Tag: Photography


Inland Empire

by Lewis deSoto

On the west side of San Bernardino is a high plateau that overlooks the Lytle Creek Wash. To the east I could discern the terse grid of the city at night. However, within this orderly checker board is a chaos of seemingly unregulated activity. San Bernardino is a vast story of creation and destruction.

First came the Spanish, who named San Bernardino, then the Mormons, who were tricked into the middle of turf wars between opposing indigenous groups. Next came the new Americans, who swept in like waves of difference—Spanish, Mexican, Irish, German, Japanese, Chinese, African American, and then the refugees who blew in like dust from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas during the Depression.

We Cahuilla watched it happen all around us. We were the invisible insiders. We were there among the gridded territories of difference. We mingled in the markets and exchanged glances at traffic lights. Lettered streets, numbered streets kept out the history and let us all float free without real suburban planning. Agriculture begat industry begat suburbs begat malls. When the balance upended, as it did from time to time, the decay and neglect compounded. Left behind were vast tracts of empty buildings that glowered like ghouls, like black holes.

San Bernardino, February 2013

San Bernardino, February 2013

The grid held together a kind of nothingness of direction, each intersection both a disaster and miracle that was visually superseded by the bulk and majesty of the mountains above. The mountains were the staid observers of the two extremes of whizzing activity and empty storefronts.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, there were stretches of months during which the mountains became invisible, cloaked behind a wall of sulfurous carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, lead particulates, and ocean haze. It left behind in me the panic of asthma, of strangling on dry land and days spent in bed breathing painfully and shallowly.

Then there were days when Santa Ana winds would infect the air with electricity and clarity was temporarily restored. The palms crackled and swayed, bombing the streets with their crispy fronds. Everything looked perfect. Fine dust would filter through window cracks like the sand in an hourglass. The mountains overwhelmed the chaos and shoddy home carpentry below and pointed out the magnificence of nature’s presence. That was enough to remind us we were a chosen people, to be in this place while others, in the far east, labored in the sleet, snow, and mud.

San Bernardino, February 2013

San Bernardino, February 2013

More magnificent still were the awesome rumbles of the land shifting below our feet and pushing the ground in novel ways, upsetting my mother’s crystal bells and porcelain angels, sending my books flying off the shelves, and breaking water mains so that water ran down the streets the way it used to run down the trenches between the fragrant citrus trees. Freeways collapsed and hospitals crumbled, and I would trace the mysterious line of cracked plaster on my ceiling until my father sealed it up and repainted the room.

Now, thanks to modern regulations, the days are clearer, but the city still struggles to find the kind of order envisioned by the designers of the grid. Basic services cannot be delivered by a bankrupt government, so the city suffers. Individuals push on, teaching, repairing old houses, and creating visual and poetic culture in this place where anything is possible but rarely ever occurs.

I was born in San Bernardino and spent my childhood there. My adult life began in Riverside, and I fluttered between those two worlds for many years until I moved to Washington State when I was thirty-one. Growing up, my consciousness was shaped by the landscape, especially how it looked passing through a windshield. Cars were my window on the world—and it was a glorious view.

This place was called the Inland Empire, and despite its name it was free of singular leaders and tyrants. It was an empire of things: oranges, tract homes, steel, freeways, earthquakes and floods, desert and deep water, crackling fire in the hills. It was an empire of smog, the asthma it gave me, that is still with me to this day. It was the empire of mountains, deserts, and weird inland seas. It was marvelous and abject. It was framed by opposites: blue mountains with white snow presiding over crispy weeds in sunbaked lots.

Colton, August 2012

Colton, August 2012

I was of native blood, Cahuilla blood. I had “Hispanic” cultural tags. But I felt alien to all groups. It was the empire of me. I was put there to figure it out.

I began photographing when I was ten years old. My first subjects were the scale model cars I carefully crafted on weekends. A few years later, my father came home with a Polaroid camera in a leather case, and I used it to photograph everything that interested me. When my father abandoned that camera, it became mine, and when he later gave up his Minolta SR-T 101, it became my instrument of choice.

While at University of California, Riverside, Steven Cahill taught me how to make photographs and Joe Deal, the steely “New Topographics” photographer, taught me a new way to think about the landscape. It wasn’t his own way, or that of his friends, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke. Rather, he showed me how to see in the landscape a process of becoming that encompassed the paradox of empty utility and evanescent beauty existing in the same visual moment. While Baltz reduced and purified, and Adams haunted and lamented, I was interested in larger forces at work.

