The Design Observer Group

Posted 04.05.11

Michael Light & David L. Ulin

L.A. Day/L.A. Night

For several years photographer Michael Light has been exploring the landscapes of the American West. Light's aerial photographs of Los Angeles will be published this month in L.A. Day/L.A. Night, by Radius Books, accompanied by this essay by David L. Ulin.

Downtown Los Angeles, looking Southwest, with the Harbor Freeway (110) at right. All photographs from L.A. Day/L.A. Night, by Michael Light with David Ulin; published by Radius Books,

The big picture 
During the late 1980s, when I was first feeling out my relationship with Los Angeles, I used to visit from New York on a semi-regular basis, staying with a friend in his duplex in West Hollywood. Back then, I knew nothing about Southern California: The whole region was a question mark, or more accurately a sprawling emptiness, an outline with just the broadest strokes (Melrose Avenue, the area around my friend’s apartment, the Venice Boardwalk) etched in. All these years later, I’ve come to think of this as somehow representative, since even after nearly two decades of living here, I still find the place elusive, difficult to see except in pieces that often confound my sense not just of what this city is, but of what cities are, how they grow and operate, the processes by which they are made.


L.A. is, after all, among the most constructed of urban environments, a landscape almost completely dependent on technology to survive. Such an imperative is rooted into its very history: Perhaps the most important act in the development of Los Angeles — its creation myth — is the 1904 real estate deal in which, equipped with secret knowledge of a plan to irrigate the arid San Fernando Valley with water from the Owens River, a cabal of civic leaders including Henry Huntington, E. H. Harriman and Harrison Gray Otis bought up huge swaths of the Valley at cheap prices; the arrangement ultimately yielded profits of more than $100 million. The story is an almost perfect metaphor, with its insider intrigues and hidden agendas, and its tension between vision and corruption, by which L.A. is revealed as a territory of overlapping surfaces, where private and public aspirations collide. Still more, it is the incubation point of the modern city, streamlined and speed-obsessed, built on stolen water and expansive freeways, a landscape of celluloid and light. Were it not for the Valley land grab, there would be no need for the vast civic infrastructure without which Los Angeles could not exist, nor for the mythologies by which the place has come to define itself. "I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it,” Raymond Chandler would write forty-five years later in his novel The Little Sister. “It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing."

For me, all this came later: Chandler, Huntington, the Owens River Valley, that sense of density, of place. At the time, I was just a tourist, although I never would have put it in those terms. I remember driving, endless driving, in my friend’s convertible, top down, rock ’n’ roll blaring, as if we were part of a music video or a cliché. I remember passing through the oil fields on La Cienega each time we’d go to or from the airport, remember taking the PCH north, past Malibu, for fried clams and beer at a beat-up seafood shack called Neptune’s Net. I remember walking — yes, walking — through the empty shaded streets of West Hollywood, up to Santa Monica Boulevard to Barney’s Beanery (which I knew from Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills album; "Turtle Blues 'vibes' courtesy of Barney’s Beanery," the cover said).

The closest I came to what we might call the big picture was while drinking coffee in my friend’s small breakfast room every day. On the wall above the table, he had hung a poster called “Los Angeles — From Space," featuring a satellite photo, shot in daylight, of the built environment from one hundred miles up. These days, we take such images utterly for granted; the very first thing I did after buying an iPod Touch was to use Google Earth to zoom in on my house. Cheap thrills, again … or maybe something more connective, a strategy for using the big picture to locate the smaller picture framed inside. Regardless, to look at that first satellite picture was a revelation, a way to remove myself from the city's piecemeal chaos, to pull back the lens. Still, for all that this allowed me to imagine L.A. as part of a larger landscape, a carpet of gray grid extending from the ocean to the mountains, with small tendrils of urbanization creeping though the passes to nourish ancillary offshoots in the San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire, it also revealed another sort of chaos, the formless growth of a megalopolis in which development filled every corner like a kind of moss. I kept thinking about Trantor, the imperial capital in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a planet on which "[a]ll the land surface …, 75,000,000 square miles in extent, was a single city." Trantor, however, was the essence of a structured environment, whereas Los Angeles appeared to be without shape. It is this, Joan Didion has written, that "exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease." Didion is absolutely right, of course, but it was a long time before I realized that this was, in fact, entirely the point.

