the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Art Deco

SECOND HELPING (WITH A SIDE OF COMFORT)

The Venus diner, a fixture of turnpike life in Gibsonia, Pa. during the 20th century.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS OFTEN FIND THAT SOME SUBJECTS HAVE A DISTINCT VISUAL SIGNATURE. That is to say, they instantly convey precisely what they are. The word iconic means something that stands as the defining symbol for its class and and category, signaling us in a moment exactly what we’re looking at. In architecture, some structures are, in a way, self-explanatory, and cannot be confused with anything else. Thus churches tend to look like churches, palaces kinda always look like palaces, and, for purveyors of twentieth-century pop culture, diners look, unmistakably, like diners. They bespeak informality, convenience, comfort, and, if luck holds, good eats. They also communicate immediate context and poignant memory for the camera.

Diners first appeared on the national scene in the 1920’s as horse-drawn wagons with food, then stretched out to resemble railroad dining cars clad in gleaming Art Deco chrome, all rounded corners, streamlined stainless steel, and mirrors. Lots of mirrors, like the ones in the ceilings, which allowed counter waitresses to quickly ascertain which booth needed a coffee refill. The eateries peaked just after World War II, when casual dining had become a national habit, the joints were finally attracting as many women as male laborers, and diner ownership served, for a time, as an affordable first business move for returning vets.

While most eating establishments are built like any other other structure, that is, on-site, working from a framework which is then layered over with different levels of support or decor, the classic American diner of the 20’s through the 50’s was produced modularly, much like an automobile. Indeed, the closest relative to the diner might be the Airsteam trailer, an edifice built as a single unit in a factory and shipped to its final destination. Over the half-century or so that diners dotted the national map, companies like Silk City, Kullman and Fodero manufactured compact, curvilinear eateries that were trucked, fully equipped inside and out, to their initial locations ready for business. Such was the origin of the diner you see in the above image (a Fordero diner…shout-out to New Jersey), which began its life near the Gibsonia exit of the Pittsburgh portion of the Pennsylvania turnpike. As the place was situated only seven miles from the neoghboring town of Mars, Pa., the diner’s owners decided to maintain the planetary theme, naming their joint the Venus.

Half a century later, another alignment of cosmic forces began to ready the Venus for a second life. Just as it was pouring its last cups o’ joe, the owners of a tony Minneapolis decor boutique called Modern Forage Workshop were getting pretty tired of the wretched view out their store window, which looked across the street to a dilapidated Taco Bell fronted by a seedy vacant lot. Mike Smith and James Brown almost simultaneously hit on the idea of obtaining a classic diner for the spot, but where to get one? Diner manufacturers were a speciality even back in the day, making their restoration even more of a niche skill in the twenty-first century. Smith and Brown sniffed about and unearthed Steve Harwin, a Cleveland tinkerer who had begun his career refurbishing high-end sports cars, then switched specialities when his European pals told him that diners were “the coolest things in America”.

The reborn Venus now doing business in Minneapolis as the Hi-Lo.

Shipped to Harwin via flatbed truck and police escort (wiiiiiide load), the Venus was cleaned, sanded and primped for a second cross-country trek to the Twin Cities. As in the past, the local landscape determined the place’s new monicker, which celebrated the regentrification of both the HIawatha and LOngfellow neighborhoods to be christened the Hi-Lo, opening to rave reviews in 2016 and even opening a kitschy tiki patio around the side in 2018. Recently, my wife Marian and I caught a glimpse of the old girl out the car window en route to St. Paul and decided to circle back for a better look. One very intense plate of corned beef hash later, I betook myself to the opposite side of the street for the same vantage point that Smith and Brown once disdained, later celebrated. It goes without saying that the view is a helluva lot better these days.

And the coffee ain’t bad either.

 

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LAYING DOWN THE LAW ON STYLE

Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, the current occupants of the city’s historic Bullocks Wilshire department store, opened in 1927.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR JUST ONE DAY A YEAR, Los Angeles’ Southwestern Law School opens its doors to non-students from across the world, hundreds of whom stream through its halls with bulged eyes and gaping mouths. This reaction is not, as you rightly suspect, because the public, in general, is fascinated by endless banks of books on tort reform and intellectual property. It’s primarily due to the fact that the SLS conducts its day-to-day affairs in the shell of what once was, arguably, the most beautiful building in the City of Angels, the storied Bullocks Wilshire department store, opened to grand fanfare and a decidedly upscale clientele in 1927, the same year Warner Brothers brought Al Jolson’s voice to the world in The Jazz Singer.

In the age of Lindbergh, Bullocks’ mid-town location at mid-town 3050 Wilshire Boulevard was considered to be “out in the sticks”, a long trip from central L.A. and hence a substantial business risk (who’s ever gonna come out here?). Bullocks tried the pre-emptive move of capping the structure with an ornate, copper-tipped tower and designing the main entrance to its “cathedral of commerce” at the rear of the store, inviting motorists to enter its sumptuous porte-corchere (car port) for valet parking and a peek, across its ceiling, at Herman Sachs’ modern mural “The Age Of Transportation” featuring a winged Mercury surrounded by luxury liners, locomotives, biplanes, and the Graf Zeppelin. Having thus been so royally deposited on the store’s back porch, customers were ushered into the main showroom, its every case glistening with jewelry, perfumes and cosmetics for milady, its every wood-inlaid elevator door inviting the visitor to rise to floor after sumptuous floor of furnishings, fashions and refreshments.

The Bullocks store, with separate design/color schemes and innovative, elite shops on each of its five retail floors, truly revolutionized the relationship between retailer and customer, in a space where young lovelies modeled fashions in elegant salons for clients and where local polo players were serviced inside a custom saddlery shop. Concerned that your new riding breeches may pinch a bit when you start your next chucker? No worries: the store also featured its own full-sized horse mannequin so you could check your look in the saddle. The Bullocks local customer base typically included Hollywood stars, many of whom, like Mae West, might send their standing orders for lingerie or sports clothes to the store in the care of their… chauffeurs. Others looking to eventually climb the ladder of stardom themselves, such as a young Angela Lansbury, might be found working the Bullocks counters between studio gigs. Most importantly to generations of mothers, daughters, and granddaughters was the linen and white glove service at Bullocks’ fifth floor tea room, equipped with its own anteroom, the Cactus Lounge, where ladies could listen to live pianists as their lunch table was readied. Add to all these wonders the building’s predominantly Art deco appointments and you have, at least in my case, a photographer’s fever dream.

As to that….