Redlands, January 2013

Redlands, January 2013

On the surface, some might think these forces were merely industrial upheavals. What I saw was a redistribution of power as it related to cosmology. As someone who believes certain things about the origin of the world, this knowledge dictates, almost preordains, how I think the land should be treated.

I started my photographic journey with an epicenter in the Empire: Mt. Slover, where granodiorite was mined and turned into cement. The native people called it Tahualtapa, “Hill of the Ravens.” The ravens were messengers between the spirit world and the human world. The Spanish called it Cerrito Solo, “Little Lonely Mountain.” Were the Spanish so alienated from the landscape they could not see this mountain as being part of the valley that surrounded it? Anglo-European settlers called this place “Marble Mountain,” for what they could get out of it, and later renamed it for Isaac Slover, the owner of the rancheria on the mountain. This is how the world comes to be named, not for its own characteristics but for men. I have made photographs, sculpture, drawings, and diagrams that examined the relationship between cosmology and language, and attitude and use.

As I thought about the land and learned to look at it in my own way, I also thought about other artists, letting their perspectives trigger my own ideas. Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer—they were builders, in a sense. Smithson built a paradoxical entropic paradise, De Maria built pure gestures, and Heizer hoped to build monuments for the future, cultural ruins. I began by working with my camera at night, recording on film what I was seeing in the relationships between humans and nature. My pieces also represented relationships in time. They were a mark in the immensity of all time. I felt those other artists were thinking too small.

Redlands, January 2013

Redlands, January 2013

During my adulthood in the Empire, I drove from job to job, teaching in Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, but every weekend my partner at the time and I retreated to our trailer in North County San Diego, at the edge of the world, facing the sea. While I spent many hours in Riverside, I spent more time driving between places and wondering about it all. I took volumes of photographs that fit in between my other, more themed works.

After I left the Empire, I realized it was not just a place but an imprint that contained within its paradoxical territories both myself and my approach to art. To capture this sense, I broadened my artistic reach. As the realm of the Empire itself took multiple forms, I expanded my practice beyond photography to sculpture, sound, music, video, and installation work, a more encompassing artistic practice.

Ontario, January 2014

Ontario, January 2014

In this photographic project, I have punctuated large panoramic works with smaller nodes of interest. While the panoramas instantiate a broad public exposure, the single-frame images make a kind of private view. In reencountering these places from my past, I felt like a ghost returning again and again to locations that witnessed moments of great invisible drama.

Although I left the Empire three decades ago and now live in the agricultural haven of Napa Valley, I feel fossilized, like the mollusks of ancient seabeds, in the landscape of my home territory. I inhabit its paradise and its hells. No place I have experienced offers the full range of elements that compel and inspire—the vast public works, the neighborhoods both grand and beat down, the air fragrant with citrus and acrid from smog and industry. Cool pine breezes waft off the snow, and hot blasts of wind are scented with creosote. It is the Empire. It is everything.

Rim Forest, June 2013

Rim Forest, June 2013


Text and images are adapted from Empire by Lewis deSoto, forthcoming from Heyday.


On the Edge

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

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

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


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

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

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

Needles (CA)—2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

98 to Calexico (CA)—2008


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

Malibu (CA)—2007

Lake Mead (NV)—2007

Joshua Tree (CA)—2002

Pacific Ocean—2004


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


Manifesting Destiny

by Tony Gleaton

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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



Instant, Insistent History

by Richard White with photographs by Jesse White

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

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

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

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

The idea that a photograph captures only an instant of time is not so much false as incomplete. A photograph possibly anticipates what comes next, but photographs, particularly artful photographs, are chock full of the shadows of what came before, which is to say history. All the people and objects within photographs are the products of events and relationships that took place prior to the click of the shutter.

Here are two photographs taken in June of 2014 by Jesse White in Tulare County. They each capture a segment of the past at once stranded in and part of a present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Courtesy Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History.


Courtesy Point Reyes National Seashore Museum.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

5. Berger, About Looking, 57.

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


Uncovering the Early History of “Big Data” and the “Smart City” in Los Angeles

A critical appreciation.

by Mark Vallianatos

“To describe this diverse region in such a way as to make comprehensible the many dimensions of the city’s population and the identification of its problems has required years of analysis, millions of pieces of data, hours of computer time, and sometimes heroic assumptions; however, this has all been necessary to enable an evaluation of a city of this scope.”

Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” 1974.

In December 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive order instructing each city department to gather all the data it collects and share it on a publicly accessible website by early the following year.[1] In February 2014, he appointed LA’s first Chief Innovation Technology Officer,[2] and a few months later he launched DataLA, the city’s online data portal.[3] The launch, aimed at a generation who had grown up with smart phones, the Internet, and GIS mapping,[4] was promoted with a hackathon hosted at City Hall.

