The “Los Angeles” issue of Aperture magazine is as sprawling and pluralistic as the region it covers, looking at the past and future of Los Angeles photography. Some of the featured works tell a story of displacement and failed utopia, while others eschew easy stereotypes about the region — that no one ever walks or takes public transportation, or that the city is fixated on celebrity. The issue is about ideas of Los Angeles as much as it is about the people who lived, and continue to live, there.
In a conversation with artist John Divola and curator Amanda Maddox, photographer Mark Ruwedel says, “There are different ways I can define Los Angeles. There’s a city, there’s a county, there’s a culture.” This is an important distinction to make as the city of Los Angeles covers only 468 square miles while the county stretches over more than 4,000 square miles of urban, suburban, and rural parts of Southern California. I would only add that there are many cultures of Los Angeles, not one of which defines the region alone.
Anthony Hernandez’s Screened Pictures (2017–18) series may be familiar to those who have spent any amount of time at a Los Angeles bus stop. Street scenes are filtered through the black mesh walls surrounding bus benches in the city. The resulting images are diffused by Ben-Day dot–like circles: washed-out yellows and blues from a storefront or gas station, a luxury watch face from an ad with only the faintest outline of its branding, and a man slumped to his side with a bag of groceries. Beyond its grainy and impressionistic effect, the mesh filter also serves as a physical barrier, reinforcing how goods, spaces, and experiences may be accessible to some people and not others.
Lise Sarfati was interested in the “relationship of the character to the exterior world” in her Oh Man (2013) series, which focuses on pedestrians traversing a Downtown Los Angeles that is characterized by shuttered businesses, boarded windows, barbed wire fencing, and metal gates. In one image, a bearded man turns a corner as he’s surrounded by buildings with no doors or windows. A lone street sign casts a shadow against a brick wall with scuff marks and faded white paint. In other images, lone men walk through equally desolate parts of the city in broad daylight. These men, some of whom are of color or likely homeless, walk at their own leisure through environments that seem to rebuff and discourage their presence.
While the built environment may not always be conducive to community or cultural life, the issue features examples of people creating spaces of their own to accommodate their needs or aspirations. Artist Guadalupe Rosales curates and runs the Veteranas & Rucas and Map Pointz Instagram accounts, digital archives of 1990s Latinx youth culture and party crews. The images document the lives of young people in the face of police violence, anti-immigrant legislation, and other structural inequities that led them to form underground networks and forms of cultural expression. Some of the portraits are taken in the glamor-shots style of photo studios once commonly found in suburban malls. The wallet-sized photographs, often taken with hazy filters and ambient backdrops, date back to a time before social media was available for young people to shape their self-image.
In Janna Ireland’s series of historical buildings and domestic interiors, the architect Paul Revere Williams looms large as a major figure of Southern California architecture. Williams was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, and designed thousands of projects over his career, including private residential homes and post-war public housing projects. There Is Only One Paul R. Williams (2018–ongoing) attempts to document what remains of the architect’s works, many of which have either been demolished or renovated beyond recognition (most of Williams’s archive was also destroyed in a fire during the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion). Janna Ireland’s images speak to the late architect’s varied architectural styles, whether it’s the Mission Revival style doorway of a suburban home in La Cañada Flintridge or the Brutalist concrete grills of Franz Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The shadowy palm fronds pressed against a glass door in “View Park, Number 1” (2016) remind me of a chance encounter with one of Paul R. Williams’s buildings, or at least what’s left of it. While taking a hike through Malibu’s Solstice Canyon a few years ago, I encountered the ruins of a ranch house, called Tropical Terrace, that was designed by Williams for a grocery store entrepreneur. All that remains after a fire in 1982 is the building’s foundation, surrounded by sycamore and oak trees. I was reminded of the fiction of Los Angeles as edenic paradise colliding against reality, fantasies set aflame by disasters both natural and man-made.
Aperture magazine released its “Los Angeles” issue in September 2018. An exhibition of Guadalupe Rosales’s archival images, Legends Never Die, A Collective Memory, continues at Aperture Gallery (547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 20.