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COLUMN ONE

A MacArthur Park tradition is coming to an f-stop

The park's Polaroid photographers are old-timers, the last of a dying breed. They've been sparring under the palm trees for nearly 40 years — and it's hard for them to admit it might be frame over.

July 08, 2010|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Maricela Garcia, center, tries to strike a bargain for family photos from Efren Castellanos, right. He was in his late 20s when he first arrived at MacArthur Park. At 68, he is determined to be the last to leave -- even if showing up day after day isn't always easy.
Maricela Garcia, center, tries to strike a bargain for family photos from… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Javier Prado marks his turf with a plastic folding chair.

Ramon Alvarez guards a concrete bench.

Efren Castellanos, the one they call La Hormiga ("the Ant"), brazenly goes wherever he pleases. He should, he argues. He's been here the longest.

"Just let them try and tell me something," he says. "I've earned my spot."

The Polaroid photographers of MacArthur Park are old-timers, the last of a dying breed. They've been sparring under the palm trees now for nearly 40 years.

Their 5-pound metallic cameras are beat-up and outdated. Their film of choice is no longer produced. And these days, hardly anyone — sometimes no one at all — stops to have a $5 picture taken in front of the glassy lake.

But walk along the southeast corner of the busy park and you will hear them, one after the other, three voices vying to persuade:

"Foto, foto! Al minuto la foto!"

"Una foto, amigo?"

"Que bonitas las fotos!"

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It used to be that posing in front of the lake for an instant photo was a tradition, a rite of passage.

On weekends, the nannies, cooks, seamstresses and construction workers descended from crowded apartment buildings to MacArthur Park.

"That was the first thing they did," Castellanos says. "They came to Los Angeles, they came to the park, they took their photograph."

On some days, up to half a dozen men with cameras slung over their shoulders eagerly competed to do the job.

It was the 1980s, and as immigrants from Central America and Mexico poured into Pico-Union by the thousands, the giant park at its center became the bustling heart of the community.

Photographers proudly displayed their portfolios — ragged sheets of Polaroid images patched together with clear duct tape. Face after face looked out from the collage, some tall and proud, some stiff and bashful, some dressed in their U.S.A. best, some clad in work uniforms — always with the same view of the park in the background.

Rarely did they smile as the camera clicked. But within the classic white frame of the Polaroids, everything about their new life in Los Angeles seemed idyllic: the scores of pigeons, the dancing fountain, the buildings reaching for the sky.

It showed those back home how far they'd come; it proved that they had made it.

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On a good day back then, the photographers would take home as much as $200.

But they had to fight for every dollar.

They kept count of each other's customers. And whenever one came up with a new way to stand out, his rivals quickly swept in to copy it.

Alvarez dressed all in white and went for colorful props. He decorated the grass around his bench with flags from nearly every Central American country. He dressed people in ponchos and propped giant mariachi hats on their heads.

Castellanos, La Hormiga, offered multiple exposures — photographs that, like funhouse mirrors, repeated the image of a person's face, the lake, the high-rises and the palm trees.

Prado put his cowboy charm to use. He began to call himself El Aguila ("the Eagle") and, in a giant sombrero, snake boots and collared shirts in loud colors, sang self-written songs to passersby. He smiled and he teased, asking customers about their homelands, their voyage north, their jobs.

The men's success didn't go unnoticed.

Over the decades, scores of others showed up wanting a piece of the park. Alvarez saw opportunity and sold more than 60 cameras to the novices.

That infuriated Castellanos. He hated to see the Guatemalan — who came to the park long after he did — call shots on his turf for the new guys.

"He made himself out to be the master, the one who bosses everyone," says Castellanos, a native of Michoacan who began shooting in 1971. "But that old man knows he can't tell me what to do. He knows I got here way before he did."

The two men still show up at the park every day. They work within a dozen feet of each other, close enough to lock eyes every few minutes. But they have not spoken in more than 20 years— and the looks they give each other are death stares.

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Over time, only the toughest stuck it out.

Most newcomers quit after a few months, driven off by the feuds or by the park itself.

In the 1990s, as the neighborhood grew into one of the city's most overcrowded, gang fights began to break out at the lake's edge. Drug deals went down in the tunnel. Prostitution took over the restrooms.

For a time, some were forced to pay gangsters $80 plus six free Polaroids a week. The bald young men in baggy jeans would pose menacingly, flashing their gang signs in the air.

The photographers were hassled by drunks and chased away by police. But they never stopped working. Their customers, after all, kept coming.

Until five years ago, business was still decent.

In fact, the best day ever was May 1, 2006.

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