LOS ANGELES — Despite its reputation as a gridlocked metropolis, Los Angeles has been steadily expanding its subway system for years. For the past three decades, photographer Ken Karagozian has spent his days in the tunnels, documenting construction. Now, you can see Karagozian’s breathtaking snapshots of infrastructure coming to life in Deep Connections, on view in Downtown’s historic transportation hub, Union Station.
Inspired by landscape photographer Ansel Adams, Karagozian mostly shoots on black-and-white film. It blurs the extensive timeline covered by his photos, turning our attention away from period clothing or outdated technology and onto the spectacle itself, the contrast of dazzling white pipes cutting across freckled gray terrain, or towering steel machines shrinking the construction workers that stand beside them.
In the early ’90s, a young and curious Karagozian spotted men digging 75 feet under a former Hollywood car wash, and wrote a letter to the LA County Metropolitan Transit Authority asking if he could get permission to photograph it. “A year later after I wrote the letter, I did hear from the arts department, and they said you could come for a day. That one day turned into a 30-year project,” Karagozian said in an interview with Hyperallergic.
Karagozian has shadowed engineers as they drill into the dirt with behemoth tunnel boring machines and reinforce fragile tunnels with concrete. He’s ridden on the rickety “locis,” or train cars, on temporary rails, like a hero escaping danger in an action movie. Photographing in the underground is also quite dangerous. Surrounded by methane gas, a digital camera with a lithium ion battery could explode at any second. Large cranes could crush him. He could lose his footing on the narrow rebar, which he balances on like a tightrope.
“I loved being down there because the conditions were always changing, they were finding fossils down there, and I just kept thinking I’m in a world where nobody else has been,” Karagozian said.
Karagozian has also made lifelong friends with the workers he’s met over the years, and has even taken portraits of families who passed their trade down from one generation to another. “In ’97 I had some of my work in Life magazine, and there were two brothers working on the project. One is still working on the Purple Line, and now his son [is] working at Metro.”
Deep Connections by Ken Karagozian is on view at the Passageway Art Gallery at Union Station (800 North Alameda St, Downtown, Los Angeles). You can check out the Metro Art catalogue for the exhibition here.