Category: Photography/Art

ExcerptsPhotography/Art

On the Edge

by William L.Fox with photographs by Marie-José Jongerius

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

liminal |ˈlimənl| adjective technical. 1 of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2 occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. DERIVATIVES: liminality |ˌliməˈnaləte| noun. ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Latin limen, limin- ‘threshold’ + -al.

 

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of William L. Fox’s essay “On the Edge” from our Summer 2015 issue. 

To understand why the Dutch photographer Marie-José Jongerius wanted to photograph in the American Far West—in particular that part of it that runs from Los Angeles inland to Las Vegas, south to Tijuana, and north up through the Central Valley of California—it helps to know something about boundaries and contrast. To know why it’s important to behold her work, it’s critical to know about how that dividing line of sight is not a two-dimensional geometrical figure, but a four-dimensional zone we label the liminal.

Eighty percent of everything we know about the world comes through our eyes, such a vast amount of information (100 million bits per second) that the brain is forced to throw away 90 percent of what hits the surface of the eye, transmitting only 10 percent to the brain for processing. That one-tenth of the world is what we see, the light triaged into about two dozen basic shapes. Circles, ovals, rectilinear shapes such as squares, polygons such as triangles, and then more ambiguously, right angles and arcs. Everything we see in the world is assembled from those shapes, which are made by lines that create the inside and the outside, the left and right, the top and bottom. We are upright bilaterally symmetrical animals, and we organize the information received accordingly. What the lines define around vertical and horizontal axes is boundary contrast, perhaps the second oldest visual notion we own after undifferentiated light and dark. It’s a recognition of line that separates us from the cognition of plants.

Needles (CA)—2003

Boundaries in the environment are what we tend to move along, as they are rich with information, food, and consequently danger. The edge of the forest where it becomes a meadow is where we find the small animals that are natural human prey. They hide in the safety of the forest, but when they creep and hop and run out into the meadow for food, they become visible and vulnerable. We aren’t so different from the raptors that fly overhead, seeking the same visual information and food source. It’s along the borders and boundaries of the world where photographers can often be found shooting, as well.

The human eye roves about a landscape in staccato movements called saccades. A saccade is a very quick sampling several times a second of what is in front of us; it allows us to identify where we are and what’s around us. Saccades follow general priorities in a rough order: What fits in, what’s anomalous, what displays the bilateral symmetry that can mean friend or foe, what’s in motion and in what direction. When we look at a photograph of a landscape, our eyes tend to follow that same prioritized pattern.

The landscape in which we are most secure while scoping out what’s in our environment is one where we can see and not be seen, and you can see how artists throughout history have intuited that scheme and used it. Claude Lorrain framed his landscapes in the 1600s with dark foliage in the forefront, the view of the artist and viewer alike peering out across the boundary of sanctuary and into the sunlit meadows and ponds beyond. American landscape artists three hundred years later were still using the same format, whether it was Thomas Cole along the Hudson River, Frederic Church in the Andes, or Albert Bierstadt in the Rocky Mountains. Anthropologists call this a conceal-and-reveal, or a refuge-and-prospect landscape. It’s our ancestral home, as well as the design of a contemporary living room, the drapes forming a natural screen from around which we peer onto the street.

The human gaze, whether in the landscape or looking at a picture of a landscape, follows rules shaped by our physical relation to the world, and when an artist takes us out to the edge of where our human neurophysiology is comfortable—out from behind the trees or curtains and into places where boundaries become ambiguous—both our unease and levels of alertness are heightened. When we enter the in-between place, where a line assumes three spatial and dimensions and time as a boundary zone—the liminal—we’re aware that we, too, could become prey, if not to actual threat, then to unnamed fears.

The edge of the shade cast by a tree is seldom a sharp edge, but instead a blurred line caused by the fractal arrangement of leaves overhead, the dappling of sunlight through a permeable crown of foliage, and limbs moving in the breeze. Daylight does not terminate in sudden darkness, even in the tropics where the sun seems to drop like a stone into the ocean; there is always a series of twilights—a civil twilight, a nautical twilight, an astronomical twilight. During the civil stage, the first planets and brightest stars appear. The second stage sees the horizon disappear from view to the navigator. The third is that time of the faintest reflected light high in the atmosphere when we think it’s dark, but it isn’t quite yet.

These are temporal zones of ambiguity that give us pause, and, along with the spatial ones, they have their parallels in everything from literature to architecture. Science fiction horror stories are rife with twilights when the world turns strange. Houses have anterooms, and cities have bridges and sidewalks, places where passage is made but people seldom live. Those people who inhabit such domains are referred to as the homeless. Purgatory is another shaded place of indeterminacy, a rite of passage. This is what is meant by the liminal, where the zone between states means to be both inside and outside, up and down, left and right—and yet none of those things. That is where Marie-José Jongerius searches for her images. The name of her project, Edge of the Experiment, was chosen for a reason.

When Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he was working from the work done by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, who in his book The Rites of Passage (1909) described the process of liminaire, the deliberate dislocation of your normal senses into a liminal state of confusion and openness through which pretechnological peoples would pass during initiation rituals in order to gain adulthood or sacred knowledge. The anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), who expanded Gennep’s research, studied rituals and rites among the Ndembu tribe of Zambia. He noted how the experience of an ambiguous zone can lead to paradigm shifts for contemporary individuals as well as tribespeople and postulated that the theater was a liminal space too, suspension of reality during the performance enabling the audience to undergo a transformation.

To work as a writer with photographers in the field, when they are concentrating so hard they cannot talk, is to become entranced with the landscape, to participate in a shared trance.

98 to Calexico (CA)—2008

 

Making art is a kind of ritual and never more so than for the photographer setting up a tripod and her 4×5 large-format Crown Graphic field camera, framing the view on the ground glass and bringing it into focus, selecting the moment to trip the shutter. Repeated over and over again, especially for those photographers who also do commercial work, such as Jongerius, it becomes an automatic yet hyper-alert, almost Zen-like discipline. To work as a writer with photographers in the field, when they are concentrating so hard they cannot talk, is to become yourself entranced with the landscape, to participate in a shared trance. To couple that mental discipline with a zone of visual ambiguity, a liminal space, is to risk taking your cognition where it hasn’t been before. This is the terrain where Jongerius is happiest.

Malibu (CA)—2007

Lake Mead (NV)—2007

Joshua Tree (CA)—2002

Pacific Ocean—2004


Note

This essay is adapted from Marie-José Jongerius, Edges of the Experiment (Fw: Books, 2015).