Since this blog’s inception, the menu tabs at the top of the pages of The Normal Eye have been reserved for photographic essays too large to be contained within the scope of a single post, and, with the recent completion of my first-ever walk through the Bullocks building earlier this year, I thought it was time to paste together another little daisy chain of images to create a photo story on this most majestic of merchandisers. To view the results, just click the Bullish On Bullocks tab up top, just to the right of the “Blog” tab. Of course, if you haven’t already, feel free to also check out the neighboring tabs, including Small Slices From A Big Apple (street views of NYC), The Wonderful Woolworth (an interior tour of the old five-and-dime chain’s national headquarters), When Lights Are Low (adventures in under-exposure) and Wright Thinking (a visit to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final residential designs, created for his son David).

One more thing: the Southwestern Law School, whose exhaustive research and civic-minded sweat helped stabilize and restore the Bullocks Wilshire build to its 1920’s glory, hosts a special page on its site to highlight the beauty of the structure, including a seven-and-a-half minute campus video. Go here to check it out. It’s all hands on Deco (sorry).

 

 


THE SHOW STARTS AT THE CURB

By MICHAEL PERKINS

URBAN ARCHITECTURE IN THE EARLY 20th CENTURY convulsed our sense of what a “proper” building should be, with a seismic shift in aesthetics from the staid and respectable design of the Victorian age. It’s no coincidence that this revolution occurred at the very same time that the age of mass media washed over the world, as the dictates of print advertising were supplemented with the promotional energies of movies, radio, and, eventually, television. Cities whose businesses were born in this loud, aggressive crucible of modern advertising would drastically change the way those businesses competed for our attention. Structures from the 19th century sometimes bore advertisements on their exteriors, from signs to posters. Structures in the emerging 20th century were advertisements….their design screaming out their intentions with neon, explosions of color and extremes of design. In a real way, whatever show was inside the stores truly began at the sidewalk.

It’s show time. Again.

Photographers are still scrambling to chronicle the vanishing echoes of this design surge, which was most vividly expressed in the streamline, moderne, and Art Deco movements. Function dictated form: a boutique selling hats might actually look like a hat: a photo shop might design its storefront to resemble an enormous camera. Even banks went from the quietly dignified Doric columns and Romanesque scrolls of the Gilded Age to the bizarre Aztec-meets-Moorish-meets-Hollywood mishmashes of the the Jazz Age, with every place of business screaming for your eye. All of this proves catnip to photographers, who now experience pangs of nostalgia for the bold and brassy looks that predate their own lifetimes. Give me a blinking, blaring mass of zigzags and chevrons and I am in some kind of Busby Berkeley fever dream. Especially with theatres.

Many of the world’s old neighborhood bijous have gone down to dust, others converted to street corner churches, antique shops or themed cafes. And of those that do survive, some still actively celebrate their original functions, and thus are among my favorite things to shoot. The image seen here is of downtown Ventura, California’s Century theatre. The structure is particularly delightful, its soft pastels dreamily gleaming in the warm light of this charming seaside town. California as a whole, perhaps because of its direct connection to the film industry, has seemed to have salvaged a greater number of these little jewel boxes than is typical for other parts of the USA, although they, too, have seen many such houses crushed under the heel of what passes for progress. In any event, I can be counted upon to stop, stare, drool and shoot when encountering one of these picture palaces. Because the old theatre program billings, in which features were preceded by cartoons, newsreels, shorts or travelogues, left out an important first step….that “show” that starts at the curb.


ONE OF US

The final approach to Coit Tower is shielded by a dense shroud of trees.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OF THOSE WHO REGULARLY BRAVE THE KNEE-CRUNCHING, 275-FOOT TREK up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, a promontory in a city that is, itself, a sea of promontories, many make the pilgrimage for the privilege of filing into a circular tub of a mausoleum that houses the central core of Coit Tower. Since 1933, this white, streamlined concrete shaft, looking over the bay from atop the archly hip North Beach neighborhood, has been visible from anywhere in the greater SF area, now resembling a lighthouse, now looking more like the topper on some important tomb. Built in honor of a local character named Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who chased fire engines to local blazes and used her inherited wealth to fund a memorial to what we now call first responders, the 210-foot tower is, on the outside, the curiosity of but a few minutes. But inside, it’s a great place to watch people. People watching other people. People from every craft and trade on the earth, their vanished world enshrined in the brightly-hued murals that decorate the entire interior of the tower’s base. People who provide a visual encyclopedia of who we are, captured in the “whos” of what we were.

The mural-embellished lobby of San Francisco’s iconic Coit Tower. Note the touch-up artist behind the daily visitors.

The America of the 1930’s was indeed a very different place, one groaning under the near-25% unemployment rate of the Great Depression. Solutions both good and bad abounded in the desperate atmosphere of the day, one such solution involving the idea of regarding the country’s artists as no less important than its workmen…that is, creating government programs to put them back to work. Sculpting. Painting. Writing plays, songs, novels, guidebooks. Recording photographic archives by which we better understand the bitter struggle of those years. A variety of “alphabet soup” acronyms like the WPA (Works Progress Administration) chose the projects and fronted the cash to make them happen.

Think that over. We paid people to make art. In post offices. In libraries. In meeting houses and union halls and railroad terminals and theatres and auditoriums. Frescoes. Reliefs. Statues. Works with which our government announced, in a very loud voice, that Art Is Important. And that steps were going to be taken to keep it alive.

Coit tower’s lobby is only one of dozens of places in San Francisco where public art was used for not only beauty but commentary. The people on the walls are not generals, nor political leaders, nor gods, but ordinary working people, shown in every trade from farming to construction. Fruit pickers. Meat packers. Librarians. Cowboys. Their majesty is in the very un-exalted way they are depicted. Generations later, they are still recognizable. As us. From us. One of us. Watching the daily crowds queue up for a ticket to the tower’s one slow Otis elevator is a little like watching a mirror. The types, from large to small, skinny to stout, match up. The faces of fresco and flesh melt together. The past and the present blend, as in the above image, where people visiting the monument for the first time pass unwittingly by a seated worker, tasked with repairing the wear and tear of salt air and time. Wheels turn.The work goes on. One day it’s mining. Next day, it’s coding. All work.

From the top of Coit, visitors enter a time machine of a different kind, as San Francisco’s mad mix of Victorian elegance, Bohemian beat, and psychedelic scrawl unfold in a 360-degree panorama. But it’s the technicolor testimony at ground level that makes the building great, its factory workers, miners and coal miners anchoring the place in human effort. A good general source for learning about the Coit’s panels (which include work by many of Diego Rivera’s students), as well as the other projects that survive in the area is Depression-Era Murals of the Bay Area (Veronico, Morello< Casadonte, Collins, 2014), although a general study of New Deal-sponsored art programs will also delight even the casual student.

