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Patt Morrison Asks

Gary Leonard: Single focus

For 50 years, he's documented life in Los Angeles through the lense of his camera.

September 11, 2010|Patt Morrison

Spend any time out and about in Los Angeles and you'll see Gary Leonard. More importantly, he'll see you. Probably through the lens of a camera.

Whether he's working for a publication or for the sheer satisfaction of recording a moment in history, it doesn't feel like a real L.A. event unless Leonard is there, decked out in his old-school photographer's marsupial vest and slung about with cameras.

When you've been taking pictures for 50 years, as Leonard has, a camera pretty much feels like another appendage, and without that camera, how many people would recognize Leonard? But by his works you might know him; one of his books documented the building of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and there's a collection of his peripatetic portraiture, "Take My Picture, Gary Leonard," between book covers and on the walls of his downtown gallery.

He's such a devout Angeleno that when he's asked where he was born, he says " Burbank, unfortunately." He's made up for it since then.

"Take my picture" has been an invitation and a commandment for the man whose favorite subject is one thing and millions of things: Los Angeles.

Your first photo, when you were 8, was in 1959. It was Photo Day at a Dodgers game; you took Duke Snider's picture. You didn't pose with him. Then as now, you're almost never in the picture. Why not?

It never occurred to me. Otherwise, you can't do your job: to bear witness, to walk away with [a record] of what took place.

Your favorite photograph is also by you but not of you: Your son's birth.

I was delivered by my father, who's an obstetrician, and he delivered my son. I look at those hands and my son at the moment he's born, and I'm there as well.

There is another historical photo, however, in which you physically managed to appear twice: your junior high school class photo.

For a long narrow photo of a large group of people, you have to have a camera that's up close, and they tell you to hold very still and the lens moves across and back. It was clear to me that [if] you run, you can get in there twice. I should have been valedictorian, because I stand out more than anybody.

What did they do to you?

I got a swat. When I tell this story, students can't believe there was corporal punishment in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

I have buttons from candidates in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, including yours. Why did you run for governor?

I love the history of this place, and that was the epiphany: Wait a minute, I can be a candidate for governor of California! I can pay the $3,000 and run. I never knew what it meant to be a candidate. That's got to help your understanding, as I shoot politicians. I remember Mayor [James K.] Hahn [gave me] a thumbs-up after I filed, and other politicians — I was like a brother!

Usually you're a kind of Zelig on the other side of the lens — you're everywhere taking pictures. At civic events, police headquarters, City Hall, the library, rallies, street fairs, the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

I'm like the Silver Lake Walking Guy. What I mean is that people actually say, "There's Gary again." My son pointed out, "That's what you do. You're always there with your camera, and people have come to recognize you."

Because I look the way I do [like a photographer from Central Casting], I'll be shooting something [and] people have stopped and started taking pictures of what I'm shooting.

I always choose [what to shoot with] a sense of what's going to be important in the future. I am an assignment photographer: You're at an event with the mayor and someone needs that photo. But then [I] discover it's a good photograph and worth running in my own space.

When I can, there's also humor, like the recent photo of a bus with [an ad for] "Eat Pray Love" going by the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel.

How did your column, "Take my picture, Gary Leonard," begin?

Back in the punk era, I was photographing punk rockers and they'd say, "Take my picture, Gary Leonard." The L.A. Reader [was] where the column started; [then] New Times, City Beat and now LA Observed.

You're the opposite of a paparazzo, in that you don't chase people down for pictures.

I don't want to shoot somebody who doesn't want their picture taken. There's one picture — I dedicated my book to a meter maid who didn't want her picture taken. She'd given me a ticket, and I thought it was appropriate for a book about Los Angeles to be dedicated to a parking meter person.

There is a picture of Mayor Riordan ice skating and he was falling on his ass. I published it; how could you not? He's a good sport. Another politician would have called that a "gotcha." I don't want to be negative, but there's everyday life to deal with.

And in 2002, when you took pictures of furniture being moved into the then-new Standard Hotel, someone on the hotel staff told you to hand over your film and took you into the hotel basement!

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