where they can do a show that can have that look. 

Of course he's in a life situation where that's possible. He has a crew. He can direct the elements around him. Most people, especially young photographers, are not in the same boat.

I don’t think he or we should think of any stage as the end part of a process but rather as an ongoing process- meaning no limits for growth or accomplishment. 

If I can summarize, you like Bourdain because he's taken control of his life. He follows his own impulses without much thought of outside opinion. Is that correct?
My guess is that even when he started he had these principles. It’s just as one gets older in their profession and achieves an even wider success, people aren’t aware of all the work that has gone into it. 

Looking back at your career, do you have any regrets?

One can feel that you could have always done more- but I don't dwell on that. I recall a few situations when I was young where I froze and couldn't shoot.

I have regrets about not sleeping with certain women when I was young and single. I had some very good opportunities but I was too shy or too much of a prude or something. I was just stupid. Now I look back and kick myself.

Ouch, that’s a tough one. When I was 20- in LA, I saw Mohammed Ali with his entourage in a hotel just lounging around- His big time aura and reputation froze me. He probably would have welcomed a young photography student to shoot if I had the nerve to just go up and ask. I also saw Steve McQueen standing in the middle of nowhere- looking lost- wish I would have engaged- but I was young,  just starting out- I don't beat myself up about it, and I have more than made up for it. Sometimes you have to fail a lot to learn from mistakes- it’s all good- part of the process.

(All photographs above by Michael Jang unless otherwise noted)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Camera Angle As Social Angle

Two pages from a 1977 notebook by Allan Sekula, seen today here

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I Come From Nowhere

I've made three photo trips to LA in recent years. With each visit my circle of exploration has expanded slightly. During the first visit with Bruce Hall in 2012, we stayed in a small motel on 7th between downtown and McCarthur Park. We had no car and we explored only the places we could reach on foot or by subway. That turned out to be Broadway, Hollywood, Alvarado, and Watts Towers. We had a great time, and Bruce found downtown to be mostly unchanged from the early 1990s.

7th and Hill, Los Angeles, Bruce Hall, circa early 1980s

7th and Hill, Los Angeles, Google Street View, 2015

The second visit was in the summer of 2013. I stayed with Bruce downtown on the edge of skid row and my mental map of LA expanded to include the toy and fashion district, Chinatown, and the river. We saw where Bukowski had pissed and Robert Frank's St. Francis statue. We also had access to Richard Bram's car for one day and visited Santa Monica and Venice. It was a fun trip but left me hungry for more. 

My recent visit in January was the longest of the three, 10 days total, shuffling between two AirBnBs, one old hotel, and a rotating mix of 8 roommates. The last 5 days there we had a car, and that opened the city up. I played Neal Cassady to Matt Stuart's Kesey. We rolled the windows down, cranked 93.5 KDAY, and acted as if we'd lived in LA for years. I drove. Matt shot everything that moved out the passenger side. If we saw a good place to walk around we parked and explored. 

One of the more interesting places to explore on foot was Rodeo Drive. That's pronounced Ro-Day-O and don't you forget it. It's Prada, not cowboys. But I don't own any Prada so I dressed there the same way I do every day. I wore an old t-shirt, shorts, sandals, and uncombed bedhead hair. This is a standard outfit most places, but on Rodeo it's comparable to wearing a magic invisible suit. The rich people there have their heads so far up their asses they can't see anything! Within a few minutes walking around I realized that included me with my camera. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. I could walk right up to people and shoot them point blank, and with beard and dirty T-shirt I didn't exist. Matt and I had a lot of fun there, although I have to say Matt was dressed slightly better. He's European after all, and the Rodeo folk are trained to pick up on that. 

Olvera Park, Los Angeles, 2012

Together we were able to see the main boulevards and neighborhoods of West LA in some detail. Sunset, Melrose, Beverly, 3rd, Wilshire, Fairfax, Olympic, Pico, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice, Glendale, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Farmer's Market. Every day we found new things and my mental map of LA expanded slightly. But after 10 days I'd still only seen about 1% of the metro area, and they were mostly the white hip parts. I still have no idea what Compton or Pasadena or Inglewood or Long Beach or Burbank looks like. In my mind they remain full of potential, and LA itself is an untapped land of possibility. The more I see of it the more mysterious it becomes. I guess that's why people move there. They're helpless to resist the dream impulse.

The irony is that I grew up hating LA. Where I lived as a kid on the far north coast of California everyone did. LA was Babylon. Cars, traffic, smog, plastic, crime, and everything bad. Worse than that, it had the population base and could thus control the state's political world. The rural hills of the north coast felt like another state entirely. In fact there was a movement to secede from Southern California and create a new state, where everyone would grow their hair out and live on nuts and carrots and pot. It never worked out but that was the context for me to judge LA. It was the distant overlord. We had nothing in common, or so I thought.

Top: Robert Frank, 1955; Bottom: Garry Winogrand, 1955

Three decades later the place has begun to grow on me. Not that I could ever live there, but as a photographic destination it has enormous potential. Just look at downtown, for example. Within six blocks it transitions from financial skyscrapers to the grungiest skid row imaginable. The mix of people in between is beautiful. Why hasn't someone made that a project? Who is shooting good photos there? If downtown has been relatively ignored it's probably because LA is a driving city. You need a car to see it, and once you have one you realize that downtown is only one of about 300 promising destinations. 

LA is the kind of place you stumble on random famous shit occasionally (except for downtown which is mostly unknown to the outer world). Oh yeah, there's that restaurant from that show. There's so-and-so from that movie. There's Jeff Garlin with his Leica. 

