Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles

City of sprawl, city of neighborhoods. City of wealth and poverty, celebrity and anonymity. Los Angeles requires us to peer beneath the surface.


My initial impulse was to resist the archetypes. I moved to Los Angeles in May 1991, and from the outset I was desperate to find its depth. No Hollywood for me, no red carpet glitz and glam, no screenwriters sitting at the Farmer’s Market, trading war stories and bad jokes. No Farmer’s Market, even, although I lived, at first, within walking distance, ate breakfast there my second day in town. No beach, no freeway driving, as little driving, actually, as I could get away with; in the midst of our long journey west — my wife and I had flown from New York to Chicago, where we picked up a car from her parents, then followed (loosely) the remnants of Route 66 — I told a friend in Denver that I planned to write about navigating Southern California by bus. I did not yet understand (how could I?) that, as D. J. Waldie would explain more than a decade later, “the L.A. bus rider is, by definition, a diminished Angeleno … . If [people] ask, I tell them about taking the bus in L.A., how it’s an unstable, third-world country on wheels and permanently separated from the familiar, intimate room they’ve made of their car.” 1

A diminished Angeleno? Such a state seemed to me inevitable. How to be anything else in a city, I liked to believe, that resisted my attempts to get beneath its surfaces, even if its surfaces were what I could see? Los Angeles was elusive, right? All those freeways, all that sprawl. It was, in the estimation of playwright and performance artist Luis Alfaro, “like a bunch of little border towns, and you have to cross over those borders” — although, as he went on to assure us, “if you figure out the dynamics of each little border town, you can get along well.” I thought I understood what he was saying, that L.A. was diffuse, disorganized, that the center did not hold. It took me years, perhaps a decade, to recognize that this was, in itself, the point. Los Angeles was a chaotic landscape, a collage in three dimensions, “America’s first postmodern city,” in Carolyn See’s knowing phrase. It was a place that made sense only when you gave up trying to make sense of it, city as conundrum, order in disorder, weighty and superficial in equal turns. In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham describes it as “a city seventy miles square but rarely seventy years deep.” 2 If it would be quite some time before I discovered Banham, this was already how L.A. felt to me.

And yet, there was, I also came to realize, more at work here; how could it be otherwise? In part, this had to do with roots, with getting set up in Los Angeles, with raising a family, finding a community. It would be a cliché in any other place: the remarkable grounding of the everyday. For me, this grew out of a twofold process: first, to embrace (or, at least, accept) the archetypes I had previously rejected, and then to integrate both points of view, the contrarian and the consensual, into a more complex sensibility. I think of Angelyne, the cut and burnished self-made “model” — famous for being famous, as the story goes. I first saw her billboards before I moved to California, in the opening credits of the 1980s Bruce Willis–Cybill Shepherd TV vehicle, Moonlighting. Then I was here, and she was … well … everywhere. I kept seeing her pink Corvette on Beverly Boulevard, Sixth Street, as if we were living in a Randy Newman song. Once, I ran into her at a party at the old Palace on Vine Street; up close, she looked withered enough to be my mother: an ancient Barbie doll (Grandmalyne, the clerk at Whole Foods called her), pancake makeup on a tired face. There’s a metaphor in this, but not the one I once would have expected, the one about illusion and its toll. No: That, it turns out, is another cliché — not only when it comes to Los Angeles but also to any other place. Instead, I came away from our brief encounter with if not respect then an unlikely acceptance, the sense that she was who she was. It’s a strange thing to say about a person so manufactured, a person who could only survive in a city where entertainment is commodity and currency. Bear with me for a moment, though, for this is what we call a transformative event. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that in Angelyne, I saw maybe not authenticity exactly but commitment; she was as serious as a shark attack. This is the thing about Southern California; even its superficiality is not really all that superficial, or perhaps it is, but it is equally the expression of something that looks to me a lot like will.

Will, of course, is woven into the very fabric of Los Angeles; this is, after all, a city built atop a basin full of sand and tar. There is not enough water, there has never been enough water, and when the big earthquake finally breaks along the San Andreas — or any of the smaller, if no less lethal, faults that unscroll beneath the city like subterranean freeways — we will see where we are. “Welcome to L.A., some assembly required,” read a handmade sign in the wake of Northridge, a reminder of the tenuous bargain we have made (make every day) between human and geologic time. Here, we see the conundrum, the double vision, the sort of accommodation that Los Angeles, for all its deceptive smoothnesses, demands.

This is the thing about Southern California; even its superficiality is not really all that superficial.

