L.A. artists have long been fascinated with the city's iconic boulevards and colossal freeways. Ed Ruscha's 1966 book of photos, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” documented just that. Catherine Opie's mid-90s photo series “Freeways” commented on how the massive concrete structures divide communities and separate cities from suburbs. L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has an entire column dedicated to exploring constantly-evolving boulevards like Crenshaw, which he says is still seen as the final dividing line between the poorer parts of South Los Angeles and the wealthier Westside.
In a 1998 episode of This American Life, former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold mapped Pico Boulevard by visiting all of the places where he used to eat when he lived there in the 1980s – including Mr. Coleslaw Burger, which was long gone. He later wrote about the experience for the Weekly: “Precisely because Pico is so unremarked, because it is left alone like old lawn furniture moldering away in the side yard of a suburban house, it is at the center of entry-level capitalism in central Los Angeles, and one of the most vital food streets in the world.” In the This American Life episode, he admits becoming obsessed with the idea of Pico Boulevard. “Almost every ethnic group that exists in Los Angeles, you can find on Pico,” he says. “There's specific blocks that are Guatemalan and Nicaraguan blocks and Salvadoran blocks. There are parts of Pico where you can drive for probably a mile without seeing a sign that isn't in Korean.”
The latest love letter to Pico Boulevard comes from 69-year-old artist John Humble, who's lived and photographed Los Angeles since the early 1970s. His current exhibition, which runs through Saturday at Craig Krull Gallery in Bergamot Station and is simply titled “Pico Boulevard,” explores the nearly 16-mile stretch from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica to Central Avenue in downtown's fashion district. ]
While Pico Boulevard serves as the backdrop for Humble's most recent exhibition, the city as subject matter is hardly new territory for the artist who was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 to create a documentary survey of Los Angeles. Ever since then, he's continued his mission of “trying to pinpoint what it is about Los Angeles that makes Los Angeles unique,” through photography studies of the L.A. River, Venice Beach, the I-105 Freeway interchange, and countless gas stations, billboards and truck stops around Wilmington and East L.A.
His photographs capture sprawling, unremarkable landscapes that he says reflect industrialization and mass-migration. “Oil barracks in the front yard, or an apartment right next to a factory,” he says of his subject matter. “It's exciting. It's weird. But when I turn onto the street, it's like already my adrenaline starts to pump. First you put the camera up and then you wait for the serendipity.”
Growing up, Humble's father was in the army and his family moved across America frequently. He had been enrolled in six elementary schools and started high school in Panama before finishing it in suburban Highland Park, Illinois and making a beeline for San Francisco Art Institute soon after.
For two decades after moving to L.A., Humble was a “freeway flyer,” a name given to the part-time instructors who commuted all over Southern California to teach at different colleges and universities during that time. He was eventually hired full time at Fullerton College, where he taught until retirement in 2006. The following year, he scored a solo show at the Getty, where he exhibited photos of his longtime muse: Los Angeles.
Like many Angelenos, Humble's method of experiencing – and subsequently, photographing – the city is through his car window. In the 1970s, Humble traveled the city in his Volkswagen van, parking his car when he saw something he wanted to photograph and using the van's roof as a tripod for his camera. He captured images this way not just in Los Angeles, but also in in Africa and Asia, where he lived in his van for a year and a half while photographing the landscapes. He's since traded in his VW van for a more sensible Ford Explorer and he's given up his 35 mm camera for a digital version, but the subject matter of his photos has remained largely consistent throughout the years.
Over the last year, Humble turned his lens to Pico Boulevard's pockets of ethnic neighborhoods. “Pico starts near two luxury hotels in Santa Monica. Once you pass Fox studios, there's a golf course, and a Jewish district, a Russian district, then Koreatown and Latino districts,” he says. “Then you practically pass through L.A. Live and you end up in the garment districts and then the Coca Cola bottling plant. It seemed to me to be an opportunity to take everything that I feel about L.A. and condense it into one street.”
Along the way, his camera captured a fire hydrant erupting in a vacant parking lot, a street-side memorial for a motorcyclist killed outside a car wash, a sign for a lost bird just underneath a freeway overpass near downtown, and a 12-foot-tall tropical bird painted on the side of Guatemalteca Market.
“Since I'm an artist and I'm not getting paid for this, I do it when I want,” says Humble, a retired instructor who keeps a photography studio in Santa Monica. He still strolls Venice Beach three times a week to shoot photos, including a new series documenting hand-made signs that say 'no photos.' “At this point in my life, I just have to go with what I see,” he says. “I just look out the window. It's a visceral kind of way of looking at things.”
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