Tag: Photography


State of Being: Envisioning California

Lynell George

“I could remember everything about California, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to get my mind to remember something I could feel about it, but it was no use. It was gone. All of it.”
—Richard Hallas from You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up1

Gold Underneath the Street 

For months now, I’ve been at the time-bending task of emptying out my family home, breaking down history as if it were a set.

It’s my childhood home, not the first, but the one we inhabited the longest. Moving through rooms, closets, and overstuffed drawers, I’ve unearthed all manner of lost treasures: pocket watches, maps, deeds to homes long razed. This house, I realize, became a nest—not just ours—but one made up of artifacts of generations of family members: Bibles and Sunday hats, old wallets still filled with gasoline “Charg-a-Plates” and oxidized pocket change, a cache of antique cameras still spooled with film, and a river of photographs documenting their journey west.

A few weeks back, making my way through the old kitchen, I put my hand in the dark recesses of a cabinet stacked with crystal water goblets, luncheon plates, and not one but two ornate turkey platters to find the most fragile porcelain teacup and saucer—once white with scalloped edges, a hand-painted small cluster of oranges at center. Beneath the fruit, in plainspoken yet fine-brushstrokes, unscroll the letters “C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A.” Whose tiny cup was this? My grandmother’s? My great aunt? My mother’s? Who purchased this souvenir? Who thought to save it? To protect it? I wondered. How had it survived so long, so dusty and delicate?


Loved ones brought home souvenirs like this almost translucent cup, to place on their shelves among their finest. To think that this memento perhaps made two journeys, from here to home and then here again. Was it a memento or a goal—or both?

Strange, it now seems in reflection, but my first understanding of California—the California of my mind—the one summoned most vividly in words, music, or visual artifacts—was the product of those who arrived from elsewhere. My African American forebears were pulled to this place by a myriad of desires—opportunity, weather, freedom, peace of mind. I lived in their myth. My personal narrative of—and connection to—place begins with those circumstances that brought my family here; the inspiration—or kindling—was the California of their imagination.

I’ve shuffled those projections and fanned them out on the table of my memory. They fit easily alongside my pop-culture-influenced impressions of the West: those early twentieth-century slapstick comedies shot on streets dotted with palm and pepper trees; then too, the out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth voice-over assessments of the raw deal and busted dreams Los Angeles was sure to serve you. Add to it the disgruntled Bohemian’s longing—a restlessness for which the West, particularly the rugged Central and Northern Coast, might be the only antidote—all of these scenarios, often told through the prism of a transplant’s vision of the West (boomers and speculators and dreamers), East Coast by way of Europe, Midwest by way of the South—to the edge of the Earth’s last promise. That gossamer tenor sax of Stan Getz, bending like a breeze, the one that so many consider the signature of West Coast Cool School jazz, was just like my father, Pennsylvania-born.

I grew up on those shadows. Those slapstick shorts were filmed on the Culver City streets where I played. I read stacks of those hard-boiled paperbacks—Detective Marlowe and his descendants—that taught me not to trust Los Angeles even though I might yet become transfixed by it. I found myself pulled into the courtyards and avenues invoked by the California Scene painters—the bright astringent midday light and the fire skies that come as the sun slips away—and for all of my real frustrations with what Los Angeles has become, I am undeniably the daughter of noir and the jasmine-scented current of West Coast jazz.


What that means is that I early-on had to come to some sort of peace with what it is and what it’s not, both the fatalism and the optimism. How California is perceived by the native, what it looks like—beyond movies and postcards and books—is a process of combining. You move tiles around, understanding at all times that there may be, and often are, gaps.

It’s a hand-me-down coping mechanism. My migrant forebears had expectations; some of which were fulfilled: jobs and homes, secured. The region’s beauty was undeniable when they first landed here in the late 1940s. Even my blind great-grandmother, if asked, would extol, “It’s always beautiful here.” I wondered how that beauty must have registered inside her. Was it the happiness of her children? Was there something that coursed through her that didn’t need visual input? Some indescribable scent, the sun on her skin? I’ve found a photo of her in a prim dark blouse standing beneath a heavy, shaggy palm tree, her dark aviators shielding her ruined eyes, her smile, beatific.

My maternal forebears, Louisianans, came west and then split off. Half went north to the Bay Area, Oakland; the other bent south to Los Angeles—each to be near a busy railroad hub that brought my uncles the good fortune of hard but steady work as Pullman porters. How they perceived it, I could hear it in my Uncle Harvey’s voice, the way he sank into the word, the name itself like an incantation, “Cal-ee-forn-ya.” They all stretched out its music, made it their own: You know, baby, there was gold under the streets.

What my relatives ascertained in real time and experience is where the actual story begins—the great uncle who vanished (dead or missing, we never learned); restrictive housing covenants that dictated where you could rent or buy; circumscribed dreams. This “paradise,” by all accounts, held up only in its external natural promise—the weather, the flora, the vistas. The rest? It could be worked around.

And it was. The California I most deeply reside in is the California of personal imprint—generations of it. It’s the stuff of absorbed histories—the weight and heft of personal adaptations, language, and traditions. You brought a little of your past with you—how to string beans or devein shrimp or how to make a roux; you brought a lullaby; you brought coming-of-age rituals. You compared and shared with your neighbors because you were creating a community. All was integrated into the rhythm and space of your new environs. You brought your pride and joy along with your cleverness or itch for adventure. You brought what was road-worthy, meaningful, something worth handing down.

That ability to “make do,” or improvise, applied in many ways. “Placemaking” is the work of the mind as well as the hands. Living in California has often meant that you have to become familiar with and conversant in both the mythic place and the real place, and know where they come together—that seam where the extrapolation and the real meet.

As I moved out of my teens and into my twenties, I understood that seam—this place—as negative space, that area between two visible knowns. It was a trick of perception, in a sense it became an empty room to fill. If what has been promised doesn’t exist, or what my forebears came to find fell short, then what did they encounter? What is it that we celebrate, what is that we think of as home?

my eyes capture the purple reach of hollywood’s hills
the gold eye of sun mounting the east
the gray anguished arms of avenue

i will never leave here
—Wanda Coleman, Prisoner of Los Angeles2

A handful of years ago, I taught a class about Los Angeles. It was part history, part literature, part writing workshop. My goal was to encourage students to shake free of old notions of Los Angeles and to begin to define the region for themselves. For one of the assignments, I gave them the task of thinking about what visual imagery helped define “place” for them. “If you close your eyes and think about Los Angeles, what is it you see?” I nudged them to think beyond cliché—which meant no beach parties, no red carpet fantasies—but what did the real LA they daily interacted with mean to them? What shape did it take? How did they know when they were “home”? Even by the end of the semester, after we had been thinking deeply about place, beyond spinner-rack postcards and episodes of TMZ celebrity stalking, they struggled mightily, to the point that some panicked. Resorting to late-night emails, eleventh-hour office visits, they would confess they had no ideas. No ideas beyond what they were fed—ocean, palm trees, Hollywood, like a prayer or mantra—a safe spot to land. Was it that they didn’t feel confident enough to call it for themselves? Or did the region still seem to be so amorphous that they still couldn’t corral feeling into words? “The most photographed but least remembered city in the world,” as Norman M. Klein has famously remarked about Los Angeles, but it was more. Even with all of the assignments and assistance, what struck me the most was how hard some of them fought it, the very thought of stepping out into it, describing and defining it for themselves.

This is not uncommon. What’s particularly maddening about trying to spin a more complex vision of Southern California, to move beyond the vast projected image, is that even when you attempt to do due diligence and deal honestly as you know it, there’s a battle.


A couple of summers ago a delegation of journalists appeared from far-flung places around the globe. Part of my job as the welcome crew was to move these reporters through spaces that told different stories about LA and California in general, that would leave a deeper afterimage. Not boosterism—we were pushing for something that was substantive, bold and true. When one of the journalists looked at the list of venues—museums, concert halls, house parties, and an evening of experimental theater—he balked, “Well, what about a film studio? Aren’t we going to tour a studio?” His disappointment was both palpable and infectious. He was in California; he wanted to see what was behind the curtain, and we wanted to draw his eye to what was in plain sight but often overlooked. He didn’t just resist, but bucked. His grown-man pouting made it clear: “Give me what I want of Los Angeles; then I’ll know I’ve been there.”

Come Hither

      I got the San Francisco blues
Bluer than heaven’s gate, mate,
      I got the San Francisco blues
Bluer than blue paint,
            I better move on home
            Sleep in
                  My golden
                  Dream again
36th Chorus from Book of Blues by Jack Kerouac3

I struggle with Los Angeles. My anger or disaffection sweeps through in waves. Sometimes it catches me unaware, but most often it’s fanned by evidence of the image overtaking the real. I moved away from Los Angeles in the mid-eighties. In certain ways, it was the younger version of the LA that that visiting journalist a couple summers ago was pushing to see. I myself had grown weary of the slickness—or the elevation of such. After college, I worked for a time in a bookstore trying to figure out if I wanted to go to graduate school, or write, or who knows what; but the interactions I was having on a daily basis with customers—junior film executives, agents, wannabe movers and shakers—effectively doused what was left of my affection of LA at the time. The sharp edges and crassness deeply fractured my constructed sense of home. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, post-1984 Summer Olympics, seemed to be in the middle of another transition, ceding old notions of itself—calling it “community redevelopment” and “urban renewal.” I watched the key elements that had made up my relatives’ West—pace, space, and a certain gentility—begin to vanish. I set my sights on something with some sort of heft and nap: Northern California. I wanted to go someplace where I could, I thought, reconnect with what brought my forebears west.

I was pulled by my first glimpses. Those early impressionistic snapshots of San Francisco came from visits to relatives’ homes or our family-foursome’s up-the-coast road trips. They also came from TV and books. Again, often an outsider’s perspective—either a Quinn Martin police procedural of the seventies (The Streets of San Francisco) and, of course, much later the Beat Generation’s rhapsodizing. The voices of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso spun around my head—these bards of the new California, all transplants, too.

