So yes, I can pop off some fairly bizarre sounding post titles, especially in the middle of the night, when I put together most of my posts here on 50lux.com. So let me explain this last one. I'd been in LA for many years. Many. Probably a dozen. And I was working somewhere and a co-worker and I were having an interaction about some product we routinely received from a local vendor. There was some kind of problem. And I asked her what was going on and she gave me a brief explanation that sort of made sense
,. andAnd then she summed it all up by saying, "It's that whole Montana thing." Which made absolutely no sense to me. I mean. I'm pretty good at basic geography. Well, maybe not that good. But I kind of knew nevertheless that Montana was still a long way off. But, at least at that point in my life here in LA, I was still in the necessary mode of not easily giving up the fact that I was basically a hick from the foothills of Appalachia. So I just just knowingly nodded and said, "Oh." <em>That whole Montana thing.</em> So after being here for like a dozen years, I thought I knew Santa Monica fairly well. Geographically speaking. It's pretty much defined by two long east-west boulevards, Wilshire, which is essentially the main street of Los Angeles, and Santa Monica, duh, both of which run from downtown LA all the way to the ocean. But, there was something I had missed. Montana Avenue. It runs parallel to Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards, but about eight or so blocks north. Really off the beaten path. You could live here for, like a dozen years or more and not know about the place. And it is a place. Montana is pretty much a perfect replica of an American small town Main Street, only one in a really nice, tres chic, foo-foo, small town. You know. That whole Montana thing. Movie stars, industry executives' wives' vanity boutique clothing stores, sidewalk cafes, etc. None of this is peculiar at all in LA, mind you. A big secret about this place is that there are endless streets here in Los Angeles that look and act very much like the classic American small town Main Street with tailors, luggage stores, men's shops, shoe stores, hardware stores, etc. So while a good part of the rest of America has lost all of that to Walmarts and dollar stores, LA is the place to go if you want to live that life we all used to enjoy around the rest of the country. But Montana is nevertheless very special. Probably the most exclusive words that can be applied to a residential address in the state of California are, <em>North of Montana. </em>It's a special place and just being there means that, you, too, are living a special life. Even if you're just driving through. But for me, discovering the very existence of this place, and that its very existence had completely eluded me for so long, was a real moment of self-discovery. Okay, maybe not that big of deal. But it is because of my own cluelessness that a place that so significantly on the cultural radar here had been so completely off my own radar for so long... well, that part of it, that gap in my knowledge of this place, is why that statement by my co-worker stuck in my head. So there it is. Oh. The <em>again</em> part. That's because I don't think this is the first time I've used this for a title. 😉
My sister came to Los Angeles this past summer to visit us for the first time. It was really wonderful to have her here after all these years. But not long after her arrival she would inevitably see her first homeless person. Literally, her first. Yes, at 60+ years old, my small town Pennsylvania sister had never seen, in her life, an actual homeless person in the flesh.
It affected her deeply. At one point almost to tears. I don’t want to overplay this but it was obvious she was having a hard time getting past her sudden exposure to this ubiquitous part of the urban LA landscape for the first time. We had to work through it a bit and I’ll leave it at that.
After my sister left LA her reaction to seeing homeless people for the first time, and she saw a lot of them in the few days she was here, stuck with me. It called to mind how our mother reacted to the homeless problem in LA decades earlier.
My mom came of age in the Great Depression and had to quit school after the first grade to help support her family by picking cotton for 50 cents a day. Mom went on to be a business woman and active in politics, a heath inspector for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania… but whatever she did in life she did on the back of that one year of schooling and with ‘The Depression’ always on the tip of her tongue.
So I can’t recall that we ever drove past a homeless person with mom in the car without her calling attention to the situation verbally. It would be something like, “Look at that poor soul. We’re so lucky.”
I would love to be able to tell you that after a few years of this (or even weeks) my reaction to my mom’s unrelenting response to the sight of the homeless was limited to mere eye-rolls. I’m ashamed to say it was not. I pleaded with her to stop. Please, Mom. Just stop.
