Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.
—Raymond Chandler, The High Window
It is the sort of passage you can only marvel at — the sort you transcribe simply for the pleasure of transcribing, to feel the sensation of the language through your own suddenly humbled hand. Lots of people have written about Los Angeles, but none quite as sharply, richly, deliciously or bitterly as Raymond Chandler at his best. Novelist and recent Chandler biographer Judith Freeman is convinced it stems from the fact that he saw the city from no less than three dozen different vantage points, having moved 36 times in the 46 years he spent in Southern California.
“Each writer has a different sort of connection to L.A.,” says Freeman. “With Nathanael West you really think of Hollywood, with John Fante you think of downtown. But the thing about Chandler is you think of everywhere — he covered the whole city, and sometimes in one book. The Lady in the Lake goes from Santa Monica all the way through Hollywood and downtown L.A. to Riverside and San Bernardino and Big Bear. It goes from the mountains to the ocean, and that’s essentially where Chandler lived — all of those places.”
Both Freeman and her husband, the photographer Anthony Hernandez, have just published L.A. books: both historical, both with maps, both, as she puts it, “with dots” — that is, addresses, street corners, specific pinpoints of placeness buried in the city’s all-too-anonymous landscape, in and between which stories once unfolded. Whether as banal as that of a young woman waiting for the bus with her purse on her lap (200 West Pico Boulevard, in Hernandez’s book) or as romantic as a young accountant falling in love with a dashing redhead 18 years his senior and married (613 South Bonnie Brae, in Freeman’s), these stories layer colorful tapestries over an ever-changing topography.
Freeman’s book is The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved — actually less a biography than a personal investigation into the life of a literary hero, charting his accomplishments, his foibles (of which there were many) and his passion for said redhead (Cissy Chandler, née Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt, his wife of 30 years) across a map of the couple’s many addresses. Hernandez’s book is Waiting, Sitting, Fishing and Some Automobiles, a handsomely bound coffee-table compendium of the artist’s street photographs from 1979 to 1982, which involves four individual series: pictures taken at bus stops (hence, “Waiting”), in public spaces (“Sitting”), around local bodies of water (“Fishing”) and outside mechanic shops (“Some Automobiles”).
The timing of the two publications wasn’t intentional. It doesn’t take long, however, in talking with the couple, whom I visited in their small but very refined MacArthur Park–area apartment, to see that their thoughts on the subject have been closely interwoven for years.
Hernandez, a native Angeleno who describes himself as very much a street photographer, has spent most of his career mining the city for material. “I think of L.A. as my big studio,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and I go off to this little corner, then I come back and then go to another section of the studio, so to speak.”
Neither his process nor his approach has changed much since he switched from a 35 mm camera to a 5 x 7 in the late 1970s and took the pictures that are included in the book: He gets up, leaves his apartment, drives, if necessary, to the neighborhood he’s interested in, gets out and walks — and walks, and walks. Lately, he’s been exploring South-Central, photographing the landscape as seen from various homeless encampments (say, from a bed fashioned beneath a bridge, looking up).
“I photograph places where most people don’t want to go,” he says, “but I think the reason they don’t want to go there is — well, you have to be a little careful, for one thing. But the other thing is they don’t think there’s very much there. But there really is a lot there, you just have to show up every day and find out what it is that you’re interested in, and that takes a lot of time. You just go back and forth again and again, covering the same area, and then things begin to happen. It’s almost like you’re peeling off layers. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years, photographing in South-Central.”