The Photographer’s Eye: Kevin McCollister at Los Angeles Public Library

To call Los Angeles inscrutable is too easy.

There is the surface L.A. that people know — or think they know. But anyone who has spent time outside of the textbook locations, those rote go-to stops on a fraying tourist map,  knows a much more tangible and translatable place exists.

Finally seeing that Los Angeles what first pulled me into Kevin McCollister’s photographs. On his blog “East of West L.A,” he featured a Los Angeles that was familiar to me, but pitched at a slightly different angle. As my friend Al said to me after cycling through a series of the images one afternoon — “It’s like it’s one’s own personal L.A.” Yes, exactly, and you wonder, how did he get into your head.

I wrote about McCollister for Boom magazine a few years back and KCET re-published the piece on their Artbound bog. Early this week, he was featured at the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Friends’ lecture series “The Photographer’s Eye.” He spent the lunch hour giving us a sense of what it was like to wander the out-of-the-main-gaze places.

As most long-time Angelenoes know, those who travel deep into the city’s contours, that the easy stereotypes about L.A. don’t work for many spots within the basin: “There’s a certain Southernness, a Gothic-ness to parts of L.A.,” McCollister remarked.  You see it in the scale of some of the older buildings, the feeling of the yards around the homes that grow up around them. And not only does he see the traces of the south, but his images also reveal shadows of the midwest — he propped up a photo of one of the bridge spans that link downtown to East L.A. and announced: “That’s Cleveland.”

He spoke about the various projects that have been occupying him of late: First, a month-long series on storefront churches in Central and South Los Angeles (which he officially finished up a few months back — but still seem to be calling him back); the other, his latest exploration is something he’s titled “The Bibles of Los Angeles” — which has put him in conversation with various itinerant preachers inhabiting public spaces around the city. He shared an anecdote about one man who insisted that in exchange for the photo op, that he’d be allowed to to pray over him — protect. And McCollister, without a beat, conceded. “It seemed only fair,” he explained.

These sorts of interactions aren’t unusual for McCollister who has made real connections with his subjects over the years as he’s been out in the streets collecting portraits and moments. As a conservation starter, he carries smokes and easy-to-access change in his pockets. He’s frequently lugging bottled water and clean socks as a humble gift to those he encounters, whether he makes a portrait or not. He remains connected to subjects he’s met months and years ago. It’s unsettling when they are still there but maybe even more so when they are not. As he spoke I realized that that is what makes those photos that look so personal — so private — is that he has made a connection and what’s revealed is not the city-hardened gaze but a softness, a vulnerability, a sadness, or joy,  revealed in a real moment, but all too often vanishes in a blink.

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top image: “Walking East L.A.” by Kevin McCollister
bottom: Kevin McCollister via nativetotheplace

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