This is a small study into the colors of Los Angeles. When you think of Los Angeles, and Coastal Southern California, you think of a warm mix of yellow, turquoise, purple and blue. And, basically, very little words.
On Sunday morning I was out and about pretty early, and I was to pick up a Polaroid from a friend in Silver Lake at nine, so I decided to make the most out of my trip to Los Angeles and be at the Griffith before sunrise.
In the best movie ever made about Los Angeles, Harry Telemacher (Steve Martin) says these words in one of his many aside: “As far as I’m concerned, there are three mystical places in the world. The desert outside Santa Fe, the tree of life in the Arab emirates of Bahrain, and the restaurant at Sunset and Crescent.”
Watching the Sun rise over Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory is another mystical time and place.
The first thing I learnt is that it’s popular enough not to be scary, but exclusive enough not to feel crowded. I was actually afraid there would be parking restrictions until a certain hour in the morning, but being a popular hiking destination (a gateway to the park itself) there were no restrictions (except for the meters starting at noon on weekdays, and at ten on weekends). Some people were preparing to hike or bike, others were already hiking or biking, some worked out, some did tai chi, some were just there for the view. I must have counted about fifty people around the observatory. Being all there, so early in the morning, on a Sunday, created a beautiful and soft sense of kinship – no matter the purpose.
That’s when I learnt that coyotes are liquid. That’s probably the biggest takeaway. No one was afraid, it’s as if they were part of the Fellowship, too. A few people, me included, warned a lady who was walking a small dog but she didn’t seem much bothered, nor the coyotes did pay much attention to the pooch.
If you’ve ever seen a coyote, you must have noticed this fascinating dissonance: a coyote is a bit like a dog with the presence of a cat. Coyotes don’t walk: they seem to glide on the land. They make no noise with their muffled paws, the only sound you hear is the rustling of the brush they move through. They are liquid, they are little squirts and faintly colored splashes that emerge out of the darkness into a spotlight and melt back into the night they came from.
Overall, there was a big La La Land feeling. Even more than at Sunset, or at night. Because of the glimmers of dawn far away to the East, out of the Sierras and the desert.
The Sun warms the dreams of the nation and the wind blows their scent all the way to the Griffith. The smell of Griffith Park is unique. It smells like a perennial midsummer’s night. Dust, plants, flowers, hopes, a faint whiff of airplane fuel make the olfactory experience almost akin to that of a non-place.
The view… ah, the view from the Griffith, on a clear night giving space to a clear morning, it’s everything you would expect it to be. Different from Kenneth Hahn, different from Baldwin Hills, different from Palos Verdes. One of the reasons might be that you are on top of LA.
Fun fact, I’ve always thought that the cover art of Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones’ L.A. is My Lady (1984) was a view of DTLA from the I-110, looking north, but it’s actually a perspective similar to the view from the Griffith, just a little bit less elevated and more to the west. Maybe from Runyon Canyon?
Now comes the part where you just stand by the parapet and look at the Sun do their thing. You will be surprised to notice to what extent dawn precedes the actual Sunrise. It was already this bright to the East, but the Sun wasn’t due to appear for another half hour.
The closer the Sun, the rosier the dawn. And you really get what Homer meant and you become rosy-fingered too as every push of the shutter release makes you more of a poet and less of a photographer.
When the Sun finally appears, it’s as if the tip of a hill was suddenly ablaze.
I thought that DTLA gave her best at sunset, as the last rays of our daily star make her glimmer and shine, but now I am not so sure anymore.
And now, ready for another day of Sun.
And to go get that Polaroid, so that we can soon explore the esthetics of intimacy and affection.
Parking on the Santa Monica Pier is a bit of a Proustian moment for me. In January 2015 I parked my white rental Mustang (beauty) there: that was the first time I came to Los Angeles, to visit Anne-Claire, three months after meeting in Paris. Three years later, in January 2018, I parked my red convertible rental Mustang (piece of junk) there. We were here on holidays from Paris where we lived: little did we know that we would actually move to LA that same year.
I enjoyed very much shooting the Redondo Beach pier at night, so I decided to shoot the other “structured” pier in the area. I was positively excited to park my very own silver Mustang on the pier – I haven’t done it yet since we moved here. I was welcomed by a host of signs warning me that parking on the pier was not possible. Not the greatest beginning.