So come for the climb. Or the tower. But stay for the stories, all the while taking pictures of people looking at people. And seeing something they recognize.


THE LOVELY BONES

Oversized marble columns support the high lobby ceiling at 195 Broadway, former New York home of AT&T.

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

195 BROADWAY IN LOWER MANHATTAN is one of hundreds of buildings that might escape your notice upon your first walk through the city’s financial district. Less garish than its gothic neighbor, the Woolworth Building and a lot shorter than its big-shouldered brethren, the 29-floor landmark doesn’t shout for attention. Its true beauty emerges when you walk inside the somewhat restricted lobby, take the measure of the “bones” of its regal inner structure, and breathe in its storied history. Completed in 1916 after AT&T moved its American headquarters from Boston to New York, 195 was the strong, silent type of skyscraper….functional, neo-classic, but restrained, understated. As a largely urban photographer, I try to keep track of structures that have outlasted several uses and landlords, carrying their essence forward through decades of shifting styles and fashions. It’s the totality of what has made them last that makes them interesting to me, more than any single fillip or ornament.

But ornament, as a visual metaphor for the new (20th) century of American technological dominance, was built into 195 Broadway from the start, both inside and out. Paul Manship, the sculptor whose public works, like the golden Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Plaza, still dot the Manhattan map, created one of his first major works, The Four Elements, as bronze relief’s on 195’s lower facades, his love of Greek and Roman mythology weaving itself into the Moderne movement (later re-dubbed as Art Deco). Architect William Bosworth took the Doric columns which usually adorned the outside approaches of other buildings and brought them into 195’s lobby, all 43 of them, their wondrous marble reflecting a variety of colors from the teeming parade of streetside traffic. And sculptor Chester Beach used the same lobby to commemorate the building’s role as one half of the first transcontinental phone line in 1915 with Service To The Nation In Peace And War, a bronze relief of a headphone-wearing hero standing under a marble globe of the Earth, bookended by classic figures and flanked by lightning bolts.

195’s lobby marks the origination point of the first transcontinental telephone line.

195’s long run includes the titles like the Telephone Building, the Telegraph Building, the Western Union Building, as well as appearances in popular culture, like its portrayal of Charlie Sheen’s office building in Wall Street. Sadly, a few of its most salient features have moved on, like the gilded 24-foot tall winged male figure originally known as Genius Of Telegraphy, which topped the pyramidal roof of the tower on the west side of the building until 1980, when it followed AT&T’s relocation to Dallas, Texas. However, the remaining treasures of 195 Broadway are still a delight for both human and camera eyes. Good buildings often present their quietest faces to the street. But look beyond the skin of the survivors, and marvel at the solid bones beneath.


BEARING WITNESS

Orpheum Lofts, Phoenix, Arizona.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AT THIS WRITING (June 2018), reviews are rolling in for Julia Van Haaften’s new biography, Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography, a celebration of the greatest visual chronicler of New York City’s perpetually parade of architectural extinctions. Abbott’s essential album of vanishing neighborhoods in the five boroughs, Changing New York, shot in stunning crispness with an 8×10 Century Universal view camera, has stood, since the 1930’s, as more than a stunning technical achievement: it has also been hailed, rightfully, as a priceless sociological record.

The Loftstenant entrance.

Abbott was an objectivist, the Joe Friday of photographers, believing that images could only be honest by providing just the facts, ma’am. As 20th century shooters sought to insert more of themselves….their feelings, their beliefs, their biases.. into increasingly personal work, Berenice and her camera became two halves of a single, emotionless machine, disdaining the sentiment or “viewpoints” of her contemporaries. In the final analysis, her conservative stance didn’t alter the fact that Changing New York is an invaluable document, a peerless record of a bygone era.

Photographers across the world would do well to carry on Abbott’s work, as the fragile infrastructures of the 20th century disintegrate before our eyes and entire cities fold over on their own histories for little more than the novelty of change. New York was one of the first towns to learn that progress amounts to more than a mere destroy-and-replace cycle, but many other urban centers lose their history out of a tragic brew of neglect and ignorance, much of that loss unchronicled or unmourned by today’s photographers. Ideally, every town should have its own Berenice Abbott.

Cities like my present home of Phoenix, Arizona are all about growth and not much for legacy. Old doesn’t mean venerable in the southwest: it means old and in the way. Structures like the 1930 Art Deco Phoenix Titles and Trust building, reborn in the 2000’s as Orpheum Loft Apartments and pictured here, are notable for their very survival as well as for their distinct architectural styles. Photographers can seldom prevent the coming of the bulldozers once people decide the past should be ground into dust. But they can bear witness, making images that serve alternatively as living history or cautionary tales.

As Berenice Abbott would say more than once, “photography should be a significant document, a penetrating statement.” Changes in New York, Phoenix, or Alabama are all similar in that they are waves in history. If there’s a more important assignment for the camera than tracking those waves, I’m damned if I know what it is.


A SMALLER PIECE OF CAKE

Molder plaster designs line the underside of the marquee at Los Angeles' Deco masterpiece, The Wiltern Theatre.

Molder plaster designs line the underside of the marquee of Los Angeles’ Deco masterpiece, The Wiltern Theatre.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN A HOUSE CRAMMED WITH LUXURIANT COFFEE TABLE BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY, my most lovingly thumbed volumes seem to center on studies of Art Deco architecture, a subject which provides me with endless enjoyment. Some books touch on overall moderne design, but most are specific reference works on the zigzags, chevrons, whorls and curves of buildings, clad in this seductive, streamlined celebration of style. Similarly, my travel plans over the years involve sticking pins in the globe to indicate the fattest troves of these buildings, mapping my strategies for someday capturing them inside a box. It’s a bucket list, if buckets had been designed by Walter Dorwin Teague or Norman bel Geddes.

The original framing of the above shot, complete with other distracting details.

The original framing of the above shot, complete with other distracting details.

Shooting Deco buildings can humble one, since the sheer volume of decorative accents in a single skyscraper could consume a coffee table book all its own. Deco may use fewer details or lines to suggest an idea compared to earlier eras, but it is still undeniably busy. Some truly extreme edifices, such as Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre, can nearly give you claustrophobia. These places were certainly meant to be looked at, but, to our contemporary eye, trying to take them “all in” is a little like sending your eye on a three-day bender. This also means that, for photographers, trying to tell a complete story in a single image is pert nigh impossible.

