Gil Garcetti steps up to the podium before a crowd of about 50 at the 2014 L.A. Art Show and opens with a self-deprecating quip. “I don't know if any of you remember me as district attorney, but I wasn't dressed like this, was I?” he says, gesturing to his untucked, white button-down and jaunty scarf.
Garcetti chuckles. His audience laughs, too. Whatever Angelenos thought of him as DA, they love him as a photographer.In a talk introducing his L.A. Art Show exhibit, “Paris: Women & Bicycles,” earlier this month at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Garcetti makes no bones about his mixed political legacy, which included O.J. Simpson's acquittal on murder charges and ended when he lost his bid for a third term to Steve Cooley in 2000.
“When the voters said, 'Why don't you go and find something else to do?' You have no choice,” Garcetti says. “But good things happened for me. I was introduced to the art world and my life completely changed.”
Since leaving office, Garcetti, 72, has settled comfortably into a second career as a photographer, hopping from West Africa to France to Japan to document urban culture and social issues in a series of well-received books.
As the father of L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, he also has inhabited the role of First Dad for the past seven months – a designation that, in a rare moment alone in his exhibit space, he calls “pretty neat.”
The former DA first dabbled in photography as a teenager. His father, a barber, kept his own darkroom, Garcetti recalls. One day, father gave son an Argus C3. Young Gil would tote the clunky camera around town, taking pictures of local people and architecture.
What was at first a casual hobby became a more serious pursuit after his daughter was born in 1969. Garcetti learned of a highly regarded photography teacher at Reseda High School, Warren King, who taught a night-school class for adults. Garcetti took lessons from him for more than four years. “I found out that I was, I thought, reasonably good at this,” he says.
Early on, Garcetti developed a penchant for candid portraits – a habit he nurtured throughout his law career. “Even when I became DA, I always had a camera with me,” he recalls. “Sometimes I would just pull it out, and I'd be sitting here talking to you, and I'd take a picture.”
Did his subjects know they were being photographed? “Usually,” he says, eyes crinkling. “But not always.”
After Garcetti left office, he spent months observing the ironworkers constructing Walt Disney Concert Hall. He had been giving his prints as gifts until one of the workers implored him to publish a book. But he didn't want to publish his work unless he knew it was good: “I didn't want them to be embarrassed if an art critic looks at it and says, 'Oh, come on, give me a break. But for the fact that he was the DA there wouldn't have been any exhibition or book.'?”
Garcetti needn't have worried. Positive reviews rolled in for his debut 2002 tome, Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and photos from the series were exhibited at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. He donated proceeds from the book to an ironworkers' scholarship fund.
Garcetti – whose wife, Sukey Roth, is the daughter of Louis Roth & Co. clothing magnate Harry Roth – says he landed lucrative offers to go into private practice with L.A. law firms, but he turned them down. “I'd spent 32 years in the DA's office,” he explains. “I figured I have almost 30 years [left], maybe more. Why not try something completely different?”
He still stumps for social causes with his art. Paris: Women & Bicycles, a 2010 book that began serendipitously on a vacation, has been a platform for Garcetti to push for bike-share programs in L.A. County. In partnership with the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, he has given dozens of lectures on the practicality – and beauty – of biking.
“I hope my photographs raise the question: What are these women doing? The answer is, they're doing everything we do in cars,” he says. The photos show women pedaling to the market, commuting to work and chauffeuring their children. There are no sneakers or yoga pants in sight – his subjects wear stockings, flashy heels, fur coats, miniskirts.
For the L.A. Art Show exhibit, he and curator Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, had a bicycle shipped in from Paris' bike-share program. A pot of flowers and a baguette sat in the front basket as curious visitors peered at the display.
Garcetti's next book, due out in April, explores the importance of beauty in Japanese culture. He also is working on a project spotlighting men 80 and over who exude satisfaction with their lives.
The former DA might have a special fascination with longevity. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 39 and told his chances of surviving hovered near 60 percent. While waiting for X-rays at Kaiser one day, he met a man in impressive shape at 88, who had been told four decades before that he had less than a year to live. “I told him, 'I know who sent you, and you're an inspiration,'?” Garcetti recalls.
Garcetti underwent chemo, radiation and surgery and cleared the cancer within a year. These days, he exercises regularly – on his bicycle, of course – and takes nothing for granted. “If you're willing to push yourself a little bit,” he now believes, “you're going to get more out of life.”
In his French-themed exhibit space, Garcetti himself looks the part of a Parisian expat, with a tangerine-striped scarf draped around his collar. People approach him constantly to praise his photos.
“I love your work – thank you, Mr. Garcetti,” one exhibit hall worker says. “I love what you're promoting. We'll all be healthier.”
“Darn right,” Garcetti replies.
During an afternoon book-signing, visitors suggest future photo projects to Garcetti or share their own stories of getting back on a bike. He's game when guests want to take their picture with him, even offering aesthetic advice (“Take one vertically!”). Some people recognize him from his time in office and marvel at his reincarnation as an artist. Others are surprised to learn of his prominent family tree. One man praises Garcetti's exhibit effusively, walks away, and later rushes back to ask, “Are you Eric's dad?” When Garcetti confirms, the man pumps his hand and squeals, “No shit!”
Angelenos still aren't sure what to make of his career switch, Garcetti says. He is often asked, “This is really your work?”
“Part of it is, they have this image of me in a coat and tie at a press conference, talking about the latest crime statistics, and now this has nothing to do with any of that,” he says.
Garcetti is fond of pointing out that his son was a published photographer before he was. The family traveled to Rwanda when Eric was young to go gorilla trekking. A Travel & Leisure writer in their group contacted the elder Garcetti after the trip, asking to use a few of his photographs. He sent a few of his son's, too. They ended up publishing one of Eric's.
“I was the elected official first, but his footprint is going to be substantially larger – and it's great,” Gil Garcetti says. “He has a lot going for him.”
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on