hearing/seeing the familiar

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I WANTED to add a couple of images to the Little Tokyo set just so that I could link to the walking public art tour. These images are from 2nd Street and Central Avenue, just up the street from the Japanese American National Museum. But what I always try to make time for is a chance to “read” the sidewalk, the chronology of nesting history of this place. The hotel shot from Sunday gives you a sense of the motion and feel of the street, the sidewalk, tells the history.

Click here and you’ll find a Community Redevelopment Agency with a walking tour outlining Little Tokyo’s layered history, told elegantly through various media — sculpture, in-laid photo-collage, etched into the sidewalk quotes and map-style legends..

Was nice to have a brief little window of time to walk back through it. I wish there were more spots in Los Angeles where the streets themselves were still able to tell their stories, if only small pieces of it.

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familiar

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.)

Wandering Crenshaw

FOR A NATIVE, who rode or drove this stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard via car for years, it’s odd looking at Crenshaw from the perspective of the center of the road. But I’m here for a purpose, to finally take a look at what everyone said would never happen — The Expo/Crenshaw platform — and see close-up the station art which features the work of the late artist Willie Middlebrook.

Middlebrook, an L.A-based photographer/multimedia artist who passed away earlier this year at 54, wasn’t able attend the official unveiling of these deeply complex yet etherial mosaics that overlook the Crenshaw District. He died a week after the Expo Line opened, just after putting the finishing touches on what turned out to be a final piece, one in response to the Trayvon Martin’s murder in Florida, for a solo show in at Avenue 50 Studio Highland Park. The cause, said family members, was complications of a stroke.

I’d been wanting to make this trek to see these pieces for a few months now. Middlebrook was someone I’d known and would see periodically around town; he was someone who was deeply involved in community art and art programs — teaching, creating, conversing, creating. His knowledge of the city, it’s stories — past and present — are part of these 24 panels that “float” above the platform.

Each stop along the Expo Line features a different artist, each of whom use these panels to tell a visual story about the neighborhood that surrounds it. Middlebrook’s piece, “Wanderers” is a nod to the multiracial history of the Crenshaw strip where African Americans and Japanese Americans in particular have coexisted along the boulevard and in the streets and avenues stemming out from it for more than half a century. As well as making intercultural connection, the work also connects humanity to the earth — the universe — articulating the continuum.

And while, he’s left bits and pieces of himself within some of the panels — his eye, his nose, his mouth, — what I realized after spending some time looking out on the busy road moving north that you end up feeling that Willie didn’t miss anything at all, he’s right there with you.

“My goal is to make art that speaks to us about how we relate to each other, life, love and our relationship to the environment.”

— Willie Middlebrook