By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Rodriguez says that his inspiration for this project came in part from a 1950s Esquire photo essay on a Brooklyn youth gang by Bruce Davidson, with text by Norman Mailer. For his own text, Rodriguez made two smart choices. Poet-journalist (and former Weekly staffer) Ruben Martinez wrote the vivid introductory essay in which he retraces Rodriguez's photographic steps, interviewing many of the subjects with a novelist's instinct for the telling emotional detail, then effectively helping the reader place the images of gang life in the larger social context of the history of the Eastside. The book closes with an interview with renowned author and poet Luis J. Rodriguez. A former gang member, currently a gang worker and educator, Rodriguez is likely the most important and lyrical voice presently writing about la vida loca. His words bring the book to a strong interpretive close: "You see the face of God in all these children. That's what it's all about."
If there is any real shortcoming to Rodriguez's book, it's that one continually has the sense that we aren't seeing all of his photos. A string of nearly unreadable proof-size shots scattered through the book's introductory text reinforces this feeling. Another source of irritation is the fashion in which many of the photos in the book are ordered. Sometimes, a series seems designed with a narrative flow in mind; other times, the sequencing appears maddeningly arbitrary.
In the end, I suspect that the gang wars of Los Angeles still have not found their Robert Capa. But in Rodriguez they may have found another kind of worthy documentarian. In his introduction, Martinez writes that in looking at these photos, he felt he was "seeing the neighborhood through a mother's eyes. Joe Rodriguez's photographs tell me that these homeboys are our children: American children, living American lives, in an American city." This statement comes closest to expressing the value of East Side Stories. Taken individually, Rodriguez's photos are good, though not quite brilliant. Yet he has brought with his camera the caring eye of a parent. And when shooting a war fought almost entirely by children, perhaps that is the eye that's needed.
Celeste Fremon is the author of Father Greg and the Homeboys and the forthcoming Girlfriends, stories about the women of the Pico-Aliso housing projects.