Photography/Art

Manifesting Destiny

by Tony Gleaton

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Being An Illustrated History Of Lesser Known Facts And Occurrences Utilizing Text and Landscapes Chronicling The African Diaspora In The Territories West of the Ninety-Sixth Meridian In The Sovereign Lands of Mexico, The United States, and the Dominion of Canada From The Years 1528 To 1918.

Manifesting Destiny, a photographic work in progress, seeks to balance aesthetic considerations with pedagogical concerns in its historical examination of African-descended people in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. This project is an effort to seek historical redress against the notion that Africans in North America, both enslaved and free, owed their historical beginnings and foothold on this continent solely to the settlements along the eastern seaboard of an area that would, in later years, become the thirteen British colonies.

In fact, elements of the African diaspora can also be found in areas throughout the realm of the Spanish conquest. In 1598, the presence of free women of color in the San Juan Pueblo of Northern New Spain (near present day Santa Fe) predated by nineteen years the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Jamestown, an English settlement on the Atlantic coast. These women were not a statistical aberration but a documented presence of African-descended people in northern New Spain.

The first part of this narrative tells of the years after the conquest of Tenochtitlan (1521). Spaniards widened their expansionist gaze and extended their dominion over the new continent. They first voyaged north, along each of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Then they journeyed overland, north out of the valley of Mexico, first through Sinaloa, the Gran Chichimeca, Sonora, and Nuevo Mexico, into lands that would eventually be called the American South, the Southwest, Texas, the Great Plains, Western Canada, Alaska, and the “island” of California. These foreign invaders with their retinues of indigenous allies, priests, Mestizos, and some Africans (most of whom were enslaved) held partial dominion over vast tracks of land as well as some of its people.

The second part of this story begins three hundred years later. By the 1800s, the descendants of the Spanish conquest, Mestizos, Mulattos, Negros, and Españoles, including Indian allies as well as the descendants of the indigenous people who had traditionally inhabited those invaded lands, experienced a second wave of conquest. These new invaders spoke different languages and had different customs and objectives than those who had come before; some spoke English and others spoke French. They were voyagers, trappers, merchants, and explorers of European, African, and indigenous extraction who had pushed westward in an expansion from the eastern seaboard.

Through my photographs, I’ve sought to tell the stories of the African diaspora within this tale of twin conquests. It is within this larger story of conquest, settlement, and eventual dominion that I have sought to chronicle interactions, failures, accomplishments, and misdeeds of people who were part of the African diaspora in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. My method of visual documentation and accompanying narrative text identifies the locations of particular events and tries to explain what transpired there. The photographs here are selected from the broader, ongoing Manifesting Destiny project to tell some of those stories from California’s past.


Julian, San Diego County. America Newton was a free woman, likely a former slave, who traveled west after the Civil War. She settled in Julian, California, in 1872. Gold had been discovered there by another free person, and Newton made her living washing the clothes of the gold miners. She received a homestead in 1891 and remained in Julian the rest of her life. Today, Julian commemorates Newton with a local gift shop named after her.

Mission San Miguel Arcangel, San Miguel. James Beckwourth was a free man who worked as a fur trapper and trader in the 1820s and 1830s before carrying the mail during the Mexican-American War. In December 1848, he stopped at Mission San Miguel, a resting point on the journey of more than 160 miles between Monterey and Nipomo. There, Beckwourth discovered the bodies of ten murdered men and women, the residents of the mission. The victims included William Reed, the owner of the mission, and his family, as well as their black cook and a Native American shepherd. Beckwourth rode on, delivering the news of the murders to Monterey. In part due to Beckwourth’s news, the perpetrators were caught. Beckwourth went on to write the story in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians.

 


Charley’s Butte, Inyo County. Charley Tyler was a black cowboy who rode across the Southern California landscape in the 1860s. While he was working for the McGee family, a group of Paiute, resisting white encroachment, attacked. Tyler made a stand that allowed the McGees to flee, but he was likely killed in the engagement in Inyo County, near the so-called Charley’s Butte, named after Tyler. A small marker by the roadside now commemorates Tyler’s death.

 


Brown’s Valley, northern gold fields. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Edward Duplex worked as a barber until he followed the call of the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Once in California, he helped discover a gold mine in Brown’s Valley and, along with several other free black men, owned and operated it. In the 1870s, he moved to Wheatland and was elected mayor of that community. He was one of the first black mayors in the West.

 


Point St. George, Crescent City. In 1865, the ship Brother Jonathan hit a reef ten miles off of Port St. George and sunk. Hundreds of people died. A more successful mission took place ten years earlier, when the vessel was named the Commodore. Back then, after the California legislature refused to accept the testimony of black people in judicial proceedings, hundreds of black men left the gold fields of California to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Many sailed aboard the Commodore to Canada, where they felt they would fare better in Frazier River gold mines in British Columbia.

 

Photography/Art

Instant, Insistent History

by Richard White with photographs by Jesse White

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

All photographs are historical photographs. Conventionally, photographs qualify as historical only as artifacts; their content is irrelevant. Their age—the temporal distance from us—is what matters. Historical photographs need to originate in a distant past and travel through time, surviving its vicissitudes. They arrive in the present carrying their baggage of images of places gone or altered. Only then do we consider what they contain to be history.

This is very odd. Consider a photograph of an old man. It can count as a historical picture of an old man only when the photograph as well as the man is old. That the man in the picture is old, that the chair he sits in is old, and that the house that contains the chair is old—none of these things matter. The past that is present in the photograph is immaterial.

“In a photograph, you are trapped in this one timeless instant of time,” Erroll Morris has written. This seems nonsensical. How can an instant of time be timeless? But it is only paradoxical. In a photograph, we see the preservation of a fleeting moment. Photographs preserve the ephemeral. If nothing in the frame can ever change, if all the things that happened afterward in the place pictured go unrecorded, then the captured instant is, in a sense, timeless.1 It certainly cannot look forward.

The idea that a photograph captures only an instant of time is not so much false as incomplete. A photograph possibly anticipates what comes next, but photographs, particularly artful photographs, are chock full of the shadows of what came before, which is to say history. All the people and objects within photographs are the products of events and relationships that took place prior to the click of the shutter.
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Here are two photographs taken in June of 2014 by Jesse White in Tulare County. They each capture a segment of the past at once stranded in and part of a present.

Visually both photographs center on isolated vertical features erupting in overwhelming horizontal landscapes. Both center on artifacts not immediately explained by the landscape surrounding them. Both trace patterns of change going back over a century. Both are as much questions as statements.