Thanks to my parents’ hard work and devotion to us, my sister and I grew up thinking we were rich. But growing up in the shadow of one of the largest steel mills in the world, and knowing I would most likely end up working there, which I did, began the process of disabusing me of the idea that I might be rich.
But it would be at music school in Boston, in my early 20s, when I more fully began to learn the score. The actual score. No pun intended.
Not only was I not rich, going to school in Boston showed me that I hadn’t even grown up in the American middle class. The ‘rich’ people in my hometown? They were middle class. At best.
So the point of this digression is this. We’re here in Southern California. That was no small accomplishment in and of itself. And we weren’t out in the valleys or outer counties. We were on the tony Westside. And we’re trying to ‘make it’ and anchor ourselves here and, little did we realize at the time, we would be doing so for the rest of our lives. That’s an entirely different story for another time. But the point, again, is this. We didn’t need to have our gaze constantly focused on human desperation.
We didn’t come from that and no, mom, we had never seen it at this level before either. But we needed to adapt. We needed to learn to react to the urban landscape in the way that the people who don’t have to worry about making it or anchoring themselves in Los Angeles do. Those are the people who were here before us. The people who will be here after we’re gone.
Without fully explaining Los Angeles or the coastal areas of California or even Manhattan to people who have never been here or there… there are a lot of those people. This is an affluent state and it is the most populous state in the country. And unlike the vertical cities back east the affluent of California live largely in single family homes. So the affluence is spread out. Far and wide. This is their state. It belongs to the affluent.
A long long time ago, in a place far far away, someone saw their first homeless person. But I’m not talking about someone like my sweet sister, or me, or my mom. I’m talking about the first affluent person who had the wealth and power to do something about that homeless person’s circumstances and didn’t. The first wealthy and powerful person to walk or ride by a homeless person and ignore their presence and their plight.
What culture and what economic system created that person? The person who thought it was acceptable? As I said, to be sure, it was a long time ago.
Homelessness was not, it turns out, acceptable to my sister. Literally, she could not accept it. And I guarantee you that she’s not alone and would not be unique in her visceral physical response to seeing people, for the first time, covered in rags and living on the street.
So my greater point is this. There is a difference in cultures in this country. We know that to be true in so many instances. Regional differences, economic and class differences, racial differences, political differences. But we should make no mistake (to borrow a phrase from my mother) in believing that there isn’t a very old culture of wealth and privilege in this world that decided centuries ago that homeless people sleeping somewhere on their streets was an acceptable or maybe just unavoidable aspect of life on this planet.
I believe the time is long overdue for the perspective of someone like my sister to come front and center into the conversation about homelessness in America. A perspective that doesn’t simply offer rhetorically that homelessness is not acceptable, but one that is literally not capable of accepting this failure of our own humanity.
I will not hold back from offering that I believe the further up you go in the economic ladder in society, the more acceptance there is of the societal failure represented by the presence of homeless people living on the streets. But the blame doesn’t belong solely to any one group or social class or culture.
The truth is, we accept the homeless and their suffering. We are inured to it. Someone maybe led us down the road to acceptance a long time ago but the truth is now that it is too many of us who find homelessness to be an acceptable aspect of modern life in America. It is not acceptable and never will be.
A note on photographing the homeless and my images. I shoot a lot of pictures as anyone who follows this blog knows. I therefore end up with a lot of images of homeless people. I don’t post most of those images. There is a notion that has been expressed by other photographers that it is questionable to make images of people at their worst and then publish those images to the world. The many reasons have been eloquently expressed by other street photographers. I don’t subscribe to their thinking, however, and I don’t agree with the basic arguments that are made.
But I also don’t frivolously publish pictures of homeless people for many reasons of my own.
I do think, however, that it is very important for street photographers at this time to photograph the realities of people living on the streets. I don’t think there is any one or even a few simple formulas for accomplishing this important photography. We all must bring our own creative aesthetic as well as our own motivations to the task of producing images that reveal this human disaster that is happening all around us. I will in the coming months expound on what I think matters about my images of the homeless. What matters about them in a photographic sense. Why I think and hope the images I choose to show do the job that surreptitiously taken candid photographs of the homeless should do.
