Six weeks after LAPD riot cops cut short the revolution and forcibly cleared Occupy L.A. from its home on the City Hall lawn, nostalgia for the movement's glory days has already begun to set in.
It is thick in the air at the Jan. 14 opening of “Just Occupy,” a new photo exhibit at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica. So many people show up that two lines form around the sides of the gallery, like a club on Sunset on a Friday night. Attendees peer anxiously over the heads of earlier arrivals, trying to get a peek through the glass doors and glaring at those cutters whose connections allow them to slip past the gatekeepers.
“They started lining up at 9 a.m.,” marvels gallery owner Robert Berman, overwhelmed in the best way.
Twenty-four hours before the opening, Shepard Fairey, the graphic designer behind the Obama “Hope” poster and one of the most famous street artists in the world, posted an announcement on his blog:
“The photographer Ted Soqui who shot the reference photo for the Occupy Protester poster and Time magazine cover will be having a show at Robert Berman along with Christopher Felver. I have a couple of pieces in the show and Sarah Mason the subject of the Time Protester cover will be in attendance. –Shepard”
It was the first time Fairey fully acknowledged the existence of Soqui, the L.A. Weekly photographer whose photo Fairey manipulated for the cover art of Time's recent “Person of the Year” issue.
And it was the first time he acknowledged Mason, the Occupy L.A. protester who became a modern-day Rosie the Riveter when, without warning, she found her own eyes staring back at her from the cover of Time, framed by a soft yellow beanie and a periwinkle bandanna.
Soqui, a veteran Los Angeles photojournalist hot on Occupy's trail, snapped a photo of Mason on Nov. 17 — just hours before she and her comrades in protest were arrested for refusing to leave the Bank of America plaza.
So when Fairey appropriated the striking portrait for Time, gallery owner Berman took notice. Mason, after all, has worked for his gallery for nearly a year. That aligned the stars for what would become Soqui's first gallery show.
Accordingly, the hot-ticket item of the night turns out to be one of 250 prints that Fairey made of his Time image. For $99 a pop (get it?), the posters sell as fast as buyers can squeeze into the gallery.
After weaseling past the glaring line with the V.I.P.s, this reporter notices a small huddle staring at her, whispering to each other. “Are you Sarah Mason?” one finally gets up the courage to ask. “We heard she was wearing fishnets.”
Mason is indeed wearing fishnet tights — and double-fisting a steady rotation of beer bottles for dear life. Her iconic hazel-green eyes turn deer-in-the-headlights as friends and strangers crowd around her, asking for an autograph or a photo of her in front of Soqui's famous portrait.
Though rumors fly that Fairey might make an appearance, he never shows, so the twenty-something Time cover girl becomes the reluctant star of the evening, blushing and shaking off praise with endearing resilience. This only makes her more wonderful to the crowd — L.A. people who can't understand why she wouldn't want to be famous.
In fact, when the Internet found out in mid-December that Fairey had relied so heavily upon Soqui's photo, and Mason's face, to create his “protester” image for Time, the Highland resident went into hiding. She has yet to give a single interview.
The Weekly has been prodding Mason to talk on the record for weeks. She's brilliant — every bit as humble and genuine as the eyes on the cover of Time. Though the leaderless Occupy movement doesn't take up spokespeople, and Occupy L.A. has even launched a resentful “We Are All Sarah Mason” campaign, she would make an amazing figurehead.
Yet after chatting, Mason always reverts from the articulate Joan of Arc to the nervous wreck, insisting on a promise that we won't print anything she says.
Berman and the other gallery employees are happy to fill in the blanks.
“She was our crazy little renegade occupier,” recalls Jon Cournoyer, a co-worker of Mason's. “She did not miss a night” of the months-long occupation, Berman adds.
The actual tent Mason slept in at the L.A. City Hall occupation is pitched outside the entrance to the gallery, like a celebrity artifact from MTV Cribs. An occupier named Alex mans the “people's printing press,” a re-creation of the station he set up at the City Hall encampment.
“You know the 99-percent bandana Sarah's wearing in the photo? I printed that,” Alex tells people in line.
Of the thousands of photos Soqui shot of Occupy L.A., the several dozen selected for tonight's exhibition are primarily of young folks like Mason, attractive and full of vitality. A flower child in a gas mask; five Gen-Y hippies balancing, barefoot, on a City Hall barricade; a college-age protester making things happen on his laptop, which is, ironically, stamped with Fairey's signature “Obey” sticker.
Soqui's Occupy is a strong, beautiful “cops versus kids” revolution — one we're instantly nostalgic for, although it hasn't even really ended.
The photographer's largest prints at the show start at $2,500, then go up about $1,000 every time another is sold. Basically, as the photo set shrinks, each print is rendered more exclusive — and therefore more valuable.
“A couple of my 1-percenter friends bought the big ones,” says Soqui, beaming with pride.