These photographs can stand alone, but as freestanding objects—whether art or journalism— they are vulnerable to a danger John Berger pointed out some time ago. Isolated, each can become “a dead object,” which is “severed from all lived experience.” They are not pictures in a family album that trigger memories and stories. While the photographer lives and remembers, the photograph can spawn stories, but they are only the photographer’s story. In this case, they might revolve around how Jesse came to see the object and frame the shot. They will involve locating the scene in space. The stories can spin off into how he came to be there, what he ate, what played on the radio during or after the shot. Given the month and his habits, it was most likely a Detroit Tigers game.

Severed from memory and story, the photograph becomes, in Berger’s words, dead, and “exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use.” It becomes the stuff of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: lost objects woven into a fanciful story unconnected with the objects’ origins or any truth about what they portray. There is certainly room for fantasy, but the world, past and present, is far more than fantasy.3

There are stories, and then there are stories. The photographer can take us only so far. Jesse’s memories of the photograph revolve largely around the day in June 2014 when he took the picture. The photograph, however, contains far more than he or any photographer can ever know in the instant they shoot a picture.

I, like any knowledgeable viewer, can see more than the photographer saw when the shutter clicked. This, I realize is a bold claim. Erroll Morris says photographs are “collections of mystery stories,” and I guess they are. They prompt questions to which I do not always have answers, but even though I cannot explain everything I see, I can explain some of it and recognize what I need to know to explain even more.
4

Mysteries mean photographs breach their seeming ephemeral moment. The photograph strains against its frame, rooting down into the past, and reaching out into a future that had not yet happened when the shutter clicked. The past is what mainly concerns me here, but the future is also tethered to the photograph because whoever reads this article and looks at these photographs can only do so after Jesse has taken them and after I have written this. Viewers and readers exist only in our future.

The large tree in the first photograph? That is a valley oak, the remnant of an older landscape, but not an original landscape, for where it and the young orchard stands was a century or more ago water: the basin of Tulare Lake, then the largest lake in California but now gone. Outside of the soil and sky, nothing in the frame can be older than the draining of the lake. Date the oak and you date a change when the grassland that succeeded the lake allowed at least one tree to take root. In between the oak and the orchard were most likely grain fields—although I do not know this for certain. The orchard is but a moment in an agricultural landscape that is anything but timeless.

In the second photograph, the silo replaces the orchard and it, too, captures events older than the photograph. A tree has taken root on the silo roof, which means the silo was abandoned before the tree began to grow. Silos rarely stand alone; there probably was a farm or a ranch here. Certainly, there was grain for why build a silo if there is no grain? When the farmers shifted crops—when grapes, nuts, fruit, and alfalfa filled these fields—the silo was useless. The photograph whispers all these changes. It captures a landscape story, and all landscape stories in hybrid landscapes like this are human stories. The photograph does not tell them fully. Photographs entice us into a not fully explained past.

Explaining that past changes photographs. We rescue them from being arrested and isolated moments. They, in Berger’s words, “reacquire a living context.”5 That living context has to be constructed with words, with other photographs, and through “its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.” What Berger calls an ongoing text I call history.6

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These two photographs capture intact objects, but photographs have a power that goes beyond that. The traces they capture can be faint, but the past endures in them. F Ranch on the Point Reyes National Seashore is all the more a mystery for not being a mystery. A sign at Point Reyes identifies it, but few people stop because there is no longer a ranch at F Ranch, only a bedraggled grove of Monterey cypress.

Even without the sign, anyone familiar with Point Reyes would know that a human habitation once stood here. At Point Reyes trees always mark human intervention, usually a past in which someone planted and nurtured trees to act as windbreaks or as ornaments. Sometimes, however, it might just mean someone gathered a Bishop pinecone from up on the ridge and discarded it alongside a road.

The obvious story in the photographs of F Ranch is one of decay and also stubborn resilience. What was once a windbreak is now an organic ruin. There are dead and dying trees but also shrubs and trees that have stubbornly rerooted and grown again.

These photographs, however, also gesture toward a past that they cannot alone recover, and this sends me into the archives. The archives contain other photographs, the kind we do mark as historical, and they reveal both other ruins and then, like a film running backward, the ruins restored, the hedges full and trimmed, and the place full of human life. People, now dead, look into the camera. This is what Berger means by reconstructing a living context with words and with other photographs. There is no narrative yet, but there are now more points to be connected and not just time’s arrows shooting into the dark.

Courtesy Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History.

 

Courtesy Point Reyes National Seashore Museum.

Courtesy Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.

Like the photographs Jesse took in the winter of 2012, each of these photographs point to other events. How did the house fall into ruin? Who ultimately removed it, commemorating its absence with a sign and little more? Who lived here, what did they look like, and how did they live? Each photograph answers some questions and raises others for all contain yet another past.

Finally, the backward reaching trail of photographs arrives in the nineteenth century when the hedge itself was yet to be planted. Even there, the trees indicate a ranch already older than the people who pose before it.

Photographs cannot help but contain a deeper past, moments before the moments of their creation. The events that created the scene in the photograph are as tea leaves to a cup of tea. We strain out the leaves to drink the tea, but they have colored what remains in the cup. Every object in the frame existed before the shutter clicked; some have existed for moments, some days, some years, some centuries, some for millennia and more. That tree took root decades ago. Someone built that house, that fence, that road. Everything has a history.


Notes

1. Errol Morris, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 180.

2. John Berger, About Looking (London: Writers and Readers, 1980), 50–52, 56.

3. Ibid.; Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011).

4. Morris, Believing Is Seeing, xxii–xxiii.

5. Berger, About Looking, 57.

6. Morris, Believing Is Seeing, xxii–xxiii.

Photography/Art

California Islanders

by Jean Melesaine

Portraits

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Editor’s note: The Pacific world is not just the west coast of the Americas and the east coast of Asia. It embraces some 25,000 islands in between. Jean Melesaine is a Samoan photographer and activist who has been documenting Pacific Islander communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives.

The specific experiences and cultures of Pacific Islanders are often overlooked, Melesaine says, when Asian Pacific Islanders are lumped together as a group. Coming from so many islands spread across the world’s largest ocean, Pacific Islanders are a very diverse lot. Perhaps that is why Melesaine’s work so often focuses on individuals. Here, and in her photographs and films for the Oakland Museum of California’s Pacific Worlds exhibition, Melesaine highlights one person at a time so that, story by story, California’s connections to the people, cultures, and histories of the Pacific are revealed. Taken together, Melesaine’s work portrays a dynamic, diverse living Pacific world community at home in California.

Pacific Worlds runs from 30 May 2015 to 10 January 2016.

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ExcerptsPhotography/Art

East of East

by Wendy Cheng

The global cosmopolitans of suburban LA

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Wendy Cheng’s essay “East of East” from our Spring 2015 issue. 

