Laurie Brown, Periphery 37 — Irvine
Photographer unknown, Training Division — Felony Vehicle Stop (1964)
The first photographers to trudge across the Sierra Nevadas in the 19th century, their enormous cameras and developing equipment strapped to the backs of mules, must have seen California as a vast and unconquerable territory. Sponsored by the U.S. government and railroad companies to document the rolling progress of our manifest destiny, they came as explorers, and the images they produced — broad, sweeping views of mountain peaks, canyons and forests — were fittingly monumental.
Now that California has been thoroughly mapped, bound by the bureaucracy of U.S. statehood and endowed with a significant fraction of the country‘s population, it’s impossible to see the place as so singularly magnificent. Today it‘s a conglomeration of diverse territories — the gentle hills of Napa Valley in the north, the fertile crescent of Central California, the hazy sprawl of Los Angeles County and the sandy stretches of the Mojave, to name a few. And, of course, these territories themselves break down into countless subdivisions of ethnicity and culture, of which Los Angeles alone contains hundreds.
It’s on this level of specificity that three photographers currently featured at the Laguna Art Museum approach the contemporary landscape. Each of their solo exhibitions explores one particular pocket of Californian space: For Warren Neidich, it is the scaffolded encampments of reporters outside the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson; for Laurie Brown, the plowed land of emerging Orange County housing developments; and for Anthony Hernandez, the interiors of abandoned Oakland buildings. If the 19th-century photographers strove to express the endlessness of Western space, these images portray space that‘s been chopped into pieces and sold to the highest bidder. Here, space is a relative quantity, defined not by natural elements — the breadth of canyon walls, the height of a redwood or the angle of a rocky slope — but rather by the forces of capitalist development. Hills are shaped by surveyors’ calculations and bulldozers; the sky is limited to the square openings between the levels of a parking garage; city streets are converted to television nonspace for the sake of a lucrative court trial.
The strength of all three exhibitions is their tight focus; each covers a distinct area without the clutter of extraneous allusions or superlatives. Their tone and resonance vary considerably, however. Neidich‘s ”Camp O.J. Installation“ is, not surprisingly, the most garish: The walls of the lower gallery in which it’s installed are painted with thick black-and-white stripes; the images are shot with a fisheye lens and rendered in loud, flat colors. Ultimately, it‘s too much. The visual gimmicks and excessive textual explanation — which is especially unnecessary considering the universal notoriety of the subject matter — express a contagious mistrust in the power of the images themselves. There are a number of interesting shots, most involving primped anchorpeople suspended like china dolls in gritty tangles of scaffolding, cords, TV monitors and other equipment. But the premise behind them feels outdated, since the questions Neidich raises — Where is the line between news and entertainment? What are the responsibilities of the press? Where is the saturation point? — have been churning through the media for six years now. There’s just not much more to be said.
Laurie Brown‘s panoramic black-and-white landscape photographs could not be more different in tone. Quiet, stark and aesthetically refined, they clearly emerge from a formalistic rather than a sociological fascination with her subject, the topography of suburban development. Piles of plowed earth and ribbons of uncompleted road come across as elegant natural formations; blocks of cookie-cutter houses stand in a state of perfect geometry, often giving way abruptly to seemingly endless stretches of empty land. The vastness that these images describe is a strange incarnation of the vastness originally envisioned by the 19th-century explorers: Here it’s not a statement of actual possibility, meant to lure entrepreneurial spirits, but an illusion meant to perpetuate a sense of all-American freedom within the bounds of a consumerist lifestyle. Brown‘s own political opinions about development are unclear, which is I suspect intentional, but does give the images a frustrating sense of inconclusiveness — and the exhibition as a whole is murkier for it.
In ”Pictures for Oakland“ — the most precise and ultimately powerful of the three shows — Anthony Hernandez explores the world on the far side of capitalist development, in buildings that are slated for demolition — or, as Philip Sherburne writes in the exhibition brochure, in ”places that are slowly becoming nonplaces.“ These include a closed Army base, a residential hotel, a bank and several office buildings. The photographs are big (40 by 40 inches), simple and hauntingly beautiful. A rich silence, heavy with secrets and untold stories, hangs in the air of each doomed space, and the banal residue of everyday life seems to cling to the blank walls like mold. Hernandez frames these rooms with such sensitivity that the spaces themselves come across as living things, active and emotive. If Neidich’s and Brown‘s photographs, like the old Western landscapes, depict promise and newness, Hernandez’s images mark the end of the line — the last few moments before these particular walls are replaced with nothingness and a new space takes shape.
When it comes to the gritty landscape of Los Angeles, there could be few more intimate portraits than those contained in the photo archives of the L.A. Police Department. A sampling from the 1920s through the 1960s, currently on view in a small but wonderfully composed exhibition at Fototeka in Echo Park, offers a remarkable tour through the shadiest reaches of the city: through police headquarters, forensic labs, morgues, and ordinary places that look like movie sets, twisted by violence and poisoned by the presence of death.
It is not a journey for the faint of heart. Though many of the images are exquisitely beautiful, even poetic, the bodies they depict were real bodies. One of the most unsettling, simply titled ”Mob Hit“ (1933), features two men riddled with bullets and slumped over a half-eaten dinner in a restaurant booth. Strangely, the most disturbing thing about this picture is the presence of the food — disheveled plates of spaghetti, half-empty water glasses, dinner rolls and a long basket of butter pats, bloodied but untouched.
Not all of the photographs are so graphic. A number are creepy just for the insinuations they make: a hammer that‘s been broken off its handle, a row of bent and twisted bullets, skid marks, a blown-up safe, a note that reads ”stick up don’t move smile.“ Several have particular historical significance: One marks the discovery of the body of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia; another is the first image taken of Charles Manson in custody. There are images of the Black Panther headquarters and the Watts riots. A ledger propped up on a desk at Fototeka marks the discovery of Marilyn Monroe‘s death, listed on an ordinary page alongside half a dozen others.
A number of the photographs relating to more general aspects of police history — the first African-American officer killed in the line of duty; the first officer’s uniform; ”motorcycle officers lined up for donuts“ — are clearly intended to remind the viewer that the exhibition is a record not of Hollywood sensationalism but of real men and women engaged in dangerous but important work. Considering the present-day troubles of the LAPD, the reminder is fair without being propagandistic. If the show is a bit nostalgic on the whole — a selection of present-day images would certainly have a very different effect — the history it tells is central to the life of the city, and all the more fascinating for it.