By Anita Keys
Los Angeles is among the youngest of the world's major cities, a place where the urban landscape is continually undergoing change. Still, even within its relatively brief life, the city has accumulated history, a history that has produced a wide variety of landmarksfrom the whimsical to the sublime to the abstractly futuristic.
For several years now, the Getty Conservation Institute has been interested in learning more about Los Angeles landmarks. "Part of our mandate is the preservation of cultural monuments as defined by the community in which they exist," explains Miguel Angel Corzo, Director of the GCI. "If we are to help preserve the heritage of Los Angeles, our home community, we need to know as much as we can about attitudes of people in Los Angeles regarding landmarks. How do they define them? Do they provide the community with a sense of identity or belonging? Do the various ethnic communities that make up this city agree on what constitutes a landmark? Has the city's changing demographic profile altered the function or importance of particular landmarks?"
DICTIONARY DEFINTIONS OF A LANDMARK
1. A marker indicating a boundary line.
In 1992 the GCI conducted an extensive study of the city's landmarks, their relationship to the city's history, and their use by the people of Los Angeles. Among other findings, the report indicated that the city's cultural diversity was not a significant factor in the designation of landmarks. "One of the things the 1992 study showed us is that many groups traditionally have been underrepresented in the city's official landmark programs," observes Mahasti Afshar, Program Research Associate at the GCI. "Ethnic minorities and youth are an important part of the picture of Los Angeles, and yet we are totally in the dark as to how they relate to the city's cultural landmarks."
In light of this, the idea arose to gather together a group of ethnically diverse youths in order to learn more about different viewpoints on what constitutes a landmark. "Specifically, we thought that asking a group of young people to photograph sites they considered to be landmarks would give us an insight into values that haven't yet been recognized or documented," says Mr. Corzo.
2. A building or site having historical significance.
From this idea, the Picture L.A. project was born. Award-winning Los Angeles photographer Lauren Greenfield was asked to organize the photographic project. Through referrals from school art programs and community centers, Ms. Greenfieldwhose photographic assignments have ranged from Indian village life in Chiapas, Mexico, to contemporary French aristocracyselected youths from diverse cultural and geographic backgrounds. (see below) Interest and motivation weighed as heavily in the selection process as prior photographic experienceand these traits proved strong in the participants. All eight who began the project successfully stayed with it.
During the three-month shooting period, the project's young participants went into their own communities photographing personally significant social and architectural landmarks. Though supervised by Ms. Greenfield or one of her assistants, they chose their own subjects and perspectives. Each developed such individuality that, in Ms. Greenfield's words, "by the end of the project, we could tell an Abbey print from a Younghee print from a Daniel print. That says a lot about how developed their visions became and how honestly they were looking at the world around them."
3. A prominent and identifying feature of a landscape, distinguishing a locality.
Group field trips were taken to the Getty Center under construction, Watts Towers, Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, and downtown Los Angeles. Two group meetings also were held at the Conservation Institute, one at the beginning of the project, another at a final session during which participants reviewed one another's photographic work.
In the sites chosen and the relationship revealed between the social landscape and the physical environment, the black-and-white photographs provide a striking vision of Los Angeles. Crenshaw Boulevard, for example, is portrayed in the close-up of a lowrider; Sunset Boulevard is identified by movie billboards merging with the lush vegetation or by a swimmer creating graphic patterns in the pool at the Chateau Marmont; devastation after the Malibu fire is contrasted with the exuberance of an eight-year-old pedaling his toy tractor.
Adults involved in the project found their definition of landmarks changed as a result of the photographs. "Prior to the project I would have picked the Hollywood Bowl and the typically known sites as the important places of Los Angeles," commented Jessica Karman, a project assistant. "Now I look a little deeper."
Raul Herrera, one of the participants, became particularly fascinated with a group of people occupying the Belmont Tunnel, an old building close to downtown where every surface is covered with graffiti. "Young people see that other side of L.A. that everyone else tries to ignore," he says. "We can't ignore it because we live in it and are part of it. I think adults try to filter out homelessness, but to me it's part of our community."
4. An event marking a turning point in history.
The period of the project was a pivotal time for Los Angeles. Still reeling from the riots, the city was further tested by fires, mud slides, and earthquakes. For project participants such as Osofu Washington, the destruction demonstrated the need for preservation work. "When something has been there for a while it touches the lives of people," he explains. "I never had a desire to preserve things. Now I really care about things that may not be here two years from now."
The project's culmination will be an exhibition at the Bridge Gallery in Los Angeles City Hall in early December. Over 70 of the photographs will be displayed. Complementing the exhibit will be color images of the participants taken by Lauren Greenfield, a short video on the project, and a catalogue of the exhibition photographs. The exhibit subsequently will travel to other venues.
Anita Keys is a consultant for the Getty Conservation Institute and Project Coordinator for Picture L.A.: Landmarks of a New Generation.
Participants in Picture L.A.
ENNIS BELEY is from South Central Los Angeles. Thirteen years old at the time of the Picture L.A. project, he is presently in the seventh grade at United World International School. Prior to working on Picture L.A., he videotaped his life for six months for a BBC documentary entitled "L.A. Stories." He would like to be a journalist when he grows up.
LUIS CASTRO was born in San Salvador and currently lives in Koreatown. Twelve years old during the project, he attends seventh grade at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. He is not sure what he wants to be when he grows up. Since Picture L.A. he has been photographing his trips to different places.
ABBEY FUCHS has lived in Hollywood since she moved from New York at the age of three. Sixteen years old during the project, she recently graduated from Fairfax High School where she studied photography, among other subjects. Now attending Cal State Sonoma, she is majoring in communications.
DANIEL HERNANDEZ is from Boyle Heights. Ten years old when the project began, he is now in the sixth grade at Griffin Magnet Jr. High School where he is studying one of his favorite subjectscomputers (he also enjoys playing football and basketball). Daniel is in the third generation of his family to be born in Boyle Heights.
RAUL HERRERA is from the Hollywood area and was eighteen when the project began. He graduated from Hollywood High School where he first studied photography. Now attending Los Angeles City College, Raul is majoring in photography and journalism. His family is originally from Mexico City.
SABRINA PASCHAL lives in the Hacienda Heights Projects in Watts. She was fourteen years old and in the ninth grade at Markham Jr. High at the time of the project. Sabrina is studying video at the Watts Towers Arts Center, and her hobbies include basketball, rollerblading, and swimming. She would like to be a pediatrician.
YOUNGHEE SEO lives in Hollywood but spends most of her time in Koreatown. Eighteen years old while participating in Picture L.A., she recently graduated from Fairfax High School. Her parents still live in Korea. Younghee studied drawing in high school and plans to attend art school.
OSOFU WASHINGTON, lives in Inglewood. A student at Crenshaw High School, he was sixteen when the Picture L.A. project began. He is an avid basketball player and shares a love of music with his family. He also enjoys computer graphics and hair styling, and would like to open his own restaurant or barber shop.