By MICHAEL PERKINS
A DRIVE DOWN OCEAN AVENUE IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA, directly opposite the town’s fabled Pacific Park (and that glorious neon pier entrance), is usually a slow and stately one, given the nonstop traffic along the city’s main artery, which is itself a major link to the Pacific Coast Highway. The streets are regularly clogged with visitors, a given in a city that, only a hundred years ago, was a sleepy bedroom community far enough away from Hollywood Proper to be thought of as an exclusive (and slightly shady) getaway for the rich and famous.
The Georgian Hotel, Santa Monica, California, July 3, 2021
One of SM’s most venerable architectural citizens is the gloriously Deco-rative Georgian Hotel, which, during the waning days of Prohibition, gained notoriety as a glamorous go-to for those seeking a little under-the-table taste. In the California of the late 1920’s, Santa Monica was still not long past its days as a tiny Chinese-Japanese fishing village, with the site of the hotel surrounded by a small forest, and….not much else. The Georgian’s formal 1933 opening coincided with the return of legal liquor, which confirmed its status as a chic retreat for the film community, with the likes of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard enjoying the ocean views alongside occasional clandestine stays from Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. The hotel came to be the visual signature of the town’s full entry into the 20th century, and of the non-stop westward sprawl from L.A. that would continue to transform the waterfront for decades to come. By 2000, this elegant symphony in aquamarine attained monument status, and underwent a multi-million dollar restoration, guaranteeing its survival to the present day.
Photographing what I call a First-Tier-Postcard attraction, a place that everyone feels they simply must check off their bucket lists, doesn’t often result in anything new being done, beyond merely recording one’s “take” of it. In some ways, famous places are the most challenging things to shoot, since you’re in competition with the entire world in your desire to say something personal or unique. But, as this summer marks almost twenty years since the last time I photographed the Georgian, I recently approached the task with as much “just do it” zen energy as possible. It continues to delight and fascinate me with its quiet elegance, and its ability to evoke a world that has largely vanished, even as it’s been joined by other brighter, brassier neighbors over the years. Sometimes it’s just a privilege to be standing where so much magic has happened, and to take comfort that, to a degree, some of the old spell persists.
NOTHING IS SO TIMELESS as something whose time has come and gone.
Once a thing… a style, a design element, a fashion, an idea…has outlasted its original context, becoming truly out of sync with the world, it can become visually fascinating to the photographer. Instead of forward-looking, it’s dubbed “retro”. Rather than radical, it becomes something no one can ever remember having been excited about, like looking at Carol Brady’s shag haircut 25 years on.m
The information booth in the frame shown here is one such anomaly, so odd a fit in the building that it’s part of (the California state capitol annex) that it wrenched my attention away from a pretty good tour. The wing the booth is part of, built from 1949 to 1952, is, generously speaking, as dull as dishwater, indistinguishable from most generic government buildings, a box of sugar cubes.
But the booths are something else again.
Far from the typical marble-block, cage-and-window, bank teller enclosure many public servants call home, the booth is curved wood and glass, sounding a faint echo of Art Deco which extends even to the aluminum letters that spell out INFORMATION. And yet, at present, the modernity of the original design is now itself antique, its lonely occupant looking as if he were banished to his post rather than assigned.
The lighting within the booth is so minimal that the poor man’s features are nearly swallowed in deepening shadow: he looks like a recreation in some museum diorama about What Offices Will Look Like In The Future!!!, as strange to view as “modern” renderings of someday space rockets as seen from 1950. And then there’s the insect-repellant visor green on half of the glass, which is there, I assume, to protect Mr. Info from harsh gamma rays(??). The entire effect is one of loneliness, of, again, the evidence of a time (or a man) whose time has come and gone. And that calls, in my world, for a picture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY APPEAL THAT ATTRACTS HORDES OF VISITORS to travel destinations around the world, sites that are photographed endlessly by visitors and pilgrims alike, may be the same thing that ensures that most of the resulting images will be startlingly similar, if not numbingly average. After all, if we are all going for the same Kodak moment, few of us will find much new truth to either the left or right of a somewhat mediocre median.
In a general sense, yes, we all have “access” to the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, etc., but it is an access to which we are carefully channeled, herded, and roped by the keepers of these treasures. And if art is a constant search for a new view on a familiar subject, travel attractions provide a tightly guarded keyhole through which only a narrowly proscribed vantage point is visible. The very things we have preserved are in turn protected from us in a way that keeps us from telling our subject’s “big story”, to apprehend a total sense of the tower, temple, cathedral or forest we yearn to re-interpret.
More and more, a visit to a cultural keepsake means settling….for the rooms you’re allowed to see, the areas where the tours go, the parts of the building that have been restored. Beyond that, either be a photographer for National Geographic, or help yourself to a souvenir album in our gift shop, thank you for your interest. Artistically speaking, shooters have more latitude in capturing the stuff nobody cares about; if a locale is neglected or undiscovered, you have a shot at getting the shot. Imagine being Ansel Adams in the Yosemite of the 1920’s, tramping around at will, decades before the installation of comfort stations and guard rails, where his imagination was only limited by where his legs could carry him (and his enormous and unwieldy view camera, I know). Sadly, once a site has been “saved”, or more precisely, monetized, the views, the access, the original feel of its “big story” is buried in theme cafes, commemorative shrines, info counters, and, not insignificantly, competition with every other ambitious shooter, who, like you, wants a crack at whatever essences can still be seen between the trinkets and kiosks.
On a recent visit to the 1930’s luxury liner RMS Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California, I tried with mixed results to get a true sense of scale for this Art Deco leviathan, but its current use as a hotel, tour trek and retail mall has so altered the overall visual flow that in some cases only “small stories” can effectively be told. Steamlined details and period motifs can render a kind of feel for what the QM might have been before its life as a kind of ossified merchandise museum, but, whereas time has not been able to rob the ship’s beauty, commerce certainly nibbles around its edges.
Sometimes you win the game. I recently discovered the above snapshot of the Eiffel Tower, taken in 1900 by the French novelist Emile Zola, where real magic is at work. Instead of clicking off the standard post card view of the site, Zola climbed to the tower’s first floor staircase, then shot straight down to capture an elegant period restaurant situated below the tower’s enormous foundation arches. And although only a small part of the Eiffel is in his final frame, it is contextualized in size and space against the delicate details of tables, chairs, and diners gathered below, glorifying both the tower and the bygone flavor of Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
Perhaps, for a well-recorded destination, the devil (and the delight) is in the details. Maybe we should all be framing tighter, zooming in, looking for the visual punctuation instead of the whole paragraph. Maybe all the “little stories” add up to a sum greater than that of the almighty master shot we originally went after. Despite the obstacles, we must still try to dictate the terms of engagement.
One image at a time.