Anyway. Today we inaugurate a new president. Seems this is a good day to make a change in the focus of this blog to more serious issues.
I grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Aliquippa was the home of a giant steel mill; at one time it was the largest in the world. The entire monstrosity was near 11 miles long and employed close to 15k workers.
The town was like something out of a rust-belt boom-town dream. Or was it a nightmare? Aliquippa was in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most bars per square mile. A recent article in our local newspaper put it this way. “Aliquippa was a dirty little town of 30,000 with more bars, bordellos and gambling rooms than most would care to admit. In 1918, a state Supreme Court justice offered the following assessment of Aliquippa:
It is said that the region is largely peopled by uneducated foreigners, who invariably carry concealed deadly weapons; that murders are common; and that when a quarrel ensues, the question as to who shall be the murdered and who is murdered is, largely, if not wholly, determined by the ability to draw such a weapon quickly.”
When I moved to Los Angeles I understood that this place certainly had its share of dangerous areas and situations. It was the 1980s and there was a crack epidemic and gang violence was a scourge in LA. So I resolved immediately to stay on the Westside and far from the bad areas of town. And I held onto that resolve for the first ten or so years that I lived here. But, you know, being a person from the place where I come from, the street has its attractions to me and after playing it safe for so long I longed for something that seemed more like home. Sounds weird to me now even to type that.
So I become somewhat familiar with some of the more interesting parts of LA. And at night. So when digital cameras finally became available with their convenience and the ability to experiment, check your results in real-time, and move quickly on, I had the greatest idea. Go out and shoot the bad parts of town with my digital camera. lol.
Well, ISO capabilities back then weren’t at all like what we have today on our digital cameras. And I didn’t actually, it turns out, have a death wish. 😉 So this project wasn’t something I devoted many evenings to. But it was an interesting time in LA. I think the LAPD had street crime on its heels at that moment. Or was it the exact opposite? I remember both periods quickly followed each other. Different police chiefs and different approaches. Anyway.
I had some tricks. I would go out on really REALLY cold nights. Nights that cold are really uncommon in LA so when the chill hits here, the streets can be very deserted. Anyway. Hope these images capture the imagination that I was gripped with when I took them. I would be the first to admit there’s probably not a single really strong image in the whole bunch. But they do capture something of the atmosphere of the city back then. The darkness and strangeness I was after more than anything else.
The issues shooting the Leica M9/M-E sensor at higher ISOs are well documented. But it should also be well documented that, when shooting black and white, you can forget those noise concerns almost entirely. I very often will shoot JPEG FINE mode on the b&w setting when I make that decision to shoot b&w. I like the way they look and I always have since my first M9. I’ll tell the story of how I came to love shooting b&w JPEGs straight out of the camera some other time. But I love them. And at 18 megapixels in b&w, how much image data do you need? That was my attitude three years ago and it’s still my attitude today. Much more on that sometime soon.
Here is a link to the great website American Suburb X and a group of street photos by newly discovered street photography master Helen Levitt. The difference between these pictures and the vast majority of her other previously shown work is that these images are in amazing color.
Seeing those images this morning inspired me to share some of my recent shots. You know, I’ve always thought of myself as a black and white street photographer. But I rarely shoot black and white street photography. I really have done very little in B&W over the last ten years. I think I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m a street photographer who works primarily in color.
Color is the only way to capture the parts of Los Angeles I continue to want to shoot most. Hope these images from my Leica M-E capture both the timeless grit and the gripping palate of colors of life in LA in 2013.
One of the more controversial posts I’ve ever made… because of the title. Oh well. Reblog!!!
I took this shot about five years ago and have never really shown it to anyone. I think the reason for that is that I never thought I could adequately explain how amazing it is to me. I guess I’ve felt it needed explaining and I guess I’m finally in the mood now to try.
No part of the West LA area is really that bad. But this is nearly as gritty a corner on the Westside as there is. It’s directly underneath the intersection of the 405 and 10 freeways, which is to say, the junction of the two busiest roadways in the United States of America. There are homeless people camped out under the overpasses and exit ramps. It was fairly late in the evening. The feel there at that hour is probably worse than the reality. Or vice versa. Who really knows?