Whether you call the approach “smart cities,” “intelligent cities” or “digital cities,” DataLA puts Garcetti on a growing list of mayors who believe that better use of information technology and data can help them govern cities more effectively, connect residents to city government and resources, and spur high-tech employment. Smart cities have been criticized for prioritizing whiz-bang tech over residents’ basic needs and for their potential to widen the economic gap between the technology haves and have-nots.[5] While those are real concerns, the concept of improved urban governance through better use of information is a promising one.

Like many smart, new ideas, however, it’s not new. It’s not even new to Los Angeles, which has been pursuing computer-assisted data and policy analysis for decades. Beginning in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s, the little-known Community Analysis Bureau used computer databases, cluster analysis, and infrared aerial photography to gather data, produce reports on neighborhood demographics and housing quality, and help direct resources to ward off blight and tackle poverty.

Vallianatos2I have been reading about the history of planning in Los Angeles for years, but the first time I had seen anything by or about the Community Analysis Bureau was when I ran across its insightful-but-weird 1974 report “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles”[6] at a library. A data-rich snapshot of LA from forty years ago, the report didn’t categorize Los Angeles into the usual neighborhoods or community plan areas, but into scattered clusters with names like “the singles of Los Angeles,” “the suburbs from the fifties,” “richest of the poor,” “gracious living,” and more.[7] The nomenclature was seemingly drawn more from market research than traditional city planning reports.

I mentally filed it away as just another 1970s urban experiment, an attempt to sort and categorize places across LA’s expanse. As I read more about the methodology, however, I became intrigued by the Community Analysis Bureau’s ambition to create an “Urban Information System” that could be applied to tackle the problems of the day. I wondered whether this urban intelligence had influenced city policy or programs. How had the bureau fared as the politics of planning, poverty alleviation, and land use in the city changed? Was there a trove of lost data moldering somewhere in boxes of punch cards? I looked up documents on the history of the bureau in the city archives and located several former staff members still living in the Los Angeles area. They were gracious enough to share their memories of the bureau’s work.


Cybernetic Urbanism in the Know-How City

In a 1976 essay, British travel writer Jan Morris summed up Los Angeles as “The Know-How City:”

“Remember ‘know-how’? It was one of the vogue words of the forties and fifties… It reflected a whole climate and tone of American thought in the years of supreme American optimism. It stood for… the certainty that America’s particular genius, the genius for applied logic, for systems, for devices, was inexorably the herald of progress. There has never been another town, and now there never will be, quite like… Los Angeles… where the lost American faith in machines and materialism built its own astonishing monument.”[8]

In the years after World War II, that know-how and faith in machines translated, in part, to an interest in computer-assisted social analysis, thanks to the availability of both mainframe computers and large federal grants during the Cold War. Social scientists in particular were interested in exploring the possibilities that data and computers could bring to public policy, as were city planners and architects. In A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture and the ‘Techno-Social’ Moment, Arindam Dutta writes that for them, “the emphasis on assembling, collating, and processing larger and larger amounts of data” was “paramount in the postwar framing of expertise.”[9]
Data was the key to know-how, and Los Angeles was key to the techno-optimism of the era. Although the region’s lingering reputation may be for unchecked sprawl and popular entertainment, twentieth-century LA was highly planned—and proud of the systems on which it depended: its networks of streetcars and freeways, its flood control and water infrastructure, and its intentionally fragmented municipal and quasi-public governance. Southern California had a huge high-tech cluster in the aerospace industry.[10] Even the Hollywood studios had their “system.” LA was a temple of progress, “the international symbol of the City of the Future,” as Mayor Sam Yorty put it in his introduction to a 1970 Community Analysis Bureau report.[11] By then, the city had been tapping into the technological know-how of the region for more than a decade.