To that thought, I have spent several years going over shoots of Deco buildings that originally involved, say, thirty to forty images, only to find that, even when I was trying to break these giant birthday cakes into smaller slices, there was still enough going on, even in the edited shots, to warrant a second, third, or even fourth “sub-cropping”. One such place, also in L.A., is the giant faux-jade tower known as the Wiltern Theatre, so named because it occupies a corner at the intersection of WILshire Boulevard and WesTERN Avenue. The place was originally the Hollywood capstone of the Warner Brothers theatre chain, and survives today as a live performance space (think alt-rock meets emo). Point a camera anywhere, and you’ll harvest a click-ton of exuberant, exploding ornamentation.

The large shot seen at the top of the page is but one section of the glorious molded plaster overhang beneath the Wiltern’s marquee. The inset image at left is the larger master shot, in which I originally thought I was keeping it simple by limiting the frame to the lower part of the front right corner of the building. Turns out that even this “tighter” composition was too busy, hence the more radical crop to a smaller part of the pattern. On the way to the final edit, I also flipped the design upside down to make it splay out more dramatically and converted the dull gun-metal green to blue for a little extra romance.

All of which seems to be yet another re-hash of the old “less is more” argument. Simplify, simplify, grab the stone from my hand, grasshopper, etc., etc. Art Deco is a style in which the devil (the delight?) is most definitely in the details. Some are so incredible that it seems a sin to have them vanish into large, comprehensive uber-shots of big buildings, rather than being given the loving attention they deserve. And certainly, for photographers, there are other such visual birthday cakes that are more appetizing if you simply cut yourself a smaller slice.


THE SECOND PASS

Vancouver's amazing Marine Building, a Deco freak's feast, in early morning (flat) light.

Vancouver’s amazing Marine Building, a Deco freak’s feast, in early morning (flat) light.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME  VISUAL SUBJECTS ARE SO RICH IN POTENTIAL that they evolve from a few essential shots to what, for lack of a better term, passes for a photo “essay”. Such extended coverage of buildings, countries and people used to be common in the heyday of the picture magazine, with up to a dozen pages of images strung together with narrative links in the pages of Life, Look and their many imitators. It’s a great format to work in once you discover a worthy candidate. But, in practical terms, it can be a little like working a checklist.

I document a lot of Art Deco architecture, since it embodies history, abstraction, illustration, design, and fantasy, all in one big fat buffet. That means I spend a lot of time dodging passersby on sidewalks and lingering in lobbies long enough to make the security personnel twitchy. Deco is all about the splendor of detail, some of which can only be revealed by patiently moving from door to grille, elevator to stairway, entrance to entrance, and looking for light that will bring that detail into bold relief.

I used the word checklist a while back because you are often working one in your mind, ticking off the various items as you wander around the site. Gotta do the mezzanine. Need a shot of the ceiling. Did I catch those wall sconces? Thing is, we tend to think of those little check marks as meaning, I’m done here. Moving on….when, in terms of what changing light does to these buildings within a short span of time, we should be actually be thinking, okay, I’ve done the preliminary work. Should go back and check this again in a while. Deco, especially, is rife with reliefs and murals made from a wide variety of materials, many of which will register color and shadows very differently at different times of day. You have to think in terms of “Take One, Take Two”, rather than in the snapshot mentality of “nailed it.”

The same entrance just a few minutes later. The sun has climbed in the sky and created dramatic contrasts in all surfaces.

The same entrance just a few minutes later. The sun has climbed in the sky and created dramatic contrasts in all surfaces.

The images you see here, of the entrance to Vancouver’s magnificent Marine Building (read all about it here) were shot just twenty minutes apart. The top shot shows light landing on the door and its surrounding niche fairly flatly, almost sideways. However, within minutes, as seen in the second shot, the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to blast away at the center of the space, throwing the overhang of the arch into deep shadow. This change intensifies the contrast between raised and flat surfaces and makes the exterior terra-cotta (a material in which the colors are baked right in) more vivid. It also is projecting shadows like crazy. Which version is better? Not the point. It’s about editing choices and being reluctant to think that there is one “official” way to shoot something.

I could show similar changes to the lobby, with light softly entering the stained glass over the door, then crashing through it like a golden ray just minutes later. The point is, exposure is time plus light, and, when tackling a large essay-type project, it’s important to do more than one visualization on key elements. It’s the difference between grabbing a souvenir and creating a keepsake.


INVISIBLE CITIES

New York is one of the great treasure troves for lovers of Art Deco. This complex is literally in the shadow of the Chrysler building.

New York is one of the great treasure troves for lovers of Art Deco. This complex, along Lexington Avenue,  is literally in the shadow of the Chrysler building.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS, IN THE WORLD OF SPORTS,  A PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE known as the “home field advantage”, wherein a team can turn a superior knowledge of its native turf against its visiting opponent. The accuracy of this belief has never been conclusively proven, but it’s interesting to think on whether it applies to photography as well. Do we, for the purposes of making pictures, know our own local bailiwicks better than visitors ever can? Or is it, as I suspect, the dead opposite?

Familiarity may not breed contempt, but, when it comes to our seeing everything in our native surroundings with an artistic eye, it can breed a kind of invisibility, a failing to see something that has long since receded into the back part of our attention, and thus stops registering as something to see anew, or with fresh interpretation. How many buildings on the street we take into the office are still standouts in our mind’s eye? How many objects would we be amazed to learn are actually part of our walk home, and yet “unseen” by us as we mentally drift along that drab journey?

It may be that there is actually a decided “out-of-towner” advantage in visiting a place where you have no pre-conceptions or habitual routes, in approaching things and places in cities as totally new, free of prior associations. I’ve often  been asked of an image, “where did you take that?” only to inform the questioner that the building in the picture is a half block from their place of business. The above image was taken on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, not more than a half block and across the street from the Chrysler building. It is a gorgeous treasure of design cues every bit as symbolic of the golden age of Art Deco as its aluminum clad neighbor, and yet I could hold a contest amongst many New Yorkers as to where or what it is and never have to award the prize money. The Chrysler’s very fame eclipses its neighbors, rendering them less visible.

Perception is at the heart of every visual art, and the most difficult things to re-imagine are the ones which have ceased to strike us as special. And since everyone lives in a city that is at least partly invisible to them, it stands to reason that an outside eye can make its own “something new” out of everyone else’s “something old”. Realize and celebrate your special power as a photographic outlier.