The double vision
On December 14, 1999, Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber, was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington after trying to smuggle a Chrysler filled with explosives from Canada into the United States. His target was Los Angeles International Airport, which he planned to attack on New Year’s Eve. In the wake of September 11, Ressam’s story has been largely forgotten, but much as those attacks were meant to function, in part, as metaphor, his failed effort represents a metaphor of a different sort. It's impossible to think of another city in which the most obvious point of attack would be an airport, in which there is no landmark, no symbol, more potent or profound. And yet, what is L.A.'s equivalent of the Pentagon, that one-word emblem of American military policy, or the World Trade Center, with its twinned expression of our economic hegemony? Even downtown's U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest skyscraper west of Chicago, doesn't qualify, despite having been a target of both the original September 11 plot to crash planes into ten buildings and a second airplane plot in 2002. It's not that the Tower is unspectacular; in the 1996 movie Independence Day, we see it destroyed by an alien spaceship as a gaggle of starry-eyed Angelenos gather on the rooftop helipad, welcoming the visitors to earth. What this offers, though, is another metaphor, about the city and its relationship to reality, about the way Los Angeles exists not merely in the world but in the imagination, the double vision come to life.

Untitled/Hollywood Northwest.

"I am not implying that L.A.’s neighborhoods have no public record at all," Norman M. Klein writes in The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory; “quite the contrary. The photo archives of vernacular Los Angeles are indeed gigantic, running into millions of images. … However, these cannot compete with hundreds of movie melodramas where downtown is a backdrop. … Indeed, Los Angeles remains the most photographed and least remembered city in the world, and will most likely stay that way.” Location, location, location: The city’s iconography is best expressed in the language of the film set, the representation of something other than itself. Of course, as residents of a company town, we know that there is something utilitarian about the movies; we know that, as Klein notes, "Some locations are simply easier to transfigure than others, for heavy equipment to be positioned, or cheaper to rent; and they therefore figure more powerfully in the public record, while others never appear." The U.S. Bank Tower was chosen for destruction by the producers of Independence Day, in other words, not because it was iconic, but rather because it was tall.

This utilitarian connection to the city is one, I think, that gets to the essence of L.A. It exists at the heart of the dichotomy between private and public architecture, the pre-eminence of infrastructure, the balance between neighborhood and sprawl. Where else would we find freeway overpasses named for fallen heroes, such as the Clarence Wayne Dean Memorial Interchange, where the Antelope Valley Freeway sweeps into Interstate 5, named for the motorcycle policeman who died in that spot when his bike plunged off a piece of collapsed roadway during the Northridge earthquake? On the one hand, such a memorial seems ridiculous, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s caustic lines: "Here were decent godless people: / Their only monument the asphalt road. / And a thousand lost golf balls." As with most things in Los Angeles, however, the surface masks another kind of depth. A site such as the Clarence Wayne Dean Interchange tells us something — not about our superficiality, but about the nature of how we live here, how we interact with our environment, which makes freeways among the most important monuments we have. It also highlights our complex relationship with the natural landscape, which can rise up at any moment to shake our most substantial structures loose. This is perhaps the least understood aspect of Los Angeles, the way it exists in the shadow of elemental forces, forces we cannot control. We build on terrain that is, in the most fundamental sense, unstable, that shakes and burns and floods with the regularity of the tides. Here again, we see the intercession of technology, and the limits of that technology at once. What does it mean that it all can fall to pieces in an instant, that what we have constructed here, no matter how apparently substantial, is as ephemeral and fleeting as a dream?

Still, it is a dream of substance, a dream that we can see and feel. It is a built dream, as concrete as it is abstract, an imposition of collective will. It is a three-dimensional set of hieroglyphs, a runic architecture unveiled in cloverleafs and rail yards, skyscrapers and industrial plants, dotted with small houses etched into the flats and hillsides, a narrative interposed upon the land. And if, in looking at it or living within it, we occasionally forget its essential nature … well, then, that’s part of the story also, a story in which illusion and reality are always both at hand.

