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Angel in the Outfield

Don Normark's Photographs Capture the Unearthly Beauty of Pre-Dodger Chavez Ravine

August 10, 1997|PATT MORRISON | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer and a co-host of KCET's "Life & Times."

On a fine, clean December morning in 1948--in those smog-bound days, a fine December morning was a rare thing--Don Normark had gone in search of one Los Angeles.

As so often happens, he found a different one altogether.

Don Normark was 20 years old, an Art Center photography student and a fugitive from the glooming Seattle weather and the stiff Scandinavian culture of his forebears. He was within a few months of quitting the Art Center altogether. He had no stomach for the curriculum of smug commercial photography that fattened the magazines of a nation grown newly rich on the GNP of victory.

He was seeking, that morning, a high, clear place from which to make a picture-postcard photograph of mythic Los Angeles, the kind of photo that sold movie tickets and real estate. The streetcar took him up toward the crown of Elysian Park, and there he found another mythic Los Angeles, a Mexican Brigadoon, a place almost as much imagined as remembered now--Chavez Ravine.

Chavez Ravine was not yet the political grito it would become--the Pearl Harbor of Latino L.A. In 1949, the land would be chosen for public housing to be designed by the brilliant Richard Neutra. People were moved, land was cleared. But by 1951, public housing had become the open door to "creeping socialism," and by 1953, "Elysian Park Heights" was a dead idea on fallow land. It lay dormant until 1957, when the city traded it to the owner of the new Los Angeles Dodgers. Those who had remained behind--and like the legends of the Titanic, dozens claimed to be the last to leave--were cleared out, sometimes forcibly.

But in 1948, Don Normark found only a village within a city, a thousand families and a few curmudgeonly bachelors, houses and yards and streets nothing like the prosperous la dolce vita California Normark would eventually photograph for 30 years at Sunset magazine.

He was drawn to how different they were from his own stoic Swedish stock, these people who "knew how to have a good time," who had only small celebrations and so made them into grand ones. And they suffered the 20-year-old gringo who came among them once a week for months. For 40 hours a week, Normark earned his keep making foot-high angels for department store displays. For the rest, he printed his pictures in a darkroom he had contrived in the entry hall of his rented house.

Dorothea Lange, the compassionate eye of Dust Bowl America, would see Normark's photographs and pronounce them "quite nice." Normark found her name and address in the Oakland phone book. Edward Weston, the master of nature, cooked Normark breakfast and told him he liked the pictures. On an excursion with a San Francisco art-school class, Normark had camped in Weston's rose garden--the others could afford hotel rooms--and when he saw smoke rising from the chimney the next morning, he knocked on the door.

Their only showing was in 1950, five prints selected by LACMA for a mid-century photography show, "all the country's best photographers, and me."

The only money he made off them was the $25 that Life magazine gave him to stay in town an extra week while the editors in New York passed judgment on his portfolio. They said no.

Normark came back to Chavez Ravine twice: looking for the barrios and finding only Dodger Stadium, and again this summer, at the 17th annual picnic-reunion of the Desterrados, the uprooted ones, the families of Chavez Ravine.

Normark and his partner hope to weave all of the images into a documentary; in his career, he has done landscape and abstract and symbolic photographs, but these, he says, these are history.

To that end, he took the pictures to the picnic and displayed them under a tree. The aging children of Chavez Ravine gossiped and pointed. Oh, someone said: Sister Carmen! I pray for her every night. There was Bishop Road, and someone remembered the go-carts, built for speed and not for steering, that crashed into the trash cans at the bottom of the road. There were the bare, path-crossed hills, and someone else remembered La Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexican fable. The mention of her walking the hills was supposed to keep children indoors after dark. It did not, until the evening they saw her, all in white, floating down a path and singing strange music. (It turned out to be a nurse from French Hospital below, walking the paths, singing German Lieder.)

"The old country," sighed a man with a tight gray ponytail.

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