A TRICK OF THE LIGHT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS  WHO TRACK THE SUN AS IT TRAVELS EAST TO WEST over the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon have made amazing images of the way light changes contours, shadows, even the sensation of depth and scale over the course of a single day. Such hour-by-hour portfolios present pictures which are less about the subject matter and more about how light shapes that subject. And the same tracking exercise is possible in canyons of another sort, the vertical jungles we call cities.

Buildings in urban settings reveal more in pictures than their own particular physical shapes and designs: they also have visual artifacts tattooed onto them from their neighbors, which block, warp and reflect light patterns in their direction. Thus the most architecturally drab tower can become hypnotic when bathed in patterns of shadows shaped by the tower next door. And that means that those seeking abstract images may find that ordinary parts of the city can be rendered extraordinary by light’s odd bounces. Additionally, the fact that many of these light effects are fleeting, visible, in some cases, only for minutes each day, presents both a challenge and an adventure for the photographer.

Fifteen East Monroe, 2016.

Fifteen East Monroe, 2016.

In the shot above, a gorgeous Art Deco building in downtown Phoenix, Arizona benefits from a light effect that has only been possible for the last forty years of its existence. Erected in the late 1930’s, the northern face of 15 East Monroe Street would not, at its opening, have been dappled with the shadow patterns seen here. No, it took a soul-less glass box from the ’70’s, located across the street, to bounce patterns of reflected light onto the building as you see it here, and only for about two hours a day between late morning and noon.

During that window, 15 East Monroe displays a wonderfully checkered mix of reflected illumination on its golden terra-cotta exterior. I first observed the patterns ten years ago, and have been going back for occasional looks ever since. The trick, in this image, was to keep the texture of the building from looking too sharp, since the effect itself is somewhat dreamy, and works better if the overall photo of the building is also a little soft. I used a selective focus lens (sharp at the middle, softer toward the edges) to give the overall building a gauzy look, and let the picture really be about the light effect, rather than any specific part of the building. Even at this point, I am imagining about a half-dozen other ways to accomplish this, but this image can at least serve as an initial study, a guideline for what may, eventually, be my final word on the subject.

Photography, clinically defined, is the art of writing with light. Sometimes, regardless of the object in our viewfinder, what light does to things is, by itself, enough for an interesting picture. It takes some restraint to let the light be the subject, and to let the picture, in its most basic form, breathe.


25, 50, T, B

The remaining facade from Los Angeles' historic Darkroom camera shop at 5370 Wilshire Boulevard.

The remaining facade from Los Angeles’ historic Darkroom camera shop at 5370 Wilshire Boulevard.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS A PART OF WILSHIRE BOULEVARD IN LOS ANGELES that I have been using for a photographic hunting ground for over ten years, mostly on foot, and always in search of the numerous Art Deco remnants that remain in the details of doors, window framings, neighborhood theatres and public art. Over the years, I have made what I consider to be a pretty thorough search of the stretch between Fairfax and LaBrea for the pieces of that streamlined era between the world wars, and so it was pretty stunning to realize that I had been repeatedly walking within mere feet of one of the grand icons of that time, busily looking to photograph….well, almost anything else.

The Darkroom in its Kodachrome days.

The Darkroom in its Kodachrome days.

A few days ago, I was sizing up a couple framed in the open window of a street cafe when my composition caught just a glimpse of black glass, ribbed by horizontal chrome bands. It took me several ??!?!-type minutes to realize that what I had accidentally included in the frame was the left edge of the most celebrated camera in all of Los Angeles.

Opened in the 1930’s, the Darkroom camera shop stood for decades at 5370 Wilshire as one of the greatest examples of “programmatic architecture”, that cartoony movement that created businesses that incorporated their main product into the very structure of their shops, from the Brown Derby restaurant to the Donut Hole to, well, a camera store with a nine-foot tall recreation of an Argus camera as its front facade.

The surface of the camera is made of the bygone process known as Vitrolite, a shiny, black, opaque mix of vitreous marble and glass, which reflects the myriad colors of Los Angeles street life just as vividly today as it did during the New Deal. The shop’s central window is still the lens of the camera, marked for the shutter speeds of 1/25th and 1/50th of a second, as well as T (time exposure) and B (bulb). A “picture frame” viewfinder and two film transit knobs adorn the top of the camera, which is lodged in a wall of glass block. Over the years, the store’s original sign was removed, and now resides at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, while the innards of the shop became a series of restaurants with exotic names like Sher-e-Punjab Cuisine and La Boca del Conga Room. Life goes on.

True to the ethos of  L.A. fakes, fakes of fakes, and recreations of fake fakes, the faux camera of The Darkroom has been reproduced in Disney theme parks in Paris and Orlando, serving as…what else?….a camera shop for visiting tourists, while the remnants of the original storefront enjoy protection as a Los Angeles historic cultural monument. And, while my finding this little treasure was not quite the discovery of the Holy Grail, it certainly was like finding the production assistant to the stunt double for the stand-in for the Holy Grail.

Hooray for Hollywood.


ROAD FOOD

West Taghkanic Diner, Ancram New York, 2014. 1/60 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

West Taghkanic Diner, Ancram New York, 2014. 1/60 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

Truck Driver: Give me some more of this poison you call coffee. 

Waitress: I notice you’re on your third cup…

Truck Driver: I like your sugar.      

                                                                                                        They Drive By Night, Warner Brothers, 1940

 

AMERICANS CERTAINLY DID NOT INVENT THE IDEA OF STOPPING OFF FOR CHOW “ON THE WAY” TO WHEREVER. The roadside taverns and eateries that dot the globe in the spaces between village and town are the stuff of worldwide legend. Call it the “ye olde inn” tradition. However, in the 20th century, we Yanks did our bit in contributing to the romance of road food. Hey, you’re motoring across the country in your new Ford/Buick/Merrie Oldsmobile anyway, so you need some kind of, let’s call it grub infrastructure, laid out along the route.

Mind you, these won’t be the same restaurants where Grandma and the kids tuck in of a Sunday supper. We leave the linens to the landed gentry: simply paper napkins here, bub. The best “joints” actually resemble trailers more than restaurants, with the menu ranging from non-poisonous to “not bad”, but not much wider. Diners and dives don’t pull down Michelin stars and Zagat raves. But they do shape our traveling, and photographic, experiences. And now that we’re beyond the first great Golden Age of Motoring (maybe the only one, come to think of it), photo-documenting these decaying munch museums is a must.

Hey, doll, any more at home like you?

Hey, doll, any more at home like you?