Welcome to the San Gabriel Valley—America’s first “suburban Chinatown.”1 A typical-looking twentieth-century suburbia a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley—or SGV, as residents call it—has been transformed in recent decades by ethnic Chinese investment and settlement from both sides of the Pacific.2 In some parts of the valley—places such as Monterey Park and Rowland Heights—more than half of the population is Asian, and English is often a secondary—or tertiary—language in the plentiful strip malls that line the main thoroughfares. It’s a regional and global hub for Asians from all over Southern California and the world. Then there’s the restaurant scene, which is how many Angelenos have come to know the valley. You will find some of the best Chinese food in the world in the San Gabriel Valley.

But while true in many respects, the well-known image of the SGV as a global Asian suburb obscures a vital fact: the valley is a vibrant, sprawling, mixed-up multiethnic community with a complex, layered past.3 In those majority-Asian cities, almost one-third of the population is Latino, making the valley as a whole more than 80 percent Asian and Latino now. In other SGV cities, such as El Monte and South El Monte, the balance flips: Latinos constituting the majority and Asians the next largest group. It is that mix that makes the San Gabriel Valley a revealing place for seeing the Pacific world as an Asian-Pacific-Latino world.

Consider this: A comedy hip-hop group called the Fung Brothers sings about the SGV, “Let me tell you about a place out east / Just fifteen minutes from the LA streets / Hollywood doesn’t even know we exist / Like it’s a mystical land, filled with immigrants.”

And this: A small, local, street-wear brand based in Monterey Park called SGV has produced a T-shirt with a design that blended the elements of the flags of the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, and the United States. The brand’s website states: “The SGV is a region of America where a lot of Chinese and Mexicans have learned to live together, most of the time in harmony. Welcome to Chimexica.”4

Or this: Other SGV brand designs have featured repurposed logos for Sriracha, a well-known hot sauce created in Rosemead by an ethnically Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant, as well as Tres Flores, a hair cream popular with working-class Chicano youth, and woven sandals popular with older Asian immigrant men.

And this: Another T-shirt features curse words in Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Tagalog.5

This diversity is not always harmonious. As the SGV brand creator Paul Chan, a child of immigrants from Hong Kong who moved to Alhambra as a young child in the 1980s, told a reporter, “I…learned quickly that in the SGV you play your position and don’t over step your boundaries. I’ve always had a huge appreciation for that. The way those unwritten rules work….It was part of survival to know about all the different cultures so I don’t end up disrespecting people and getting my ass kicked.”6

Yes, you’ve got to have a clue, but for the most part these playful pop culture expressions of cosmopolitanism embrace living together, coexisting, with mutual respect for difference, without denial or exclusion. The SGV is a great place to experience the emergence of this new global cosmopolitanism.

Paul Gilroy, a cultural studies scholar who has studied the multiethnic dynamism that came out of the reach and subsequent collapse of the British empire around the world, has publicly wondered about how such an everyday cosmopolitanism “from below” could be magnified and given greater purpose: “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather that imposing it downward from on high provides some help in seeing how we might invent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal value and go beyond the issue of tolerance into a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness.”7

This is a cosmopolitanism that does not look to states or nations for the realization of its hopes, but “glories in the ordinary virtues and ironies—listening, looking, discretion, friendship—that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding,” Gilroy writes,8 It is a “radical openness,”9 a “planetary consciousness”10 made even more real and important by its awareness of the harms done by racism and inequality. Ideally, it does not stop at awareness but rejects xenophobia and violence, and “culminates in a new way of being at home in the world through an active hostility toward national solidarity, national culture, and their privileging over other, more open affiliations.”11

Gilroy, whose work has largely focused on cosmopolitanism and diaspora across the Atlantic,12 could come to the SGV to see similar patterns playing out around the Pacific Rim. In the SGV today, I found a similar sense of cosmopolitanism among many residents while working on my book The Changs Next Door to the Díazes. It is also increasingly apparent among artists, writers, poets, scholars, and activists who are beginning to express their own visions of the valley and in the process creating a collective, imaginative vision and language that may well have the power to alter what it means to be American. Their vision is of a suburban, cosmopolitan ethos that will be increasingly relevant to broader swaths of the United States, and it challenges long-held associations of whiteness, middle-class, and suburban as normative ideals that were tightly bound together. At its best, this is an explicitly antiracist cosmopolitanism that does not gloss over differences between cultures or violent histories to create a false universalism, but instead reckons with formative histories and still-present realities of racism and colonialism.13


The South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective led by historian Romeo Guzmán and artist Caribbean Fragoza, is one organization playing with the possibilities of an emergent SGV identity, one that they refer to as “east of east.” The “east” to which the collective known as SEMAP identifies itself as “east of” is East Los Angeles, long the symbolic and political core of Chicano Los Angeles. Reflecting on this geographical adjacency, iconic Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga, who grew up in the SGV, has written of that state of being near, but separated from, the Chicano Movement in East LA, “just ten minutes from my tree-lined working class neighborhood in San Gabriel.”14

Similarly, SEMAP sees itself as adjacent to, but distinct from, the urban core sensibilities of East LA. “East of east” is “everything that exists outside the reach of the city of Los Angeles,” Fragoza told me when I spent the afternoon recently with her and her partner Guzmán to explore the role of artists, writers, and activists in this emerging SGV cosmopolitanism.15

“East of east” sounds as if it could be a description of this new cosmopolitanism emerging on the West Coast, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, east of East Asia. But the phrase also has a defiant local edge. This interpolation of the global and the local is a characteristic of these new cosmopolitans. Guzmán grew up visiting relatives in South El Monte from his home in Pomona, even further east. He and Fragoza remember starting to use the phrase when they were both undergraduates taking Chicano Studies classes at University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 2000s. As Fragoza told me, in “Chicano rhetoric, everything would happen in East LA.” There were “a lot of people that I met there who were from East LA and that were very proud of it,” she added. “And then they were like, ‘Well, where are you from?'” When Fragoza responded that she was from El Monte, she would be met with derision. She would then respond emphatically, “‘Dude, we’re so down, we’re east of East LA!’…So I think that’s at least how I started using it.”16

Guzmán added that they would “sort of get annoyed….It’s like, to make culture you have to go to East LA. But why? Why do we all have to go there? Why can’t we do stuff where we’re from?”17

SEMAP’s home terrain, the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, have emerged as key nodes in the burgeoning SGV arts and culture scene. “People from El Monte are really into El Monte,” Guzmán told me.


“Yeah, we are,” Fragoza laughed. “But I still feel like we’re SGV, we’re part of the SGV.”

