Known for palm trees, surfer dudes, and the film industry, Los Angeles and its history are characterized by the city’s laid-back living and Hollywood elegance. Yet L.A. has always been more than meets the eye, bursting at the seams with outsider culture and the idiosyncrasies of everyday life. Over the second half of the 20th century, the city was a muse for pioneering photographers, who both captured its beauty and laid bare its gritty realities.
After emigrating to the U.S. from France with his family in 1939, Elliott Erwitt discovered an interest in photography while living in Hollywood during his formative years. Throughout a career that spanned well over half a century, Erwitt traveled the world producing work for Life magazine, Roy Stryker, and the Army Signal Corps, as well as pursuing his own practice. His images of Los Angeles and its surrounding neighborhoods are marked by the same vivacity and empathetic wit that characterize his varied output.
In 1955, Zürich-born Robert Frank began a photographic tour across the U.S. that would cement him as a titanic name in 20th-century American photography. Published as The Americans (1959), his images of parades, highways, and bars were initially met with criticism over their unflattering portrayal of the country’s seamier side, but showed Frank’s unflinching dedication to realism and deep concern for penetrating the surface of American life. Though their casual, almost slapdash compositions were unorthodox at the time, Frank’s images resonated with younger photographers, including Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.
After garnering attention for his concert shots of musicians like saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, Los Angeles native Bob Willoughby was hired by Warner Brothers as the first “outside” photographer allowed behind the scenes, capturing many of the biggest stars of the 1950s and ’60s on the sets of some 100 movies. Peeling back layers of glitz and glamor, he granted previously unheard-of access to Hollywood celebrities through images rich with spontaneity and candid emotion, and revealed the humanity behind L.A.’s booming entertainment industry.
Photographing houses by Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, architectural photographer Julius Shulman captured mid-century California living. As he documented many of the projects in the Case Study House Program—an Art & Architecture magazine initiative that commissioned architects to design low-cost, modern homes—Shulman’s carefully composed, sophisticated scenes helped disseminate the image of an easy, glamorous West Coast lifestyle in the years following World War II. Focused on his hometown of L.A., Shulman’s oeuvre also memorializes the changing cultural and architectural landscape of the city over the course of his seven-decade-long career.
“I photograph to see what the photograph will look like photographed,” the incredibly prolific Garry Winogrand once stated. Celebrated for his street photography of post-war America, Winogrand considered the camera a tool for revealing the intricacies of fleeting moments that often go unnoticed. Images of subjects as straightforward as a woman crossing an L.A. street—he shot everything from famous actors to zoo animals to peace rallies—seem to extend beyond their frames in seemingly unplanned compositions that hum with the restless energy of the city.
Lee Friedlander, like Winogrand, championed an informal aesthetic in images of the American urban environment. While his images of L.A. from the early ’70s often capture the city’s ubiquitous palm trees, more recently, from 1995 to 2009, Friedlander drove cross-country, photographing his surroundings from inside his rental car. The towering buildings of downtown L.A. and the city’s fabled traffic meld into an abstracted image that distills Friedlander’s longstanding framing strategies (doors and windows often structure his photos) and interest in reflective surfaces.
Left: William Eggleston, UNTITLED (CAR WRECK) [FROM THE SEVENTIES: VOLUME TWO] (Circa 1970). Right: William Eggleston, UNTITLED (TOPIARY TREES, HOLLYWOOD) (1999 - 2000). Courtesy of Cheim & Read.
Finding suitable subjects in a cupboard of foodstuffs, an abandoned bicycle, and anonymous people on city sidewalks, William Eggleston and his intensely hued dye-transfer prints unequivocally thrust the mundane, as well as spectacles, into the spotlight, all while he led the charge into non-commercial color photography. (His 1976 MoMA solo was the first major museum show of the medium, and launched the movement retrospectively dubbed New American Color Photography.) Photographed under what Eggleston calls a democratic approach, the everyday people and sights of Hollywood Boulevard pop in vivid color.
Seeking to capture the mood of a subject, self-described humanist Bruce Davidson, along with Friedlander and Diane Arbus, pioneered a new brand of documentary photography that focused on a photographer’s immersion, rather than unobtrusiveness, in their subject matter. Davidson has consistently brought this sensitivity and novel perspective to subjects ranging from gang members in Brooklyn to the Civil Rights struggle in the South. His images of L.A.—from a carefree surfer youth to the lonesome back of the Hollywood sign—exude this intimate attention.
On assignments for the likes of Life, Look, and New York Times Magazine, social documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark captured prostitutes in Mumbai, the women of a state mental institution in Oregon, runaway youth in Seattle, and heroin addicts in London, as well as homeless families in L.A. Her image of the Damm family living out of their car in L.A. in the late ’80s is a record both of the city’s social realities and of Mark’s enduring dedication to portraying people at the margins of society—not as social types but as individuals—in nuanced, empathetic images.
Catherine Opie, Miggi & Ilene, Los Angeles, California (1995). © Catherine Opie. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
Catherine Opie, who counts Lewis Hine among her influences, has consistently explored the fractures and strata present in American society generally, and in Los Angeles in particular. In the mid-’90s, she documented L.A.’s freeways, houses, and mini-malls as traces of societal groupings, having gained notoriety spotlighting the city’s queer, sadomasochist leather subculture in humanizing studio portraits. One shot from another of Opie’s series, “Domestic” (1995–1998), shows a quintessential, normative L.A. vista—clear skies, palm trees, rolling hills, inviting swimming pool—complicated only by the pregnant lesbian couple in the stunning-blue water.