Los Angeles is a city like no other. A sprawling, sun-bleached and dehydrated mass, supine in the California earth under a heavy blanket of heat and exhaust gas, head wreathed in national park forest, body choked and clogged, feet stretching to the cooling pool of the Pacific.
Fought over and horse-traded in its early years, America’s second city is one of fabulous wealth, wretched poverty, diversity, entertainment and opportunity; a beautifully ornate façade covering a plywood skeleton. It’s an endlessly interesting and intensely visual city, obsessed with image, and built on a love affair with the camera – and not just those on the lots and sets of its Hollywood movie studios.
Notable photographers have been drawn to LA in a never-ending pilgrimage since the city boomed at end of the Second World War. These artists were drawn to the glamour and the grit, and fascinated by the tension between the urban sprawl and the natural beauty of California. Geographically, the city has everything, ringed by the raw spectacle of the mountains to the north and east, and the famed beaches of the south and west, with the city proper nestling in a flat basin of heat and dust.
Los Angeles’ famous tree-lined boulevards of Central LA and Hollywood run roughly horizontally from east to west – ribs holding the body mass together – and there is no more quintessentially LA thoroughfare than Sunset Boulevard. One of the most famous of the city’s major streets, Sunset traces the base of the hills that divide Hollywood from the city’s northern districts.
At the boulevard’s eastern beginnings it largely adheres to the linear urban layout of the inner city, before cutting loose at the point where the historical entertainment haunts such as the Comedy Store and the Whisky a Go Go once dominated LA nightlife. This Sunset Strip, as it is known, signals the end of grid-like conformity, and from then on Sunset Boulevard unravels, snaking its way down to the ocean.
That the editors of this LA photobook have incorporated Sunset into its title is no accident. Both Sides of Sunset is a phrase which perfectly encapsulates the duality of Los Angeles. In a temporal sense, it separates LA’s brightly-lit daytime performance from the danger of the city’s noirish night-time. It also represents the socio-economic divide evident here too; to the north of Sunset Boulevard are the millionaires’ mansions of film stars and superstar athletes, up in the hills imperiously looking down on Central and Downtown LA to the south.
Jane Brown and Marla Hamburg Kennedy’s Both Sides of Sunset picks up where their 2005 work Looking at Los Angeles left off. There been plenty of interesting developments in the intervening years, and the seemingly limitless archive of post-war LA photography is a deep and fresh well from which to draw; as renowned artist and long-time Angelino Ed Ruscha notes in his foreword, when it comes to LA, there is always another view, another angle, something novel to discover, or a different filter through which to see Los Angeles’ many enduring fixtures anew.
The editors don’t play favourites, presenting the city’s affluence alongside its dereliction with an even-handed regard for their visual merits. Around 130 photographers’ (Bruce Davidson, Ellen von Unwerth, Larry Fink, Iwan Baan, Ron Galella, Ed Templeton, Dennis Hopper, Matthew Porter, Alex Prager, Steve McCurry…) work has been included in the hardback volume — that weighs in at 288 pages — constructing a profile of the city as diverse as its people, architecture, geography and and economy.
Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles is published by Metropolis Books.