One of my favorite things to sit and watch is a video of Ed Ruscha's Hollywood Boulevard, 1973 and 2004. Ruscha is most known for his work in Pop Art, particularly focused in the Los Angeles area, as he was fascinated by Los Angeles in general. What appealed to him, in the words of Calvin Tomkins, was everything that makes L.A., well, L.A.: "the endless sprawl, the two-story apartment houses with outdoor stairways, the hot rods, the jazz clubs, the billboards, the sunrises and sunsets, the boulevards that led to the ocean."
Hollywood Boulevard, however, was a departure from his previous work of word paintings like OOF and skewed paintings of service stations. In 1966 and 1973, he took what amounted to continuous photographs of the Sunset Strip, Hollywood Boulevard, and other major thoroughfares around Los Angeles. To accomplish this, he set up a motor-drive Nikon camera (so that it could would automatically advance for him) on a tripod in the back of his truck, and drove up and down Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, taking photographs as he went. In 2004, he revisited the project, this time shooting on 35mm color film instead of black and white.
In just 30 years it's fascinating to see what's remained (although sometimes hidden) and what's been changed. Take a look:
Another motif that Ruscha returned to was painting the Hollywood sign, which he did over and over, with media as mixed as Pepto-Bismal and diet soda. With a view of the sign from his East Hollywood studio, he said: "If I could see the Hollywood sign, I'd know the weather wasn't too smoggy."
Downtown high-rise buildings surrounded by blanket smog in Los Angeles, Calif., 1973, from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive , UCLA Library. (CC-BY) Photo cropped and contrast increased slightly from original.
The weather these past few days has been crisp and clear, the result of Santa Ana winds blowing down from the high desert, and as a result, the Hollywood sign has never looked clearer, but this is a relatively new development.
We tend to still think of Los Angeles as a smog-filled city-or, at least we are derided as such by those in more northern or eastern climes. But in fact, the smog of the 20th century is almost unrecognizable to modern eyes.
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's electric-powered truck driving down street on smoggy day, 1967, from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive , UCLA Library. (CC-BY)
Smog-as we well know now-the result of emissions of internal combustion engines reacting with particles in the atmosphere, has been sitting heavy on the landscape of Los Angeles for years now. What's strange is that we tend to get singular blame for smog, when in reality it is something that has affected cities across the globe-most notably London's famous pea-soup fogs were just that: smog, though somewhat worse due to the prevalence of soft coal burning through the 19th century.
In Los Angeles, however, the early 1970s showed few signs of a respite. We sit in a basin, and the way the weather system works when one is surrounded by the ocean on one hand and mountains on another is that it's almost impossible for pollution to dissipate. Los Angeles was christened "The Smog Capital of the World," and ever since we've been trying to shake that moniker. (Incidentally, we've been doing a good job-smog in Los Angeles is at an all-time low, with a decrease of 98% of vehicle-related air pollutants.)
Despite all that, there were still those that loved the city, warts and all. British architectural critic Reyner Banham filmed a BBC documentary in 1972, that is literally him driving around Los Angeles and commenting on everything he sees.
"…you might wonder," he asks, "what I'm doing in Los Angeles, which makes nonsense of history and breaks all the rules. Well, I love the place with a passion that goes beyond sense or reason."
Banham's unabashed love of Los Angeles is infectious, and it's a delightful time capsule to what all parts of the city were like in 1972, from Olvera Street to Watts to the Eames House, all narrated by his lilting voice. He's incredibly defensive of the city as well, calling it a "great city" and "significant city" despite it breaking all the traditional rules of cities, which makes him seem rather prescient. To know that we're tapping into a history of artists and others inspired by this strange, bizarre, hypnotic city is comforting. to those of us that love the city just as unabashedly, even if we can't speak as eloquently to precisely what draws us to it and why we love it.
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Emily Hummel is the creator of @arresteros + @brilliantmashup + internet explorers club