I was very late to Kerouac. By high school, I’d meandered through On the Road and stalled—twice. But I’d been swept up by The Subterraneans (for which he swapped East Coast for West as the story’s backdrop so that Paradise Alley became “Heavenly Lane”) and then Big Sur—that rugged, unflinching coast that Kerouac described in such mournful detail, became rooted in my memory—became my own memories. The first drive I took north as an adult with a friend, in a convertible slithering up Highway 1, was about as mortifyingly cliché as it could come: My head full of a Massachusetts-born writer’s descriptions and the tenor sax moods of a Pennsylvanian as my soundtrack—it effectively set up the scene. When we arrived at Nepenthe famished and ready for lunch, I paused to first take in that startling edge-of-the-Earth view. The universe seemed to know what I needed as confirmation: Stan “The Sound” Getz was drifting through an old bossa nova over the surround-sound stereo.

Securing an address and actually living in the Bay was an entirely different matter, of course; I’d moved to the outer Sunset which often only offered three hours of sun and a dedicated fog so thick and constant that at first I thought was rain. It was an adjustment for my Angeleno-being—an entirely different perspective of California, a bit more curated and consequently, manageable.

I didn’t have a car for the first time since I’d earned my driver’s license as a teenager. Moving about without one was both disorienting and liberating. I found my way by bus or on foot, learning the city step-by-step, stop-by-stop. San Francisco trained my eye in a different way. I’d grown up in a sunny place where often I moved past details at thirty, forty, fifty miles an hour. A scene or tableau that would come into focus for a moment and then move away from you, a streak of color and smear of sound. Here I could see things close-up. The crumbling Victorians, the noir tap rooms, with their hints of dereliction or risk. Depending on the wind, I could catch scent of the sharp brininess of the Pacific, the blast urine in BART station, the aroma of scallions, garlic, and fish in late afternoons as I turned the corner in the Richmond.


In the years before corporate coffee was on every corner in the city, the ritual of the independent coffeehouse was already well established. Strong, heated, and often full-boil conversations about politics or city life were in animated display. The best ones were theater of their own. There was an urgency and liveliness, a particular sense of chance borne out of flow and accessibility that was, at the time, more difficult to come by in Los Angeles. One image that often returns: I had been making my way up a gentle incline in North Beach on Vallejo Street to stop in Caffe Trieste when the poet Gregory Corso thundered out of the front door and into the night, eyes blazing. I knew his face from the postcards in a rack at City Lights Bookstore and the photo inserts of the books of the era I’d been living in; the face was just more anguished, the hair gray, wild like filament. When my friend arrived to join me at a small window table, I made mention that she’d missed him by mere minutes. A man seated next to us lifted a piece of paper—a stained napkin—with some ink pen scribblings: “He was just diagramming a poem. You want this?”

Oh, yes. I did. This was what I wanted—for a time: a textured life to press between pages of a book, one that looked becoming in black-and-white photographs. I wanted to live in a place that didn’t just feel and look old, but protected its aged sacred places—the stories and characters that went along with them. What a city looked like, the noise and press and chaos of them, I finally began to put it together, was the patina of presence. It started with people: How they touched, shaped, and occupied space determined the nature of “home.”

Indoor/Outdoor Living

Since the beginning, the real California has been obscured by perception, or as historian Kevin Starr observed, “at times, it seemed to be imprisoned in a myth of itself.”And when so many have come to west to find themselves—or their next self—how does a place struggle out of all of that need and expectation? “The myth that has symbolized America for the rest of the world has found its true expression here,” historian Gwendolyn Wright wrote in her introduction to the 1984 reprint of The WPA Guide to California, noting little had happened in fifty years to dim that perception, “A desire for dramatic change is at the heart of California’s appeal.”5

Place then, our sense of it, is what suffers in the blind or selfish making and remaking. We build it up and tear it down. Shoehorn expectations, and in the endeavor truth takes a beating and essence becomes much more difficult to summon.

The California cities that own part of my heart—San Francisco and Los Angeles—are anything but static. The Los Angeles and Bay Area that my relatives set their sights on is long gone. Sometimes though, I happen into ghosts of it—if on a drive home, heading north toward the San Gabriels on a clear day and I see the shoulder-to-shoulder rise of land that demarks the Angeles National Forest, or the socked-in coast and wild weed and pampas grass near the Pacific just as I move out built San Francisco. I can still lose my composure in the presence of the beauty that I know both I and my forebears bore witness to, together across the bend of time. But these vignettes of paradise are flashes. If we’re lucky, we glimpse them daily on a bike ride home, or while lifting groceries out of the car. They are reminders. I suppose that’s why I’m much more interested in the paradises that Californians create for themselves than boosters’ or Hollywood’s evocations of them; the neighborhoods naturally give themselves over and find humane ways to coexist.

When I speak of “paradise,” I’m not referencing elaborate McMansions built to the very edge of property lines or elaborate six-foot-high retaining walls that obscure your (and our) collective sense of place. I’m speaking of a vision of personal beauty seeking connection/interaction—maybe it’s a folk art garden full of old baby doll heads, or shards of blue glass sunk next to broken china as part of a front-yard mosaic. Maybe it’s painting your house turquoise or maybe it’s a flock of plastic pink flamingos? It might be the Virgen de Guadalupe painted on a Quik-Mart’s tamarind walls next to floating bottles of Tide and rolls of Ariel. Maybe it’s a make-shift fortune-telling kiosk in the driveway. What does peace, freedom of expression, a chance to breathe and reevaluate look like from decade-to-decade across generations?

It’s still about “space” to my mind. Not just measurable space—those miles demarcated in freeway exits—but the room to ask and play out that What If: Who might you be if you intersected with the place that might allow you to wander that question to its logical, meaningful end.

California, the best of it, is what lives and prospers in a liminal, unnamed space—somewhere between dreams, disappointments, and recalibration. It’s harder to recognize, perhaps, because it’s messy. It might look like defeat, or it might feel unfinished—or still in motion.



Meanwhile, of late, I’ve been watching my city turn into glass and steel and observing what visually individualized it, receding into a fragment of memory. Another wave pushing through, dissolving and flattening. Long-time Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith used to say, “The real LA is invisible.” It’s only becoming more so. In a conscious way, I’ve been trying to save what’s left or, perhaps more accurately, trying to see it better. My ritual has been to move out on foot early mornings, camera in hand, to find my way back home. It was a portal I had to locate, imagery that announced, “I am here” or “SOS”—plainspoken, conversational, real.

Those personalized markings—the doll-head gardens, the turquoise houses—the impressions that we make on place, the stories we tell on a window sill, the detritus we arrange in alleys, the found mannequins waving from the bungalow roof, the poems we write in dust are the conversations of place; they are the visual fodder that find their way deep inside, that later evolve into a character in a book, a line in a short story, some key and singular evocation of place. Until then, for now, I pause, raise my camera, and take the frame.

Of Saints and Sanctuaries: A Snapshot

My San Francisco shuttle driver looked as if he’d stepped out of a nineties-era Hollywood adventure flick: barrel-chested, slicked-back hair, and ink-black wraparound shades. He was a man of few words—at first. Once he’d left off every fare but me, I noted a laminated placard, stuck in his cupholder: a Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver and the words “Saint Travis” inscribed above it.

Even before this discovery, I was tipped off that he would be a necessary source to mine. Instead of zipping us through the usual downtown entryway streets, I looked, up from checking messages to see that he was dragging us through the nether regions of the Tenderloin. Rows of blue tarp and trash-bag shanties and cardboard pallets lined the filthy sidewalks—hardly the exalted California Dream. I had to wonder: Was this shortcut meant to warn, school, or discourage? We rode in conspicuous silence.

Now, van emptied, I asked him about the placard. He said it was a gift from his girlfriend. “All the cabbies and shuttle drivers have all these saints hanging from mirrors and knobs. I’m not religious, but she thought I needed some sort of saint.”

What did Saint Travis ward off? I asked.

“It’s just gotten so crazy,” he speaks to me through the slash of rectangle of the rearview mirror, as we bump along toward my hotel in North Beach.

The traffic? I guessed.

“No, the people. I also drive a cab and I just got off of a long shift and these assholes with the ‘Take me to mumble mumble.’ They don’t know where they want to go. Or they’re drunk. Or both. Where doesn’t seem to be important. Then, once we settle on a place for me to drop them, they jump out of the cab before the destination, without paying. Assholes. I took the keys and threw them at my boss—‘NO MORE.’ I mean, I’ve trained as a Navy SEAL. This shit is worse.”

Place, of course, has changed too, certainly a reflection of the people who may not sweat certain details of destination. I could see it—or the absence of it—instantly: all this glass and steel and fewer tacky surfaces and the stories that go with them. I was struck by how much more like Los Angeles San Francisco appeared at first glimpse—south of Market particularly—with lofts and condos and sleek watering holes.

I met up with my friend Shelley, my old roommate from my grad school days there. I had merely a sketch of a plan. I wanted to locate what was still recognizable, what had stowed away. I wondered if that falling-down flat off Divisadero, where another friend once lived—with the warring turntables blasting punk and opera—still stood. Or if the bus still left you off in front of a vivid liquor store—always story in motion.

Shelly and I retraced our old routes, the streets, ones closer to the ocean in the Outer Sunset. I still saw the shoulder-to-shoulder pastel houses, but inevitably, with a modernized, streamlined version interrupting the lines. In a certain way, visually, you could eavesdrop on conversations that were going on via architecture. I wondered how long this unusual mix of ragtag, working-class, aspirational, and DIY will be this way along the Great Highway.