During the 1950s, the city of Los Angeles departments of planning, and building and safety had mocked up computer punch cards for a system they hoped could help track and analyze every piece of property in the city. In 1962, the city submitted a proposal to the Ford Foundation seeking funding for “A Metropolitan Area Fact Bank for the Greater Los Angeles Area.” In proposing the “fact bank,” the mayor’s office noted that Los Angeles “was one of the first non-federal government agencies to use electromechanical and electronic data processing systems in accomplishment of its day-to-day service rendering tasks… the City now staffs and operates thee solid state computers and four electromechanical data processing installations.”[12]

The Ford Foundation rejected the proposal, but LA’s leaders were undeterred. In 1964, the city hired Calvin Hamilton as director of the city planning department, in part due to his success in bringing computer modeling to Pittsburgh.[13] Two years later, Los Angeles applied for federal funding to launch a community analysis program that would perform “a comprehensive analysis of the entire city” in order to “prevent further inroads of a physical, economic, and social nature which contribute to… obsolescence.”[14] The city had better luck this time. The grant was approved, and the following year, in January 1967, Mayor Yorty approved an ordinance creating “a department of City Government known as the Community Analysis Bureau.”[15]


Bytes vs. Blight


Like many American cities, LA had been studying and trying to prevent, cure, or clear “slums” for decades. At the end of World War II, the city’s housing authority issued an annual report entitled “A Decent Home…An American Right,” which proclaimed, “No city can thrive when 176,000 of its citizens are living under unsafe and insanitary conditions. The substandard houses in Los Angeles with their filth, squalor, and foul environmental influences are a costly menace and disgrace to our city.”[16] Planners and policy makers believed that badly maintained housing threatened the prosperity, health, and morals, not just of low-income populations living in substandard homes, but of the broader metropolitan area. This was the era of urban redevelopment: Los Angeles’s planning, health, housing, and building departments had created alarming maps showing concentrations of tuberculosis cases, housing without plumbing, juvenile delinquency, and other indicators of poverty.

In forming the Community Analysis Bureau, Los Angeles sought new tools to address the old challenges of deteriorating housing by providing detailed local data to identify neighborhoods showing early signs of obsolescence. The city had razed “blighted” housing in Chavez Ravine in the early 1950s[17] and, when the CAB launched in the late 1960s, was using federal funding to redevelop the Bunker Hill area.[18] The bureau’s data would help identify blighted areas across the city for renewal efforts like these and inform measures aimed at alleviating the poverty that led to blight in the first place.


Data Hunting and Gathering

The US Census Bureau had gathered and reported statistics on housing quality between 1940 and 1960. The agency stopped directly rating housing quality after finding that only one-third of the units they labeled as dilapidated would be considered so by trained housing inspectors.[19] After 1960, the Census Bureau recommended looking at other characteristics such as building age, lack of plumbing, and overcrowding to infer housing quality.

The Community Analysis Bureau adapted and developed a range of technologies and analytic approaches to assess housing (and related social) conditions to fill this void left by the Census Bureau, and provide detailed local data to identify neighborhoods showing early signs of obsolescence. Computerized data storage and retrieval were centerpieces of the bureau’s planned work with the ultimate goal of helping policy makers plan and budget city responses.


First, however, the bureau had to digitize and centralize relevant information from the US Census, the Los Angeles Police Department, the LA County Assessor, and other private and public sources using the city’s existing IBM-360 mainframe computers. As a partial step toward a comprehensive Los Angeles Urban Information System, the bureau created a database using 220 staff-identified data categories as the nucleus of its database. This eventually expanded to 550 categories available to analyze individual census tracts.[20]

In 1974, the CAB recommended a strategy of cluster analysis to allow “the data to suggest its own ‘natural’ grouping.” Clustering could identify parts of the city that might be geographically far apart but shared important social and physical characteristics. Bureau staff chose sixty-six key items from the database, including population, ethnicity, education, housing, and crime data, and an environmental quality rating.

Using a combination of hierarchical and reallocative clustering procedures, Thomas A. Smuczynski developed the cluster analysis techniques used by the Community Analysis Bureau, and his colleagues programmed the city’s existing mainframe computers in City Hall using Fortran and COBOL. Smuczynski told me that the city was able to hire talented computer programmers in the early 1970s due to layoffs in the aerospace industry.[21] City data was processed with the computer programs SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) and BioMed, a data analysis program created at UCLA.

Vallianatos7Using Smuczynski’s techniques, LA’s 750 census tracts were sorted into thirty clusters. Cluster 2, for example, was “The Singles of Los Angeles.” It contained “a very young population with an average age of thirty-three, living in high-density new apartment buildings.” Seven of the nineteen census tracts in this cluster were located adjacent to one another in West Los Angeles and Brentwood. Other tracts with similar young, single, apartment dwellers were found in Palms, Baldwin Hills, Del Ray Palisades, Hollywood, and Bunker Hill.[22]

Cluster analysis also revealed correlations between data and social outcomes. Bureau staff noticed that it didn’t’t take sixty-six data types to pinpoint which parts of the city had the worst blight and poverty. Three sets of data considered together—birth weight of infants, sixth-grade reading scores, and age of housing—emerged as an accurate indicator for housing decline and socioeconomic disadvantage.[23]