In the past fifteen years, street wear brands, literary novels and short stories, a mystery set in the world of Asian American parachute kids, and comedic rap songs have all emerged from the SGV.18 This past fall, a play about Toypurina, the Gabrielino woman who led a failed revolt against the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission, was mounted at the Mission Playhouse, and a feature film set in El Monte is in the works.19 These developments signify the coming of age of a multiracial, majority-nonwhite, place-specific culture, on its own terms. As a region apart from central Los Angeles, large portions of the SGV have been able to retain their class heterogeneity and multiracial, majority-nonwhite populations for multiple generations now, without suffering the degree of gentrification and displacement to which central city neighborhoods are vulnerable.

Like the members of SEMAP, writer Michael Jaime-Becerra, who grew up in El Monte and still lives there now, balances multiple sensibilities at once. His outlook is deeply local and connected to a specific place, but he also has an expansive openness to the complexities of the SGV in the world. His world is El Monte, but it isn’t only El Monte. In his two books set in and around the city—Every Night is Ladies’ Night (2004) and This Time Tomorrow (2010)—Jaime-Becerra renders the mundane landscapes of the SGV with tremendous love, name-checking places and streets without commentary throughout his narratives, as though to assert to readers that they should know these places. While his characters are primarily working-class Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans—truck drivers, mechanics, forklift operators, fast food workers—they are always also Goth teens, former prisoners, brothers, sisters, uncles, lovers, and dreamers.

While earlier generations of Chicano writers were writing with justifiable urgency about “field labor, immigration, our parents’ struggles to feed the family,”20 growing up in El Monte as the son of a union meat-cutter and an elementary school clerk, Jaime-Becerra realized that he could “hang with low riders and skateboarders, groove to Juan Gabriel and Siouxsie and the Banshees.”21 Like so many Latinos and Asian Americans in the SGV, he was able to carve out an ethnic identity apart from dominant ideas about race: “Everybody around me, they were either Mexican or Mexican American or Vietnamese,” he has said. “I didn’t really identify in terms of race in LA.”22

There is freedom in the ambiguity that comes with loosened cultural boundaries, where old stereotypes aren’t used to keep people in place, and where people are comfortable crossing cultural lines to find their place in a community. The place where they feel they belong, not where they are told that they do. This is the “east of east” ideal, in which working- and lower-middle-class people of color are able to simply be—and be seen by the wider community—in their full and complex personhood.23 This is what Jaime-Becerra described as his coming-of-age experience and is apparent in the world he creates for his readers.


El Monte writer Salvador Plascencia also riffed on this theme in his 2005 novel The People of Paper, set in the author’s hometown. His “meta-fiction” was intended “partly as a parody of traditional immigration narratives”—or as one reviewer put it, is “part memoir, part lies.”24 This is how Plascencia introduces the locale: “The town was called El Monte, after the hills it did not have.”25 A page later, he elaborates: “El Monte was one thousand four hundred forty-eight miles north of Las Tortugas and an even fifteen hundred miles from the city of Guadalajara, and while there were no cockfights or wrestling arenas, the curanderos’ botanica shops, the menudo stands, and the bell towers of the Catholic churches had also pushed north, settling among the flower and sprinkler systems.”26

The transnational migrants settled among the suburban “flower and sprinkler systems,” but they made the landscape their own. Throughout the book—which also playfully busts genre conventions with scribbled-out words, blocked text, blank pages, and graffiti—an assortment of vivid characters including migrant lettuce pickers and gang members battle against the godlike Saturn, who is gradually revealed to be the author, Salvador Plascencia. Saturn/Plascencia loses control of his characters and the narrative because he is languishing over a break-up with his girlfriend, who has left him for a white guy. Plascencia’s El Monte is both grounded and surreal, his portrayal of its denizens heartfelt and absurd. “In a way,” Plascencia has said, both he and Jaime-Becerra “are trying to talk about an El Monte that’s not the news copter, watching a cop kick a gangster in the head.”27 That is El Monte as a place grounded in its true range of subjectivities, experiences, and imaginative possibilities, not constrained by externally imposed stereotypes and power hierarchies.

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Notes

Details from El Monte Legion Stadium Nocturne and In the Meadow courtesy of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.


1. See Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), and Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).

2. See Min Zhou, Yen-Fen Tseng, and Rebecca Kim, “Rethinking Residential Assimilation: The Case of a Chinese Ethnoburb in the San Gabriel Valley, California,” Amerasia Journal 34: no. 3 (1 January 2008): 53–83); among others.

3. This dates back hundreds of years to indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva settlement in the area and travels through Spanish colonization, the Mexican period, and US conquest, each of these with its concomitant, racialized regimes of land dispossession, and labor exploitation.

4. Former SGV brand website, http://www.sgvforlife.com, accessed July 2012. To see the SGV brand’s current website, go to http://sgvforlife.bigcartel.com/ (accessed 24 November 2014).

5. Ibid.

6. Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life.

7. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 67.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., xv.

10. Ibid., 75.

11. Ibid., 68.

12. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

13. Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia. Also see Michelle A. McKinley, “Conviviality, Cosmopolitan Citizenship, and Hospitality,” Harvard Unbound 5: no. 1 (1 March 2009): 55–87.

14. Cherríe Moraga, “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe,” The Last Generation (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 146.

15. Interview with Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán, El Monte, California, 12 October 2014.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. These include: Alex Espinoza, Still Water Saints (New York: Random House, 2007); Michael Jaime-Becerra, Every Night Is Ladies’ Night (New York, NY: Rayo/HarperCollins Publishers, 2004); Michael Jaime-Becerra, This Time Tomorrow (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010); Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006); Denise Hamilton, The Jasmine Trade (New York: Scribner, 2001). Also see Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life, accessed 15 October 2014; and the Fung Brothers website, http://fungbrothers.com, accessed 15 October 2014.

19. Mission Playhouse website, http://www.missionplayhouse.org/event/toypurina, accessed 15 October 2014; and “Varsity Punks” website, http://varsitypunks.com/, accessed 15 October 2014.

20. Vickie Vértiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra,” 6 December 2014, Tropics of Meta, http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/el-monte-forever-a-brief-history-of-michael-jaime-becerra/, accessed 10 October 2014.

21. Reed Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” 25 April 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425, accessed October 10, 2014.