On my final morning, we stop for coffee at Caffe Trieste, the same spot where I’d watched Gregory Corso fly out into the night. With a clutch of gray-haired men in hats and scarves lingering out front, it felt hearteningly unchanged. Protected, ducking in, I glimpsed a poster on the window. It took the wind out of me. Its dominant feature was a black-and-white image of a young Giovani ‘Papa Gianni’ Giotta, Trieste’s founder. The text advertised an upcoming memorial for Papa Gianni, that Saturday. I stood silently before the picture, looking at him behind the old counter opening day in 1956. A bar where I’d lined up weekends and evenings for a perfect cappuccino: “The first cappuccino bar on the West Coast!” as the family had long touted it. I had become enough of a regular that they’d remembered my order. For years, long after I moved away, I’d return, queue up and watch the barista pull my espresso, place the brown cup and saucer before me. I didn’t have to say a word. This, too, was home.

Even with all the buzz of gentrification that has restitched parts of North Beach, I was struck by how much of the feel—and stories—remained alive in the crevices of this place. This wasn’t Italy; it was California as seen through the prism of his Italian youth. He was extending the line—possibility—himself with it. The cafe has been a meeting room for generations of artists, muckrakers, eccentrics, and tourists; but mostly, its role has been to lend support and succor to neighborhood, struggling, and/or working-class folks like Giotta, who himself had arrived from Italy with his family penniless and at loose ends. From a singing window-washer to a business owner, this cafe had saved him—and so many others. In certain ways, it is a monument to all of that—a sanctuary.

The sorrow I was feeling had settled somewhere deep. I was sorry I would miss the memorial, the arias that would be sung in his memory, the old neighborhood stories that would soar. Shelley and I lingered longer than we’d intended. I wanted to pause to take a few snapshots—details—to remember this moment, but I was at a loss. Not a cup or saucer. Not the jukebox full of arias. But what? We stopped next door at Trieste’s adjacent storefront, their coffee-roasting business, and struck up a conversation with the man behind that counter. He directed our gaze toward the window, another poster of beloved Giovanni Giotta. The whole block, it seemed, was heavy in mourning. “There’s a big thing this weekend,” he told us, his body seemed limp with grief. Then he pushed two postcards—souvenirs—across the counter toward us: a blurred multiple exposure of the Caffe Trieste’s interior—the roar of activity visible and Papa Gianni, a ghost, there again before me.

The man at the counter looked up over his glasses and into middle space, and then pronounced: “That’s all we have left of poor Papa Gianni.”

I don’t want to believe him. I can’t. Because what’s circling around us—dusty and delicate but enduring—tells me something else: Papa Gianni is in these walls, in that jukebox. He’s part of the feeling of that old North Beach. Those guys standing on the street corner, keeping the story moving, aloft; the woman with the kind smile who remembers your coffee; they’ll be ghosts too, soon enough. But this old wooden monument of risk, big love, of life and acceptance is what we have left. How would I frame this shot? This feeling? Because it’s quintessentially California. I realize now why it was so difficult to capture: because California moves through you. It is vigor and spirit. If we do it right, we leave our mark on hearts and in stories and souls.

If we’re lucky, it’s ongoing.
It’s how we work with it.


All photographs by Lynell George.

1 Richard Hallas, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (New York: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1938; reprint, Seattle: Dark Coast Press, 2013).

2 Wanda Coleman, “Prisoner of Los Angeles (2),” in The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, Christopher Buckley and Gary Young, eds. (Berkeley: Heyday, 1993), 36.

3 Jack Kerouac, Book of Blues (New York: Penguin, 1995), 35.

4 Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Penguin Random House, 2005), xi.

5 The WPA Guide to California: The Federal Writers Guide to 1930s California (reprint, New York: Pantheon, 1984), xv.


Lynell George is a Los Angeles–based photographer, journalist, and essayist. She has written for KCET’s Artbound, Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly, and she taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday).


Becoming Kevin Starr: Images in the Making of California’s Son


Great-grandfather and great-grandmother of Kevin Starr


Grandfather and grandmother of Kevin Starr, and father as infant, San Francisco 1918


Owen Starr and Kevin Starr, San Francisco 1940


Kevin Starr, 45 Clayton Street, San Francisco 1945


Kevin Starr, US Army, Germany 1962


Kevin Starr, Allston Burr Senior Tutor, Eliot House, Harvard University, 1972


Kevin Starr, wife Sheila Gordon Starr, daughters Marian and Jessica, San Francisco 1974


Kevin Starr, San Francisco Examiner columnist, 1980


With special thanks to Sheila Starr, who in incalculable ways has made a profound contribution to our understanding of California, and in memory of a true California son, Kevin Starr (b. 3 September, 1940, San Francisco – d. 14 January, 2017, San Francisco). Requiescat in pace.

Copyright: © 2017 Sheila Starr. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Landscape Photographs of Photographic Landscape Targets

by Center for Land Use Interpretation

A critical appreciation

Aerial photo calibration targets are curious land-based two-dimensional optical artifacts used for the development of aerial photography and aircraft. They were made mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, though some apparently later than that, and some are still in use, though their history is obscure.

Most of them follow the same general form established by the Air Force and NASA (and prior to 1958, its precursor agency, NACA): a concrete or asphalt pad constructed flat on the ground, 78 feet by 53 feet, coated in a heavy black and white paint. The pattern painted on the targets is sets of parallel and perpendicular bars duplicated at 15 or so different sizes, and, sometimes, a large white square. The configuration is sometimes referred to as a 5:1 aspect Tri-bar Array, and follows a similar relative scale as a common resolution test chart known as the 1951 USAF Resolving Power Test Target. This type of test pattern is normally used as a printed chart in an optics lab, to determine the resolving power of microscopes, telescopes, cameras, and scanners. Their outsized, outdoor brethren are in the laboratory of the landscape.

The targets function like an eye chart at the optometrist, where the smallest group of bars that can be resolved marks the limit of the resolution for the optical instrument that is being used. For aerial photography, it provides a platform to test, calibrate, and focus aerial cameras traveling at different speeds and altitudes. The targets can also be used in the same way by satellites.

Many of these resolution test targets are found in the Mojave Desert of California, one of the principal development and test areas for surveillance aircraft. Some of the most sophisticated aircraft made by the nation, like the A12 and SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2, were unarmed, and designed to be used only as flying cameras. The X-15, which still holds the record for the fastest manned aircraft, flew over these targets in the 1950s carrying Fairchild and Hycon cameras, pointed at the ground. Drones, developed and flown extensively in the Mojave, were also developed as camera platforms. Initially at least.





These three aerial photographic calibration targets remaining at Cuddeback Lake, in Southern California, are relics from the aerial viewing revolution. Designed to measure and calibrate cameras on spy planes from the era of analog photography, these terrestrial test patterns are now obsolete, and decaying. Brush is breaking through the paved surface, forming dendritic cracks, attacking the precision of the rectilinear test bars. The two dimensional graphic is becoming a three-dimensional landscape again. Photographs by CLUI.

Though apparently still used for some optical camera testing and calibration, the standard tri-bar photo targets are definitely a thing of the past. The 1951 Resolution Test Chart on which it is based is more than 60 years old and was designed for film cameras, and predates high-resolution digital systems and CCDs. The arrangement and spacing of the lines is not well suited for computer analysis (it’s not a continuous single row, but two or three rows of pairs), and it has other frequency and modulation issues that make determining sharpness by digital means inaccurate. The Air Force officially cancelled the chart, known as MIL-STD-150A, for photographic lenses in 2006, without replacement. The outdoor landscape test patterns are mostly abandoned and decaying.

These analog targets, built for secret spy planes and hidden in plain sight, are now obsolete, but visible to the world through satellite imaging in the digital age.

There are dozens of these photo targets in the United States, mostly near runways at military bases. The largest concentration of them is on the grounds of Edwards Air Force Base, in Southern California, in an area referred to as the photo resolution range, where more than a dozen targets are spread out along 20 miles on the southeast side of the base, in a line, so multiple targets can be photographed in one pass. There is some variation in the size and shape of the targets at Edwards, suggesting updates and modifications for specific programs. A number of the targets there also have aircraft hulks next to them, added to provide additional, realistic subjects for testing cameras. Some of these planes are themselves unusual and rare military jets, officially in the collection of the base museum, despite being left out on the range. The following images are from Google Earth.

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Framing the Desert

by Christopher Langley with photographs by Osceola Refetoff

In a sense, all photographs are ‘viewfinders.’ The window is also a ‘finder of a view,’ whether from within or without; as such, it acts as a surrogate for the camera lens and the process of photography.

– The Window in Photographs Karen Hellman

William Fox, a curator and poet, has described the “cognitive dissonance in isotropic places” we encounter in deserts. The human sensory system struggles to process the landscapes in the deserts of the American West, what seems neverending sameness in all directions. We simply cannot make sense of what seems a lack of information. Our brain stalls in its processing job. We fall back in awe of both the desert beauty before us, and something more that remains hidden from us. Our visual perception of the landscape has failed us.

A photograph provides a solution—a frame. The edge of print paper, the shift from light to dark, makes a border. The photograph acts as a window to help us imagine what we cannot otherwise see, even by the most careful looking. It does so by controlling our perception while encouraging the brain to construct what lies just beyond the edge of the photograph. Now the brain is back in control.

Los Angeles Art Association/Gallery 825 Solo Exhibition - 2014 SCA Project Gallery - Pomona, CA - 2014 The Lucie Foundation - Art Platform Los Angeles - 2011 MOPLA: A Place in the Sun: Picturing California - Curated by Audrey Landreth - 2011

Desert Vista, Cinco California (2009)

The images here, selected from photographer Osceola Refetoff’s desert windows series, invite the viewer to look out at the desert through the windows of abandoned, decaying buildings in the Mojave Desert. We can now see the desert landscape anew with less danger of cognitive wipe out.

