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Here in L.A., we understand cameras. We know you can shoot a star when she has her makeup fixed and her smile ready....or you can catch her an hour later, when her smile has gone and her lipstick has smeared. One picture goes out as a publicity still; the other shows up in the Enquirer - and who's to say which is the truth and which is the illusion?
Recently, the Urban man found himself at a gallery on Rodeo Drive, sipping a Pelegrino at the launch party for a new book of photographs called "Looking at Los Angeles." The gallery was perched on the third floor of Hermes -a palace of $300 scarves and $150 ties. In the store downstairs, people ate caviar: All you could hear was good conversation and all you could see was well-crafted luxury.
But when we ventured up into the dark gallery, we were hit with grim urban photos flashed on the walls by low-res digital projectors: littered convenience stores, stucco minimalls, smoggy vistas, hot cluttered boulevards and graffiti on the Hollywood sign.
You know, that other L.A.: the one with her lipstick smeared.
The book's editors both originally hailed from New York - Ben Stiller, the famous actor and art collector, and Marla Hamburg Kennedy, an art curator - and at first glance I assumed we were witnessing one more Manhattan hatchet job.
But as I stood in the noisy crowd to leaf more carefully through the collection, I found myself drawn against my will. After all, there's the kind of art that fosters illusion to create beauty. Then there's the kind of art which strips away illusion to reveal truth. And I saw that these folks really had captured something important about L.A. They had strung together page after page of lonely sunlit geometries: apartment buildings and freeways, punctuated by occasional architectural gems.
You could see how even our finest efforts often get lost in the vast, unruly shantytown we've built here in the desert.
For example, in this book you can find the Disney Concert Hall. Now usually, photographers picture it as I do: a stainless steel schooner, pursuing Leviathan through frothy metal waves. But here someone chose to shoot the Hall through a litter of streetlights and parking garages. From this angle, it looked like just one more scrap of urban sprawl. Not a schooner at all.
As I flipped more pages, the Urban Man felt other illusions slipping away, and I grew increasingly depressed.
Desperately, I thought: Couldn't this guy have moved his lens an inch or two and captured quite another truth about Disney Hall? Or hey, maybe tonight he could come shoot this gallery opening, here in this carefully-wrought L.A. palace. Then he would find us ready with our good clothes and our evening smiles. He might capture Ben Stiller himself, grinning a superb comic grin.
Wouldn't that also be a genuine L.A. moment?
When the party reached its height, several magnificent young women decided to have their own pictures taken in the light from the digital projectors. The crowd parted, and they smiled in their pearls and sleeveless dresses while bleak images of the city were flashed on their bodies and faces.
As I watched, it seemed to me poor social etiquette - I mean the way they reveled in their finery while the city suffered on the walls: Unloved and undressed, stripped of her myth and her makeup.
Copyright (c) 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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