Aerial Photography

Even with a vast array of data at their fingertips, evaluating the physical state of more than a million housing units spread out over Los Angeles’s nearly 500 square miles was an enormous challenge for the bureau—so bureau staff took to the air. A 1970 report from the bureau noted that “the use of color infrared (CIR) aerial photography offers immediate aid as a relatively inexpensive means of locating those areas most affected by conditions of blight and obsolescence.”[24]

The city’s aerial analysis was led by Robert Mullens II. As a graduate student at UCLA, Mullens wrote his master’s thesis on ways to analyze housing quality from aerial photography, and he was hired by the Community Analysis Bureau to refine these techniques for application in Los Angeles. He recommended that the city use color infrared aerial photography due to its ability to penetrate haze and to show vegetation quality and small objects.[25]

Aerial photography had evolved by this period into a widely used tool for everything from surveying land and analyzing forest health to fighting the war in Vietnam. In her 2004 book From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, Jennifer Light underscores the intertwined military and civilian origins of aerial photography.[26] She explores how some of the procedures used for urban planning in the 1960s and 1970s—not just aerial photography but also computer analysis and the very metaphor of the cybernetic city—derived partly from Cold War military research. I mentioned this thesis to Gary Booher, who helped Mullens analyze aerial photos of Los Angeles at the Community Analysis Bureau. Booher replied that whatever the military-civilian cross-fertilization on urban policy, the bureau never had access to higher resolution defense department cameras and photographs.[27]

After trial runs over Watts and parts of Northeast LA, the city contracted with aerial survey agencies to conduct overflights of the entire city in 1971 and 1978. Cameras mounted in light planes took color infrared photos at a 1:6000 scale. Mullens and his colleagues developed a point system to rate the environmental quality of census tracts based on these aerial photos. The purpose was to measure housing quality “by photo interpretation of selected surrogate characteristics of the neighborhood residential environment.” Each photo sheet was looked at and rated by three city staffers to derive an average score of between 1 and 10 (a lower number meant fewer problems and better environmental quality). Some of the characteristics considered were vacant land, land uses, street conditions, trash, the presence and quality of vegetation, house and lot size, and the presence of “convenience structures” like patios and swimming pools.[28]

City staff drove through a sample of neighborhoods to verify the accuracy of their aerial ratings. These “windshield” observation of dwellings for visual signs of dereliction, plus data from city building inspections and Los Angeles County assessors, helped tweak the environmental quality ratings. The ratings showed that the “City’s center has the worst environmental quality, with the next poorest quality classes forming concentric rings around the downtown area.”[29] The map from the 1978 flyover shows dark areas (bad environmental and housing quality) clustered downtown and to the south and east of downtown. Estimates from this analysis showed that nearly 150,000 dwellings—13 percent of LA’s housing stock—could be considered substandard. Most of these needed only minor repair, but 4,807 units—0.4 percent of the city total—were considered truly dilapidated and beyond rehabilitation.[30]

While Mullens and Booher still think that aerial photography and the bureau’s rating system were a fairly accurate way to locate housing in need of repair, they acknowledge, in Booher’s words, that “economic bias crept in.”[31] Rating criteria favored homes with residents who could afford to maintain landscaping, extend decks, and build pools. The focus on lush plantings in those 1970s assessments also seems dated; xeriscaping in today’s drought-conscious California would not rate well using their methodology.


From Analysis to Action


The bureau’s data and analyses were intended to spur interventions in the city. An early report on the bureau’s methodology used the analogy of a “thermostat that samples changes in data… and, based on these measurements, or studies, makes recommendations to operating and staff agencies of the City as to the differences in the desired City climate and the actual.”[32] The city’s data-driven climate control would help to regulate everything from crime rates to unemployment to traffic. That broad range of recommendations reflects the ambitions of the late sixties and early seventies, when urban planners claimed a broader mandate than we are used to today. As the bureau’s first “State of the City” report explained, “It has become obvious that the traditional approach to urban renewal, the treatment only of physical problems, is not adequate… to deal with the social, economic, and physical nature of urban decay.”[33] Recommendations from that report included raising family incomes above poverty level, placing all needy three-to-four-year-olds into preschool, and spurring the construction of 7,000 to 9,000 low-to-moderate income housing units per year, in addition to those already planned.[34]

As a kind of think tank inside city hall, the Community Analysis Bureau lacked authority to launch its ideas into action, but the timing was right to explore ways to address inequality. In 1973, Los Angeles elected Tom Bradley, who was known to be more committed to assisting disadvantaged neighborhoods and to addressing racial disparities than his conservative predecessor Mayor Sam Yorty, as its first African American mayor.[35] The next year, the federal government created the community development block grant program to fund redevelopment, social services, and infrastructure in high-poverty neighborhoods. According to Romerol Malveaux, whose first job was conducting research and administering grants for the Community Analysis Bureau and who remains a community activist forty-five years later, the data that the bureau generated helped Los Angeles become the first city to receive community development block grants.[36] LA used these funds to expand social services, maintain streets, and build libraries and parks in low-income areas. Detailed data at the census tract level even allowed the city to identify high-poverty pockets eligible for block grants in wealthier council districts.