Consider “Desert Vista,” photographed through the weathered paneling of a trailer from a failed alfalfa farm north of Mojave, California. The photograph’s frame begins the process, but the window frame itself controls the observer’s experience of the flat plain that flows to the horizon and off to the left and right. The desert light shines in, illuminating the narrow molding of the window on the left and bottom. The depth of the view through perspective is thus reinforced. The window view is pristine, wasted and desolate. The image is flat to the point of appearing like a print pasted over the glass of the window. The depth of the horizon is difficult to determine. This kind of emptiness, particular in the Mojave, is only possible because of human intervention. The area was scraped and flattened to plant an alfalfa crop decades ago. Otherwise, it would be covered with creosote bush. The sky has no clouds for visual reference and produces the same effect as the land. We only see the sky growing paler as it moves to meet the horizon line. This image shows us much about the desert that might be otherwise lost in the brain’s struggle to make sense of what seems empty.

Desert Kitchen, Cinco, California (2010)

Desert Kitchen, Cinco, California (2010)


“It’s a Mess Without You!,” Cinco, California ( 2011)

Another two images, “Desert Kitchen” and “It’s a Mess without You!” show the same kitchen, photographed a year apart. In the first, the outside image of another trailer, torn by the wind and vandalized by passersby, is seen. It looks like it could be a mirror image of where the photographer’s camera has been placed. In the kitchen, things are not all right. The light is unromantic, and one cabinet is doorless and empty, the other veiled by a wood front. The peeling wallpaper, the sink full of junk, and even the window frame are cheap in style and quality. In the second photograph, we are in the same kitchen, but now the sink has been removed, perhaps to be recycled for some other kitchen, and the words “It’s a mess without you” are spray painted on the wall. This is more than a simple apology for bad housekeeping habits; the devastation is evident.

These photographs in Refetoff’s desert window series are both ambiguous and a reflection on the loss of memory and the passage of time. They remind us that much of our culture and economy are transitory, unsustainable, and leave only wind-worn wastelands behind—and now even the trailers are gone, wiped from the land to make way for the Beacon Solar Energy Project off Highway 14 north of Mojave, California.

Love, Faith, Hope, Cinco, California (2010)

Love, Faith, Hope, Cinco, California (2010)

In “Love, Faith, Hope,” the window has a rust red frame. There is a view of a decayed wooden fence and a dried, short-grass-covered desert flatland with barren hills beyond. Refetoff builds up several layers of meaning: the inside of the view, the window and its frame, the outside view, and the high and dry desert beyond. But for Refetoff, the words over the frame feel somehow art directed. He wonders if the scene is an art project or perhaps the abandoned set of a film or music video. If true, this adds another layer of meaning, or at least ambiguity. The risk of cognitive dissonance remains: everything has been repurposed. Nothing is as it appears.

An irony of this series is that many of the interior spaces look more real than the exteriors. Because the images are not composites, they are both equally “real.” Refetoff explains that “the physics of lens optics makes it impossible to focus on both the foreground and background simultaneously. Only a single focal plain can be in focus with this type of camera. Using a small aperture, an optical illusion called the ‘circle of confusion’ allows the exteriors to appear in focus, while only the foregrounds are actually in focus. This illusion begins to break down when the images are printed in larger sizes. I wanted the views outside the windows to be as sharp as possible, as the eye is naturally drawn to them. Digital prints are typically sharpened for enlargement, so I selectively applied a bit of additional sharpening to the exteriors, introducing a slightly ‘processed’ feel. This caused the ‘natural’ exteriors to look somewhat ‘artificial’ while the cheap trailer interiors appear almost painfully ‘real.’”

The desert is always mutable. Today it is full of the modern ruins of failed human endeavor. The houses with windows wait. For what? The wind sets to work peeling, pushing, tearing. Then vandals join in, throwing rocks at the panes. The sun desiccates the cheap fiberboard, the flimsy shingles, the painted frames of wood. Visitors come to make scenes of these settings. The slow-motion process of decay keeps working away.

Window with Creosote Bush, Dunmovin, California (2010)

Window with Creosote Bush, Dunmovin, California (2010)


Window with Jagged Glass, Dunmovin, California (2010)

Window with Jagged Glass, Dunmovin, California (2010)


Empty Room with Recliner, Mojave, California, (2013)

Empty Room with Recliner, Mojave, California (2013)


Industrial Materials

by Barron Bixler

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

I began photographing California’s sprawling network of mines, pits, quarries, and materials-processing plants a decade before the Mars Curiosity rover touched down in Gale Crater in August 2012. Until then, my sense of the project I call Industrial Materials: Mining California was wholly terrestrial and specifically Californian.

At first, I was drawn to these landscapes by their terraformed brutalism, which seemed at odds with the California imaginary. But the deeper I dug, the more I came to see how quintessentially Californian they are. The incalculable volume of minerals extracted from our mountaintops and riverbeds has been refashioned into the very infrastructure that has paved the way for California’s growth. For instance, detritus washed downstream by disastrous hydraulic gold mining operations in the 1850s was used to build Sacramento, San Francisco, and the Sacramento River levee system. Limestone mined by the Monolith Cement Company in what is now Tehachapi provided the raw material for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Mt. Slover in Colton—once the tallest mountain in San Bernardino County and now a whitish-grey lump of limestone with an American flag stuck on top—became many of the freeways, urban highrises, and sprawling suburbs that today are icons of Southern California and the new American West. Through this project, I have discovered that while tons of ink has been spilled trying to pin down the ephemeral nature of the California spirit, to understand California’s corporeal body you need only regard a pile of unassuming white boulders blasted out of a mountain of limestone.

When Curiosity began beaming back images of the surface of Mars to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August 2012, the meaning of the project changed for me. I thought to myself just how much like Mars my pictures of denuded mining landscapes looked, and how Curiosity, in its many Martian selfies, resembled the hulking machines that have been used to dismantle and scrape bare the California landscape. A part of me was comforted to see novel photographic evidence of a sister planet with a recognizable, Earthlike geology. But another part—the part that has an affinity for dystopian sci-fi stories—was unsettled. Given that our drive to create world-altering technologies is outpacing our ability to mitigate their consequences, I thought, how long will it be before California comes more closely to resemble the surface of Mars?


Dry Season

by Matt Black

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Like the weather, what’s news comes and goes. As a documentary photographer whose work has focused on California’s Central Valley for more than twenty years, I’ve become accustomed to the whims and sometimes fickle span of public attention. But the drought has broken through. Legions of reporters and photographers from all over the world have been dispatched to the Valley’s small towns and farm fields. Communities I have worked in for years have become headline material.

Of course, the drought is news. The world’s richest farming region may seem on the verge of collapse as groundwater levels plummet, towns go dry, and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland stand empty. But the Central Valley’s water supply has been declining for decades, and droughts have come and gone for as long as anyone can recall. The question is, whether this one is really different. Is this the mega-drought that finally turns the Golden State a permanent shade of brown?

On the ground, glimpses of apocalypse can certainly be seen. But the Central Valley is complicated, and its stories rarely check tidy boxes. Its contradictions and rough-hewn realities routinely confound even the most well-crafted narratives. The story of the drought is no different.

After decades of being ignored, a moment or two on center stage feels good in the Central Valley, even if some of the questions make us squirm. Like the neglected child in the back of the class, the Valley appreciates attention when it can get it, but deeper issues remain. A wet winter or two might erase this drought, but decades of declining resources, collapsing infrastructure, dirty air, and entrenched poverty will take longer to correct. When will we talk about those?

Sinamon lives in a makeshift home she built in a vacant lot just feet beyond Fresno city limits.

A dead almond orchard. Los Banos, California.

A shepherd’s camp in Mendota, California. Raul’s water for drinking, bathing and cooking comes from this 55-gallon drum.

Flea market. Tulare, California.

A man out of water. Alpaugh, California.

An almond harvesting machine leaves a trail of dust. Firebaugh, California.

A man whose well went dry. Farmersville, California.

Children at home. Alpaugh, California.

Fallowed tomato fields. Corcoran, California.


Human Nature

by Laura Aguilar

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Editor’s Note: Laura Aguilar’s remarkable Nature Self Portraits treats the human body as just another feature in the landscape. In the series, Aguilar positions herself in the center of her photographs, nude, often with her back to the camera. The curve of her back echoes the rocks, her black hair in the wind recalls the thin fingers of desert trees. The photographs are at once playful and beautiful, peaceful and provocative.

Aguilar’s first nude self portraits weren’t intended to be shared publicly. She has said in interviews that she made the first ones as a way to deal with her discomfort with her body and shame herself into changing it. It didn’t work—the friends she showed the photographs to thought they were some of her finest work. She decided to take the work outside, inspired largely by Los Angeles–based photographer Judy Dater, whose Self Portrait with Stone is echoed in the first photograph of the series.

When it came time to make the first photographs for the series, Aguilar was grieving the death of her closest friend. Working outside brought her back to her childhood spent camping and hiking with her family, and Sundays fishing with her grandmother who taught her that you didn’t have to go to church to get close to God.

Aguilar’s Nature Self Portraits may have roots in shame and mourning, but, transformed by the desert, the images become a celebration of the human body in nature. The earliest photographs were made in New Mexico and Texas, but more recent work was done in the Mojave Desert in California.

Laura Aguilar, born in San Gabriel in Los Angeles County, will be the subject of a retrospective—her first—at the Vincent Price Art Museum as part of the 2017–2018 Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America.

Grounded #106, Laura Aguilar, 1992. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Nature Self Portraits #12, Laura Aguilar, 1992. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Self Portrait with Stone, Judy Dater, 1981. Courtesy Judy Dater.

Grounded #111, Laura Aguilar, 1992. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Grounded Untitled 2007, Laura Aguilar. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.


Show, Don’t Tell

by Lynell George

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Back in LA’s wild nineties, when I was just starting out as a reporter, I envisioned my role as that of a chronicler, collecting and documenting the city’s underrepresented stories. Beyond the facts, I was looking for what, in newspaper parlance, is called “voices”: observations, eyewitness accounts, and the kind of texture provided best by memories. I was always fishing deep for the “other side” of the story, and I learned early that there were often more than two. Getting a handle on Los Angeles—the whole of Los Angeles—meant going deep into its margins and having the time to stay there. I sat at kitchen tables, on wraparound front porches, in living rooms with venetian blinds closed against the midday sun. I stood in alleys, in parking lots, on blacktop playgrounds filling up notebooks, listening, sopping up every detail until I was saturated.

