The City of the Future’s Past

YESTERDAY, I spent much of the day in downtown Los Angeles discussing — or listening to discussions about — photography. Not just the tools, the mechanisms or the chemistry but the role of “see-er”.

In the morning, I interviewed a young photographer, whom I’ll discuss in detail in another post down the road. But for the purposes of this writing, I’ll mention just this: That he sees his work less about the process of making photographs and more of a movement — a way to use imagery to create connections, conversations as well as record the present in an unadulterated, un-manipulated and consequently in its flawed beauty.

Which dovetails nicely into how I spent the rest of the afternoon — at a talk dedicated to the photography of William Reagh — who documented Los Angeles in its 20th Century boom years — from the late 1930s almost until his death in 1992.

Reagh’s son, Patrick, has just printed (yes, printed — letterpress/hot-type and all) a new book, honoring his father’s visual meander through an ever-chaning Los Angeles. The book, A Long Walk Downtown: Photographs of Los Angeles & Southern California, which is published by The Book Club of California, documents each step of the erasure of a small-scale, people-friendly multiracial downtown and into the glass, steel and concrete City of the Future vision the city fathers of the past had for us for today.

At an event to launch the book at the Central Library downtown yesterday, Patrick Reagh and historian/bookseller, Michael Dawson contextualized Regah’s photographs — both of whom read bits and pieces from essays that they prepared for the book. Dawson’s essay meditated on a theme that I so often return to in my own writing — erasure — its long-term effects on not just the place but our psyche. Here in Los Angeles, the absence always feels so complete — so much of our history gone without the slightest trace — if not for someone as dedicated as Reagh, who struck out many weekends to document the slightest alteration — a razed building, an empty lot filling up with rebar and concrete, a train yard, the freeways begining to spider out beyond the city’s core.

Patrick Regah began with an observation: that the words “Los Angeles” and “idyllic” aren’t usually used in the same sentence, are even considered to be an oxymoron.  But, he says, his childhood was indeed that.  He then, began to evoke that vanished Los Angeles by playing to our other senses — first on his iPad keyboard he played the Good Humor Truck’s siren-song, a  jingle that unlocked a wave of laughter, then with a recorder-like whistle he recalled the Helm’s Bakery Truck’s signature trill. Each sound recalled a ritual a memory so vivid you could smell or touch it. It set a mood, opened a passageway for us to appreciate what would come next:  The photos;  each like a brick, a plank, a nail, reconstructing the city that lay beneath the city we inhabit now.

Reagh’s decades-long dedication to documenting a city — its “built history,” its human scale, its inhabitants — spread before us — feels much more like a seance than a collection of images.  You feel mid-step with him all the way: Walking through ornate hand painted or neon, Googie thresholds. Haunting the train yards at Terminal Island where the old railcars went to die. My favorite image of the afternoon was a Downtown “Prospector” — a bearded man, with a geiger counter and a baby bottle shoved into his pocket — seeking something we will never now quite know. But that photo made me stop to think that it is an apt metaphor for the city and its dwellers — a city full of seekers even still. So much of what we see in Reagh’s photographs hits on the same notion that the young photographer of the morning left me with — this idea that those of us who are bent in recording a story no matter the medium — visual, words, aural — those of us still bent to do it, to think it is still something important to consider — aren’t just idly marking time — but are attempting to mark it — truthfully and indelibly.

Image info: Top image via A Long Walk Downtown prospectus other images via luz de jesus gallery,the go-gos notebook. Bottom image of Patrick Reagh (behind podium) and William Reagh (on screen, lens pointing toward the audience.)


6 thoughts on “The City of the Future’s Past

  1. Thank you for attending our event and your kind and thoughtful remarks. A google-saavy friend sent the link to your blog. I scoured the Times the last few days hoping to find, at the very least, a passing reference to the event. Not very important in the overall scheme of things, I guess, especially on a day of the USC/Oregon game. O.k., I’ll admit to a slightly-bruised ego, but it was certainly compensation enough to be able to share the love and pride I have for my father.

    I don’t know if we were introduced to each other Saturday, but I already consider you a friend.


    Pat Reagh

    • First off, I want to thank you so much for all of the work you put into this project. I was quite moved by your talk on Saturday — the details of life with your family you shared, your father’s weekend rituals. Having grown up here, I know that so often what I remember about what the city was while I growing has become so vague that it might as well be vapor. Your father’s photographs are so critical in reanimating that past and reminding us who we were. He had such an incredible eye, a sense of place and deep, deep sense of purpose. We, as native Angelenos, are indebted to him for that. I can’t tell you how emotional it was for me to look at those early images of downtown that recalled a city that I wasn’t here for yet, but one my parents had talked about. I wanted to crawl into those frames and walk around a little, peek into those windows. So thank you for sharing something so personal with all of us. I wouldn’t have missed it. And believe me, if I was still full time on-staff at the paper this event and the book would have been on the top of my story list. You’ve truly honored him. And no, I didn’t get to meet you that day, (you had a throng of folks around you) but sincerely hope to.
      Many thanks again.

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