Photographers aren't immune. Last week I hit three photo landmarks by accident. The first was Gursky's 99 Cent Store on Sunset Boulevard. I guess I should've known where it was because I'd written about the thing several weeks ago. But but the time I arrived in LA I'd forgotten all about that. We were shooting Hollywood Boulevard and needed some film. So George, Faulkner, and I decided to walk to Freestyle Photo on Sunset, another photo landmark of sorts but definitely second rank. 

We'd gone just a few blocks from the Hollywood/Western subway stop when there it was: Gursky's 99 Cent Store, 5270 Sunset. Turns out there are many 99 Cent stores in LA but this one was immediately recognizable. It had palm trees in the right place between the clerestory windows, and amazing lines of fluorescents. Gursky's Photoshopping notwithstanding, the place felt real. I went inside but it proved impossible to get an upper view of the aisles. So I settled for an exterior shot.

The second photo landmark was La Brea and Beverly. This is another corner I've written about so I know it well from various photographs. But finding it in LA came by accident. We were driving down Wilshire to LACMA, we passed La Brea, and I realized the corner must be close. A little ways up the road and there it was. We all piled out of the car to get a good look.

This photo is shot from the same vantage as Shore's and shows Bruce, Missy, Steve, and George in the foreground near the iconic sign. This was right before Bruce managed to get scolded for hip shooting a passing woman on a bike. She called him on it but instead of saying anything about the Shore photo —which may have soothed her but doubtful— Bruce went into denial mode. Who, me? What photo? Poor decision. So are the coffee stains above.

Before visiting this corner I'd always wondered about Shore's choice of location. On a map this seems like no-man's-land. There are no big buildings, no famous shops, nothing noteworthy. It's just two gas stations. Why that spot? But when you visit this corner you realize it's sort of the perfect center of LA, or at least White-Upper-Class LA. Beverly and La Brea are main corridors. Where they intersect, nothing much happens, but that's the story of LA. It's all about the void, and cars, and space. Symbolically, this corner could be city hall. In fact we passed La Brea/Beverly by chance several times later in the week driving here or there. There's some sort of magnet there and you wind up circling the spot involuntarily. Maybe Shore had a similar experience there and that's why he shot it. Or not. Who knows. Either way I can check that photo landmark from the list.

The last landmark I found by accident was on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. This was during our street shooting workshop on the last weekend in January. We picked a Starbucks on Hollywood as a meeting point, and everyone went off to find photos. 

I knew this would be my last time in Hollywood for a while and I was determined to find the location of  Winogrand's photo of three women with wheelchair guy and shadows. Unfortunately I was going from memory and I didn't know the photo by heart. The only helpful detail I could remember in the photo was a sidewalk star which pinned it on Hollywood, but I had no idea which cross street. 

This is where the magic of smart phones (maybe I'll have to get me one) kicked in. No image is ever out of reach. One of my students looked up the photo on his phone and it was a simple matter to see the Vine St. sign in the upper right of the frame. Voila! The corner turned out to be just across the street from our Starbucks meeting point. 

By afternoon in late January this corner is completely shaded. Winogrand must've shot it during summer months in the evening, shooting due west into the sun. The buildings in the photo are still there, and maybe the tree, although it's hard to say because the entire sidewalk is now lined with large palm trees obscuring the sky. The sidewalk and lamppost remain unchanged. I scoped out the location from several angles but by this time my Instax had broken down, so I can't show any instant photos. Here is it in Street View:

All in all it was a good trip. I'm gradually going through the film now. Whatever turns up will be only part of the LA story. I'll need to return at some point...

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Rejected Submission To Romka Magazine

This is the oldest photograph of mine that I own. I was 17 when I took it in 1986. I'd just returned to California from a summer on the East Coast where among other misadventures I'd connected with some very strong acid. I'd tried a dose while back there —my first trip ever— and it had scared the crap out of me. I'd slipped it under my tongue late one night alone. Bad idea. It took a few days to completely resettle, and even then I still wasn't sure what the fuck had happened or how to process it. I wanted to try again.

Once back home I called up my friend Geoff and we arranged a day hike to the ocean. At the trailhead we each put a tab under our tongues. Within an hour the scenery had begun to sway. The trail went in one direction with no forks. Yet somehow we become disoriented. We couldn't remember which way we'd come from or which way was to the beach. The only thing to do was keep walking. We soon came to a small meadow overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It held superior position on a small ridge about 200 feet directly above the sea, offering an unimpeded panorama vista of trees, meadows, fog, sand, ocean, and sky. In the center was tiny little us, the only human element visible as far as we could see in any direction.

We removed our shoes and shirts and lay down in the sun. I don't remember either of us saying much. We were each melting in our own thoughts. I was immensely content, blissful even, and I think so was Geoff. This was a million times better than my bad trip at night. Ahh, this was what it was supposed to be. 

Laying in the meadow I rolled over to see my old dirty basketball shoes nearby. At that moment they looked like the most beautiful shoes in the world. I had to take a photo! I'm not sure where the urge came from. I was not a photographer then and I had no interest in photos. But I'd packed a cheap instamatic camera to remember the day. I fumbled with it, aimed, and dutifully shot the shoes. 

By the time I had the film developed a few weeks later, I'd been back on earth for a while. The photo did what photos do. It presented the scene soberly, recording my sneakers, a bit of Geoff's, and my tie-dye in the grass just beyond. It was a plain snapshot, but it managed to still kindle some swaying spark in my memory. I placed it on the last page of an old family photo album where it remains today, slowly yellowing. The scan shows the photo in its place with a bit of surrounding album for context.