Los Angeles is a strange place. It’s perhaps the most quintessentially American of cities, built around an enduring love affair with the car, steeped in ‘50s iconography and brash, primary colors. The super-sized scale is both intimidating and somehow alienating, the emptiness broken up only by the Hollywood Hills and occasional tower blocks that rise like immutable monoliths from an otherwise flat landscape.
There’s a certain indefinable melancholy to the place, too – especially at night, when the streets are empty and the neon lights illuminate only loneliness and isolation. Hunter S Thomson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas about being able to see the high water mark where ‘60s idealism broke and rolled back; in some ways, LA itself is a high watermark for 20th century American ideology, the promise that everyone can own a car and a petrol-funded slice of the American dream. In 2010, cruising balmy nights with the top down, it feels you’re driving through a city-sized cenotaph for a faded dream.
It’s a mood that’s captured perfectly in Lee Friedlander’s photo ‘Los Angeles’. I was planning to write about Friedlander this week anyway, so it’s a pleasing coincidence that it turns out he has an exhibition that opened at the Whitney in New York recently, although this photo doesn’t feature in it. Friedlander was born in Washington, but studied photography in California before moving to New York in the mid-’50s. It seems somehow appropriate that this most American of photographers learnt his trade in LA, and his view of the city is a study in contradiction.
There’s the shadowy suburban backdrop: a low roofline and empty streets, a car, a lone power pole stark against the fading light, two palm trees reaching into the gathering darkness. Quite literally stuck on to the image (you can see the Sellotape) is a couple who seem to have walked straight out of the 1950s. They’re brightly lit, captured in a spotlight or a paparazzo’s flash or just the LA sun, beaming with success and affluence, embodiments of the American dream. The blaze of light in which they’re bathed contrasts sharply with the darkness behind them.
The metaphorical idea of layers upon layers is taken to a logical extreme here by creating the image out of actual physical parts stuck upon one another. Even the backdrop looks as flat as a stage set, the palm trees casting strange artificial shadows. Any photographic illusion of three-dimensionality is discarded. Indeed, the two-dimensional nature of what you’re looking at is deliberately emphasised – reinforcing, perhaps, the two-dimensional nature of the ideals depicted.
But for all that the image comes loaded with symbolism as to the darkness behind the American dream, it also serves as a eulogy to that dream. The faintly desperate optimism of the couple depicted is made all the more poignant by the aphotic landscape on which they’re superimposed. The idealism and the reality make for a dramatic contrast, but this doesn’t necessarily constitute a condemnation of the former; instead, there’s something elegiac about the contrast.
The poignancy of ‘Los Angeles’ seems particularly relevant now as America faces up to a declining economy and ever-increasing uncertainty as to its place in the world. If the 20th century was the American century, the dominant narrative of the 21st is far less clear. As such, it’s something of a shock to find that the image was created way back in 1965. Friedlander has made a career out of documenting America’s social landscape and its unique contradictions; for mine, this is the most potent image he’s ever created, and it’s a fine example of how art can retain its power and also take on new meanings as the years go by.