In the spring of 1992, the city of Los Angeles erupted in civil unrest. Five Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of crimes related to the violent arrest of Rodney King. Captured on videotape, the beating was seen a visual confirmation of a history of brutality by the LAPD. Many believed that the recording provided incontrovertible evidence that would finally see justice served. Twelve jurors believed otherwise.
Violent attacks, looting, and arsons arose throughout the city creating a sense of fear and uncertainty that was rarely experienced in a first-world city. The images on the television screen seemed like something out of a dystopian science fiction movie, but the events were very real. The riots resulted in over a billion dollars of property damage, more than 12,000 arrests and the deaths of 63 people.
My experience of those days is inexorably tied to the fact that the community at the heart of the uprising was the neighborhood that I had grown up in. The smoldering remains of stores and homes and the presence of the national guard with their military vehicles seemed surreal set against the backdrop of a place I considered home.
Along with demonstrators, agitators and law enforcement, there were hundreds of reporters and photographers. Many were from credentialed newspapers and television stations, each navigating the now unpredictable streets of LA.
Yet, of the hundreds of photographers out there I wondered how many of them had ever been in this part of town before? And how many would ever return weeks or months or years later when the disruptive events slowly slipped into history.
I felt a sense of anger and resentment during the ensuing months when I saw portfolios of young photographers that included images from those days. Events that had evoked real pain and loss were seen by some of these photographers as nothing more than an opportunity to pad their portfolios. Their images rarely revealed anything substantial or insightful, but rather indulged in a superficiality passing itself off as poignant and meaningful.
It was difficult for me so stomach such imagery. It was especially hard as I heard people too willing to write off entire communities. The images of violence and disorder reinforced a belief that the people who lived in these communities were complicit and responsible not only for the riots but for the very conditions they lived in before and after that Spring.
I was one of those people and had grown up surrounded by men and women who were trying to raise families under difficult circumstances. Though my neighborhood did not reflect the abundance and prosperity of the Westside or the Valley, these were nevertheless honest and hard-working people trying to create better lives. And I didn’t think it fair that their lives and their homes should be judged by the lowest common denominator.
It was my distaste with such thinking that spurred me to pick up a camera and begin documenting Downtown Los Angeles, months after the riot. It was an off-handed comment about this location offering nothing of worth that started it all. They suggested that it was dirty and dangerous, populated by the kinds of people that were best avoided and discarded.
I felt otherwise. Downtown Los Angeles might not have been at its zenith as the heart of the city, but for me, it still held on to some of its magic and allure. Though department stores and people had moved out to the suburbs with its modern homes and shopping malls, Downtown was still a thriving community.
For thousands of African Americans and immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Downtown with its majestic theaters of a by-gone era revolved around services and business that were not otherwise accessible in the southern and eastern areas of Los Angeles. For these people, Downtown Los Angeles was a commercial and social hub unlike anything else in the city.
It was this love and fascination that led me to begin photographing this community over 25 years ago. With a Nikon and rolls of Kodachrome, I set off to document a place that too many people chose to ignore. Long before a wave of gentrification swept through Downtown, I walked up and down the street finding beauty and character in a place that had enamored me as a child and continued to do so as an adult.
For a year, I spent every weekend photographing up and down Broadway and since then I have returned repeatedly to photograph this small segment of Los Angeles. I saw as slow glacial changes became fast-moving development that has made the area into a very different place.
I’ve recently returned to those early images, hoping to finally understand what I have captured over the past two and half decades. I face the challenge of culling and reviewing thousands of images made both on film and digital, hoping that I have done something more than create a series of pretty snapshots.
I began this process several months ago when I spent long hours sorting through the slides and negatives, many containing images that I have not looked at since I originally created them.
Using an Epson Perfection 800 flatbed scanner and Epson SureColor P800 printer that has been graciously loaned to me by the company, I am beginning the work of scanning and making prints of that early work. Along with more recent digital work, it’s my hope that I will create a collection of images and prints that makes sense of this time in my creative life.
I intend to have a small exhibit of this work in the coming year, but beyond that, I’m not sure exactly what I will do with it all. Though I know it deserves something more than just being relegated to file drawers and a hard drive, it is not completely clear to me what if anything should come of it.
However, I will occasionally share the experience on this blog and on my podcast and by journey’s end, things may have become clearer.
And hopefully, something that was sparked by anger will reveal itself as something more beautiful, kind and forgiving.