There are stories people can tell you, and there are stories that can only be experienced. I learned this about three years ago, when life filled up so much—new job, new routines—that I didn’t have the open-ended luxury of time to listen to others as I once did. But I was still after the story. I didn’t want to lose my place in the city’s narrative. I dusted off my camera and began taking notes, this time visual ones. I retrained my focus. The backdrop became the forefront.

I was curious to see how the familiar litany of a changing Los Angeles—redlining, white flight, outmigration, gentrification, nostalgia, post-riots—had shaped the city and its sense of place. What I’ve learned is that some change happens so imperceptibly that we don’t yet have language for it. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can catch it in motion, for a fraction of a second. I discovered that these photos of shifting environments—often empty of people—still follow one of the cardinal rules of writing: “Show, don’t tell.”


River Glass

by Matthew Klingle with photographs by Michael Kolster

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Carleton Watkins was arguably California’s first great artist, but like many Californians, he came to the state as an emigrant looking for work. Born in upstate New York in 1829, Watkins arrived in San Francisco in 1850, just as the Gold Rush was underway and California became a state. Employed by childhood friend and future railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, he delivered supplies to mines in the Sierra Nevada, followed by stints as a carpenter and bookseller, before turning to his life’s passion: photography.1

Watkins often used the wet-plate process to make his pictures. It was a laborious, expensive technique that with time, patience, and luck could yield exquisitely detailed images on glass plates. His famed mammoth-plate photographs, made with a custom-built camera that accommodated plates as large as 18 by 22 inches, were materially and financially exhausting. Making them required thousands of pounds of cameras, lenses, glass plates, plate holders, tripods, a dark tent for developing, and a mobile laboratory of volatile chemicals. Watkins often traveled by railcar, but just as often by steamer or mule train, as he did to photograph Yosemite Valley beginning in the late 1850s. It was worth the effort. His iconic panoramas of Yosemite and San Francisco would ensure his lasting fame. As historian Martha Sandweiss argues, the glass-plate pictures made by Watkins and his peers made California and the West “a familiar place to millions of Americans.”2

As much as citrus crate labels and early Hollywood films, Watkins’s wondrously gorgeous images helped to sell an idealized California to the world. But Watkins was an artist for hire who photographed the ordinary as well as the picturesque. During visits to Southern California in 1877 and 1880, traveling on a free rail pass, courtesy of Huntington, he made pictures of wineries, ranches, and the dusty wide streets of a young Los Angeles. In the first mammoth-plate view of the city, taken from atop Fort Moore Hill in 1877, Watkins pointed his camera northeast over the adobe and clapboard houses of Sonoratown, the Mexican neighborhood that grew up along the banks of the Los Angeles River.

Sunnybrook, Atwater Village, 2014.

Today, Angelenos are rediscovering their city’s eponymous waterway even if they can’t always find it “under ten gridlocked freeways,” as river advocate Jenny Price once put it.3 Numerous organizations, from Friends of the LA River to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, are helping Angelenos get to know their river again. For so many in Los Angeles—let alone the rest of the world—the river isn’t a river but a sad trickle of water, its concrete channel made famous in countless movie chase scenes. But in the past few years, a stretch of the river has been transformed. Small parks have sprung up, a bike path runs along the top of the channel, there’s kayaking in the summer, and birding year round. The city has a billion dollar plan to expand and extend this “re-rivering” of the channel, and many of those who have visited understand the real riparian promise of what for so long has been derided as fake. Yet images of the river’s concrete have been cemented in the minds of so many others. To change it, new images are needed.

So why not turn back to the original technology that was so successful in first creating iconic photographs of California and the West? For the past five years, Michael Kolster, a friend and colleague at Bowdoin College in Maine, made wet-plate photographs of industrialized rivers up and down the East Coast. His favored type of image is the ambrotype: a faint negative made on glass using salted collodion, a sticky solution of gun cotton in ether that creates a semitransparent skin on glass. (Collodion was originally used as a medical field dressing, notably during the Civil War.) For Kolster, the making of ambrotypes physically echoes the industrial processes that produced early photographic technology and the polluted rivers he shoots.

Wet-plate photography is full contact art. It is physically taxing and mentally absorbing. The process begins in his studio, weeks in advance of a trip, when Kolster prepares his silver nitrate bath, polishes stacks of glass, and thins the collodion with highly flammable ether and 190-proof Everclear grain alcohol. After the collodion ripens, he waits for a sunny day with no wind and moderate temperatures. The makeshift dark box he built out of thick canvas and wood is tipsy in stiff breezes—and if it’s too cold, the chemistry won’t work. When conditions are right, he loads the 8×10 view camera, lenses, tripod, glass plates, plate holders, collapsible darkroom, chemicals, and gallons of water into the back of his Volvo station wagon. An In-N-Out Burger sticker on the rear door hints at California; he taught photography in San Francisco for almost a decade before moving to Maine in 2000.

Once Kolster reaches his site, he scouts for a flat, shady place to set up camp. For each plate, he follows a strict regimen. After framing a scene with his view camera, he pours the syrupy collodion onto a plate by hand, coating it with a thin, uniform layer of goo before placing the plate into a silver nitrate bath for several minutes. He then removes the plate, puts it into a lightproof holder, sprints to the camera and inserts the plate, opens the shutter, and measures the exposure by counting under his breath for between ten seconds to a minute, depending on the light and age of his collodion. Because the process only records ultraviolet light, traditional light meters are useless. Once he has the shot, he runs back to the dark box, turns on his red-light headlamp, pours developer over the plate, and waits a few seconds for the image to appear. When it does, he washes off the developer, clears the rinsed plate, moves back to the camera to frame another shot, and repeats the process. For the next eight to ten hours, he’ll be in constant motion. On a good day, he can make up to twelve plates. Afterward, at his studio or in a hotel room if he’s on the road, Kolster washes and dries the plates before coating them with varnish to protect the image.

Elysian Park Overlook (triptych), 2014.


The result is more like sculpture than a traditional photograph. On the collodion-coated side, if Kolster timed his exposures and developing correctly, and the light was sufficient, the silver-tinted areas float on the collodion film. When put against a black surface, like velvet, the image reverses and becomes a positive as the areas with less silver appear as shadows and the rest as diaphanous light. Places where the collodion peels or coagulates add texture or contrast to each individual plate. In addition to exhibiting the plates, he makes highly detailed large-scale prints from digital scans of the glass images.

Kolster honed his technique in the East before heading west in the path of Watkins. Like his nineteenth-century predecessor, he hauled his entire photography factory with him, but fitting for a modern day survey, he traveled by freeway in a rental minivan packed floor to ceiling with his gear. Once he arrived, photographing the Los Angeles River presented other challenges, beginning with reliable access. Finding good vantage points proved difficult but not impossible. The results speak to the resonances between Kolster’s work and his forerunners.

At the Glendale Narrows, leafy branches of overhanging trees drape a light dappled pool dotted with exposed rocks. Absent the caption, it would be hard to see this lush riverside idyll as the much ridiculed version of the Los Angeles River. But other images turn typecast into observation. A triptych of the South Gate Railroad Bridge, with each shot taken at a slightly different angle, bends the trusses into an arc bulging over the concrete channel and into the foreground. Further upstream, where the channelized Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek join to form the river’s headwaters in Canoga Park, the concrete divider thrusts at the viewer like a spear tip, pushing the eye aside to avoid the strike. Neither place is typically scenic, yet both photographs are beautiful.

Headwaters, Canoga Park, 2014.

Another striking image is a triptych created at an overlook in Elysian Park in central Los Angeles, facing northeast, above the confluence of Interstate 5 and State Highway 110, the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Beneath the streams of concrete and asphalt is the waterway, elbowing past the location where, in 1789, Gaspar de Portolà gave the river its European name.

Like Watkins and other nineteenth-century photographers who captured the beauty of a once-distant California, Kolster has been on his own expeditions. But instead of going to the great out there, he has traveled to the great nearby, photographing places we take for granted or ignore. His photos point toward a new aesthetics of place, with roots in earlier photographic traditions, like the New Topographics movement of the mid-1970s, or even further back to Watkins himself. Kolster’s striking pictures are part of a longer tradition of blurring boundaries between pure and prosaic in American landscape photography.

Watkins might have appreciated what Kolster is doing with his rebooted version of wet-plate photography. For his entire life, Watkins was a hard working artist who, according to Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington Library, spent his “lifetime balancing client demands with his own aesthetic perfectionism.” When a paying customer asked him to photograph an irrigation canal or a bunch of grapes, he turned the everyday into the remarkable, insisting that viewers “stop and linger awhile to marvel at their simple beauty.”4

Rattlesnake Park, Fletcher Street Bridge, Elysian Valley, 2014.


Glendale Narrows, 2014.


Del Amo Blvd., Long Beach (diptych), 2014.


Kolster does the same in his photographs. He invites us to revisit the Los Angeles River as a place of splendor regardless of its checkered past and uncertain future. His ambrotypes are windows on the river of time, opening views full of possibility and even hope.


1. For Watkins as California’s “first great artist,” see Christopher Knight, “Carleton Watkins on the Frontier of U.S. Photography,” Los Angeles Times, 27 October 2008, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-watkins17-2008oct17-story.html [accessed 28 March 2015].

2. Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 153. For Watkins’s work in California, see Judy Graeme, “Photography of Carleton Watkins,” LA Observed, 24 November 2006, http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2008/11/photography_of_carleton_watkin_1.php [accessed 24 March 2015] and Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis, eds. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011).

3. Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, William Deverell and Greg Hise, eds. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 228–29, republished in The Believer 4: no.3 (April 2006), http://www.believermag.com/issues/200604/?read=article_price [accessed 20 March 2015].