22. Ibid.

23. On complex personhood, see Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

24. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”

25. Plascencia, The People of Paper, 33.

26. Ibid., 34.

27. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”

Photography/ArtReviews

California Coast

by Tom Killion

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s note: It is no surprise that printmaker Tom Killion’s four decades of work on the wild edge of California were inspired by poetry. As he explains in the introduction to his new book, California’s Wild Edge, it was the “revelatory beauty” that he saw in a Lime Kiln Press edition of Robinson Jeffers’s coastal poetry handset in metal type that drew him to what he now calls the “poets’ coast.” The continent’s end has inspired poets, artists, and travelers for centuries, but the jagged lines of the central coast, its stormy skies, and dynamic seas seem particularly well-suited to the lines Killion cuts in linoleum and wood. Where the collision of land and sea is less dramatic, south of Point Conception, light and color bring his scenes to life.

Killion writes of Gary Snyder, his collaborator in the new book, that his poetry “is the touchstone of what poetry and art can be: grounded in the real world, accessible, thought-provoking and entertaining, and above-all beautiful in its apparently effortless ‘inevitability’ of phrasing, rhythm and purpose.”

We think the same goes for Tom Killion’s prints. It’s a pleasure and an honor to publish some of his new prints for the first time in Boom. California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Prints, Poetry, and History will be published by Heyday in the summer of 2015.

Seaweed (1979) by Tom Killion.

Santa Monica Mountains from Palisades Park (1985) by Tom Killion.

Santa Barbara Coast (1983) by Tom Killion.

Timber Top, Big Sur (2005) by Tom Killion.

Purse Seine (1984) by Tom Killion.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Genius Loci

by Jonah Raskin

The strange alchemy of California’s literary shrines

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

As the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, California poet and essayist Dana Gioia was an evangelist for California literature. Now he’s taking a different approach to spread the good word about the state’s rich, though often underappreciated, literary heritage.

“We need literary shrines as much as, if not more than, any other place,” he told me. “They can provide tangible evidence of the literary past that’s eroding and serve as institutional storehouses for the collective national memory of our writers, their lives, and their work. Tourist bureaus in California underestimate the power of the imagination. They don’t do all they could do to preserve our cultural heritage.”

The best literary shrines do more than honor literary heroes of previous generations. They’re also places where their work can find new life, new relevance, and new readers. They can speak to the present and even the future as much as the past. They can also work a strange sort of magic when the spirit of a book and readers from around the world come together in a place once enlivened by an author. In the process, readers, books, and places rejuvenate one another and combine to form new wholes.

Visiting shrines is an occupational hazard I’ve long accepted and even embraced as a writer. I haunt dead writers, visit their graves, walk the neighborhoods they once inhabited, poke around their homes, and peer into their offices. For an afternoon or an evening, I feel that I have communed with the poets, playwrights, and experimental fiction writers who intrigue me. I also tangle with the spirit of books that keep me up late at night, turning the pages of noir novels, adventure stories, and California epics. Everywhere I turn in California, I find a literary landscape: in the town of Twain Harte—named for Mark Twain and Bret Harte—near Yosemite; in the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur; and in Eugene O’Neill’s Tao House not far from Danville where the playwright and his wife Carlotta lived in the 1930s and where he wrote many of his best dramas.

Detail from Bikes to Books, by Nicole Gluckstern and Burrito Justice.

Gioia is spot-on when he insists that California can and should do more to honor its literary genius loci—the home of The Land of Little Rain author Mary Austin, in Independence, cries out for visitors—but we’re doing pretty good already. A cottage industry in literary maps of San Francisco and Los Angeles has sprung up, each one expanding the list of minor shrines and the number of potential pilgrims. We have our major shrines, too. All year long, locals and travelers from far away descend on Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and the Beat Museum in San Francisco.

Literary tourism in California has a history that stretches back more than a century. In 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson published her wildly popular novel Ramona, and fans came to Southern California from far and wide to soak up the romanticized atmosphere they found in the book. Towns fought over which one had truly inspired the author—the better to lure tourists—while others created shrines at her heroine’s imagined birthplace, wedding site, and burial plot. For decades, it was as if the whole region became a literary shrine to California’s imagined past.

Literary shrines to American authors first became popular in New England a decade after the first wave of Ramona-fever. Theodore F. Wolfe described the fabled world of Thoreau, Emerson, and Margaret Fuller in Literary Shrines: The Haunts of Some Famous American Authors in 1895. California shrines in that restrained New England mold began to appear on the tourist trail not long afterward. In the inaugural issue of California Magazine published in January 1915, the editor, E.J. Wickson, emphasized the Golden State’s fledgling cult of the author. Everywhere he looked, Wickson saw “numerous artistic and literary shrines,” though he complained, “the searcher is called upon to make a pilgrimage down some half-hidden by-path, or to go delving into the musty archives of the past.”

Things have changed greatly since 1915, although it’s still possible to make pilgrimages down half-hidden paths at Jack London State Historic Park in rural Glen Ellen, which draws literary tourists from around the world. The ruins of Wolf House, built for the Londons but destroyed by fire before they moved in, are still the main draw, although the museum at the House of Happy Walls, as well as the author’s grave, see a steady stream of visitors, too. While generations of American schoolchildren know London best for his adventure stories, the politics that infused so much of his work have garnered him many fans in translation abroad, particularly in Russia. If visitor numbers and sheer enthusiasm are anything to go by, that second kind of reader seems to have developed a much deeper, keener connection to London.

“There’s an international Jack London cult,” Jeff Falconer, who grew up a devoted London fan in the East Bay and is now a devoted docent, told me on a recent visit to the park. Eugene Birger, a native-born Russian and now a Sonoma County resident speaks perfect Russian to the tourists from Moscow and Kiev who make the pilgrimage to Glen Ellen. He’s almost always on hand.

Falconer and Birger regale visitors with the story of a Soviet diplomat who arrived in a chauffeur-driven limousine one night in the 1960s, toured the grounds under cover of darkness, handed out caviar to show his appreciation, and then returned to San Francisco undetected by authorities. To fulfill the dream of a lifetime, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made a pilgrimage to the park in 1976, one hundred years after London’s birth. Two decades later, Dr. Vil Bykov—the twentieth-century’s foremost Soviet authority on London—spent a week there. “Paradise,” he called it in his memoir, In the Steps of Jack London. At the annual banquet sponsored by the London Foundation, he told the crowd: “Jack London is an integral part of Russian culture.”

A Romanian visitor recently pointed to London’s 1908 dystopian novel, The Iron Heel, as though it offered the latest news of her own country. A dignified traveler from India, a turban wrapped around his head, explained to a docent that he’d grown up in Kolkata reading London’s books. After visiting the House of the Happy Walls, he took the hand of his guide and kissed it.