But in the end, the bureau was a victim of its own success. The data it collected proved so useful in securing federal grant money that the city focused the bureau’s activities on grant development and administration, with continued data analysis to justify these funds. Instead of using research to guide the city’s actions, the bureau wound up reacting to the city’s predetermined goals as set out in funding applications. The bureau was folded into a new Community Development Department in the mayor’s office in 1977,[37] where the Community Analysis and Planning Division of the department continued to issue reports until 1980, after which the “community analysis » name was retired.


Legacy and Lessons

Today, most people working on planning, housing, and economic development in Los Angeles have never heard of the Community Analysis Bureau. Having spoken to former bureau staff members and having read through some of its reports, I think that the history of the bureau—its mission, strategies, accomplishments, and shortcomings—are worth sharing. This early effort to apply computer analysis to the social and physical challenges of a big city might hold some lessons for our contemporary era of big data, smart cities, and digital urbanism.

The bureau never achieved the full ambitions of its founders to create a control panel for what we call a “smart city” today. Gary Booher, who joined the project when it shifted into the Community Development Department, described the 1970s technology as just too “embryonic” to allow real-time data to flow to decision makers who could adjust policies and practices on the fly.[38]

Despite this limitation, staff members who helped develop the bureau’s methods believe that they were worth exploring. Thomas Smuczynski, Robert Mullens II, and Romerol Malveaux all told me that it was exciting to be working on new techniques for understanding Los Angeles.[39] They also found it rewarding to know that their work had helped identify places and problems where grants could help improve people’s lives.

But the ultimate failure of the Community Analysis Bureau suggests that data analysis needs to be better linked to planning, policy, and even advocacy. The bureau wasn’t closely allied with social movements that might have pushed for changes related to the agency’s findings, nor was it sufficiently integrated into the structure of decision making and budgeting in the city. With no core constituency in the heart of city government, the bureau’s findings were easy to dismiss as interesting but inessential factoids. Bureau employees predicted this problem in 1970 in a report that noted, “Political realities must be very carefully amalgamated with the tools of technology. This amalgamation will be difficult at best since, by design, the conclusions of technology tend to be objective, while those of politics tend to be subjective and emotional.”[40] The bureau might not have won any friends in City Hall with self-important statements like these, but there’s some truth there, too.

The bureau may not have brought about the technocratic decision making its early proponents hoped for, but Romerol Malveaux told me that the Community Analysis Bureau did advance equality in a Los Angeles stratified from decades of segregation by providing information on what needs existed in the city’s many neighborhoods.[41] There are some hopeful signs that LA’s current smart city efforts have those same inclusive goals. The winners of the hackathon launching LA’s open data portal were a team of high school student’s whose app is intended to help deliver supplies to homeless shelters.[42] One of the city’s first funded efforts to apply an innovation approach to governance will be an effort to understand whether LA can have revitalization without displacement.[43]

We should judge the data generated by and for smart cities by its social relevance as well as by the volume of it made available publicly and the processing power and analysis harnessed by the city, the private sector, and academia. Could digital urbanism help narrow the growing gap between society’s 1s and 0s? Will smarter cities help us steer below a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature? If intelligent cities and open data can advance knowledge, efficiency, equity, and sustainability, a new generation of community analysis might fulfill the techno-optimism that took root in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles and is back with us today.


Mark Vallianatos is policy director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and teaches at Occidental College. He would like to thank Thomas Smuczynski, Robert Mullens II, Romerol Malveaux, and Gary Booher for their insights, and LA City Archivist Michael Holland and UEPI research assistant Amelia Buchanan for helping locate files on the bureau.


An earlier version of this article misspelled Robert Mullens II’s name.

[1] Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, “Garcetti Directs City Departments to Collect Data for Open Data Initiative,” Press Release, 18 December 2013, data http://www.lamayor.org/garcetti_directs_city_departments_to_collect_data_for_open_data_initiative.

