Photographing a changing Downtown LA

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photograph by William Reagh

The world’s shortest railway, before it was relocated south. Photo by William Reagh

Every day, it seems, comes the announcement of a new development in downtown Los Angeles. But the current transformation isn’t the first time for the neighborhood. Back in the sixties, nearly 150 acres around Bunker Hill were claimed by the city through eminent domain, and mowed down to start from scratch.

The late photographer William Reagh was there to chronicle every step of it. Over the course of his 81 years, he took tens of thousands of photographs of a downtown in transition. Not because anyone was paying him to do it, but just because he was intrigued.

Patrick Reagh, master printer, with the book he compiled of his father's photographs
Patrick Reagh, master printer and son of the late photographer, William, with the book he compiled of his father’s photographs

“He knew the changes were momentous and he thought that someone should document that,” said his son, Patrick, who was always excited as a kid when his dad invited him on his expeditions.

Now a master printer in northern California, Patrick has achieved his vision of honoring his father’s work in a book, titled “A Long Walk Downtown,” published by the Book Club of California.

Michael Dawson is a third-generation rare book and photo dealer in Los Angeles. In Reagh’s last years, the two men sat down to record conversations about the artist’s work. Although Reagh didn’t consider himself an artist: “I never made any attempt to show in a gallery and I don’t know why,” he said. “I think partly my motivation wasn’t really to promote myself. I was just saying something I thought they ought to say, making a record of the changes going on.”

And we’re lucky that he did. Because of Reagh’s passion, we have a historical record of a time and vision of our city that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

“Whenever you sever the relationship between history and the place, something is lost,” said Dr. Gordon Pattison, who grew up in the old downtown. “Although the people who lived in LA decades ago may not be our blood relations, we’re their descendants in a civic sense. I think it’s important for us to preserve and protect the things they left us.  When you lose those things you lose a sense of who you are.”

Before he died in 1992, photographer William Reagh was interviewed by third-generation Los Angeles bookseller Michael Dawson.  This is a portion of their conversation.  Reagh’s work began to be recognized only toward the end of his life; he was sometimes called the Ansel Adams of Los Angeles.

Thankfully, the urge to document our changing landscape didn’t die with William Reagh, who passed away in 1991.  Tomorrow night in downtown, as part of the larger monthly Art Walk, photographer Michael Britt will exhibit “iPhoneography,” shots he’s taken over the last three years chronicling downtown’s historic architecture. The show takes place at the Gloria Delson Contemporary Art Gallery at 215 W. 6th Street.