The La Brea Matrix

MAKE SOMETHING OR BE FORGOTTEN!
Photographic traces in the La Brea Matrix project

The billboard slogan is undoubtedly meant to hit you in the gut, scrawled in gigantic capital letters across the side of a bank on an intersection. You look up and read the words “MAKE SOMETHING OR BE FORGOTTEN”. It's an unapologetic Big Brother-style directive, verging on a downright threat, and leaves you no choice. But what exactly are you supposed to do? The graffiti-like writing reveals no further clues, so your eyes stray to the large, sepia-saturated background image. It signals, within fractions of a second, that absolutely everything is at stake here. A man is running on sweltering asphalt, running for his life. There are no distracting details, only the driving forces of motion are at work here. So it doesn't, in fact, seem ironic that the man has forgotten his trousers – even though, of course, by now we've realised that this is an advertisement for the global jeans giant Levi's. Whether it seeks to appeal or dictate to consumers, this image clearly also throws up some very fundamental questions. Frozen in what seems to be a film still, the man has turned his head away from us and is actually looking backwards. What can he see that we can't see? What is he thinking? And what can be done to preserve these memories?

 

“MAKE SOMETHING OR BE FORGOTTEN”. In January 2010, Max Regenberg recorded the memorable Levi's image at the intersection of Overland Avenue and Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. For the Cologne-based photographer, who has documented billboards in the public sphere for more than 30 years, it must have been a welcome treat to apply this advertising slogan as a leitmotif to his own medium. After all, in the world of documentary photography, the dictum still holds that the photographic image is supposed to preserve an endangered object and save it from collective amnesia. Regenberg has effortlessly met these requirements by producing visual memories from advertising imagery. At the same time, his chosen motif also raises the question of what should be immortalised in photography in the first place: “MAKE SOMETHING OR BE FORGOTTEN...” In his colour photo, the billboard image is part of a wider view of the street. We see an expanse of asphalt, a car, and traffic lights that are switched to red and green, respectively, and further in the background, palm trees and another billboard. You can also detect a certain emptiness which will be familiar to connoisseurs of photography. The sky is blue, the light is gentle. Undoubtedly, the photographer himself has also turned his gaze backwards. What can he see that we're also supposed to see? What are his influences and references? And what has he done to anchor his work within the canon of images, both real and imaginary?

 

As viewers, perhaps the decision is ours. Various advertising blogs have recently speculated about whether the Levi's campaign might be a playful reference to the advertising industry itself, which derives its impetus from the conditions of a present severed from history. Nevertheless, photography's references lie elsewhere. We might, for example, be tempted to think of Ed Ruscha's oeuvre, works from the New Color Photography movement, or the countless film stills conjured up by the catchwords “Los Angeles” and “Hollywood”. And caught up in this play of references, we might even build our own visual matrix...

 

SOMETHING FOR THE FIRST TIME

 

Regenberg's colour photograph is just one of the results from the LA BREA MATRIX, a project initiated in 2008 by Lapis Press, Culver City, and Schaden.com, Cologne. As its point of departure, the project takes a New Color Photography icon – a legendary photograph by Stephen Shore, one of the movement's leading protagonists, along with William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld. Shore recorded the image on June 21, 1975 on an intersection in Los Angeles. His picture “Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue” soon made photographic history, thanks in part to its positive reception in Europe. Early on, the German documentary photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher acquired a print of the image and disseminated it among their students at the art academy in Düsseldorf. They also helped show the photograph at the documenta 6 in Kassel in 1977. In 1981, Sally Eauclaire included the image in her survey “The New Color Photography” and praised its precise composition; the following year, it appeared in Shore's famous photobook “Uncommon Places”. More recently, the La Brea picture was published in Naomi Rosenblum's classic volume “The World History of Photography”. It has since come to occupy an important position in the canon of photo history.

 

As a consequence, Shore's New Color icon has also become a point of departure for various analytical discourses. For instance, in 2005 Geoff Dyer examined the picture's current symbolic value and its importance as a documentary artifact: “Shore actually took his picture in 1975… but at some point America went from looking like that to looking like this. Shore shows what America still looks like now.” Christy Lange, on the other hand, suggested in 2007 that the tension of the image derives from a supposedly empty space: “Shore saw how a photograph ‘imposes order on the scene’ or ‘simplifies the jumble by giving it structure’. There’s so much readable information, but few conclusions to be drawn about this place.” In retrospect, perhaps it is the variety of theoretical interpretations of his work that allows Shore's image, more than ever, to exert such fascination on the viewer. There have also been less abstract, more personal approaches as well. “Intersections, that is America”, Hilla Becher once observed on the La Brea picture, speaking from an expressly subjective, German point of view. “You could almost say that outside of Manhattan life is concentrated at intersections. And he sought and found the intersections. It is a question of artistic intelligence to find them and recognize what they symbolize. For us, the first trips to America were like a dream. We absorbed the country like a sponge, like a child. The photographs of Stephen Shore are somewhat like this, they are like seeing something for the first time.”