I love the curvy chrome and Deco streamlining that forms the shell of many joints. I love them even more in their present state of slow disintegration,when the streamlining isn’t too straight, the chrome gives off an apologetic, latter-day patina, and all the angles don’t quite square up. My photographer’s eye likes these temples of makeshift cuisine because they are cheap and cheesy. They’re vulgar and obvious in their blinky, half-dead neon, kitschy colors and over-ripe graphics, and as Sinatra used to sing, that’s America to me. Love it.

Some of my favorite joints are far more dinosaur than diner, but, when you can squeeze off a frame or two of their fading glory, and amble inside for a five dollar cheeseburger deluxe, heck, boyo, that’s a combo plate you can’t even get at the Ritz. And if I could ever find the dazzling dame who modeled for the drawing of a waitress on the side of all those millions of ketchup squeeze bottles, that would be love at first sight.

Talk about your latter-day Mona Lisa. With fries.


THE TORQUOISE TIME TRAVELER

The wondrous Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. A three-exposure HDR to amplify time's toll on the building's exterior.

The wondrous Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. A three-exposure HDR to amplify time’s toll on the building’s exterior.

by MICHAEL PERKINS

SHE HAS WITHSTOOD THE GREAT DEPRESSION, A WORLD WAR, DECADES OF ECONOMIC UPS & DOWNS, and half a dozen owners (some visionaries and some bums), and still, the sleek green/blue terra-cotta wedge that is the Wiltern Theatre is one of the most arresting sights in midtown Los Angeles. From her 83-year old perch at the intersection of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the jewel in the lower half of the old Pelissier building still commands attention, and, for lovers of live music, a kind of creaky respect. The old girl isn’t what she used to be, but she is still standing, as the same house that once hosted film premieres in the days of Cagney and Bogart now hosts alternative and edge, with pride.

And she still makes a pretty picture, lined face and all.

Opened in 1931 as a combination vaudeville house and flagship for Warner Brothers’ national chain of film theatres, The Warner Western, as it was originally named, folded up within a few years, re-opening in mid-Depression L.A. as the Wiltern (for Wilshire and Western) operating virtually non-stop until about 1956. As a vintage movie house, it had been equipped with one of the most elegant pipe organs in town, and enthusiasts of the instrument built a small following for the place for a while with recitals featuring the instrument. By the 1970’s, however, economies for larger-than-life flicker palaces were at an all-time low, and the Wiltern’s owners tried twice themselves to apply for permission to blow her down. Preservationists got mad, then got busy.

The Wiltern's ticket kiosk sits under a plaster canopy of Deco sunrays. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

The Wiltern’s ticket kiosk sits under a plaster canopy of Deco sunrays. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

Restoration began in the 1980’s on the Pelissier building in general, but the Wiltern, with its ornate plaster reliefs and murals, had been so neglected over the years that its turnaround was slower. It was finally reborn in 1985 as a live performance theatre, losing some seat room but newly able to stage everything from brain-blaster garage rock to Broadway road productions and ballet.

I shot the Wiltern with three HDR frame, all f/5.6, with exposure times of 1/60, 1/100. and 1/160, and blended the final image in Photomatix to really show the wear and tear on the exterior. HDR is great for amplifying every flaw in building materials, as well as highlighting the uneven color that is an artifact of time and weather. I wanted to show the theatre as a stubborn survivor rather than a flawless fantasy, and the process also helped call attention to the building’s French Deco zigzags and chevrons. For an extra angle, I also made some studies of the glorious sunburst plaster ceiling over the outside ticket kiosk. It was great to meet the old girl at last, and on her own terms.

 


IN STEICHEN’S SHADOW

Le Regiment Plastique. Lit from the top of the composition. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

“Le Regiment Plastique”. Shot in a dark room and light-painted from the top edge of the composition. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’VE POSTED SEVERAL PIECES HERE ON “LIGHT-PAINTING”, or the practice of manually applying light to selective areas of objects during long exposures in the dark. The ability to “paint” additional colors, highlights and shadows “onto” even the most mundane materials can transform the whole light-to-dark ratio of the familiar and render it in new, if unpredictable ways. It’s kind of random and a lot of hands-on fun.

Some of the greatest transformations of ordinary objects ever seen in photography were obtained by Edward Steichen, arguably the greatest shooter in any style over the entire 20th century. Working for advertising agency J.Walter Thompson in the 1930’s, Steichen managed to romanticize everything from perfume bottles to kitchen matches to cutlery by arranging visually original ballets not only of these everyday items, but, through multiple source lighting, creating geometrically intricate patterns of shadows. His success in morphing the most common elements of our lives into fascinating abstractions remains the final word on this kind of lighting, and it’s fun to use light painting to pay tribute to it.

Same composition, but lit diagonally from left bottom. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Same composition, but lit diagonally from right bottom. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

For my own tabletop arrangement of spoons, knives and forks, seen here, I am using clear plastic cutlery instead of silver (fashions change, alas), but that actually allows any light I paint into the scene to make the utensils fairly glow with clear definition. You can’t really paint onto or across the items, since they will pick up too much hot glare after even a few seconds, but you can light from the edge of the table underneath them, giving them plenty of shadow-casting power without whiting out. I took over 25 frames of this arrangement from various angles, since light painting is all about the randomness of effect achieved with just a few inches’ deviation in approach, and, as with all photography, the more editing choices at the end, the better.

The whole thing is really just an exercise in forced re-imagining, in making yourself consider the objects as visually new. Think of it as a puff of fresh air blowing the cobwebs out of your perception of what you “know”. Emulating even a small part of Steichen’s vast output is like me flapping my wings and trying to become a bald eagle, so let’s call it a tribute.

Or envy embodied in action.

Or both.

 


AMPLIFIER

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVERY MAJOR CITY AROUND THE WORLD THAT BOASTS BOTANIC GARDENS OR PLANT CONSERVATORIES HAS EXPERIENCED THE STRANGE MIXTURE of biology, art, and science created by the glass installations of Dale Chihuly. Beginning as a starving student in Venice in the late ’60’s, Chihuly has carved out a unique niche for himself as the premier maestro of art glass creations, marked by strange, venous bulbs, eerie tendrils, and massive towers of color, all wrought together in a psychedelic weave of texture and (frequently) enormous scale. If Peter Max blew glass instead of spewing paint, he’d be Dale Chihuly. Like Max, Chihuly has benefited greatly from the ever-hot debate over the permanence or value of his work. And if you don’t like it, he, in the words of Liberace, cries all the way to the bank.