If you need a musical pairing by now, I recommend Jimmy Hendrix’s 1968 Electric Ladyland (Spotify)
I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect of Santa Monica: compared to where we live, Santa Monica is wild. Hell is empty and all the devils are here, in spite of the fact that every public pole and parapet and bench and squared foot of boardwalk is verbosely plastered with signs stating what is forbidden and what can be done but only in a certain fashion. No entry, no drones, no smoking, no standing, no parking, no backing up, no skateboard, no fishing between the arrows, no feeding the wildlife, and so on and so forth – just add the Covid-19 banners gently inviting to wear a mask, and the luminescent roadside billboards reminding you that the choice is A) wearing a mask and B) not wearing a mask, getting a $100-dollar fine, and ending up wearing a mask just the same.
You may think, at this point, that I don’t like Santa Monica. That is not true. It’s just that compared to the rest of the LA area, Santa Monica is so intricately urban and has so many restrictions and guidelines that it gets me a little on edge. No matter what I am doing, I might be doing it wrong: don’t blame me, I was raised Catholic.
I think I sensed some tension that night in Santa Monica. I realized this as I was editing my first photo.
To me, that is a photo about anxiety. If you know what anxiety is, you get what I mean. Anxiety is not anguish or terror or fear. Anxiety does not need an object: more precisely, the lack of elements that would trigger other emotions and feelings can be a major trigger of anxiety. Some see a perfectly peaceful dusk; to me it is one of the most unsettling images I’ve ever shot.
I moved on. The darkness was probably connected with my shutter count, as the world turned one step darker with every pressure of the camera shutter. It was very beautiful. I tried deleting frames and it worked, when I deleted a frame the sky lightened up, when I took a photo the sky grew darker.
Pacific Park was shuttered but lit. The ferris wheel shone into the night, a beacon to its past and its future. Photographically speaking, it’s a very good time to get shots of the wheel, clad in its glorious nightly neons and yet standing still. I guess that, had they had it spinning along, it would have been just too ghastly.
And there it was, at last, the end of the Pier, stretching out into the bay.
Begin technical note: in the past, my nighttime photography would necessarily translate to long exposure. Recently, as the high ISO capabilities of digital cameras get better and better, together with the development of interesting AI-based software to reduce the noise, I became drawn to shorter exposures that let you appreciate the textures of the darkness much better than with a long exposure. This is basically the same photo shot with a long exposure and low ISO. End technical note.
I like the Pier, but what I really like about the Santa Monica Pier is the view on the city you get looking north from the pier. Before all this came to happen, I shot one of my favorite images there. A large print of it hangs in our bedroom, to me it has a “Where’s Waldo?” feeling, every time I look at it I discover new details.
Anyway, I wanted to see what this looked at night. I still get the same Seventies vibe, a little more Copacabana after dark.
I know what you are thinking, and I agree with you. It’s the neons that make it Rio. The blue neon on top of the buildings on the right, and the reddish cast on the left side.
The lack of people is a noticeable difference. Yes, it’s because of you-know-what. I miss people. Sometimes people clutter my images but the shiny happy people in the daytime photo dating from September 2019 are basically what that photo is about. People were an issue on the Pier last week. There were too many people to make it look lyrically empty, but too few to make it lively. It was like Las Vegas last July. There’s a certain humor in this. Luigi Pirandello, probably my favorite Italian writer, argued that humor is the perception of the contrary. Pirandello’s humor is sometimes funny but more often it is not. To be in a place conceived for gatherings and collective experiences and hanging out with friends and experiencing a lack of elbow room that is uncommon in North America, and to see nothing but a handful of small faceless groups out and about, it is Pirandello’s kind of humor. It’s a humor that makes you think.
Traffic has been a strange element over the past year. Traffic is like a gauge of normality. Every time I curse traffic, I think of what it meant when there was no traffic. I remember in May, the first time I found a slowdown on the 405 North, I was actually happy. I blessed the congestion just like the Ancient Mariner blessed the sea monsters in the Rhyme. In the end I let myself turn younger again, I played with long exposures and light trails as I did in Paris, and I left Santa Monica with this image: a tribute to people going places.