Long Beach Freeway and Atlantic Boulevard, looking Southeast, L.A. River beyond.

Trick of the light

Here’s the artist Robert Irwin, talking to Lawrence Weschler in his 1998 essay “L.A. Glows,” about the subtropical light of Los Angeles: "One of its most common features … is the haze that fractures the light, scattering it in such a way that on many days the world almost has no shadows. Broad daylight — and, in fact, lots and lots of light — and no shadows. Really peculiar, almost dreamlike … I love walking down the street when the light gets all reverberant, bouncing around like that, and everything’s just humming in your face."

That’s one of the ways I think about it also, a desert sunlight, yet cut — especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon — with a haziness that fuzzes out the sharpest edges, eclipsing the line between the physical and the ethereal, between the waking and the dreaming, as it were. Again, Weschler, from the same essay, describing a jog at daybreak on the beach in Santa Monica: "The sky was already bright, though the sun was still occluded behind a low-clinging fog bank over LAX. The Malibu mountains up ahead were dark and clear and distinct, and seemed as if freshly minted. Presently, the sun must have broken out from behind the fog bank — I realized this because suddenly the sand around me turned pale purplish pink and my own long shadow shot out before me. I looked up at the mountains, and they were gone: lost in the airlight."

There is, however, another version of this light, bleaker and more relentless, which sucks the nuance out of everything, rendering the landscape as desiccated, dry. It’s the light I used to hate when I first moved to Los Angeles — oppressive, burning, a particular midday glare in which the buildings bleach white against the sidewalks and the margins not so much blur as become brittle, reflecting nothing back except the starkness of the desert on which the city stands. I remember, during the first few months I lived here, driving through what Didion calls "streets devoid of meaning to the driver," gazing up at billboards, storefronts, apartment buildings, thinking about how ephemeral they looked. Even the streets, laid down in what appeared to be large, individual slabs of asphalt, looked as if they could come apart at the merest touch. Not knowing the place, I misread this also, through the filter of seismicity. Now, I understand that I was mistaken, that what I was seeing was, on the most basic level, nothing more than a trick of the light.

This is why so many people wear sunglasses in L.A., although in a city too often defined by its fantasies, that seems a dangerous affectation in my view. Instead, I think of Mick Jagger singing "Rocks Off": "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me." It’s a great line, and perfect for Los Angeles, if not exactly in the way Jagger intends. After all, it isn’t the dullness of the sunshine that’s the issue, but rather how deeply it bores into us. Daylight here is never daylight as it might be elsewhere. It is more lucent, higher contrast, offering an additional form of double vision, a lens that changes depending on the hour.

During the peak of the day — noon, one o’clock — L.A. is shadowless, pitiless, a city in a never-ending present tense. Yet along the fringes — dawn or dusk — you feel its boundaries start to slip. From the instant I arrived in Southern California, I have loved the late afternoons, the early evenings, the long marine-layered mornings when, as Irwin and Weschler so eloquently remind us, the light grows diffuse and misty, and a subtle haze, less entity than impression, envelopes the crowns of palms and eucalyptus, investing them with a prehistoric glow. At moments like this, it feels as if I can see beyond myself, as if time has telescoped and cascaded, as if the bridges, the buildings, the overgrown freeway passes, have all been here forever and will be forever, as if it is not the present that is endless but the future and the past. At moments like this, I am left with a sense of time beyond the human, not quite geological but teleological, a sense that God is in the details, that there is more to this built environment than can ever meet the eye. At moments like this, the skyscrapers of downtown, the container ports of San Pedro, the Los Angeles River and the Vincent Thomas Bridge all lose their distinctness and burn into oblivion, an oblivion not of annihilation but of light. It’s an illusion, of course, in much the same way as L.A. itself is an illusion, since whatever else this city is, it is also the end of the line, the place where all the myths of possibility and reinvention butt up against the limits of the continent, and the vanishing point of the horizon becomes the vanishing point of the world.