Almost all of the docents describe the exuberant Russians who walk to the small plot of ground where London’s ashes are buried, bow their heads reverentially and shed tears. The power of the London shrine, however, does not work on all visitors equally. Falconer told me, “I remember a group of Russian and American tourists that provided a study in contrasts. Two young Muscovites took turns filming at Jack’s grave. They might have been gangsters. They certainly dressed the part. One of them looked down at the ground then up at the camera and shouted, ‘I’m right here where the greatest American writer is buried.’ The Americans watched flabbergasted. I’ve never seen a single US tourist do anything like it.”

Russians brag about their devotion to London and sneer at Americans who fail to appreciate the one and only god of California literature. In part, the Russians who come to Sonoma are carrying on the adoration that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents expressed for London. Perhaps it’s this deep, multigenerational wellspring of feeling that makes the Sonoma shrine so powerful to its Russian visitors.

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, which opened its doors to the public in 1998, draws a much different crowd. The center has tried and failed to attract tourists from Russia. Japan, more than any nation in the world, save the United States, sends waves of reverential readers who stray now and then from familiar roadside attractions to pay their respects to the author of TheRed Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, first published in 1939 and translated into Japanese after World War II.

Susan Shillinglaw knows much of The Grapes of Wrath by heart. A Steinbeck expert at San Jose State University and the author most recently of On Reading Grapes of Wrath, she views Tom Joad, the Oklahoma ex-con turned California visionary, as the quintessential twentieth-century American literary rebel. Tom Joad could be an inspiration for the world’s “square people,” says Shillinglaw. Indeed, she sees him as an icon and a hero for the crowds in Beijing, Cairo, Istanbul, and Hong Kong, who gather in city squares to confront illegitimate authority. So far, however, the “square people” have not showed up en masse at the Steinbeck Center.

Phillip Saldana, who grew up in Bakersfield and who read John Steinbeck’s novels as a young man, keeps all the relevant data on visitors. They do not come from China, Egypt, Turkey, or Russia, he tells me, although you’d think perhaps Salinas might attract visitors from Moscow, Kiev and Volgograd (then called Stalingrad), cities that Steinbeck visited and wrote about in A Russian Journal in 1948. Steinbeck avoided much of the clichéd Cold War thinking that enveloped American writing about the Soviet Union, but he also supported the Vietnam War, and that may have cost him his Russian readers.

Colleen Bailey, the director of the National Steinbeck Center, sees Steinbeck’s appeal closer to home in Salinas and Monterey, rather than Moscow. As a young girl, she read Of Mice and Men. Then in high school she acted in a stage adaptation of East of Eden. In the pages of Steinbeck’s fiction, she found defiant characters who encouraged her own rebelliousness. In 2014, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, she and the staff at the center went on the road and retraced the Joad family’s odyssey. A videographer filmed the journey that began in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and ended in Bakersfield. Along the way, Bailey interviewed farmers, housewives, businessmen, and students, and she learned that Steinbeck’s words can still wound readers in the places where he wrote and that he wrote about.

The Texas-born, San Francisco-based, award-winning playwright Octavio Solis joined Bailey on the trip from Oklahoma and found himself transformed by the journey, communing with the ribbon of Steinbeck’s literary shrine that runs for fifteen hundred miles. On the road, Solis read a few pages of The Grapes of Wrath each night until he finished the book. The journey led him backward and forward in time and in space and inspired him to write a play called “On the Mother Road.” He’s at work on another drama in which a descendant of Tom Joad returns to Oklahoma and in the era of global climate change finds signs of yet another Dust Bowl. “Does he become his own worst boss?” Solis asks. “Is he a good grower or is he cruel to his workers? And what is life like in Eastern Oklahoma?” As a dramatist, he finds powerful theatrical elements in nearly all of Steinbeck’s work as well as characters who speak to him as though they’re alive today.

“I had long thought of Mexican farm workers as today’s Okies,” Solis told me. “But that idea didn’t hit home until I met a dark-skinned man in Weedpatch, California, who had worked in the fields, read The Grapes of Wrath, and saw himself as the reincarnation of Tom Joad.” One of the poorest towns in all of California, Weedpatch was perhaps the perfect location for Solis to find Steinbeck’s novel as vital as it had been when it was first published. Indeed, in Weedpatch, California, the seventy-five-year-old book came to life again.

Solis’s literary allegiances stretch beyond Steinbeck. Born in 1956, the same year that Ginsberg’s Howl was published and a year before Kerouac’s On the Road appeared in print, he feels linked to the Beat Generation writers. You might find him at City Lights Bookstore or at Vesuvio’s or Tosca’s in North Beach. “City Lights is a major shrine and so is Tosca’s,” Solis said. “I’ve always felt an affinity with Kerouac because he was a wild spirit influenced by jazz and because he wanted to break down boundaries.”

Jerry Cimino, the founder of the Beat Museum in North Beach, and a former executive at IBM and American Express, was inspired by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. He remembers lunch with Kim Greer, the center’s CEO, who told him, “A Beat Museum ought to be big. You’ve got multiple greats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso. You’ve got jazz, rock n’ roll, the sixties, and nonconformists through the ages. It could be huge.” Greer’s prediction has come true.

Cimino runs the Beat Museum out of a spacious two-story building that looks out on a cityscape with cultural capital. While almost all of the visitors to the Steinbeck Center come from northern California, the Beat Museum draws an international crowd that has learned about the Beats from recent films such as Howl (2010), On the Road (2012), Big Sur (2013), and Kill Your Darlings (2013). According to Cimino, twenty- and thirty-year-olds come to the museum from all across the United States and from Vietnam, Ukraine, New Zealand, China, and Germany. “I’ve learned from them that the Beats are timeless, that they exemplify youth, and that they’ve helped to foment rebellion around the world,” Cimino told me.

In 2014, he hired Noemi Sornet, a twenty-one-year-old French videographer, to document the cultural diversity of the visitors to the Beat Museum. Born and raised on the west coast of France, Sornet read Sur la Route at sixteen. She first came to Cimino’s attention when she stormed a screening of Walter Salles’s cinematic version of On the Road at the Cannes Film Festival, and later when she launched a website that collected reflections from Kerouac readers around the world. It was a global valentine to the author.

“Reading On the Road was a freeing experience,” Sornet told me. “At sixteen, when I finished the novel, I wanted to write and also to come to America. Working at the Beat Museum has been a dream come true. I’ve met sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds from Brooklyn, Montreal, and San Paolo. We all belong to the Kerouac cult.”

Did she feel that French responses to the Beats differed from American responses? “I don’t want to speak for everyone,” she said. “But I think the French are less puritanical than many Americans, less shocked by the Beat use of drugs, and less judgmental about their sexuality, though in San Francisco almost everything goes. Yes, there are differences, but I think that On the Road expresses the universal feelings of youth.”

