Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Evolution of L.A.

There are two men that have chronicled Los Angeles' recent past; one with words and one with photographs. The first, Julius Shulman, established architectural photography as an art form and captured the evolution of L.A.'s landscape on film.  The other man, Jack Smith, was a renowned columnist for the L.A. Times for 37 years until 1995.

If you happen to be unfamiliar with Shulman's work, there is no shortage of exhibits now that the Getty has acquired his archives.  The Desert Museum is currently showing his Palm Springs work through May 4, 2008, publisher Taschen recently released three volumes of his photography called "Modernism Rediscovered", and at age 97 he is still making many personal appearances around Los Angeles speaking about his work and signing books.

I was unfamiliar with the other man, Jack Smith, until a recent visit to view an exhibit at the Huntington Library.  I haven't been in L.A. long enough to have been a reader of his column, but I could instantly relate to his vivid descriptions and humor relating to this city that I know and love. The following words are those of Jack Smith from a note card that he kept on file:

"One reason L.A. is so hard to get down on paper and hard to photograph is that it has no easy recognizable look; no ancient squares, no medieval alleys, no rows of brownstone houses. LA has been created on a spacious coastal plain by a westering people who were bound by no traditions, cowed by no academy of peers or elders, suppressed by entrenched elite. They were restless, uninhibited, playful, and sometimes gauche, but always energetic and creative.
It is a place in which a immigrant Italian tile setter could spend 30 years building three fantastic towers of junk, because he loved America, and, as he said, he wanted to do something big. 

It is a place where an entrepreneur could build a hot dog stand in the shape of a hot dog without being run out of town.  

In our freeways, which move traffic better than those in any other large American city, and are nothing less than works of art; in our music center, our stadiums, our palm trees and eucalyptus trees and in our hard wild lilac foothills; as Raymond Chandler called them; in our mansions and our bungalows with yards in front and back; in our boulevards and marinas, and in 'our big dumb ocean' as one critic called it.

But the Los Angeles that makes us stay here, including the critics, who rarely go home again after their second visit, is invisible.  It is space, newness, openness, tolerance, energy, optimism, and exuberance, and the probably truth that, as Will Rogers said, 'we are all a little bit cuckoo'.

Besides all that, or because of it, Los Angeles is simply the freest city in the world. As one critic of architecture said; 'To be able to choose what you want to be and how you want to live, without social censure, is obviously more important to Angelenos than the fact that they do not have a Piazza San Marco'." 

Smith so well captures what makes Los Angeles special, granted some of the description is outdated.  Our freeways are no longer efficient and the openness is quickly being replaced with thoughtless architecture that jeopardizes our quality of life.  It is the free spirit that he writes of, however, that Shulman was also able to capture through his photography, that fascinates me about our city's past and inspires hope for our future. Without these two men, without their words and images, so much of LA's past would be lost.  What will we now do with the knowledge that they have left for us?  

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