 

INSTANT CITY

 

Doesn't it make sense, then, to take up Hilla Becher's quote and to place the La Brea picture back in a transatlantic context, all the while focusing on the individual photographer? That was the goal of the LA BREA MATRIX when it brought six German photographers – Jens Liebchen, Max Regenberg, Oliver Sieber, Olaf Unverzart, Robert Voit and Janko Woltersmann – to Los Angeles in order to discover new photographic perspectives on Stephen Shore's image. The results that are now in demonstrate that the visiting photographers did not simply pay hommage to Shore's work. Instead, their various series analyse different parameters of the iconic image, which in turn attain a heightened meaning against the backdrop of today's megametropolis. Regenberg's studies of billboards, for instance, which refer back to a McDonald's advertisement in the La Brea picture, highlight a contemporary crisis in American consumer culture. Many of the billboards he captured remain empty, so that their abstract white surfaces often resemble a blank slate. Commenting on Shore's 1975 portrait of Los Angeles, Geoff Dyer points out: “It is impossible to imagine a time when this will look like the past, partly because what it incarnates and enables as an instant civilization (fast-food, self-service) is predicated entirely on speed of transaction and immediate gratification.” Today's white billboards, meanwhile, raise the question whether the times are perhaps changing after all. MAKE SOMETHING OR BE FORGOTTEN...

 

A contradictory impulse also infuses the work of Olaf Unverzart, whose photographs illustrate the fleeting aspects of mobility. In the tradition of a strolling flaneur, the Munich-based photographer throws sidelong glaces at his surroundings, breaking with the La Brea picture's strict central perspective and capturing seemingly peripheral details. One composition, for example, in which we observe two women crossing the street may at first seem voyeuristic, but then gains a whole new meaning when we discover, upon second inspection, that the asphalt is marked as a bicycle path. In view of L.A.'s longstanding self image as an “autopia” – a term coined by the British theoretician Reyner Banham to describe a utopia dominated by cars – Unverzart's chosen motifs are often unsettling. In one picture, three beaten up mattresses are propped up against the side of a house; in another, two termite-infested houses are covered in red and white canvas. With formal simplicity, Unverzart's photographs tell alternative narratives that have nothing in common with the classic Chandleresque tales of Los Angeles.

 

By contrast, Janko Woltersmann's polaroid pictures deliberately examine the stereotypical images contributing to the myth of Los Angeles, even today. The Hannover-based photographer spent weeks roaming the blocks around La Brea Avenue in order to compare the reality of the city with the images he had collated in his mind from numerous films and photographs. The resulting pictures throw the viewer off balance. A blonde mannequin waits indefinitely at the curbside, a red diner chair perches on a tabletop, a framed Western hero hangs on the wallpaper. Woltersmann's subjects, captured in pale, refined tones, seem frozen into still lifes and determined to outlast the present. “Los Angeles is instant architecture in an instant townscape,” Reyner Banham once wrote. While the city has always compulsively defined itself in relation to the immediate present, nowadays one might ask whether the home of Hollywood is actually deconstructing its own history. The fresh sheen once recorded in Shore's La Brea picture certainly seems to have vanished in Woltersmann's photographs.

 

DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION

 

Two further participants in the LA BREA MATRIX were inspired by Stephen Shore's photo icon to examine the automotive nature of the city. In Los Angeles, the car permeates and determines nearly all aspects of life, like in no other city in the world. Thus Robert Voit, another photographer from Munich, decided to focus on the natural resource on which all urban development depends: oil. His topographic analysis takes a closer look at the city's oil supply and its refineries – or at least what's left of them. Not without pathos, his sublime colour images document a heavy industry which, like a dinosaur, is a monumental relic of a past long gone. One night shot, for example, shows an industrial plant covered in the stars and stripes of the American flag. Any more questions? Continuing the motif is a photograph of a petrol station, also recorded at night. As a decided counterpoint to Shore's La Brea picture, Voit foreshadows the stagnation and emptiness that a future of depleted oil resources would hold for Los Angeles.

 

Jens Liebchen, who lives in Berlin and Tokyo, drew a different conclusion from the principle of unconditional mobility and decided to examine Los Angeles from the passenger seat of a car. He drove around the city for thousands of kilometres in order to observe the outside world from a driver's privileged point of view, and by limiting his perspective he discovered a hidden side to the city. His hyper-real colour photographs show homeless people, isolated pedestrians and people waiting for the bus in front of anonymous facades. “His images reveal a haunting setting. It's a ghost-like curtain you'd rather not look behind,” Freddy Langer recently wrote about Liebchen's photo series. “DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION”, a traffic sign declares somewhere – there's probably no more succint way of capturing the photographer's sociological observations than that.

 

Oliver Sieber's images, on the other hand, sound a hopeful note for the future. Based in Düsseldorf, he took photographs in Los Angeles as part of a long-term project called “Imaginary Club”, which examines questions of identity from the perspective of youth culture. While Stephen Shore's La Brea picture embodies an ideal form of the 'cool' culture of the American West, with its promise of a collective identity and cohesion, Sieber now applies this culture to a global context. In search of L.A.'s various subcultures, he visited clubs, concerts and illegal parties, all the while documenting the anonymous venues in black and white. He contrasts these images with classic colour portraits of people who consciously define their identity through coded styles to show that they belong to a group and to set themselves apart from the mainstream. Their ancestry or ethnicity, on the other hand, seems to play a far lesser role. Sieber has portrayed protagonists in cities all over the consumer-driven, Western-oriented world, but his universal approach lends itself particularly well to Los Angeles, a megacity that has witnessed innumerable migration waves throughout its history. Perhaps we can draw hope for the future from this. Everbody can find themselves in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles can be found everywhere.

© Christoph Schaden, 2010

© Christoph Schaden, 2010

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