The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.04.13

D.J. Waldie

Beautiful and Terrible: Aeriality and the Image of Suburbia

Grid and sprawl. Lakewood Park, February 18, 1952. [Photo by William A. Garnett]

Los Angeles is preferentially seen from a height — from a freeway overpass or a descending jetliner — the hapless observer going under, down to a carcinogenic sea. From above, the city looks like a collection of absences: the absence of hierarchy, of a center, of authenticity. Ultimately, we’re absent too, wrapped in reveries of another Los Angeles more adequate to the demands of our desire. As Norman Klein has argued, projecting our absence on the indifferent landscape below necessarily makes Los Angeles a site of willful forgetting. [1] Klein calls this problem “erasure,” and he locates it within modernism’s regimes of subordination, displacement and the substitution of memories.

In early 1950, William A. Garnett began flying over six square miles of former lima bean fields 23 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. What he photographed from an altitude of 1,000 feet became an emblem of suburbia on precisely those terms of erasure.

Top: Interminable. Lakewood Park Grading, July 20, 1950. Bottom: Rejected. Lakewood Park, August 1950. [Photos by William A. Garnett]

This is how I described it in the opening pages of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir:
In 1949, three developers bought 3,500 acres of Southern California farmland. They planned to build something that was not exactly a city.

In 1950, before the work of roughing the foundations and pouring concrete began, the three men hired a young photographer with a single-engine plane to document their achievement from the air.

The photographer flew when the foundations of the first houses were poured. He flew again, when the framing was done and later, when the roofers were nearly finished. He flew over the shell of the shopping center that explains this and many other California suburbs.

The three developers were pleased with the results. The black-and-white photographs show immense abstractions on ground the color of the full moon.

Some of the photographs appeared in Fortune and other magazines. The developers bound enlargements in a handsome presentation book. I have several pages from one of the copies.

The photographs celebrate house frames precise as cells in a hive and stucco walls fragile as an unearthed bone.

Seen from above, the grid is beautiful and terrible. [2]
Garnett’s assignment between January 1950 and May 1954 was to photograph the building of a suburban tract of 17,500 houses called Lakewood, one of the nation’s first postwar planned communities. When he began, there was a readymade perspective from which the house lots could be viewed. Aerial photography by the mid-1920s had already acquired an aesthetic that substituted “brutal honesty” (to use William Langewiesche’s term) for the complexity of experience on the ground. [3] The immensity of the landscape, its relative sameness, and its rapid commodification made the abstractions of aerial photography a necessary part of subdividing a presumed paradise.

From the air, suburban Los Angeles appears to have no history, no boundary and no human dimension. When Garnett photographed Lakewood — the foundations in rows, the house frames casting skeletal shadows — pattern as a substitute for narrative was already a cliché of aerial photography.

Top to bottom: Skeletal. Lakewood Park, 1951. Shell. Lakewood Center, February 18, 1952. Abstractions. Lakewood Park, ca 1952. Iconic. Lakewood Park House Frames, 1950. [Photos by William A. Garnett]

The Photographer and Altitude

At the beginning of his contract with the Lakewood Park Corporation, Garnett was in his early 30s, a veteran of the Second World War, precisely of the same age and experience as the thousands of young men and their wives who would buy those houses. He had begun his interest in photography in Pasadena as a boy, building a darkroom with his brother Bernarr and taking an aerial photo of his high school campus from a biplane. He intended to study photography at Art Center School in Los Angeles, but straitened family circumstances forced him to drop out. He picked up commercial photographic work, including some sports photography, and, in 1940, went to work for the Pasadena Police Department, where he was in charge of crime-scene and evidence photography. His work there included color photographs of fibers seen through a microscope, the first microscope photographs to be admitted as evidence in a California court.

In 1944, Garnett took a job as darkroom technician at Lockheed Corporation, but he was soon drafted into the Army Signal Corps. He completed training as a motion-picture cameraman and became a camera operator just as the war ended. When he was discharged in 1945, he hitched a ride home on a crowded USAAF transport plane. The pilot, Garnett later said, let him take the empty navigator’s seat in the cockpit, where he experienced the unfolding landscape as a revelation. Garnett decided then to become an aerial photographer. When he returned to Los Angeles, he took flying lessons on the GI Bill, bought his first plane in 1947, and taught himself how to photograph from the air.

