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Photographic Night Songs in Los Angeles

On the L.A. subculture portraits of Monica Nouwens.


Pessimists have been saying —especially since the fall of 2008— that we are witnessing the decline and fall of the American Empire (or the West in general). But whatever one may think of the current “crisis”, there is always room for optimism and creativity. One of the sunnier sides of economic catastrophe is that social interactions can develop some humanity outside of typical business conversation. Bicycles and public transportation may become popular again for cities that have bathed in gasoline for decades. “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”, begins Brett Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less Than Zero.[1] There might come a time in which people are afraid to use freeways altogether. They will free themselves from the concrete serpent, by choice or by force.

“Dragons of light in the dark
sweep going both ways
in the night city belly.” [2]

Monica Nouwens, a Dutch expatriate living in Los Angeles, makes photographic portraits of people living in the margins, in a parallel Los Angeles (under)world.[3] Mostly young people and mostly at night: in run-down bars, clubs, or at makeshift food pantries. Appearing in her gentle and dreamy photographs are Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, American Indians[4] and everyone in-between. Many of them forced, due to the precarious economic situation, into alternative lifestyles. Counterculture, subculture, underground, bohemia — we could call it many things, but one thing is sure: their lives run counter to regular economic activities, in which they don’t participate much, if at all. They live on low-paying day jobs (some in the porn industry), food stamps, unemployment benefits, or money from their families, if they have that luxury. They get food from the soup kitchen or the dumpster.[5] They hop from couch to couch or they sleep in cars, or on the beach.

52NouwensIMG_0378web There exists a strong urge to come together, to party, to trip and to exchange artistic talent. Despite the mainstream’s downward spiral during these tough economic times, creative impulses are as wide-ranging as Los Angeles itself, a “city” of small towns that outgrew their borders long ago, and then mutated into an unrecognizable beast of 12,000 square kilometers and 10 million people connected by a network of pollution-choked freeway corridors.

“There is no more beautiful city in the world, provided it seen by night and from a distance.” [6]

61Nouwens_webLos Angeles is a city that many if not most of us have at least virtually been to. It is said to be one of the most photographed cities in the world. Movie making is daily business there and many of those movies do not portray the city in a realistic way.[7] Neither do most of them portray it with much love or compassion. It has been destroyed in utopian or dystopian visions many times over.

Is Los Angeles “a city where representation and reality gets muddled” like Thom Andersen says in his informative and amusing video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself? (2003) Is it playing a place rather than being a place? With its eclectic architecture, it has stood in for many different places. Against its largely anonymous backdrop, every possible type of life has been imagined.

“There is no there there.” [8]

74Nouwens_IMG_0634webLos Angeles is first a destination and secondarily a place. People who are moving to this city of dreams arrive with a single goal: to succeed or to fail. And in the whirlpool of creative talent, anybody’s luck is as good as the next.

“Los Angeles is a magical city”, Nouwens told me. “Very alienating to a certain extent. One is often alone. People don’t talk much. Taking food out of a Mexican or Korean market, often the only communication goes like this:

–How are you?
–I’m good, how are you?”

But again, in the desert city full of loneliness, there is a strong urge to come together. Hunger for recognition. To “make it” and to passionately make something of it.

07Nouwens-BwebMany counterculture movements have been corporately incorporated (think of the Beatniks or the Hippies). Rebellion became commerce. Avant-garde became a trend. Is culture and counterculture in Los Angeles muddled just like representation and reality? Does consumer society demand permanent rebellion against any form of tradition, against every established value?

“Noise nourishes a new order.” [9]

Nouwens photographs parties in the city’s run-down venues or people tripping on the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus drinks in a pastoral arcadia, in the desert outskirts of the big city. Temporary escapes on the city’s edges, but people eventually return. They are woven into city life; they don’t disappear ‘into the wild’.[10] If they can’t survive in Los Angeles, they might move on to other cities, but the heat and slowness of Los Angeles make it a better place than others to survive without monetary resources.

¶ Life in L.A.
Well, what can I say?
It’s a treasure to find
So many ways to unwind ¶ 

06Nouwens_5490-3webAre the parallel (under)worlds more dangerous than the normal world of work, family and mortgage? People in the subcultural scenes live life in a different key. No luxuries exist for most of them, but they make the best of it. Do their creative energy and their stoic refusal to be incorporated into commercialist mainstreams point towards a new America? One free from the constraints of boundless consumerism.

“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad  flower in the sand, you pretty town.” [12]

   –The people look beautiful in your pictures!
   –They are photographed beautifully.[13]

And in passing the city of Los Angeles shows itself from a darker side, other than a sun-drenched desert metropolis. Ramshackle and rough, mysterious and dreamy nonetheless.

[1] Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero, New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2010 (1985), p. 8 (eBook version).
[2] Gary Snyder, fragment of ‘Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin’, in: Mountains and Rivers Without End, New York: Counterpoint, 1996, p. 62.
[3] ‘Look at Me And Tell Me If You Have Known Me Before’, the multivocal title of Nouwens’ photo series, is taken from a subversive movie, largely set in Los Angeles, by a well-known surrealist director. It is up to the viewers’ imagination to make their own interpretations.
[4] There is an ongoing controversy about the naming of the descendants of the people who lived on the American continents before the ‘rest of the world’ got to know it as the Americas. See for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_name_controversy.
[5] The online Urban Dictionary simply defines ‘Dumpster diving’ as “looking for treasure in someone else’s trash”. In practice, it often comes to jumping fences or climbing walls to reach dumpsters on supermarket back lots, in order to retrieve food that might officially be out of date, but often is still edible. See http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=dumpster+diving
[6] Roman Polanski as paraphrased by Thom Andersen in his video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003).
[7] There exist a few realist movie portraits on marginalized communities in Los Angeles, among which the 1961 film The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie about American Indians who changed reservation life for the run-down Victorian mansions in Bunker Hill (a neighborhood destroyed in the 1970s in the name of city renewal), of which John Fante has written beautifully in the 1930s.
[8] What Gertrude Stein suppposedly has said about Oakland, the city of her childhood – later also said of suburban sprawl (of which Los Angeles is a perfect example), by Jane Jacobs in her influential study The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).
[9] Michel Serres, The parasite, London/Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007 (1982), p. 127.
[10] American photographers like Alec Soth and Lucas Foglia have recently focused on people who escaped urban consumer madness to ‘disappear’ into the wilderness, or started farming, living self- sustainable lifestyles. Soth’s project Broken Manual has been the subject of the documentary film Somewhere to disappear (Laure Flammarion & Arnaud Uyttenhove, 2011), in which Soth strangely says that Broken Manual is not so much about escape but “the idea of escape”. Foglia’s photographs of people “living off the grid” in rural areas of southeastern United States, appeared in a book called A Natural Order (2012) and have been part of the group exhibition Off the Grid #1, at Fotodok in Utrecht, The Netherlands (30.03 – 28.04.2013).
[11] First stanza of the song ‘Life in L.A.’, from: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Worn Copy (2003).
[12] John Fante, Ask the Dust, Edinburgh: Rebel Inc., 1999 (1939), p. 9.
[13] Nouwens grew up with an awareness of a classical pictorial tradition. She notes influences by the likes of Mondrian, Rembrandt or Caravaggio. The chiaroscuro effects of the latter two is clearly recognizable in many of Nouwens’ night portraits. What Nouwens stresses is that she is not a documentary photographer, but forges emotional connections to her subject and her subjects (conversation per telephone with Monica Nouwens, 27.03.2013).

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