4. Jennifer A. Watts, “Railroads and Agriculture,” Carleton Watkins, 397.


The Boom Interview: Lauren Bon

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

The Metabolic Studio’s devices of wonder

Editor’s Note: Lauren Bon is a transformative figure—her canvas is huge: Los Angeles, the American West, the way we think about landscapes, our water and where it comes from, and what we owe the land and communities, our moral, economic, and political relationships. “ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE AT THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY” proclaims a red neon sign on one wall of the Metabolic Studio in a warehouse on the edge of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a very high standard, and one that Bon takes very seriously in every aspect of her work from her first major work, Not A Cornfield, which transformed an old contaminated railroad yard, a literal brownfield across the street from the studio, into a verdant color field in view of downtown’s skyscrapers, to her latest work, Bending the River Back Into the City—a waterwheel that will draw water from the Los Angeles River and distribute into the City. For its monumental images of the Intermountain west, the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio uses landscape material rather than traditional chemistry to document the landscapes that the Metabolic Studio is working to transform. Bon sat down to talk with editor Jon Christensen about her work reconnecting Los Angeles with the source of it’s water and about how silver and water mined out of the Eastern Sierra has catalyzed photography and film making for this special issue of Boom on photography, art, and landscape.

I wonder if we could just start by you describing where we are sitting right now.

Lauren Bon: Well, right now, we’re sitting inside of a frame that was built to house the Salon De Fleurus, which is a re-creation of Gertrude and Leo Stein’s art collection in Paris at the turn of the last century. That salon space has now been moved. This frame we are sitting in next to the Amtrak lines that run adjacent to the LA River corridor—[pauses for a train passing by]—this is a new vista for us. This concrete block wall didn’t have any doors or windows that opened to the east. Between 2006 and 2013, the front of the studio was looking at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, and the back of the studio opened to the underside of the Spring Street Bridge. We were actively cultivating these places, and both closed at the same time. The park went into construction and so did the bridge. So now we are looking at the industrial corridor of the city of Los Angeles when we come out here. Your back is to the Spring Street Bridge, and my back is to the Broadway Bridge. And those two bridges cross the LA River from the west side of the river to the east side of the river.

Where we are sitting will be very different by next year at this time. Everything you see around here is transforming. The Spring Street Bridge is being rebuilt now. Across the river Albion Park is being put together. The state historic park is under construction. And if all goes well, a year from now where we’re sitting right now will be a massive hole in the ground.

Lauren Bon in a cottonwood grove. Saplings were grafted from a mature cottonwood grove in Owens Valley and transported to Los Angeles via One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 2013.

Boom: Just because our readers won’t all have been here, we’re sitting right outside your studio, Metabolic Studio in this warehouse, a former warehouse.

Bon: Current warehouse.

Boom: Your studio, where many of the things that we’re going to talk about have happened. But pretty soon, there’s going to be a giant water wheel bisecting this building.

Bon: Yeah. Cutting it in half.

Boom: And that’s La Noria. Can you describe that?

Bon: So historically, where we’re sitting right now would have been a floodplain of the unbridled LA River. And Spring Street was a very active spring that pooled quite a bit of water from the LA River all the way to a giant sycamore that was located behind what’s now Union Station. If you look at old photos of LA from up until 1890 when it was cut down, it was the largest visual object in this area. So all of the early photos of LA have this giant sycamore called “El Aliso” or “the sycamore.” It was rumored to be 400 years old and have a 200-foot canopy, and all the tribal people would come from miles and miles around to sit under that tree for problem solving.

So we’re sitting in a place that has lots of history, both told and untold, and lots of mythology, both told and untold, and La Noria taps into some of that. La Noria is a kind of avant-garde nostalgia. In looking forward to what can be, we’re looking back at what was. Because when the river was here, it supported trees. When the river was here, it supported industry. And it supported industry in that age-old way by creating power for things to happen. And one of the means by which power was created was waterwheels. The state park was a place that supported about six different power waterwheels. And we’re alluding to that typology in the waterwheel that we’re about to build.

We are about to build a waterwheel that will bisect this building and pick up water that will be redirected from the LA River channel via a pipe under that railway track where the trains are going by. So the trains will still be going by, and all the sounds you hear will be pretty much, more or less, like they are. And all that you see around you—the riverbank, built of concrete and covered with graffiti—will still look the same. The LA River’s reintroduction to its own flood plain will happen through a single hole that will puncture that jacket. Water will be pooled up from the river by a dam that will be right out there. Water will enter the pipe, run under the railway track, be picked up by La Noria and deposited on the roof of this building before it begins its journey through a new network of pipes, and channels, an infrastructure artwork that aims to form a distribution network that we call the “Delta of Mount Whitney.”

Boom: What does that mean, the “Delta of Mount Whitney”?

Bon: Every river has a delta, the place where it deposits its load before it dissipates. The delta of this new river, the parallel river that will form from moving our wastewater that would normally go out to sea back into the city will be known as the “Delta of Mount Whitney.” We have chosen that name to allude to a source of our water, 240 miles away. It’s only one source of that water, but we think it’s an important one to name in that delta, which is the snow peaks, or what once was the snow peaks of the Eastern Sierra.

Boom: You’ve talked about La Noria as a device of wonder. What do you mean by that?

Bon: I know it when I see it, that thing that raises you up out of the daily discussion of a thing into a kind of transcendent appreciation of it. The motivation of the work that I do with the Metabolic Studio is to utilize devices of wonder to catalyze a paradigm shift. So one can talk for a long time about master plans for the LA River, but in proposing a device of wonder, like a waterwheel and a dam and a new distribution system, I’ve been able to catalyze a change that needs to happen. It’s happening because it needs to happen, not because I’m a great artist. But maybe I am a good enough artist to get that ball rolling. And I’m happy with that, you know?

So the work that I’m doing with the studio is about creating an opportunity for a paradigm shift through utilizing devices of wonder. These devices and the engagement the studio has around them can help reframe the discussion from master planning alone to intervention that can perhaps catalyze the master plan because then there’s one that’s done. This piercing needs to be one of many piercings. It alone will only provide 100 acre-feet of water per year to me. And then I can choose how to redistribute it. But through that paradigm, I hope that the California Water Board sees potential for other kinds of interventions in the stormwater management system.

One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, October 18 to November 11, 2013, an artist action to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

What is the paradigm shift that this is part of?

Bon: Well, we need to reuse our wastewater. Right now, all of the water that’s going out to sea does not reenter the city for any beneficial use, and that’s a paradigm that needs to shift. That’s the primary goal of La Noria.

Then it will be up to the contracts that we develop with other delta users to see if we can also galvanize other paradigms to shift. For example, we’re in negotiation with the state historic park across the street. They wish to receive water from us. We have agreed in principle to supply water, but there are conditions. One of the conditions that they have agreed to is to change the pesticides and herbicides that they use on what they grow, so that the watershed does not become compromised. That’s become policy in the whole state park system, not just this state park, as a result of that contract from the Delta of Mount Whitney. So the device of wonder utilizes language to create a connection to a snow pack, but its knife angle is in changing paradigms of behavior within entrenched bureaucratic systems.

Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. First, an inflatable dam will pool wastewater headed out to sea. Then a piercing in the storm channel will move water under the railway tracks via a pipe. Finally, a waterwheel will lift the water from the river bed to the roof of the Metabolic Studio.

This might be a good moment to talk about the metabolic in Metabolic Studio. Why “metabolic”?

Bon: Metabolic means that we’re dealing with life processes. All living things are divided up into two activities, the anabolic and the catabolic. The anabolic builds up and the catabolic tears down. The Metabolic Studio looks at taking land and water that can no longer support life and aims to return it to supporting life.

In our work along the Owens Dry Lake, we’re actually playing within the catabolic dust and repurposing it to find it has some agency. We take a system that has almost ceased to support life—the Owens Dry Lake—and explore it for new potentiality. The water that has been redirected from the lake is held in trust for us as citizens of the state of California. And now the dust from the dry lake is blowing dangerous chemistry into the air. All kinds of health and safety problems have ensued around that.

But it’s still a lake in terms of how it’s politically organized. It’s held in trust for the people of the state of California as a water body, which means that as a water body, we all have access to it for recreation.

So our Metabolic Studio Optics Division uses it to recreate. We’ve found we can use the dust as photographic chemistry. We go out onto the dry lake in the middle of the night to bury exposed film, large format sheets of photographic paper in the mud. We leave them for the night and pull them out in the morning. The images we make there are not just images of the landscape but made out of the landscape itself. And the action of making them is an activist action. Taking time to work out there is an important thing to do because we participate in a civic right by occupying that space. We know other artists who are thinking similarly and have launched kayaks on the dry lakebed.

As an art practice, we don’t want to leave physical objects behind, but to use our labor as transformation—to make art work as a verb rather than a noun. Up until the waterwheel, all of my work in the last ten years has been ephemeral. Everything is about catalyzing other things to happen through these devices of wonder. The waterwheel is the first piece that is permanent.

Boom: Speaking of Owens Valley, on the hundredth anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct you traveled with a hundred mules along the whole route. What was your vision for that project? And what was it like?

Bon: One of the puzzles for me is how to draw a line for people in Los Angeles between those two points. They see the river. And they see the snow. They recreate in that snow. But the 395, the massive highway that drives up there, has a whole lot of Mojave Desert in it. And people tend to listen to their music and enjoy what deserts do best, which is to get you into the bubble of your car and that kind of great space of the West that allows us all to think differently.