Ea Oerum, a Danish journalist, toured literary San Francisco in the winter of 2014, but she didn’t catch fire until she arrived in Los Angeles. For three weeks, she wandered from Beverly Hills to Bunker Hill, taking notes, interviewing residents, and writing about LA for her readers in Denmark. She went home, unpacked, repacked, and returned to her newly adopted haunts. On her second visit to California, she stayed nine weeks.

Detail from the Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles by Paul Rogers. http://www.herblester.com

More than any other LA writer—more than James M. Cain, John Fante, and Raymond Chandler—it was Charles Bukowski who fascinated Oerum. Bukowski’s streets became her shrine, although their seediness seemed anathema to the very notion of a literary shrine. Born in Germany in 1924 and brought to the United States as a child, Bukowski published more than one hundred books that have long been appreciated more in Europe than in the United States, at least until recently. Oerum made a pilgrimage to Bukowski’s grave at Green Hills Memorial Park and with friends observed the anniversary of his death at King Eddy Saloon, the self-proclaimed “finest watering hole on Skid Row.”

Richard Schave, the founder of Esotouric—which offers literary tours billed as “adventures into the heart of LA”—brought Oerum into Bukowski’s world of drunks, derelicts, college professors, and intellectuals in the City of Angels. A perfect guide to the world of Bukowski, Cain, Chandler, and Fante, Schave is a native Angeleno. He eats, sleeps, drinks, and thinks like a character in a noir film circa 1945, or perhaps more like a noir director, say Billy Wilder. Schave’s literary map of LA is recognizable to readers who have been raised on Bukowski, Baudelaire, and Brecht, German expressionists and French film critics, who gave the word “noir” to Hollywood’s downward-spiraling narratives about criminals, grifters, insurance salesmen, and waitresses who commit murder for love and money.

And in the end what can a pilgrimage do to the pilgrim?

It has turned a Danish woman into an Angelena. “I love Bukowski’s LA,” Oerum told me. “I love the way that he gives humanity to people in the gutter. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet him in person. I wish I might have met more of the kinds of Americans that he writes about in Ham on Rye,” my favorite Bukowski book.

And it has made an Angeleno something else entirely. “I haven’t adopted a European view of the city per se,” Schave told me. “But I share with European artists and writers a peculiar view of LA that’s not exactly American and not entirely European, either.”

Photography/Art

On the Road Again

by Stan Paul

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

My journey to work begins in the dark. I am out the door at 4:30 a.m. on a UCLA van rambling down Highway 60 to Los Angeles.

The trip home to Riverside is where my photography begins.

When the van approaches downtown, the shining towers on Bunker Hill, where John Fante’s characters holed up in old hotels, come into view. South of the freeway I can catch a glimpse—or, depending on traffic, study for several minutes—a 1911 apartment building, still boasting “fireproof” on its sign, just to the left of the old Grand Olympic Auditorium, and used over the years for everything from athletics to wrestling to roller derby. Painted a bright yellow, the building is now a church.

Next, City Hall can be seen in the background, and then the huge art deco Sears Roebuck department store that Charles Bukowski referred to as “Mears-Starbuck.” Farther out of town, under crimson-tinged clouds, sheep are grazing along the 60, and we pass by a forest of electrical towers.

Finally, we cross over the Santa Ana River into Riverside. We are sometimes rewarded with amazing sunsets, if I can only capture them while the sky glows orange or blue-gray with red clouds for a few moments, looking back toward the west where the trip home began.

Photography/ArtReviews

Native Eye

by Dugan Aguilar

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s note: Dugan Aguilar has made a life’s work of photographing California Indians. Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday and a Boom editorial board member, writes of Aguilar, in his preface to the photographer’s new book She Sang Me a Good Luck Song:

“He’s generous in his judgment of people. He approaches his subject not as a conqueror, not as a hunter out to capture an image, but as a shy, diffident admirer. He treats everyone and everything with deep and genuine respect. He seems more than willing to step out of the way. Watching him work, one has the feeling that he is not ‘taking’ pictures—‘taking’ is such an aggressive word. He seems to set things up in such a way as to allow a picture to happen.

“Yet make no mistake. In his quiet and persistent way, Dugan is a fighter, for some forty years now battling an enemy that has done everything it can to destroy Indian people: silence. Silence has erased Indian names from the landscape, has all but written Indians out of the history of California, has expunged Indian presence from the our daily consciousness. In the face of this pervasive silence, the tendency is to turn the dial up and make loud noises—photos that scream at you, overloaded with drama and intensity. Dugan has chosen another way. Rather than overdramatize, his photos whisper. They whisper to us with quiet intimacy, revealing not only people’s physical presence but hinting at their daydreams, suggesting something of the richness of their inner lives.”

She Sang Me a Good Luck Song, edited by Theresa Harlan, will be published by Heyday in June 2015.

Cousin Fred, Truckee, 1982.

Franklin Mullens, veterans’ gathering, Susanville, 2000.

Mimi Mullen (Maidu), grand marshal, 1997 Greenville Gold Digger Days parade.

Feathers with Flair, Susanville Parade, ca. 1987.

Jennifer Bates, Oakland Big Time, 1996.

Isabella, Spring Flower Dance, ca. 2004.

Photography/Art

After Hours

by David Butow

Exploring California in the dark.

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

There’s something about walking the streets in the quiet stillness of night. When darkness falls and businesses shut down, the strange colors from artificial lighting become more noticeable. Spaces take on a look and a feel for which they are not designed. The office workers, day laborers, shoppers, and diners have left, and there is a new energy in this absence, a substance in the void. There are no crowds, elevator music, or cell phone conversations to tune out. Instead, we can tune in.

As a professional photojournalist, my pictures have almost always included people. But a couple years ago a friend told me to get outside of my comfort zone. “Try shooting pictures that have no people.” This comment encouraged me to be more observant of visual mood when my plan would have been simply going from point A to point B. It added a photographic agenda to the journey. The final destination became point C, and point B became all the places in-between where I might pause, take in the energy of vacancy, and lift my camera to my eye. Many of the pictures that follow were taken in Oakland and San Francisco, when I was walking home from somewhere.

To have a photographic agenda is to have an excuse to be present in places you’d have no business being in otherwise, places like natural disasters or strangers’ weddings. It is also an excuse to be present in your daily life. There is being there physically, and then there is the more profound way of taking in places and moments with heightened awareness. This is a challenge and it is also a gift, because you might pay attention and have an experience when you otherwise would not. The agenda encourages me to grab the camera and record the scene, giving pleasure to a moment that previously would have gone unappreciated.