I travel by that way innumerable…
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This is a very different picture of people in a car than probably anything else I’ve ever captured. In many ways.
When I saw it and shot it, I didn’t really expect that it would have the glow that popped up on my D3’s LCD. But sometimes light and a piece of glass like the legendary 85mm 1.4 Nikkor D combine to create something that goes beyond what we could reasonably hope for when we snap that shutter.
It is of a place and of a people. California, and Cali-fuckin’-fornians. There they are. I got them and I’ve brought them here to show you all, like pretty tropical birds in a zoo. Only, in this case, it’s just an old T-Bird, but whatever.
That’s the stereotype right there. Straight blond hair that’s sun and saltwater bleached to go with that classic black California license plate. But of course!
You know they’re a handsome family. Well to do. You don’t eccentrically teeter around Los Angeles in a glorious old 60s tanker sporting the original paint job that YOU know looks way cooler than any redo ever could unless you have the wherewithal to maintain that level of quirk. And quirk it is.
The irony is how rarely these kinds of California residents pop up into a person’s field of view in Los Angeles. The truth about LA is there are more brown-haired, brown-eyed, brown-skinned people here than there are stereotypical California blondes. But that’s for another conversation.
In amongst the Lexuses and Hundais and preppy BMW drivers, here are the quintessential eccentric Southern Californians.
Grandpa looks like Lex Barker from the Tarzan movies. The girls look like Kate Moss. They were eating Goji berries in the Amazon rainforest 20 years before the rest of the world even heard of them. They have a cliff house in Malibu Canyon and mom had an affair with the Dalai Llama.
I’m kidding of course! I don’t know these people!!! Have a nice Tuesday!
No, this untitled shot from 2008 isn’t what I’m showing. But I’m extremely proud to have an image selected for this landmark event in Southern California photography taking place at the Los Angeles Center of Photography’s Hollywood gallery location. The exhibition will run through August 12 and features 49 works by what is I’m sure a wide range of local photographic talent.
Details are as follows:
1515 Wilcox Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90028
Love seeing those who hail from these beleaguered nations where their friends and family are living under murderous regimes enjoying the freedom we have in the US to protest those situations. M7, 35mm Summicron 2.0 ASPH, Walgreens 200.
Originally published here in November 2012 but after reading a recent article on the atrocities the regime in Syria has perpetrated against children, I think unheard of in any of our lifetimes, I wanted to repost these images as a reminder of the continuing hell that is Syria.
Despite the name of this blog, my favorite camera lens is Leica’s legendary 50mm 2.0 Summicron. I think both the 50 and the 35 Crons are the bomb. The reason I own and shoot the 50’Lux is because of the additional capability of the f1.4 and the beautiful ‘special’ effects of shootings the lens wide-open or even at f1.7.
I highlight the word ‘special’ because the ability to shoot a lens at 1.4 and take for granted great sharpness and color and contrast AND beautiful lush bokeh is to give your photography almost a special effect capability.
But as you can see from the image above, the 50 ‘Cron, despite the gripes sometimes heard about a busy bokeh, is no slouch in producing almost the same special effect of a razor sharp subject and a wonderfully bokeh-licious background. And don’t even ask about color and contrast at f2. My reading of LFI magazine down through the years tells me that Leica considers their Summicron lenses to be without compromise; perfect in every way. I agree.
My 50 ‘Cron is one of the Canadian jobs. Probably 18 or so years old. I picked it up at BelAir camera for the laughable price of $475. Grab one if you can find it.
Oh, yes, this is a reblog of sorts. Done today in recognition of the NBA All Star Game…. which I won’t be watching and wouldn’t watch if you paid me. But still… 😉
Not a lot to say here. Just my tribute to the decision by CVS to stop profiting from the sale of this most dangerous of product lines at their pharmacies. All Nikon shots. Deep in the L.A. street.
This guy has good form. Feet shoulder length apart. Arms loose at his sides. Get it, buddy!
No, really. What are friends for?
So glad I never had kids.
I read somewhere that every great photo, and I’m not suggesting the above photo is great, but that it is said that there’s something just a little weird about every great photo. That’s all I’m saying. 😉