Garnett’s work for the Lakewood Park Corporation, among other assignments, brought him to the attention of magazine editors. In March 1954, Fortune published “Over California,” a seven-page portfolio of Garnett’s work selected and introduced by Walker Evans, who emphasized the distinction between Garnett’s abstract landscapes (which he described as “hand tooled”) and the engineering and military aerial photography with which the magazine’s readers might already be familiar. Evans framed Garnett’s aerial photography as a work of transcendence and detachment.

Top to bottom: Perspective. Lakewood Park, August 9, 1950. Fragile. Lakewood Park, October 29, 1951. Brutal honesty. Lakewood Park, March 2, 1951. [Photos by William A. Garnett]

The portfolio (which included a photo of Lakewood) marked the start of a long and successful career documenting landscapes from the air. Garnett flew alone, as pilot and photographer. He experimented with different camera mounts (including a port in the cockpit floor beneath his feet) and equipment (including large format cameras).

Encouraged by Edward Weston, Garnett received the first of three Guggenheim Fellowships in 1953 (the first given to an aerial photographer). [4] In 1955, he was included in a show at the George Eastman House, curated by the photographic historian Beaumont Newhall, and The New York Times Magazine published a portfolio of his work. That same year, he was included in the “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by Edward Steichen. In 1969, he contributed photographs to Nathaniel Owings’s The American Aesthetic, an influential critique of 20th century urban planning.

In 1968, Garnett became chairman of the Department of Design at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught photography until he retired in 1984. His books, his many individual and group shows, his teaching legacy and his participation in the modern environmental movement were warmly acknowledged in the news accounts that followed his death in August 2006 at the age of 89.

Assembly Line (Series). Lakewood Park, February 1952 to January 1953. [Photos by William A. Garnett]

Aeriality and Lakewood
I was hired commercially to illustrate the growth of that housing project. I didn't approve of what they were doing. Seventeen thousand houses with five floor plans, and they all looked alike, and there was not a tree in sight when they got through.
— William Garnett [5]

Many of Garnett’s Lakewood photographs — marked by a raking light that pours impenetrable shadows over the flat landscape — depended for their effect on what they lacked: an internal scale of reference, the organizing line of the horizon, identifiable human figures. He would refine this visual style over the course of his career. His photographs resembled “abstract expressionist paintings or views through a microscope,” said the Getty Museum in 2004, when it acquired a Garnett collection including six photographs of Lakewood. [6]

What the photographer saw looking down on suburban Los Angeles ultimately disheartened him, and he left for Napa Valley in 1958. “He didn’t like those (Lakewood) photographs so well,” his son later said. [7] He kept only the few images from his Lakewood series that became icons of suburbia. [8]

With the publication of Ansel Adams’s and Nancy Newhall’s This is the American Earth (1960) and Peter Blake’s God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (1964), those six iconic Lakewood photographs became “symbols of environmental devastation ... meant to be understood as political avant-garde: both aesthetic and critical.” [9] Depicting rows of uninhabited houses, treeless streets angling into the frame, and interminable workings on featureless ground, Garnett’s photographs lingered in the mid-century imagination and merged with contemporary newsreel footage of atomic bomb test buildings in the equally featureless Nevada desert. [10] More than 60 years after they were taken, those photographs still serve as a model for how the “no place” of suburbia is to be simultaneously imagined and rejected. It’s always late afternoon in those photographs. The sunset is pouring tarry shadows across the barren backyards of not-yet-homes. [11] Their frail stucco walls are blisteringly white in contrast.

