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L.A. time-lapse photographer takes the long view

Colin Rich has spent many nights capturing the city's rhythms from out-of-the-way spots, including sneaking behind the Hollywood sign and climbing perilously close to rush-hour traffic.

April 25, 2012|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times
Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times (lwzcubpd20120424093346/600 )

On a steep slope, above a retaining wall with scrawled warnings ("Stay off, Stay out, Private Property"), Colin Rich begins to unpack black bags full of cameras and gear.

The warnings confirm that this is where he wants to be. The secluded Echo Park hillside offers a sweeping view of downtown Los Angeles.

Over the next three hours, he will take a sequence of nearly 1,000 images, studying the scene and adjusting his camera as the sun falls and the city lights emerge.

PHOTOS: Los Angeles, one frame at a time

Rich, a cinematographer and time-lapse filmmaker, has spent many nights in the last year photographing the city from out-of-the-way locations such as this. He's talked his way to the top of a downtown high-rise, evaded security guards, sneaked behind the Hollywood sign and climbed dangerously close to rush-hour traffic — all in an effort to capture the visual rhythms of L.A., the city's energy and flow.

"It's really, really, difficult to shoot an original shot here," said Rich, 29, a native Angeleno. "If you want good shots, you always have to keep pushing."

By editing and speeding up his images, Rich reveals patterns imperceptible to the naked eye: the intricate signatures of planes circling high above Los Angeles International Airport, light splashing against the faces of buildings, clouds tumbling in the sky, cars flowing through the freeways like platelets in a pulsing vein.

Around the world, time-lapse photographers are using high-powered cameras and high-speed video streaming on the Web to create and share works that offer a strikingly fresh perspective on urban life.

YouTube, Vimeo and other websites are filled with time-lapse videos of cities across the globe: the bustling harbor of Hong Kong, the frantic pace of Manhattan, the rapid construction of high-rise towers in Abu Dhabi.

It's part of a larger technological leap that is helping people visualize cities in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, before Google photo maps and advanced satellite images showing the tiniest details of streetscapes became widely accessible.

Time-lapse photography shows how a city functions over time, how people get around it and how its appearance can change hour by hour.

"A city is so complex — you've got people and buildings and movement and color," said Eric Jaffe, an urban affairs writer based in New York. "The mission of a lot of these artists is to take that complexity and make it a living organism."

For Rich, there's no simple way to define the character of L.A. His method is about finding new vantage points and new combinations of movement and light.

"You have to go places people don't normally go," he said.


Rich's quest began one night in late 2010 at one of the most photographed places in the city: Griffith Observatory.

He went there to shoot the patterns of airplanes hovering over the Los Angeles Basin. But his gaze settled on the grid of lights below. He fixated on Western Avenue, a streak of light shooting south "like a giant vein through the city," he recalled.

The view brought to mind how difficult it is to grasp the complexity of Los Angeles, he said.

"We all just zip through L.A. That's just the way the city is," he said. "You can't be observant going 65 on the freeway.... You can't see how things really work."

Rich, a New York University film school graduate, has done video production work for television shows and websites for nearly a decade. He began making time-lapse videos mostly as a hobby.

That night at the observatory, he decided to apply the technique to something ambitious. He wanted to tell the story of his city, his home.

He started to search for locations where he could capture the ebb and flow of Los Angeles, its people, cars and energy. On Facebook, he asked friends: "What's the best view of L.A.?"

When he identified a good vantage point, Rich would scout the area during the day. A time-lapse photographer has to deal with a host of variables and complications: light, vehicle traffic, curious pedestrians, shifting weather conditions.

"A lot of what we do is legwork," said William Ahmanson, a childhood friend who is now Rich's business partner and assistant. "We move around so much trying to find different spots."

Security restrictions imposed after 9/11 make it difficult to photograph near downtown buildings and LAX.

Rich learned how to buy time when security guards confronted him. He once set up a tripod on top of his car so guards at a bank couldn't obstruct his view while they debated whether he had a legal right to shoot there.

He said he has tried repeatedly to photograph the elaborate fountains outside the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building, only to be chased away by security personnel.

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