But I really felt that for the centenary of the aqueduct, I needed to build a device of wonder for people in both locations, in the Owens Valley and in Los Angeles, to acknowledge that the snow pack of this year is being moved to Los Angeles, and to acknowledge it by spending time with the intention of celebrating the physical object, saying that this is an amazing piece of engineering that has a physical reality, that has a fiscal reality, that has a historical reality, that has a relationship to the history of engineering. It’s not just this secret pipe.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, the physical reality of it, is a phenomenal thing. It will be, in the distant future, the central ruin of our civilization, of our moment. It’s reasonable to assume at some point, all of this will be gone. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But when it is gone, the aqueduct will be there. The aqueduct was built by mules as was the Panama Canal, which opened the next year. So it seemed to me that in drawing that line to connect the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles, how wonderful to be able to use the very animals that built it to begin with, the very animals that have been so critical to the construction of the West as we have come to know it.

Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct with one hundred mules was moving on so many levels. Quite literally. It was great to be able to move that slowly—twenty miles a day, over a one-month period. It was wonderful to be part of something that was so well organized. Days just kind of had this rhythm to them, because everything was organized around moving the mules. And I also really understand every inch of the LA Aqueduct now, probably better than most people, because I walked that slowly the entire network of open channel, pipes, siphons, and underground channels covered with concrete from the intake through the Alabama Hills, through the canyons like Jawbone Canyon where the heroic siphons are, into the Mojave Desert, through to where the California Aqueduct meets the LA Aqueduct in Neenach, into the Verdugos after the Cascades. I really know it. I know how it looks. I know how barren the Mojave really is. I understand that the aqueduct was a miraculously lucky thing to be able to build because it’s all downhill.

Walking from the Owens Valley to LA means you’re walking downhill the whole way with an occasional climb up a pass. The mules did that with not a lot of work. The mules thought this trip was super easy. Basically, they didn’t carry anything but a pad that said “100” and an occasional rider. There was only one rider per every ten mules. And it was all downhill. They were extremely well kept. They all came in plumper, happier.

Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. The water filtered through this three-part metabolic sculpture will become a community asset ready for redistribution via a new network, or Delta.

Your work in the Owens Valley has taken place under the rubric of what you’ve called AgH20—silver and water. Why silver?

Bon: Silver mined from places like Cerro Gordo on the top of the Inyo Mountains gave birth to the film industry—perhaps the best example of any of a devise of wonder. George Eastman, way over in Rochester, New York, figured out how to take silver from the mountains out here in California and turn it into film stock that could become a populist activity. “You press the button and we do the rest.” Film stock for motion pictures was shipped back from Rochester across the country to Hollywood and brought back up to the Owens Valley where they made Westerns.

So silver and water mining from the Owens Valley are the two elements the city of Los Angeles has been constructed from. This body of work that I’ve done with the studio since 2008 called “Silver and Water” includes a myriad of action, hundreds, in fact, of artists’ actions that have been taken around this idea of silver and water, including the photographic prints and experimentation, including the sonic work being done at the silos, including the mule march, including the metabolic soil project, including the IOU Theater project and the IOU Garden project, and all of these devices of wonder are, in effect, tending to this space, which is the kind of sacrificial twin of the city of Los Angeles. The more I understand Los Angeles, the more I realize that it kind of has a symbiotic birth, like it is born with the Owens Valley, which has ultimately been the compromised twin. One has thrived at the expense of the other. And I feel that part of AgH20 is the consciousness of acknowledgement saying, “We do owe you.”

Boom: The project that I think you are really best known for was Not A Cornfield. Is that where the idea of a metabolic practice really came together?

Bon: Oh yes, the “Chlorophyll Revolution.” The moment when the old train yard became emerald green with corn, things shifted. That was a big, big shift, and I could see the power of both a metaphor of corn and the reality of how life brings life, whether it’s ladybugs or hummingbirds or crickets at night. The power of living things in juxtaposition with a place like this gave birth to a notion of a practice that I would call a “metabolic sculpture” to differentiate it from other kinds of sculpture.

It’s not land art, per se. A lot of times Not A Cornfield would be construed as land art because it was on the land. It’s not that it wasn’t land art, but there is also a whole lot about it that was not normally associated with land art. One of the things that it was about was transformation. Because we weren’t going to have a cornfield there forever, it was both a cornfield and not a cornfield. It was a way of creating the potential for something else to occur there because the site had stalled in its process of becoming, and the cornfield was meant to galvanize it into that possibility again. So that seems to be an unusual way to look at sculpture, which is often about its formal end being the subject of the work, rather than it consuming even its formal end into a greater notion of transformation, which seems to be more about metabolic things than it does about sculpture in a traditional sense.

Boom: Your artistic practice, a practice that is engaged in activism, sometimes provokes some pretty strong reactions. Not A Cornfield got some pretty strong reactions at the time.

Bon: I see it now as a kind of acupuncture needle. I hit a nerve when I began this work, and like the work that I had done in the Owens Valley, it’s been the fact that I have stayed put for ten years that things have changed. I think people were concerned that I came in to take something away rather than to offer a transformative potential that I would then stay and support. And I think over the ten years, I’ve shown who I am around here. And now times have changed, but at the beginning, it was very frightening and very confusing. I have come to understand where it was coming from, and so I see it differently.

I don’t think I would do anything differently, by the way. I thought about this, knowing now what I know, how would I do things differently, and I think it’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes things are -check-the-box “Other.” One of the things that Not A Cornfield was not was public art. I think a lot of people would have liked me to go through the way public art gets commissioned in a city, and it wasn’t that way. So would I, knowing what I know now, do it that way? No.

Boom: You have this neon sign in the studio that says, “Artists must create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” Is that your saying?

Bon: Actually, I thought it was, and it turned out not to be. I love to take notes in notebooks, mostly around drawings, and I had an old notebook from the years I lived in Belgrade where I had written that quote.

I found it during Not A Cornfield. People would question me about scale. Not A Cornfield was thirty-two acres. It’s a lot, a big, big piece.

It turned out to be Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz from Electronic Café. It was a statement that they made during the work they were doing with the early Internet about connecting people in the Soviet Union and in the United States via a café that had Internet in it in the 1980s. That was their statement, not exactly that, but pretty close to it. And we now call that the “metabolic manifesto” via the Electronic Café manifesto, which is also cool because it’s West Coast thinking.

One of the things that’s interesting about art coming from the West Coast is that there’s something about these vast expanses that causes you to think differently. You think about these big things, these big expanses. In living out here as an artist, this mandate to operate on a scale that society is destroying is where that comes from.

Lauren Bon and Richard Nielsen at Owens Dry Lake Bed.

Boom: What did you take in your experimenting and your self-education and the decade that you spent in Europe where you really said, “I’m just going to experiment for a decade”? What did you carry there from California and the West?

Bon: Liability obsession. I realized while I was there that a lot of things don’t happen in the West out of feared of being sued. That certainly, places in the Eastern Bloc, places like Russia, Mongolia, China, ex-Yugoslavia, are different. So a project like what I’m undertaking now, which is a metabolic sculpture in the form of a revisionist review of infrastructure comes straight from Belgrade in the years just before the war, the wars in Belgrade, where what it meant to be really modern was to have the best possible infrastructure. So societies were really proud of hosting conversations when the city streets would be ripped open and people would be showing these new pipes and new roads. And they would allow people to walk over these crumbling pieces of sidewalk in a way that if that happened here, people would be terrified that somebody would sue.

And I find that that’s a really big difference. Like even in phobia about—there’s a definite phobia about lawsuits that operates—even in the water dispute site, I was talking to a journalist who recently passed away, who lived up in the Owens Valley. I said to her, “If there was one thing that you would like to see changed with the Department of Water and Power and the Owens Valley situation, what would it be?” She said she’d like them to stop their litigious behavior, that it was a waste of time and money. I thought that is really important to hear. So much of the energy of transformation is being subsumed into litigious behavior. So that was one thing I really got through my self-educating period around the globe is that not all countries are equally litigious, and that was a big, big difference.

Boom: That’s interesting. The other side of that question is, what did you bring back to California and the West from those experiences?

Bon: You know, really from my days as a college student, I’ve been interested in the collapse of the avant-garde and the relationship of the last century to this idea that to be totally modern meant to be working on a collective project, and that the whole of an avant-garde was that community of creative enterprise, and this mandate to be modern, and how that came about during the World Wars—so the relationship between destruction and art production and collectivity and art movements and an avant-garde. When I was a college student in the eighties, most of the smartest people would say very definitively that the avant-garde was dead. And I’ve tried to bring the avant-garde back to the West with me because I think about the West as still an open field for creative life. In other words, it’s very different in tone and temperament from the East Coast, which is much more referential to the art market and to Europe than the West Coast needs to be.

A lot of the reason why people come to Los Angeles is that it’s really possible to reinvent one’s self here and to define the terms of one’s engagement. And I’ve really worked on collectivity since I’ve been back. I’ve worked on demystifying art practice as the bastion of genius and tried to really support and incubate talent without a host of intermediaries that usually divide us so that we are not engaged with one another. The whole notion of collective engagement is something that I have focused on that really had its beginnings in my work at the Hereford Salon in London, where I brought artists together to work on what I called “work in progress.” The only thing that we wouldn’t show at the Hereford Salon or discuss is finished work. So the rule of thumb was, it had to be something you were stuck on or wanted to address.

Our work has intersected with a lot of different galleries and art museums. So in no way are we not wanting to engage with them. But at the same time, there’s a whole world of opportunity for creative life that we’ve tried to make tangible for people, so that when people come, they see it. We definitely, ten years into it, see how much it inspires especially young people to see that there’s another way of being an artist outside the traditional system.

Boom: Another thing that you seem to have brought back was a kind of artistic and a philanthropic practice that was based around projects.

Bon: You know, one of the things that we talked about is how Not A Cornfield was not a public art project, partly because there wasn’t an intermediary that made it happen. In a similar way, I can say that a lot of the work I do is not philanthropy because there’s no nonprofits involved. There’s no nonprofits that are involved with AgH20. So Silver and Water is not a normal practice of philanthropy whereby money is passed to a nonprofit for programming or capital campaigns. This is direct project-based philanthropy, which doesn’t exist, like the term I gave metabolic sculpture. I mean, you’re not going to go look it up in a book for my definition. But what it has meant is that I’ve been able to activate potentiality toward a nonprofit in places like Owens Valley. There is today a growers’ co-op in the Owens Valley that receives funding from other organizations that came about because of my soil production project.