[2] Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, “Mayor Garcetti Appoints Peter Marx as Chief Innovation Technology Officer,” Press Release, 4 February 2014, http://www.lamayor.org/mayor_garcetti_appoints_peter_marx_as_chief_innovation_technology_officer

[3] https://data.lacity.org/.

[4] Soumya Karlamangla, “LA Hackathon Winners Create Homeless Services App,” Los Angeles Times, 1 June 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-la-hackathon-20140601-story.html.

[6] Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” City of Los Angeles, 1974.

[7] Ibid., vii–viii.

[8] Jan Morris, “The Know-How City,” Among the Cities, (New York City: Viking Penguin. 1985), 241–242.

[9] Arindam Dutta, ed., A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture, and the ‘Techno-SocialMoment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 3, http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/second-modernism.

[10] Peter J. Westwick, Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

[11] Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City: Conditions of Blight and Obsolescence,” City of Los Angeles, 1970.

[12] Ibid., 13.

[13] Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), 75–76.

[14] City of Los Angeles, “Application for Community Analysis Program,” January 1966, CR 121-1.

[15] “An Ordinance Establishing a Community Analysis Bureau and a Community Analysis Program Board for the administration of the Bureau,” Ordinance No. 133,790, approved 6 January 1967.

[16] Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, “A Decent Home: an American Right,” 5th, 6th and 7th Consolidated Report, July 1944, 13.

[17] Nathan Masters, “Chavez Ravine: Community to Controversial Real Estate,” KCET SoCal Focus, 13 September 2012, http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/history/la-as-subject/history-of-chavez-ravine.html.

[18] Jeremy Rosenberg, “Laws that Shaped LA: How Bunker Hill Lost Its Victorians,” KCET, 23 January 2012, http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/columns/laws-that-shaped-la/laws-that-shaped-la-how-bunker-hill-lost-its-victorians.html.

[20] Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” City of Los Angeles, 1974, 181; Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “Priorities of Need,” City of Los Angeles, July 1974, 1.

[21] Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 August 2014.

[22] Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” 14–17.

[23] Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 August 2014; Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 August 2014.

[24] Charles W. Johnson and Robert H. Mullens II, “A Practical Method for the Collection and Analysis of Housing and Urban Environment Data: An Application of Color Infrared Photography,” Community Analysis Bureau, City of Los Angeles, April 1970, 2.

[25] Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.

[26] Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare, 95–123.

[27] Interview with Gary Booher, 20 November 2014.

[28] Johnson and Mullens, “A Practical Method for the Collection and Analysis of Housing and Urban Environment Data,” 11; Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.

[29] Community Development Department, Community Analysis & Planning Division, “Housing Quality in the City of Los Angeles,” 1980, City of Los Angeles, 14.

[30] Ibid., 27.

[31] Interview with Gary Booher, 20 November 2014.

[32] Community Analysis Bureau, “The Los Angeles Urban Information System Experience,” City of Los Angeles, May 1970, 37.

[33] Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City: Conditions of Blight and Obsolescence,” City of Los Angeles, 1970, 2.

[34] Ibid., 28.

[35] Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer and Peter Dreier, The Next Los Angeles: the Struggle for a Livable City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 139–143.

[36] Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 August 2014.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Interview with Gary Booher, 20 November 2014.

[39] Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 September 2014; Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 September 2014; Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.

[40] Community Analysis Bureau, “The Los Angeles Urban Information System Experience,” City of Los Angeles, May 1970, 42.

[41] Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 September 2014.

[42] Soumya Karlamangla, “LA Hackathon Winners Create Homeless Services App,” Los Angeles Times, 1 June 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-la-hackathon-20140601-story.html.

[43] “Cole: LA Mayor’s ‘I-Team’ Seeks to Minimize Displacement During Urban Revitalization,” The Planning Report, 13 February 2015, http://www.planningreport.com/2015/02/13/cole-la-mayors-i-team-seeks-minimize-displacement-during-urban-revitalization.


Saving a Piece of the Fair

Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, Lee Bruno (Cameron + Company, 191pp, $29.95) and San Franciscos Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Laura A. Ackley (Heyday, 352pp, $40.00)

A critical appreciation

by Elizabeth Logan

SFRAcover_web800px2-200x270Why does the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition still captivate Californians? The centenary of the fair, which celebrated the construction of the Panama Canal, and showcased San Francisco’s reemergence after the 1906 earthquake and fires, has been greeted with much fanfare in the city including press coverage, museum exhibitions, a dramatic lighting of the Ferry Building, and several new books to mark the occasion. Two of those books, Lee Bruno’s Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and Laura A. Ackley’s San Franciscos Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, offer a kaleidoscope of possible explanations for this enduring interest.

