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LA People 2009: L.A.’s Chronicler — Gary Leonard

Gary Leonard
Kevin Scanlon

On a gray March morning, photographer Gary Leonard stands in the center of his gallery, a small room dimmed by overcast skies, sunlight feathering through the gaps between high-rises on Broadway Avenue. Leonard has a cold, but he’s agreed to meet with us, anyway, at his new gallery, Take My Picture, named after his recently retired CityBeat column. Later on, Leonard will sit behind a table laid with a collection of his black-and-white photographs, smiling only when asked, while the L.A. Weekly takes his portrait.

Leonard has become accustomed to working outside of his comfort zone. Having paid his bills for the past 40 years shooting for the city’s alternative weeklies, he now counts on selling photographs from a retail gallery in downtown L.A. On the left side of the gallery, a mosaic made up of a few hundred of Leonard’s signature 5x7 black-and-white prints hangs delicately, like natural history preserved on white walls. The city is here: parades and rock concerts, mayors and artists, funerals and births; you can pick out an Andy Warhol portrait, Jack Benny’s funeral, George Bush shaking Dick Riordan’s hand in South Central, the famous image of a SWAT team lined up in front of the Ramones’ concert at the Palladium back in 1986.

On the gallery’s other side hang large, poster-size color photographs of Disney Hall and the new downtown skyline, a testament to the evolution of photography over the course of Leonard’s career. The grand prints are proof of changing demands, of bigger and brighter and faster, over what Leonard prefers: “a photograph you can keep in your dresser drawer.” It is a striking dichotomy: the volume and energy of Leonard’s previous work, the fierce, curt snapshots of L.A. faces and festivals that once ran in L.A. Weekly, the L.A. Reader and CityBeat, hanging face to face with the pointed, pleasing potraits of new L.A. buildings — the kind of pictures that sell.

“With 40 years of photographing L.A., the work that we did in black and white becomes all the more precious,” Leonard says.

From the storefront, it is impossible to imagine the volume of L.A. history that lies inside. The self-declarative sign, a bold order in the midst of this otherwise unassuming stretch of Broadway near 9th Street downtown, sandwiched between a MetroPCS shop and a convenience store with a neon, telephone-shaped sign in the window that reads: Cambios. Occasionally, Leonard admits, passersby will stop in to ask if he takes headshots or passport photos. He does. If it weren’t for them, he wouldn’t make rent.

Raised in the Valley, Leonard has lived in Echo Park since 1979 and boasts a deep affection for Los Angeles. He spent much of the ’70s and ’80s in clubs, photographing punk-rock shows and parties but turned his lens to the streets when he started to lose the feeling that he was specifically in Los Angeles. “I started living in the daytime,” he says. While Leonard’s lens lives for the pedestrian, some photos offer a peek into his private life, the rituals, celebrations and traditions that unite us. In one photograph, a pair of large hands balances a newborn boy. The baby is Leonard’s son on the day of his birth, and the hands belong to Leonard’s father, an OB/GYN. A man, in other words, who counted on his hands and had a keen understanding of the human condition. “You draw inspiration, not from doing exactly what you do,” says Leonard. “I know those hands, I learned from watching his surgeries.”

Tonight, Leonard’s been asked to photograph Adolfo Guzman Lopez’s 40th birthday party. “Everything is personal,” he says. “This is not a job.”

While his world shifts around him, Leonard is somehow exhilarated by the challenges of the recession, grateful at least to be behind the lens.

“We’re in the middle of a big correction,” Leonard says. “We’re gonna come back and they’re gonna say this was a turning point. It’s great to know you’re in something and see yourself defined and redefined.”


Click here for a complete list of L.A. People 2009.


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