It’s only fitting, then, that this should be true of our culture also, which, by its nature, reflects the city in and about which it is made. On the one hand, red carpets, hair bands, rock ’n’ rollers on the Sunset Strip, celebrities pretending to be real people in the grocery store. On the other, the young mother feeding her baby in the back seat of a car. “Conversation with my coffee barista in L.A.,” a friend posted recently on Facebook: “‘I’m hypo-thyroid,’ he tells me. ‘Oh, who diagnosed that?’ I ask. ‘A makeup artist.’” What makes this funny is that it is both a cliché and the truth. “The single story creates stereotypes,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed in a 2009 TED Talk, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Los Angeles is a city where one story, where the only story, is never enough. Cognitive dissonance? Possibly … although I prefer to imagine it in terms of Keats’s negative capability, which F. Scott Fitzgerald defined as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” That is what Los Angeles means to me, what it finally taught me: that it is not standing against or for the archetype, but accepting both the archetype and everything else. City of sprawl, city of neighborhoods. City of wealth and poverty, celebrity and anonymity, “[a] city no worse than others,” as Raymond Chandler once described it, “a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.” 3 Both sides of sunset: light and darkness, boulevard and allegory. What this tells us is that everything is real.

Now Los Angeles is — against the odds — in the process of refashioning itself as a more coherent city, if not quite vertical or linear, then in some sense representative of a larger narrative. Such a narrative may be automotive: Daido Moriyama’s stunning 2012 black-and-white of a Chinese restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood , shot from the passenger seat of a moving car. It can be architectural: the towers of Hollywood, pillowed in late afternoon haze from the empty front room of the Freeman House, taken by Veronika Kellndorfer in 2003. Yet just when we think we have the city pegged, there is a variation on the theme — George Porcari’s image of a young man selling oranges in the median strip of some anonymous boulevard, for instance, or the concrete latticework (concealing the silhouette of a bicycle) of James Welling’s 2003 Green Wall. This is Los Angeles as we don’t often see it — or, as we don’t often see it preserved. Such images, in other words, are not common to the archetype, even though we know they are there. All the same, they represent the little moments that make up the texture of the city, define its inner life. Overlooked corners, unlikely juxtapositions, such as Nico Silberfaden’s 2013 image of a downtown freeway overpass, one wall covered with a mural, trunks of three palms in the foreground reminiscent of John Fante (“the smell of gasoline,” he writes in Ask the Dust, “made the sight of the palm trees seem sad, and the black pavement still wet from the fog of the night before” 4), or Dennis Stock’s 1967 photo, taken during production on the first Planet of the Apes movie, of Maurice Evans in full makeup as Doctor Zaius, sitting at a bus stop bench on Sepulveda Boulevard.

On the surface, the Stock image can (and probably should) be read as irony, or even more as commentary on L.A.’s movie culture, where illusion can’t help but bleed into daily life. I, however, also choose to think of it in a second way: as an emblem of the reality that underlies even the most exaggerated fantasies, in which making movies isn’t magic, but a job. I think of Jan Morris, who in “Los Angeles: The Know-How City” (written a decade after Stock took his photo) argues that “somewhere near the heart of the L.A. ethos there lies, unexpectedly, a layer of solid, old-fashioned, plain hard work.” 5 I think of Banham, and his insistence that the freeway system is one of “the greater works of Man.” What he’s getting at is beauty — not the beauty of the art museum but rather that of engineering, the city on its own elusive terms.

We see a version of this in Iwan Baan’s spectacular landscape of the Los Angeles River, a palette of whites and grays and blues, with a bridge stanchion, streamlined as an ocean liner, in the center of the frame, and one lone figure (male, it looks like) wandering in the distance, a small speck against an endless expanse of concrete. Metaphor? Certainly, of the interplay of setting and infrastructure, of the natural world and our constructed overlay. What else is the river but a reflection of such polarities? Paved essentially, reinvented as a flood channel after the catastrophic floods of 1933 and 1938, it has become a symbol of the ways we seek to subjugate nature, although the reality is that nature is always coming back. At the same time, that’s the way it is. How else to control the rising waters? How else to keep chaos in check? These are the tensions, the back and forth that defines Los Angeles, even in an era when the river is regarded as, perhaps, our most overlooked and disregarded resource, which is really saying something in a city with as many overlooked and disregarded resources as this.

And where do those resources take us? They take us back to ourselves. In a city this big, this variegated, it is the individual vision, at long last, that matters most. John Valadez, with his oddly formal portraits, Elliott Erwitt with his 1960s hipster kids. They offer a close-up vision of an urban territory that, it is tempting to forget, operates (like all cities) at the level of the street. Los Angeles begins here, although, to be sure, it ends elsewhere, if indeed it ends at all. Los Angeles requires us to peer beneath the surface, even as the surface continues to beguile. We are always zooming in and out, adjusting focus, looking for the larger story in the smaller, the smaller story in the larger, recalibrating our sense of place here, our relationship to the landscape and what it does or does not mean.

Editors' Note

“Both Sides of Sunset” is excerpted and adapted from Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles, just published by Metropolis Books, and appears here with the permission of the publisher and author.

  1. D.J. Waldie, “On the Bus,” Los Angeles Magazine, June 2003.
  2. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, 2001), 3.
  3. Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1954).
  4. John Fante, Ask the Dust (Stackpole Sons, 1939; Harper Collins, 2006), Chapter One.
  5. Jan Morris, Among the Cities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 246.
David L. Ulin, “Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles,” Places Journal, June 2015. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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