The root of the authors’ fascination is simple to pinpoint. Lee Bruno’s Grandma Ruby piqued his interest early through the stories she shared about her father, Reuben Brooks Hale, a prominent San Francisco businessman and one of the exposition’s masterminds. For Laura Ackley, the draw was less familial; the exposition caught her attention as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where she attended a series of lectures on the Beaux-Arts built environment. Both authors highlight that the fair celebrated innovation, shifting geopolitical power, and commercial opportunity, and that it brought the world together just as it was being ripped apart by World War I.

The draw for Californians more broadly, may be in observing a recognizable past in California’s present. But perhaps collective interest in the fair’s centenary is also symptomatic of an increasingly complicated relationship with the ephemeral.

Panorama_Jacket_JULY23_frontcoveronly-1-300x234We live in an age in which we constantly encounter the paradoxical longevity of digital media. When we send an email, tweet, or post something on the Internet, our actions, comments, and photographic achievements endure in a virtual yet permanent space largely available for the world to explore. Even rapidly “vanishing” selfies on Snapchat can be stored forever. With Bay Area and Silicon Beach companies leading the charge toward greater and greater e-innovation, are Californians in the middle of the redefinition of what is considered ephemeral and ephemera? Does some of the fascination with a 100-year-old exposition stem from our own interest in the temporary and the fair’s momentary and fantastical qualities?

Panorama and San Franciscos Jewel City both approach the exposition’s fleeting nature as well as the details of its day-to-day fanfare through photographs, postcards, tickets, pamphlets, and the written words of planners, visitors, and scholars.

Bruno’s Panorama consists of thirteen sections celebrating the 100-year-old narrative of a reemergent San Francisco and capturing short biographies of the exposition’s visionaries. The exposition springs to life through the story of “Big Alma” Spreckels, who arranged for five Rodin sculptures to travel by sea to San Francisco, and through the stories of builders, such as Bernard Maybeck, and visitors ranging from Helen Keller to Charlie Chaplin. Bruno painstakingly curated the images and created a visually attractive souvenir of the centennial. Panorama personalizes the exposition in a mesmerizing way, and the design and graphics impress.

San Franciscos Jewel City, published in a partnership between Heyday and the California Historical Society, offers a detailed account of the fair, perhaps bested only in its breadth of coverage by Frank Morton Todd’s official five-volume history printed around the time of the exposition. Inserted within Ackley’s nineteen substantive chapters are vignettes set aside in gold and images of printed material fair-goers in 1915 could have hardly imagined would have survived 100 years. Ackley uses narrative to tell the history of the exposition, addressing even the darker “evils of the era” from eugenics to gender and labor battles. Ackley’s discussion of the important role that light played is particularly captivating, as when she describes the colorful light shows projected onto the fog by the Scintillator and the electric kaleidoscope—ephemeral illustrations of the modernity of the entire venture. For those seeking a comprehensive memento of the fair, San Francisco’s Jewel City provides a detailed and compelling account.

By printing some of the exposition’s ephemera and plotting the details of the exposition in print, these two works alter its very ephemeral nature. Just as bits of paper served as physical reminders of the exposition, the two books serve as souvenirs of its centennial. They help change the fair into something more durable that might attract more readers, tourists, anthropologists, historians, visual studies scholars, and collectors not just to these two books, but to the archives that house its sometimes dusty remnants. Expansions in digitization promise increased access to those who might reimagine the event from its remaining pieces. In today’s digital age, it makes a historian smile to see books continue to play such a vital role in this process.

If you wander San Francisco this weekend in search of remnants of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or any of the many citywide centennial celebrations, your guidebook or iPhone might lead you to the Palace of Fine Arts, the remaining architectural gem from the 1915 exposition—but just start your search there. Keep going. Panorama, San Franciscos Jewel City, and the city’s archives and libraries dare us to go a little further as we contemplate the ephemeral.



Elizabeth Logan is a historian and assistant editor of Boom. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

Photograph at top courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


California Islanders

by Jean Melesaine


From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

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

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

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











On the Road Again

by Stan Paul

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

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

The trip home to Riverside is where my photography begins.

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

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

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


Native Eye

by Dugan Aguilar

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

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

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

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

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

Cousin Fred, Truckee, 1982.

Franklin Mullens, veterans’ gathering, Susanville, 2000.

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

Feathers with Flair, Susanville Parade, ca. 1987.

Jennifer Bates, Oakland Big Time, 1996.

Isabella, Spring Flower Dance, ca. 2004.