Friday, May 18, 2007

Making Ugly LA Look Beautiful: photographer John Humble

Wednesday afternoon I went to the Getty Center to see John Humble's amazing photographs of the Los Angeles River. I like the Getty because the whole museum on the hill has these white stone buildings along with elegant sculptured gardens carefully placed on a hilltop site with the stunning view of Westside and then the Pacific Ocean--almost a stereotypic view of "beautiful" in L.A.

Humble got a grant from the NEA in 1979 to photograph the city for its bicentennial. He was given a mandate "not to document Los Angeles stereotypes and cliches bot to show the city few had care to photograph." One gallery of the Getty are full of Humble's street scenes, usually show the flat lands non-beautiful non-cliched stucco buildings such as his photo "1553 8th Street, Los Angeles," that juxtaposes a three-story white stucco building with a Yuban coffee billboard, a liquor store sign, cars, and a man standing on the street corner. Just your average ugly L.A. street scene.

But the gallery that held the photos of the Los Angeles River were different. Here Humble took what most people think as the epitome of ugly--a concrete river--and made dazzling photos. He does capture the natural beauty of birds, boulders, trees down by the riverside of the river in the Valley and also near Los Feliz where it has soft bottoms. He has awesome shots using bridges and concrete as sculpture surrounding the river near downtown.

But the most amazing photos were of the river in Vernon, which I always thought was the ultimate industrial wasteland armpit of Southern California made up largely of factories. Vernon is know for its slaughterhouses, particularly Farmer John's slaughterhouse, and a particularly awful smell that wafts north to East Los Angeles.

Here south of downtown Humble's great photos shows the river has broadened out in a really big flow. One lovely photo of Vernon is like an Impressionist painting where everything is bathed in white: the river is white water, the banks and buildings are white, the sky is white. Another photo of the river in Vernon has a sculpted sky full of brooding dark clouds overlooked the orange of the setting sun shining its last lights on the river. Humble as turned this concrete river through factory land into photos of astounding beauty. The show lasts until July 8.

Some of Humble's river photos are online at

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