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Los Angeles Celebrates Photographer Gary Leonard's 60th Birthday 

Thursday, May 5 2011
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When asked to identify himself at photographer Gary Leonard's 60th-birthday-party photo sale two weeks ago, a tall man with a large camera hanging from his neck refers to himself as "the other Gary Leonard." He is Gary McCarthy, a photographer for The Los Angeles Independent, an occasional stand-in for Leonard at events "when he can't be three places at once."

McCarthy has come to this party with a gift for his doppelgänger, a 40x60 poster, which is unrolled by Leonard and his young daughter, Xiu Ling. Leonard breaks into a shy smile and holds the banner up for all the cameras to see a portrait of him accompanied by his motto, adjusted for the occasion, "Take my picture old man. Happy 60th!"

A few months ago, Leonard and his son David tossed around the idea of hosting this birthday party sale at Leonard's gallery at 9th and Broadway downtown. "I wasn't really serious," Leonard says. His son was.

"Selling out at 60" was good motivation for L.A.'s chronicler to dig through his archives and pull out some of his classic prints.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GARY LEONARD - O.J. Simpson with his arm around Nicole Brown in 1980
  • PHOTO BY GARY LEONARD
  • O.J. Simpson with his arm around Nicole Brown in 1980

Included in the sale are neon T-shirts screen-printed with Leonard's portrait of Andy Warhol, images of Encino in the 1950s and a shot of Walt Disney Concert Hall's groundbreaking in 1992.

The gallery is packed soon after the doors open, and it remains that way all evening as people sift through boxes of a black-and-white biography of their city — its accidents and intents, landmark events and quiet moments — all seen through the lens of a man who started photographing the city 40 years ago.

Taped to a wall are some of his most popular images: O.J. Simpson with his arm around Nicole Brown in 1980, a white flower tucked behind her ear; Warhol at the Village Theater in Westwood in the fall of 1972; a prepubescent, shirtless boy with a cigarette between his lips at Zero Zero on Cahuenga in the early '80s. "Glendale Harley Davidson 11.8.98" is scrawled in black pen across the bottom of an image of three 20-somethings in Budweiser bikini tops and jean shorts. Those women likely aren't here tonight, and they've probably never seen this gallery, but their image remains on Leonard's Los Angeles timeline.

Those who thought his 60th birthday party meant a chance to see Leonard rest his camera and enjoy the company of friends without the responsibility of documenting the event don't know him. Leonard runs the show with his two children, taking cash, snapping photos and posing for them, as a steady current of admirers and friends passes through. Here tonight are the people of his pictures, men and women who have tossed their hair in mosh pits, politicians, neighbors, business owners, writers who have worked beside him, photographers with whom he shares the cityscape.

Photographer Kevin Scanlon stops by to pick up a few prints, including a double image of Warhol and a close-up of the 10 freeway after the 1994 earthquake, a cross-section of concrete exposing dozens of layers, like rings of a redwood.

Writer Jason S. Mandel used to work at the Downtown News with Leonard, who often shot for his stories.

"Asking Gary to do something simple isn't easy," Mandel says. "You call him up, and he talks to you for 30 minutes on the phone and then ends up taking 100 photos. Of a building."

Another L.A. photographer, Adam Taylor, met Leonard by mistake. During his college years, Taylor attended a book signing at Vroman's in Pasadena, thinking Leonard was renowned New York photographer Garry Winogrand. Taylor was familiar with Leonard's work and didn't regret the mix-up.

Some visitors tonight have come to reclaim parts of their past, to take home a keepsake of the city that has changed much over the past few decades. Many of the figures in Leonard's photos are anonymous, but the settings — parks, concert halls, coffee shops, streets — summon nostalgia.

Richard Gorman, a financial planner born in Silver Lake, waits in line to buy a snapshot of City Hall. His mother worked there 60 years ago, back when it was the tallest building downtown.

Jane Elfman also waits, grasping a photograph of a war memorial on the beach in Santa Monica in 2004. A flag-draped coffin sits in the foreground, backed by the gray ghost of the sea. Elfman was at the first meeting of the Topanga Peace Alliance back in 2002 and recalls a soldier rising to say, "Something must be done."

By the end of the evening, Leonard will have sold hundreds of photos, and posed for perhaps as many. His subjects will return to their neighborhoods and offices, resume births and deaths, weddings and funerals, arrivals and departures. Not all of these Los Angeles moments will be captured, but some will make it into Leonard's net, 5x7 timepieces of temporal rituals and concerns.

Reach the writer at ewrightson@laweekly.com

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