One of the unexpected things about moving away from the Bay Area has been how, all of a sudden, I feel like Southern California is home too. I hear music or see movies, car ads, TV shows, etc. from Los Angeles and what I used to roll my eyes at is now something I feel possessive of. Even visiting now feels like visiting home.
I wouldn’t have been able to say this this before my move, but Los Angeles is an amazing place. In many ways it’s a non-existent myth which we’re familiar with through movies and television. In other ways it a perfect encapsulation of what 20th century America was—and how American created itself this way.
The Edison Archive at the Huntington Library manages to both document the growth of LA as well as define the myth. I’ve been looking through these photos for months trying to put my finger on what I love about them. Moving away from home helped me figure it out as I’ve become aware of LA’s dual nature as both my home territory and national myth.
The photos themselves are an interesting mix of some very striking images and a lot very mundane, technically well executed but kind of boring, ones. About what you’d expect from an archive produced by a power company documenting its efforts in the building of the Los Angeles metro area. Most of the the interesting photos appeal to our sense of nostalgia and directly reference a lot of the national myth of idyllic 20th-century America. The mundane ones provide context for that myth.
What was that dream? As the whimsical buildings, manicured landscapes, and young, white, seemingly affluent people in these photographs suggest, it was a dream centered on privilege and pleasure; a dream of health, individual self-fulfillment, fun, and mobility; a dream in which seemingly every urge could be satisfied. Ultimately L.A.’s modern metropolitan landscape of recreation was a landscape of desire.
These spaces were products of the Fifties, an age of superabundance that some U.S. historians characterize as the heyday of the Consumer’s Republic, when public policy and political economy converged upon the national ideal of mass consumption. After the crises of Depression and war, the United States government resolved to increase economic growth by promoting consumer spending.
About that national myth. This is America as a place where workers have jobs which allow them to have leisure time, afford a house, and move out of the city. Many of the Edison photos are pure propaganda showing what Americans should aspire to. This is the land which Edison was building and the land it wanted to sell.
They’re wonderfully nostalgic images. Looking at them now, I see a lot of what many Americans wish they could return to. Neon signs. Big clean homes. Swimming pools. Backyards. Gleaming supermarkets. Wide-open highways. No decay. This was the American dream back when America was creating the future and leading the way.
Or, at least, that’s the myth of it all.
The condition of invisibility that Ralph Ellison describes is not a kind of transparency, but it’s a psychological invisibility. It’s where the presence of black people was often not wanted and denied in the American mindset. And so what I set out to do was to develop a figure or a form that would represent that condition of invisibility, where you had an incredible presence, but there was a way in which you could sometimes be seen and not seen at the same time.
Looking at the photos, it’s pretty clearly just the myth of the white middle class which we’re seeing. It’s the myth which Cars sells us. It’s the myth which made my viewing of David Goldblatt so uncomfortable.
When I look at the images or aspirational 1950s spaces, I see them with David Goldblatt, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Adams and Looking at the Land—not to mention the housing crisis and the way the subprime mortgage industry targetted minorities—in the back of my mind. It’s worth critiquing the myth while at the same time acknowledging that the myth exists.
Who’s getting left out of this vision of the future? What are the costs associated with it? Is creating a consumer society centered on building new housing really sustainable? Should a private company have this much power over the development of a major metropolitan area?
The increased number of appliances owned and operated by the average household was dramatic enough that by 1953, the average household use of electricity had trebled from that used in 1939. A 1954 House & Home article informed readers that new homes required 100 amperes service capacity and that builders should make sure to supply enough appliance circuits to support the more than fifty portable electrical appliances that were, by then, in common usage.
Great dams trap and tame the water, hoarding its energy until needed.
Greater Los Angeles came to function as a metropolitan region during the period 1940-1990 when systems for electricity, as well as for the provision of water, communication, and transportation were first among equals. We would struggle to make sense of urban growth and the emergence of an indigenous architecture in southern California absent that context.
What I find more interesting is how the Edison archive shows us how much infrastructure had to be built in order to enable the myth. Suburbanization, the monoculturization of America, and the creation of our consumer society is thanks to a massive investment in infrastructure. Dams. Powerlines.* New home building. This is government and business working together to create a consumer class.** In order to enjoy the leisure time which came with being in the middle class, we needed to completely rethink how we built out homes and neighborhoods. More power was needed for all the gadgets. And more space to fit them all in. Voila. Suburbia.
*New Deal anyone? All those public works projects resulted in a ton of new infrastructure upon which we built our consumer culture.
**There are many things to dislike about Ford but his realization that his workers should be able to afford and use the products they were making is hugely influential to the way American culture developed.
And with suburbia comes car culture as we now we need cars in order to travel to our jobs, shop, etc. What used to be in cities or small towns is now spread out in sprawling suburbs. And the more we drive, the more things start to become the same wherever we go as towns get bypassed and shopping centers get put along the new highways.
