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An illustrative light

Los Angeles. It seems to stretch out forever, glowing and perpetually out of focus. A new collection of photographs eschews cliche as it recalibrates the city's shining familiarity.

June 12, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

The cover to "Looking at Los Angeles," a smashing new book of photographs of arguably the most photogenic city in America, features a relatively recent picture taken at night from atop Mt. Wilson. Along the bottom of the image, hills create a curvy black contour, a bit like a sensual body stretched out on a bed. The sky at the top is an inky flat plane. In between, the twinkling, blue-white lights so familiar to any traveling Angeleno coming home to LAX spread out toward a radiant horizon.

But something is seriously wrong with those lights. The city's immense grid is evident, outlined by streetlights, automobile headlights and building illumination. In oozing patches scattered across the surface, however, the lights streak and blur. It's the visual equivalent of a stuttering glissando, or like a skip in a recording track.

Are the white blurs clouds? No, not unless clouds are geometric.

Did the camera jostle when the shutter clicked? Impossible, since big chunks of the landscape appear crystal clear.

So what is going on?

If it's not the scene and not the machine, it must be the artist. That is, it must be human manipulation of a photograph, undertaken in the darkroom or, more likely, on a computer keyboard. Florian Maier-Aichen, the gifted young German-born, L.A.-based photographer who made this quietly destabilizing picture, has intervened on a familiar landscape view by drawing with light. He started with the city's distinctive terrain -- a huge volume of space filled with atmospheric light, a geographic and climatic circumstance that gives the place its unique charisma. To that natural phenomenon he added a surreptitious element of imaginative fabrication -- which is precisely what characterizes the social and cultural image of the city. The knockout picture reads as simultaneously natural and preternatural.

It's an ideal cover to "Looking at Los Angeles," an unusually compelling assembly of 202 photographs by 89 artists, all but a handful made since 1960 but some dating to the 1930s. (The earliest is Julius Shulman's 1934 picture of City Hall, reflected in puddles on a newly poured concrete foundation at Union Station.) The book was edited by actor and photography enthusiast Ben Stiller and New York art dealer Marla Hamburg Kennedy, with the critical help of L.A. gallerist Craig Krull. A selection of the prints will be displayed at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood from next Sunday through July 18, and part of the book-sale proceeds will go to the Los Angeles Conservancy, which preserves the city's architectural heritage.

But frankly, given the subject matter, the sustained quality of the images is also a bit of a surprise. The book is blissfully free of the usual California cliches. Not an index of civic stereotypes, real or imagined, the book is focused elsewhere. Familiar architectural landmarks are indeed encountered along the way -- how could they not be? -- along with the movie and TV industries, surfers, eccentrics, earthquakes, suburbia and the rest of what one might expect. But they crop up almost in passing.

Book designer Lorraine Wild, working with Victoria Lam and Green Dragon Office, chose to present the photographs without accompanying captions. The design choice is salutary. A checklist at the back is keyed to page numbers, which does make for some clumsiness in looking up artists' names, titles and dates. But you concentrate instead on pictures, not words; images are primary information.

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Radiant encounters

I sat down with a pencil and pad to map the city represented in the sequence of pictures, which are clustered loosely by subject. Bridges, light industry, the hills, car culture, buildings, signs, flora, disasters, swimming pools, the beach, nighttime -- the narrative that emerges is random and diffuse. The layout mimics most encounters with a city synonymous with sprawl.

But the disparate images hang together for a simple reason: Light is the unifying theme. It's as much the principal concern of Maier-Aichen's acutely fabricated cover as it is of an otherwise banal 1947 picture of thirtysomething actors Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, shown sunbathing out in the backyard by a pittosporum hedge. Taken by an anonymous photographer who no doubt worked for a studio publicity mill, the advertising image is arresting because of something the book's context reveals: The blank couple seem pinned to their chaise longues, like insects to a specimen board, by the sheer intensity of the sunlight shining down on them.

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