Captivated by the roadside tableaux of California, a young Chicago transplant started photographing the unorthodox landscape: a ranch covered with hubcaps, a rock-shop yard with hand-carved dolls, a golf course punctuated with signs of hand-painted poetry.
The intent was to document "a magical world created from what most other people would consider junk," Seymour Rosen said.
Rosen, an early champion of environmental folk art, would spend the rest of his life trying to preserve and gain respect for work by untrained artists.
A longtime resident of the Fairfax district in Los Angeles, Rosen died of liver failure Wednesday at Alexandria Care Center in Hollywood, friends said. He was 71.
"He was the great American chronicler of this work," Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, told The Times. "Nobody in America dedicated themselves to this art for as long as he did."
The urban art that inspired his life's work -- Simon Rodia's Watts Towers -- was among the most celebrated he helped protect.
Decades after first seeing the sculptures in 1952, Rosen remembered the moment quite simply: "I had fallen in love."
Rosen was on the committee that saved the towers from demolition in the late 1950s and later spent six months photographing the landmark. The results were exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the early 1960s and have appeared in many other major museums.
To formalize his rescue of grass-roots works, Rosen started a foundation in 1978 called SPACES, Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments. He remained its driving force for nearly 30 years.
In 1981, the foundation nominated 11 environments for California State Landmark status.
Among the more famous are Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley and Nitt Witt Ridge, a meandering mock castle in Cambria sculpted out of castoffs.
Those who disdained creations such as Bottle Village, a whimsical collection of child-size buildings and sculptures made almost entirely of junk, didn't understand the work, Rosen said.
"In building it, Grandma has made tangible the kind of spirit that allows people to go ahead with a dream, to create," he told The Times in 1994. "It's an incredible monument to the human spirit."
When Art Beal spent nearly 50 years building and embellishing Nitt Witt Ridge, he was tolerated as a local eccentric.
To Rosen, Beal and other self-taught artists were innovators, comparable to those who created environmental works but were considered serious artists, such as American installation artist Edward Kienholz, a friend who died in 1994.
"Seymour had a dream that he followed through on -- to document all of the naive environments. He was very important and totally under-recognized," said Lyn Kienholz, Edward's wife and collaborator.
As a photographer-artist, Rosen also pushed for wider cultural acceptance of unrecognized art forms.
In a 1966 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Rosen filled shipping crates with found items including a smashed can, bread, lightbulb filaments and a National Geographic magazine opened to a story on cave drawings. He called the exhibition "I Am Alive."
A show of Rosen's photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was considered groundbreaking in 1976 because it "really had not been done before," said Henry Hopkins, who was then the museum's director.
"Nobody else was that interested in non-mainstream art," Hopkins said. "He was interested in everything and anything with a folk sensibility."
Among the hundreds of images in the exhibit were tattoos, costumes, souped-up cars, a Mexican restaurant shaped like a tamale, graffiti and the treasured folk-art environments.
The seeming randomness of it all was enough to make a teacher leading students through the exhibit furious, Rosen recalled in the 1979 book "In Celebration of Ourselves" that showcased photographs from the show.
"It was the frame she was looking for," he wrote. "The frame, the label, the pedestal. Take that away and you've taken away the 'art.' We've forgotten how to see things for ourselves."
Rosen had no such problem. Friends described him as a soft-spoken man who always made his feelings known, an irascible character who could be cranky, a wonderful person with a generous spirit who delighted in his reputation as the king of thrift.
At the core of SPACES were the 15,000 to 20,000 slides that Rosen had taken over half a century and a trove of information that he spent the last several years cataloging. He ran the foundation out of an apartment in a four-unit building he owned in Hollywood.
"He was passionately committed to this field," said Jo Farb Hernandez, a San Jose State University art gallery director who had worked with Rosen for many years and who has been named to lead SPACES.
"He felt strongly that part of his mission was to make people understand that this was a defined genre rather than some strange person's idiosyncratic building."