He had a moral dilemma of all the work he had made in the name of progress and the pride he felt in those early days of a city being born. He longed for the simpler photographs that were purely descriptive. He felt his photographs now became propaganda for Edison: the smiling face of progress masking the evolving dangers in the city, things that even streetlights can’t fix: or a fashion show for women of the men who work for Edison like himself.
But Angelenos’ embrace of technology, like hugging a cactus, made them keenly aware of the downsides. Rockets that launched satellites, spacecraft, and astronauts into outer space left perchlorates in the groundwater. Nuclear reactors provided electric power but also nuclear waste and the threat of meltdowns. Proliferating freeways and cars meant Los Angeles became synonymous with smog by mid-century. A dystopian counterpoint to technological enthusiasm, limned most notably by Mike Davis and film-noir from “Chinatown” to “Blade Runner,” characterized technology as just more leverage for the powerful over the powerless.
By being propaganda, the Edison photos also suggest the darker side of all this reliance on technology and corporations. Our BS-detectors are good enough to realize when we’re being sold a line. So many of these photos are annual-report photos meant to show the companies achievements in the best light possible. We know better now.
As a result, I kept these photos in mind when I went to see Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley photos. Misrach is the flip side of the gleaming Edison promise. Instead of glorifying light and power and consumption, Misrach documents how the resulting lifestyle has perverted nature and left huge wastelands of petrochemical byproducts.
Los Angeles’ vast metonymic system, comprising everything from the iconic Hollywood sign to the most inconspicuous graffiti on a freeway underpass, is a linguistic treasure trove that offers glimpses into the city’s collective imagination. No matter where in the city we find ourselves, oversized billboards, neon signs, posters, banners, and various other signage demand our attention, fueling every conceivable fantasy and desire.
This process of racial formation took many forms. In southern California, it was particularly visible in the exoticization and appropriation of immigrant and minority cultures to enhance regional distinctiveness as a means to promoting tourism
SCE photographers unintentionally (or intentionally?) documented not only the landscape of food across southern California but also the intersections of production and consumption, of labor and leisure, of the pedestrian and the lavish, of the taco and the hamburger, of the domestic and the commercial, and even of war and peace.
Aside from the national myth, there are also the things that are specifically part of the Los Angeles myth. In particular, the layering and papering over and re-creation of history and culture. It’s this element which made me react to Mark Bradford as a Los Angeles artist first. And it’s what I find myself enjoying and appreciating the most whenever I visit.
The layers and layers of transportation infrastructure. How you can see where the trollies used to run in the San Vicente median. All those gated-off freeway entrances and exits which are no longer safe. I love just keeping my eyes open while driving though to see pieces of the older grid and infrastructure—much of which was also built for cars, just for fewer of them. In a lot of places the old infrastructure is at a different scale from the new infrastructure. In LA, it all looks like things you should still be able to drive on if only they were open.
This shows up in the buildings too as you can see glimpses of older LA amidst all the new development or even catch complete neighborhoods which feel like they’ve been left to their own devices—although even there you can see the layers and layers of re-purposing buildings.* And it particularly shows up in the food infrastructure where you can see ancient dives mixed with any kind of ethnic food mixed with brand-new trendy expensive places.
*I really wish Camilo Jose Vergara had more LA-based work.
So much of LA also involves papering over the past with a new layer of pretending to be old or whitewashing things pretending to be ethnic—simultaneously catering to the myths and trying to reinvent it. Again. All these layers mixing old and new and pseudo-old and ethnic and white and pseudo-ethnic. It’s a lot of fun to see how the Edison archive has been capturing each layer as it’s been formed.
Our instructions were deliberately mild, even vague. Take a theme, and few preconceived notions, for a journey through the archive; search by key word, search by date, search by photographer, search any way you choose. Assemble a small collection of images, twenty to thirty, and bring to them an essay (a single narrative, a set of captions, even fiction).
Aside from what the Edison archive is and my enjoyment of the photos, the Huntington’s project itself is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see more of.* At a basic level, it’s fantastic to see a project which involves over a dozen curators unleashed on the same body of photos. It’s really interesting to see where each curator goes and how the same image is used multiple times for multiple reasons. At the same time, despite the differences between each curator’s selection, it is absolutely true that as a group, all the different edits come together to jointly describe Los Angeles.
*See my Government Documents and Posthumous Editing posts for more on this kind of thing. And a great post by Wayne Bremser basically proposing this exact approach to the Winogrand archive.
Two sets in particular work very well for me just by themselves as well. Mark Klett’s sequence is excellent. The visual sequencing of the photos is great but it also works for the development timeline and makes me think of this being the behind-the-scenes photos of what Robert Adams’s Colorado suburbs work.
And D.J. Waldie’s set, by using the photos to create his own Noir story, goes all-in on the idea of how LA is all about remaking and creating your own personal narrative. While there are plenty of Noirs set in other locations, there’s something extra-appropriate about setting them in LA. Taking the Edison photos and using them to explicitly evoke some of the most-prominent stories set in LA is brilliant.