(Photo above is from Chiwan Choi, “6:25 am dtla.” via his Facebook page)
Trees used to be my thing to photograph. I’d travel around the neighborhood seeking ones with peculiarity: a tree whose branch somehow grew parallel to the ground, eventually shooting up by the most extraordinary curve. Or one leaning so far over it seemed it would fall, although it had probably leaned that way for decades before I came along.
I’d revisit them through seasons, capturing a dwindling leaf count, changing colors and blooming flowers. Then began to collect their parts: seed pods and fallen branches, peeling bark, or leaves larger than my hands. And when not photographing them, I’d write about them. They were all a part of the same story, the trees’ lives, their eventual ends, even if centuries after my lifetime. I would wonder how many people were witnesses to their ecological processes the way I was – people passing by for as long as the trees have been standing. Did they see them at all?
I have transferred this question onto countless parts of the world’s landscapes, albeit natural ones or cultural ones and therefore more metaphorical. We often miss it. Even the ground we walk on has an inherent tale that exemplifies our paradoxical lives, just as the many truths of a disfigured tree and its figurative relevancy to contemporary times.
Yet photography can embody incalculable minutiae of our landscapes and depict it in wordless narratives to hang right there on a physical or virtual gallery wall neatly bordered in matt finish and open to interpretation.
Large-scale photography projects have done this throughout Los Angeles for quite some time. Roughly 20 years ago Carolyn Kozo Cole, a librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, ensured better representations “of the city’s people and story” through a project entitled “Shades of LA,” which is now comprised of more than 10,000 photos.
With the help of a volunteer team, Cole collected photographs and oral histories of residents usually underrepresented. During that time, the library already owned collections that together housed 2.2 million photos.
The absence of people of color, and in result, I’ll assume, the absence of a wider variation of people from differing economic backgrounds, resounded the message that their lives were not previously thought significant enough to document. This story is inherent to Cole’s efforts to create a more accurate portrayal and becomes a part of each and every photograph and history collected through her project.
For another project, curators William Deverall and Greg Hise selected images from a collection of 70,000 photos donated to The Huntington Library in 2006 by Southern California Edison’s parent company, Edison International. Form and Landscape, Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Basin 1940-1990 is an online gallery of “visual narrative[s] of change in and on the built landscapes of greater Los Angeles.”
One of the “photo essays” titled “Undocumented” is an inverted pursuit of Cole’s project. The author of the text, Hillary Jenks, begins her essay with a quote by novelist Ralph Ellison from his acclaimed classic 1952 novel Invisible Man. She speaks to the absence of people of color calling them “ghosts” depended upon for labor, which Edison’s high wired electrification of a growing city couldn’t have been successful without.
“Consumption,” by Eric Avila begins with a quote from Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust. Avila frames his essay within the theme of the novel that highlights “a depressive-era Los Angeles, a city steeped in celluloid fantasy.”
He focuses on American’s mass consumerism throughout the 50s, which swallowed the country after World War II, as seen in photographs that capture the quantity of products in growing chain stores.
D.J. Waldie strings together photos under the title “Noir,” a crime fiction literature genre. He creates “Here Where Friendship Dwells,” a short story about a newlywed couple who moves to Los Angeles and are both killed by a woman the husband begins to date.
The in-and-out effect made with the positioning of the photographs begins with the couple’s fictional house they move into at the start of the story and ends with an image of a tunnel, symbolizing the mistress’s plan to leave the city.
And “Light” by Emily Thompson focuses on states of mind. It starts with a prose poem about landscapes captured by cameras, which allow us to remember our stories while moving forward.
The images grapple with the idea of “man and nature compet[ing] to eclipse each other’s accomplishments” as seen when Edison erected towers throughout natural landscapes of the mountains, providing electricity to theaters and eventually to the Hollywood film industry, thus illuminating our “… dreams … and nightmares.”
The photo essays brilliantly showcase landscapes depicted in photography and explained through writing. All three – landscapes, photography and writing – embrace interrelatedcharacteristics which allow us to “read” them similarly to the ways we read books.
Although on one hand, viewers are outside the story gazing through another’s eyes onto landscapes that have already been interpreted by the artist, viewers still become a part of the story being told.
Los Angeles resident and writer, Chiwan Choi, takes pictures of the city mostly during a.m. hours, and the only gallery they are currently a part of is the one he created via Facebook. One image is of a bus moving through an intersection.
As a viewer I recognize the circular tube-like construction seen above the bus. The picture immediately reminds me of times I ride both the bus and the subway, times they are overcrowded and I have to wait long minutes for them to arrive, which sometimes makes me wish I still had the car I sold a year ago. It also reminds me of times I had the most interesting and unforgettable experiences talking to fellow riders or traveling to different parts of the city to explore.
The bus, seemingly the only vehicle headed in that direction, along with the single taxi and car remind me of how much I enjoy the quieter streets of the early morning before it completely opens to the day, the noise and traffic. The glimmering streetlight and the headlights of the taxi and car as well as the light in the distance, allude to the myth of the city that everyone who migrates in can become a star. It also alludes to the fact that stardom, unjustly so, guarantees a level of power to change and influence culture and often times, the world.
Parallel lines on the street that become the light posts which span to the windows and edges of the buildings, as well as the blur of the moving bus, cause me to think about structure and order as it relates to the city, and how it has lately become an overwhelming idea to suss out and navigate through in my personal life.
Interpretation is up to us and mine may not be exactly what Choi had in mind when capturing this intersection, but it has nonetheless become a part of the story told through the photograph.
Landscapes and the photographs that depict them as well as the words we write to tell their stories always supersede the artists’ intentions. It enters larger conversations of place and time and lives to encompass the viewers’ perspectives, which are forever renegotiating meaning based upon changing circumstances, questions and concerns. But the one thing we can continue to place stock in is that a picture is still worth a thousand words, and most times, a whole lot more.
A California native, Jessica has lived in numerous southern California cities, chases nature with urgency, and travels to anywhere possible. She listens to folk, indie rock, blues, and anything with a spirit and lyrics she can support. Jessica writes fiction and creative non-fiction and is completing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.