Doubling up on color by combining intense Arizona sunset light with some help from a polarized filter. 1/125 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

Doubling up on color by combining intense Arizona sunset light with some help from a polarized filter. 1/125 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

For the botanical denizens of the non-profit universe, however, the Chihuly phenomenon does have one indisputable trait: it puts butts in the seats. Gardens the world over record insane increases in attendance far beyond their normal “fan base” when Dale’s gorgon-like creations hit town and go mano-a-mano with their daisies and daffodils. For photographers, the juxtaposition of the organic and the “alt-ganic” is irresistible, and, here in the southwest, where sun is all, the extreme effects of our desert light give Chihuly’s glassworks a supernatural quality.

The Arizona “golden hour” just before final sunset produces very deep and intense color, and the Chihuly works installed at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden catch it like neon prisms. Go a little further and add, say, a polarizing filter to this natural  amplification of color, and the hues go into overdrive. It’s Golden Hour on steroids.

The three glass “bushes” in the above frame, installed permanently at the DBG’s guest arrival area, are high enough above average terrain to act as light blotters for the late afternoon light. The addition of the polarizing filter seems to double the effect, although it will deepen and darken shadows in other parts of the images, and so exposure choices become a mite trickier. In this case, the striated clouds overhead also benefited from the tweak as they stood in sharper contrast against the sky, but, full disclosure, that part was dumb luck.

But hey, even dumb luck can make you a little smarter. And buy you a bigger chunk of “luck” next time. Does Dale do it for me as an artist? Does it even matter? His stuff creates light opportunities, and you can serve me up a plate of that anytime.


CROP YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

Whoops, I wasn't ready. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Whoops, I wasn’t ready. 1/100 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

THOSE OF US WHO HAVE LOGGED SOME TIME IN THE WAITING ROOMS OF PEDIATRICIANS can recall struggling through the “Hidden Pictures” page of Highlights For Children magazine. I would love to tell you that I always found 100% of cartoonist John Gee’s camoflaged squiggles by the time the receptionist invited me into the examining room. But I would be lying.

That said, there are many times when, as photographers, we play the same game with our images, especially the ones in the “doesn’t work” pile. Loving at least the idea behind what we were originally after, we pore over every pixel in the frame, repeating the vain mantra there must be a picture in here somewhere. Often, the photo simply returns to the Hall of Shame despite our best efforts to redeem it. Sometimes, the crop tool is your unexpected best friend.

I recently looked at a failed candid of my wife outside one of my favorite buildings in Los Angeles, the “Deco” Building (real name) at the corner of La Brea and Wilshire near the museum district. A combination of wind and facial expression had spoiled the quickie portrait, but the address panel over Marian’s head contained something I could use if I re-purposed the picture.

Maybe this was all the picture I needed in the first place.

I gave the above shot a severe haircut and wound up with this. Hmm, maybe this was all the picture I needed in the first place.

In the space of a few inches of the building’s entrance was a miniature representation of the best features of the entire building; its wild pattern of chevrons and zigzags. I had already done a master shot of about 90% of the front of the place, but a study of its details started to sound appealing. Cropping away more than 2/3rds of the original shot reduced the sharpness a little, but since I always shoot at the highest file size possible, I just squeaked by.

For a moment, I found that I had redeemed all those failed sessions with Highlights.

Watch out, New York Times crossword. You’re next.


CHANGE OF PLAN

Rainy day, dream away. Griffith Observatory under early overcast, 11/29/13. 1/160, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Rainy day, dream away. Griffith Observatory under early overcast, 11/29/13. 1/160, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

by MICHAEL PERKINS

VISUAL WONDERS, IN EVERY HOUR AND SEASON, ARE THE COMMON CURRENCY OF CALIFORNIA’S GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY. The setting for this marvelous facility, a breathtaking overlook of downtown Los Angeles, the Hollywood Hills, and the Pacific Ocean, will evoke a gasp from the most jaded traveler, and can frequently upstage the scientific wonders contained within its gleaming white Deco skin.

And when the light above the site’s vast expanse of sky fully asserts itself, that, photographically, trumps everything. For, at that moment,  it doesn’t matter what you originally came to capture.

You’re going to want to be all about that light.

Upon my most recent visit to Griffith, the sky was dulled by a thick overcast and drenched by a slate-grey rain that had steadily dripped over the site since dawn. The walkways and common decks were nearly deserted throughout the day, chasing the park’s visitors inside since the opening of doors at noon. By around 3pm, a slow shift began, with stray shafts of sun beginning to seek fissures in the weakening cloud cover. Minute by minute, the dull puddles outside the telescope housing began to gleam; shadows tried to assert themselves beneath the umbrellas ringing the exterior of the cafeteria; the letters on the Hollywood sign started to warm like white embers; and people of all ages ventured slowly to the outside walkways.

The moment the light broke, 11/29/13. 1/640 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

The moment the light broke, Griffith’s common areas after the rain,11/29/13. 1/640 sec., f/5.6 (this image),  f/6.3 (lower image), ISO 100, 35mm.

DSC_0365

By just after 5 in the afternoon, the pattern had moved into a new category altogether. As the overcast began to break and scatter, creating one diffuser of the remaining sunlight, the fading day applied its own atmospheric softening. The combination of these two filtrations created an electric glow of light that flickered between white hot and warm, bathing the surrounding hillsides with explosive pastels and sharp contrasts. For photographers along the park site, the light had undoubtably become THE STORY. Yes the buildings are pretty, yes the view is marvelous. But look what the light is doing. 

Like everyone else, I knew I was living moment-to-moment in a temporary, irresistible miracle. The rhythm became click-and-hope, click-and-pray.

And smiles for souvenirs, emblazoned on the faces of a hundred newly-minted Gene Kellys.

“Siiingin’ in the rainnnn…”


JOINTS

Try the special. Heck, it's all special at the lunch counter at McAlpine's Soda Fountain in Phoenix. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100 35mm.

Try the special. Heck, it’s all special at the lunch counter at McAlpine’s Soda Fountain in Phoenix. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

BETTER MINDS THAN MINE HAVE LAMENTED THE HOMOGENIZING OF URBAN LIFE, that process by which uniqueness is gradually engineered out of human experience in buildings, businesses and products, to be replaced by the standardized, the research-proven, the chain-generated.

We all say we hate it. And we all put the lie to that statement by making the super-brands, all those golden arches and whole food superstores, more and more fabulously wealthy.

