19 Feb 2021

Capturing the Urban City of Los Angeles

Unframe London

Capturing the Urban City of Los Angeles

We delve into the work of urban photographers capturing the mysterious and sultry city of Los Angeles

Whilst Los Angeles is now strongly affiliated with the dynamic contemporary art world, LA urban Photography has often sat on the outskirts of the industry’s mainstream. To compare to the progressive art scene in New York, the rise to success has been a more gradual process in LA. However, this pace has rapidly picked up during the last few years and LA is now an epicentre of artistic output and in turn, success. Photographers have been entranced by LA’s concrete curves, modern signage and continuous cultural progression for years. It is the myth of LA that has so often entranced and provoked artistic response amongst artists.

As part of our exploration into urban photography, we’ll delve into the photographers capturing the mysterious and sultry city. We’ll look at the works of Catherine Opie, Ed Ruscha, Philip Lorca diCorcia and Nikolas Ventourakis, to name just a few…

LA Urban Photographs
‘Brent Booth; 21 years old; Des Moines, Iowa; $30’, 1990–1992. Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

The Influence of Los Angeles

Within the depths of LA, there is a strong sense of artistic community rather than a commercially driven focus. Galleries such as Hauser & Wirth have opened spaces there, heavily contributing to the culturally forward-looking sentiment of the city. As well as this, platforms for emerging artists are prevalent, aiding the ever-growing aesthetic of the ‘DIY’ style and collaboration in amongst artists. Without a doubt, the Californian climate is a beloved attribute, becoming a source of influence for many LA artists.

The radiant Californian sunshine has undoubtedly informed the urban photographs taken around the city, evoking great feeling in their depictions. In the same way, the unmistakable LA sunlight can be traced as being used by The Light and Space movement during the 1960s and 1970s. They were a group of artists who were particularly inspired by abstraction and optical potential of painting and sculptural work.

Catherine Opie

The use of concrete was a definitive material for mid-20th century LA, above all it was a iconic symbol of progression and modernism in the city. Opie celebrated the use of this medium, specifically the Los Angeles freeways for which she chose to focus on for a photographic series. Visually, she draws attention to the dramatic swoops and exciting kinetic aesthetic of the structures. Her 1995 ‘Freeway Series’ is different to much of her work, but has become one that glorifies the evolving urban environment at the time. Although to some these freeway photographs may seem banal in their mundane aesthetic.

Opie LA Urban Photography
‘Untitled #7’, 1994. Catherine Opie. Courtesy of the artist

In particular, the way in which she chooses to show the viewer each detail of the grey and brutalist roads shines a light on their ethereal beauty. Importantly, she photographed the freeways without human figures of vehicles passing. If anything, she presents us with a view of them as objects in themselves, without use but to be seen as alluring forms. In doing this, Opie makes us aware of their gloriously elephantine scale.

Catherine Opie
‘Untitled #40 (Freeways)’, 1994, Catherine Opie. Courtesy of the NY Times

Her LA urban photographs are recognised as addressing issues of community, modern culture and urbanisation through documentation. This particular series portrays these concrete slabs almost as abstract forms, through an intimate lens. These photographs become documents of the action of daily travel in Los Angeles and how people connect to one another.

Ed Ruscha
‘From Sunset Blvd’, 1966, Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of The Art Newspaper

Ed Ruscha

American artist Ed Ruscha drove around Los Angeles during 1966 capturing the Sunset Strip in LA, using a motorised camera on his truck. In this case, he used this method to photograph entire streets, almost like a forerunner to the invention of Google Street View. Made up of over a million images, his photographic series reveals a dedicated effort to capture the city’s distinctive architecture and culture. In his LA urban photographs, Ruscha often captures the street in motion. When compared to Opie’s ‘Freeway series’, his images are full of life, movement and documentation of everyday life.

“I’m interested in glorifying something that we in the world would say doesn’t deserve being glorified. Something that’s forgotten, focused on as though it were some sort of sacred object” Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha LA Urban Photographs
‘Whisky’, 1966, Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of Hyperallergic

As an artist, he became well known for his collage work and photography. Ruscha often uses lettering, imagery and words from popular culture at the time, as well as advertisements. He held a strong interest in the everyday, eventually leading him to focus on his adopted hometown of LA. More often than not, in his urban photographs he included signage with particular words and phrases chosen for the image. In the same way, in his work he depicts the banality to modern life, and the corrupt mass media imagery fed to the public.