Similarly in the Veterans Administration site in west LA, there was no nonprofit by which I could do Strawberry Flag and activate that site for anything new. So Strawberry Flag was a means by which potential could be grown. And now there is a new nonprofit, the Veterans Print Studio, that comes from the work that we did in turning art supplies we found in the basement of an under-purposed building into an art studio for veterans.

So in many ways, I’ve been able to, through the devices of wonder, like a strawberry aquaponic farm, learn a lot about how to catalyze potentiality toward the more traditional philanthropic approach.

So ten years in, a lot of the work is not as unusual as it was when I began, because we succeeded in growing the potentiality to support more traditional approaches. But what we’ve also done as a team is the Metabolic Studio. Since 2010, we’ve called ourselves the “Metabolic Studio,” and the Metabolic Studio is different from Not A Cornfield in one important regard and that is that the eighteen full-time employees of the Metabolic Studio share my trustee-hood in the Annenberg Foundation. So they are the philanthropists in the studio. I’ve decided in order to be able to focus my time on what I do best in this life, which is to make art and to organize community and to speak to power from my experience as an outsider, I need to be able to make sure that I have a team that is backing me up with the work that people do in making philanthropic decisions.

The Metabolic Studio is different from those earlier incarnations of my work in that that relationship is formalized. All the full-time people here are my trustee-hood manifest, so we work through that collaboratively. And I no longer function as a unique philanthropist in this city. I pass that on to the community that I work with. And we call that “citizen philanthropy” because the eighteen people who work here are not trained to do that job any more than I was. They are just living their lives, and they found themselves in this position. And we have trained ourselves to process that potentiality through our direct engagement with site, not through papers or applications or any of that. The foundation does that for us. So we are like the satellite to the foundation, a satellite that is operating on the ground and in places that are challenged in the absence of sufficient nonprofits to pass the money to. The demographics of philanthropy are often in cities, so when you move into places outside of cities, there can be a real drop in the opportunity for traditional philanthropy to be practiced. We really run into that question quite a lot.

Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke using alternative chemistry on a Metabolic Studio Optics Division photograph.

That’s true in some cases in cities, too, though, like the Veterans Administration project, no? Tell us about that project.

Bon: In the year and a half that I worked on a daily basis at the VA of West LA, I learned about the complexity of creating the opportunity for paradigm shift. In the case of the VA, that means that land should stop being just a hospital. The VA of West LA is on land that was donated to the US government in 1888 by Arcadia de Baker, who owned all of the land in one hacienda between the beach in Malibu and downtown. And she gave choice land for recuperating veterans in perpetuity as a home. In the 1960s, the asset moved from being part of the Department of War to the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was no Department of Veterans Affairs before Vietnam.

When the asset was moved from one department to the other, it just ceased to be a home anymore. They built a new hospital. They moved all the functions out of the home. It’s now the most valuable asset in the VA chain. And it’s been a big puzzle for people for forty years about what to do with all of that land that was left undeveloped, underused in the midst of the largest homeless population for veterans in the country.

So the question as an artist was how to bring awareness to that, and Strawberry Flag was the answer. What we learned in the time it took to make that artwork became a lawsuit.

I realized that there was no nonprofit out there that protects veterans’ land use. There are nonprofits that deal with veterans who are homeless. But we’re talking specifically about land use. How do you make that land operate for the people it was left in trust for?

So the thing I was able to do when Strawberry Flag ended was write a lawsuit that showed how donor intention has been upheld in the court of law over time, and say, to begin with, that we would never sue the federal government. This was simply a lawsuit in case someone else wanted to sue the federal government, because I don’t want to be litigious. But the ACLU picked up that lawsuit and sued the federal government, and the result is, five years later, everybody in charge of the VA has been fired. And the whole thing has cracked open again for a discussion.

So what I’ve been able to do through my art practice is focus more incisively because I have time where I’m actually working on something—a lot of these projects are durational—to ascertain what can be done and what can’t be done to shift the paradigm and utilize my trustee-hood at the foundation to take those actions that I can take to move the agenda toward some kind of happier return.

Bubblers of Owens Lake Rehydration Project, 2012. Indexical image of the lake made with materials from the lake itself.

I want to come back to this phrase that “Artists must create on the same scale the society has the capacity to destroy.” A lot of your work in the last ten, fifteen years has gotten you involved with very big institutions like the VA, State Parks, the LADWP, the Army Corps of Engineers on the river. It seems that part of this practice has made you need to learn about these big institutions and how they operate and how they might change in order for the practice to succeed.

Bon: I think that’s true. Every one of the signature projects of the Metabolic Studio has had to engage with the structure that the land or the water is owned by and controlled by. In the case of Not A Cornfield, we were working directly with the State of California as well as the City of Los Angeles. So my role as an artist and private citizen and trustee of the Annenberg Foundation was, in a way, to build a bridge between the people of the state of California and an asset held in trust for them. And, therefore, the work cannot be classified as public art because it’s coming from a very different place.

Similarly, with the VA of West LA, that land is held in trust for veterans by the federal government. So even though it’s in Los Angeles, it actually has very little to do with the city of Los Angeles in terms of how it’s organized or run. It has its own police force. It has its own, essentially, mayor, who is the person in charge, and it’s like the Vatican. It’s a separate city within Los Angeles.

So, it’s partly because of my unusual practice at the intersection of art and philanthropy that I’ve been able to have these direct engagements that are usually not available for the general public, and to sometimes slowly, sometimes not so slowly, see change happen. I don’t think any of us thought there would be these massive transformations at the VA of West LA in five years since Strawberry Flag.

Boom: In order to create at the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy, the art has to engage with these big institutions.

Bon: Yeah. It has to become sympathetic with those agencies. When the LADWP agrees to allow the Metabolic Studio to walk 240 miles of aqueduct, something is happening systematically. That’s a first—that they opened up all of the gates to let those mules through. I think that’s an important consideration of the project—that we didn’t break their trust. They had a good experience for a public-private partnership. And part of what we were aiming to do for the centenary is also reframe the LADWP from being the villains of the water system that we have, to being an agency that’s doing a job, and is also the largest employer in the Owens Valley. So there is no human being who is the LADWP. It’s an agency. And it doesn’t do any good for us to continue to place the LADWP in the role of villains in a narrative they didn’t create.

The project was really about let’s try and move forward into a new century of thinking by looking at rehumanizing, reconnecting with the human beings who actually work at the LADWP, who are showing up every night for dinner as the mules pass through their section of the aqueduct, who show up and tell stories or bring a violin to play by a section of the pipe. Let’s allow this agency to be a series of individuals who like the benefits that the LADWP community gives them. I think it’s a good job. I think it’s a good service. It’s certainly one that we can’t do without right now, and it could be a lot worse. It could be a private system, and that would be worse.

So these are the kinds of things that each of these projects have been able to do—make small changes within the VA and create opportunities for a different VA, create different opportunities for a different California urban state park system, create opportunities for the LADWP to rethink its public face. And that’s where those intersections of the devices of wonder, which are the artworks, dovetail with my trustee-hood.

Boom: There’s always artistic authorship in all of these projects. There’s the really authentic and reciprocal engagement with community, with these institutions, but there’s also always your artistic vision that is important there.

Bon: The art is what’s driving the agenda. The art and the urgency. This is something that needs to happen. And they know that. Somebody has to be first. Somebody has to pierce that jacket and bring that water back into the city, and this is the best way to do it.

Boom: And if it’s based on the art, the agent here is the artist.

Bon: The water right I have for one hundred acre feet of wastewater that we pull from the river via La Noria is not a water right to a philanthropic organization. It is not for the Annenberg Foundation nor the Metabolic Studio. It’s my water right. As an individual, I applied for a water right in order to create a distribution network to share the water, without exchange of capital and without commodifying the water. I ascribe to the United Nation’s dictate that water is a human right. So just like I have shared my trustee-hood with the Metabolic Studio, I will share my water right at no capital cost to the people or organizations that will form the Delta of Mount Whitney. As human beings, we speak for all living things, all the animals, all the wildcats in these hills who need water too. That’s the big challenge.

Boom: Where do you see going from here?

Bon: Me personally or the project or the water?

Boom: You as an artist.

Bon: Oh. I don’t know. There’s so much to do. Right now, I’m forming a new country, the country of Rose, so I think that’s the next project.

Boom: Can you say more about this country? Where is it?

Bon: Well, to really try and understand what the waterwheel is and is not—it’s a drop in a bucket in a systemic collapse. The LA Aqueduct gave birth to the Hoover Dam, Lake Powell, the California Aqueduct. And because of the drought, we’re getting a glimpse into a system in crisis. Because whether or not there is a drought, we’re maxed out in terms of what we can do demographically with the amount of water we can move in the Intermountain West. So the country of Rose is an opposition that we need to reorganize, not around states, but around watersheds. It’s based on the idea that there are four basic watersheds in the country of Rose: the Columbia, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the water table of the ancient lakes Lahontan and Bonneville that run between Lake Tahoe and Salt Lake. The basic idea is that outmoded state boundaries don’t serve us anymore. And for metabolic processes to continue in the Intermountain West, we are going to need to reorganize around the protection of our watersheds as the primary purpose of all political organization.

Los Angeles and LA Aqueduct are just a small part of a system that’s all interrelated through its water. So when I really came to understand that, I realized that’s probably the next body of work. And that’s what I’m working on with the mule team packers for them to do a survey of Rose as a relay of all the packers in the Great Basin. We’re going to get them all involved.

One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 2013. Penultimate trek with view of Los Angeles Skyline.

Wow! That’s huge.

Bon: You can apply for a passport, by the way.

Boom: Really?

Bon: Yeah. The passport is on the Metabolic Studio website.