As a photographer, I feel a particular pang for the ongoing vanishing act that occurs in our cities. Who wants to aspire to take more and more pictures of less and less? Is a Starbucks in Kansas City really going to give me a profoundly different experience than a Starbucks in Jackson Mississippi? How, through creative location of the mug racks? And here, in the name of honesty, I have to catch myself in my own trap, since I also often default to something “safe” over something “unproven”. That is, I am as full of it as everyone else, and every day that I don’t choose to patronize someplace special is a day that such places come closer to the edge of the drain.

So.

It’s a delight to go someplace where fashion, and relevance, and context have all been rendered moot by time. Where, finally, just the fact that you have lasted this long means you can probably do so indefinitely. Such a place is McAlpine’s Soda Fountain Restaurant in central Phoenix. Birthed in 1926, the place was itself a part of America’s first huge surge of chain stores, originally housing a Rexall Pharmacy but centered around its fountain counter. The fare was, and remains, simple. No pondering over trans fats, no obsessing over sugar, no hair-raising tales of gluten reactions. Gourmet means you take your burger with both ketchup and mustard. “Soda” implies not mere fizzy water but something with a huge glob of ice cream in it. Thus your “drink” may also be your dessert, or you can just skip the meal pretense altogether and head right for the maraschino cherries.

McAlpine’s is a place where the woods of the booths are dark, and the materials of general choice are chrome, marble, neon, glass. Plastic comes later, unless you’re talking about soda straws. The place is both museum and active business, stacking odd period collectibles chock-a-block into every nook as if the joint itself weren’t atmosphere enough. But hey, when you’re a grand old lady, you can wear a red hat and white gloves and waist-length pearls, and if you don’t like it, take a hike, thankyouverymuch.

Three plays for a quarter, so you can eat "Tutti Fruiti" and listen to it, too. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Three plays for a quarter, so you can eat “Tutti Fruiti” and listen to it, too. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Graced with a 35mm prime lens opened all the way to f/1.8 and great soft midday light from the store’s front window, I could preserve the warm tones of the counter area pretty much as they are. For the booths, a little slower shutter speed was needed, almost too long for a handheld shot, but delivering a more velvety feel overall. Both shots are mere recordings, in that I was not trying to “sculpt” or”render” anything. McAlpine’s is enough just as she comes. It was only a question of light management and largely leaving the place to tell its own story.

What a treat when a subject comes to you in such a complete state that the picture nearly takes itself.

Even better when the subject offers 75 flavors of ice cream.

Especially when every other joint on the block is plain vanilla.

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.


A BLOCK OF THE MILE

The building that originally housed Desmond’s department store, and one of the mostly intact survivors of a golden age of Art Deco along Los Angeles’ historic “Miracle Mile”.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CALIFORNIA’S CITIES, FOR STUDENTS OF DESIGN, contain the country’s largest trove of Art Deco, the strange mixture of product packaging, graphics, and architectural ornamentation that left its mark on most urban centers in America between 1927 and the beginning of World War II. The Golden State seems to have a higher concentration of the swirls, chevrons, zigzags and streamlined curves than many of the country’s “fly over” areas, and the urban core of Los Angeles is something like a garden of delights for Deco-dent fans, with stylistic flourishes preserved in both complete buildings and fragmented trim accents on business centers that have been re-purposed, blighted, re-discovered, resurrected or just plain neglected as the 20th century became the 21st. And within that city’s core (stay with me) the up-again-down-again district once dubbed the “Miracle Mile”, centered along Wilshire Boulevard,  remains a bounteous feast of Deco splendor (or squalor, depending on your viewpoint).

 

The Miracle Mile was born out of the visionary schemes of developer A. W. Ross, who, in the 1920’s, dreamed of drawing retail dollars to an area covered in farm fields and connected only tentatively to downtown L.A. by the old “red car” trolley line and the first privately owned automobiles. Ignoring dire warnings that the creation of a massive new business district in what was considered the boondocks was financial suicide, Ross pressed ahead, and, in fact, became one of the first major developers in the area to design his project for the needs of passing car traffic. Building features, display windows, lines of sight and signage were all crafted to appeal to an auto going down the streets at about thirty miles per hour. As a matter of pure coincidence, the Mile’s businesses, banks, restaurants and attractions were also all being built just as the Art Deco movement was in its ascendancy, resulting in a dense concentration of that style in the space of just a few square miles.

The period-perfect marquee for the legendary El Rey Theatre, formerly a movie house and now a live-performance venue.

It was my interest in vintage theatres from the period that made the historic El Rey movie house, near the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir Avenue, my first major discovery in the area. With its curlicue neon marquee, colorful vestibule flooring and chromed ticket booth, the El Rey is a fairly intact survivor of the era, having made the transition from movie house to live-performance venue. And, as with most buildings in the neighborhood, photographs of it can be made which smooth over the wrinkles and crinkles of age to present an idealized view of the Mile as it was.

But that’s only the beginning.

On the same block, directly across the street, is another nearly complete reminder of the Mile’s majesty, where, at 5514 Wilshire, the stylish Desmond’s department store rose in 1929 as a central tower flanked by two rounded wings, each featuring enormous showcase windows. With its molded concrete columns (which resemble abstract drawn draperies), its elaborate street-entrance friezes and grilles, and the waves and zigzags that cap its upper features, the Desmond had endured the Mile’s post 1950’s decline and worse, surviving to the present day as host to a Fed Ex store and a few scattered leases. At this writing, a new owner has announced plans to re-create the complex’s glory as a luxury apartment building.

The details found in various other images in this post are also from the same one-block radius of the Wilshire portion of the Mile. Some of them frame retail stores that bear little connection to their original purpose. All serve as survivor scars of an urban district that is on the bounce in recent years, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (installed in a former bank building), the La Brea Tar Pits, and other attractions along the Mile, now dubbed “Museum Row”, have brought in a new age of enhanced land value, higher rents and business restarts to the area. Everything old is new again.

The Wilshire Boulevard entrance to Desmond’s, with its period friezes, ornate grillwork and curved showcases intact.

Ironically, the district that A.W. Ross designed for viewing from behind the wheel of a car now rewards the eye of the urban walker, as the neighborhoods of the Miracle Mile come alive with commerce and are brought back to life as a true pedestrian landscape. Walk a block or two of the Mile if you get a chance. The ghosts are leaving, and in their place you can hear a beating heart.

The wonderfully patterned lobby floor and streamlined ticket booth of the El Rey.

Suggested reading: DECO LAndmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles, by Arnold Schwartzman, Chronicle Books, 2005.

Suggested video link:  Desmond’s Department Store    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJj3vxAqPtA