Night flight
I first flew into Los Angeles at night in July 1990, ten months or so before I finally left New York for California, just a few days prior to my brother’s wedding in the backyard of his fiancée’s childhood home in Palos Verdes Estates. At the time, I couldn’t have identified the Palos Verdes peninsula on a map, although in the course of the visit, I came to fill in another small piece of the outline (the South Bay, Redondo Beach), another few broad strokes. But this is not what I want to tell you … not exactly, anyway. The point is that, flying over the basin in darkness revealed an entirely different vision of L.A.

During previous flights, I had stared out as the city stretched beneath me, a variation on "Los Angeles — From Space." I had looked down at the neighborhoods, most indistinguishable from such an altitude, an unsubstantiated expanse of houses and lawns and palm trees, all blended together in the sprawl. This time, however, it was as if Southern California had been turned inside out. On the approach, I could make out the blunt shadows of the San Bernardino Mountains, but otherwise, even areas I had come to recognize — Hollywood, downtown, Inglewood — were eclipsed. Or no, not eclipsed but transfigured, less the usual accumulations of boulevards or buildings than elaborate electric clusters, stretching to the horizon, where they collided with the darkness of the Pacific. It was as if L.A. had been enfolded into an earthbound starscape, until we got close to landing and it reconfigured itself back into a city defined by artificial light. This is what happens, I might have thought, when the borders are refracted, and the pieces by which we recognize Los Angeles become diffuse.

Untitled/Jesus Saves.

It is for this reason that I am drawn to L.A. in the nighttime, as much, I think, as to the crepuscular glow of dawn or dusk. Nighttime is, for me, when the city reveals its essence, when it slows and unveils itself. Does this sound idyllic? Maybe so. But there’s an edge to the nights here also, a loneliness — or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a dispersion, a quality of letting go. I’m not talking about the nightlife (although there’s a lot of letting go there, as well), but rather about the life of the night. I’m talking about how night inhabits the city, how it not only obscures but erases the boundaries, rendering us equally awed and lost.

You cannot walk alone at night in Los Angeles; there’s no one on the street, which means that if harm befalls you, you are irrevocably on your own. And yet, this does not mean L.A. is an unsafe city, just an honest one. We are, after all, always on our own, no matter what we tell ourselves. We build great cities as testaments, less to protect us than to proclaim that we were here. Freeways, buildings, concrete flood channels: it is in such structures that we leave our most enduring mark. And yet, for all their apparent solidity, they are not everlasting: They were not and will not be here forever, no matter what the light may say. This is night’s message, the opposite of daylight’s — that eternity is vast and what we understand is insignificant and the monuments we erect are already gone. And yet, as much as this leaves us to confront the chaos, to look for landmarks among the blur of lights and darkness even as we know they can’t sustain us, it also gives a glimpse of things at their most elemental, with no filter between us and the world.

Here’s what I mean: That summer night in 1990, my friend picked me up at LAX. We got my bag and drove north, through the oil fields on La Cienega, those derricks pumping like a flock of prehistoric birds. It was a cool night, but we had the top down, and as we crested the hill past Kenneth Hahn State Park and came north towards Rodeo Road, the city glittered before us like a dream. I was hungry, so we drove up Fairfax to Canter’s Deli for a bowl of matzoh ball soup. As always after I’d flown a long distance, I felt disoriented, displaced. "I once read," writes Yoko Tawada, "that the soul cannot fly as fast an airplane. Therefore one always loses one’s soul on an airplane journey, and arrives at one’s destination in a soulless state." We had a Scotch, and then another; back in the car, I felt a sudden burst of exhilaration, although I could not have told you why. Maybe it was a sense of being on the cusp of a decision, although that feels like hindsight to me now. But I remember that I felt on my own and far away from everything, on a coast where I knew almost no one and very little about where I was. "We stayed ten days," Joan Didion writes in her 1967 essay "Goodbye to All That," about giving up Manhattan for L.A., "and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York. There were years when I called Los Angeles 'the Coast,' but they seem a long time ago." 

Yes, indeed, a long time ago, in a city that compels me even now.