William Eggleston
‘Untitled, from the Los Alamos portofolio’, 1965-1974. William Eggleston. Courtesy of Aphelis

William Eggleston

American photographer William Eggleston is recognised as one of the most famous photographers to elevate colour photography to an artistic medium. Through the focus of his camera on the ephemerality of everyday life, he chose to focus on the colours seen by chance daily. In his urban photographs, Eggleston creates sensitive portrayals of moments noticed. Much alike to the work of Ruscha, we see the musings and details noticed by the photographer in his daily life. In his vast body of vibrant photographs, he pioneers the act of spontaneous observation.

William Eggleston LA Urban
‘Untitled’, 1974. William Eggleston. Courtesy of Artnet

Eggleston captures fascinating events, fragments and characters within the modern world, using the streets, parlors and diners of LA. In a similar way to Ruscha and Opie, he decides on his subject matter as being parked cars, billboards and abandoned shop fronts, all seemingly banal. Yet in many ways, through these observations he evokes an enigmatic portrayal of subtle beauty.

“I just wait until [my subject] appears, which is often where I happen to be. Might be something right across the street. Might be something on down the road. And I’m usually very pleased when I get the image back. It’s usually exactly what I saw. I don’t have any favorites. Every picture is equal but different.” William Eggleston

Lorca diCorcia LA Urban Photographs
‘Ike Cole, 38 years old; Los Angeles, California; $25’, 1990/1992, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Courtesy Public Delivery

Philip Lorca diCorcia

Photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s photographs in LA are mostly attached to his early 1990s series ‘Hustlers’. Initially this series appears to tell the stories of passersbys in the city, often lit by neon lighting and classic signage. However, in his most famous LA urban photography, he focuses on the male prostitute community in the 1990s. For this particular project, he made multiple trips to LA to pick up these male prostitutes within Hollywood. As he cruised seedy parts of LA, in particular Santa Monica Boulevard, he would slow down and start a conversation with men waiting for work. In exchange for payment, diCorcia would ask to photograph these men, depicting real people with a typically LA backdrop.

‘Los Angeles’, 1993. Philip Lorca Dicorcia. Courtesy of Mutual

In comparison to those discussed, his urban photographs do appear staged, however diCorcia’s portraits depict LA public inhabitants. Importantly, within the work there is then ambiguity between fact and fiction. The photographs are compositionally dramatic and alluring and paint an image of a darker but sensitive portrayal of LA’s sex trade industry. Many critics label his photography work as cinematic. His compelling portrayals of urban life in LA are characteristic of all mentioned so far. All in all, he tells stories of the city’s concealed communities whilst giving us a real perception of the myth-like Los Angeles.

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Nikolas Ventourakis

Greek artist Nikolas Ventourakis predominantly creates work that challenges the assumptions of his viewers. Fundamentally, he centres his work around the denial of a resolution. His photographs are often an invitation to consider artworks that might have a documentary value as abstract creations of situations. Eventually, we then project onto these what is recognisable and familiar to us. Above all, Ventourakis’ fascination lies in our need for narratives to be conclusive. As an artist, works with themes of the apparent and, in particular, simple pictures that cannot and do not explain a given situation.

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In his urban photography taken in Los Angeles, Ventourakis depicts particular components of interiors and exteriors of buildings. He begins to approach the point where the architectural elements are reassembled in a new space. He also recreates the unstable relation between the perception of a thing and our reconstruction of the idea of it.

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‘BRDG’ series

In his photographic ‘BRDG’ series, he takes detailed photographs, in this case, the iconic 6th Street Viaduct in Los Angeles. He uses the viaduct as the focus of his photographic details. The bridge connects the Boyle Heights neighbourhood with the Arts District in Downtown LA. However, the demolition of the structure currently severely impacts the local community there. Ventourakis immortalises the bridge in his capturing of it, in particular focusing on details of the structure. In his artwork ‘BRDG 5’ , Ventourakis depicts a poignant memory of the structure that is no longer in existence, through a personal lens.

Although Los Angeles has often sat in the shadows of the city’s booming film industry, it has a vast and progressive art scene. As a city, LA is now a centre for contemporary artists to flourish in. Due to it’s climate, architecture and cinema culture, LA is and has been hugely influential to artists for many years. The longstanding common thread in amongst the work of LA artists and photographers is a longing to capture the unflinching dream-like quality and gritty romance of the city.