Top: Pride. Ben Weingart with Lakewood Park mural, 1951. [Photo by Rothschild Photo] Bottom: Shadows. Hiram’s Market in Lakewood Center, October 20, 1950. [Photo by William A. Garnett]

With no small amount of irony, Garnett’s Lakewood photographs were published at the moment when Lakewood was no longer the uncanny place he had photographed months earlier. By the time the Fortune portfolio appeared, the hallucinatory landscape that Garnett so regretted had been completely filled in. Between 1950 and 1953 — in less than 33 months — the 17,500 houses were built, sold and became homes for working-class buyers eager to trade a shared apartment or a parent’s back bedroom for a 957-square-foot tract house. The mass production of Lakewood stopped in late 1953 (although things were just getting rolling in other areas of Los Angeles County). In March 1954, Lakewood even became a city in the political sense, completing the first municipal incorporation in California since 1939. The ominously vacant landscape Garnett photographed was now crowded with 90,000 citizens, a majority of them children under the age of 15.

The developers of Lakewood — S. Mark Taper, Ben Weingart and Louis Boyar — saw Garnett’s photographs mostly as records to be filed with work logs and construction accounts. But in some photos they read a grandeur — a collective heroism — of the sort that still clings to the big building projects of the Great Depression. And we know that Taper, Weingart and Boyar understood the modernity of their particular act of placemaking. [12] Indeed, they knew that the Progressive-era model of working-class housing they adapted to postwar mass production would necessarily result in a new relationship to the idea of place.

For some observers, Garnett’s deeply shadowed geometric forms outlining a grid that extended beyond the edge of the frame — apparently forever — permanently defined that relationship as dread. Although the photographs were factually out-of-date as soon as the prints were dry, the anxieties they evoked became perfectly timeless. Writing about the persistence of anachronistic suburban images in the 21st century, Robert Beuka has noted: “The oddly trans-historical look at suburbia ... underscores how firmly the vexed cultural perception of the suburbs remains tied to visions of suburbia in post-World War II America.” [13]

Top to bottom: Pragmatic. Lakewood Park Model Home, 1951. [Photo by Rothschild Photo] Marketing. Illustration from “Shall I Build a House after the War?”, GI Roundtable EM32, 1944. [Published by the American Historical Association] Lines. Lakewood Park Sales Office, 1951. [Photo by Rothschild Photo]

Long before Garnett flew over Lakewood, something very much like it had been imagined. “Make houses like Fords,” department store owner and Progressive activist Edward Filene had insisted in The Way Out in 1925. Make them as cheap and easy to own, too, which ultimately required changes in the national banking system, the creation of new industries, and a reconceptualization of the federal government’s role in housing. All of this was test-marketed everywhere between 1900 and 1950, including in the foxholes of Europe and the jungles of Pacific islands in a series of pamphlets prepared by the American Historical Association and distributed to soldiers overseas during World War II. When Bill Levitt in 1946; Fritz Burns and Henry J. Kaiser in 1947; and Taper, Boyar and Weingart in 1950 made houses that looked just like those modeled in the wartime pamphlets, the primary criticism was that they were as alike as Fords. Concerns about suburban land use and transportation would soon emerge.

Disappointed modernists and nascent environmentalists constructed a fearsome image of suburbia from, among other things, five or six photographs of a few days in the construction of Lakewood, photographs in which an aesthetic of height, a bombardier’s appraising exactness, and an uncertainty of scale evoked metaphors of ironic distance, a denatured vacuum, and the mechanical replication of enigmas. The fixed “symbolic ecology of suburbia” and the “myth of suburbia” were founded, in part, on the continuing shock of seeing that long-ago Lakewood from the air. [14] I sometimes think the suburbs became the thing labeled “suburbia” because of altitude and broken hearts.

What was marketed naïvely as modern and scorned as blight even before the moving vans had left, soon became commonplace. Lakewood settled into the fabric of Southern California without much regard to the sales pitch that had brought it to life or the reductive view that followed, in which the mass-produced tract development was rescripted, in James Howard Kunstler’s bleak dismissal, as the place “where evil dwells.” [15] The “no place” of suburbia was fixed in the nation’s cultural memory, forever in between nature and desolation, by the emblematic photographs of William A. Garnett.

Those photographs remain both beautiful and terrible.

Beautiful and Terrible. Lakewood 1952. [Photo by William A. Garnett]