18 August 2008

Book Review:

Historic Photos of Los Angeles
text and captions by Dana Lombardy

I've heard it said that converts are the most devout. You have seen this old saying in practice if you've ever caught Huell Howser's local PBS shows, and heard him gush over "California's Gold" in his Tennessean accent. I know it to be true in my own life, as every year that passes since Pamela and I moved here, Los Angeles feels more and more like home.

For me, turning the pages of Historic Photos of Los Angeles feels like I'm cracking open a grandparent's photo album. Just like those photo albums, I see pictures of Los Angeles when she was younger, and I marvel at how many of the main features are the same -- she's recognizable, parts of her, a hundred years ago -- and I'm curious about what life must have been like for her, astonished at all the wonders she's seen.

Yes, I'm talking about a town. what can I say? I'm devout.

This collection of photographs, many of them by amateur photographers through the decades, paint a picture of a vibrant city. A city with problems, a city sprawling out of control, but a city full of life and ambition. There are the shots of prominent architectural features back when they were new, and it can give the reader a warm shot of nostalgia to look at these pictures (I got one such shot when I turned the page and found a 1920s photo of the Bullock building on Wilshire Boulevard near Vermont; I drive past this building every day), but this book offers much more than a tour of famous structures.

The photos represent moments in time, spanning from the late 19th century to the 1960s. There is much history between these covers. Sure, the development of the film industry is well represented, but so to are the 1932 Olympics, World War II, and the Watts riots. In his preface to the book, Dana Lombardy reveals an effort to offer a balanced picture of Los Angeles, rather than "a nostalgic tribute to a beloved city." He points out that over the past century, many writers have presented a negative view of the city. "These writers' words," Lombardy tells us, "and the photos in this book, combine to create a fascinating, if not always favorable, portrait of America's second largest city."

There are a couple of problems with the book. First, there's no index. With all of the history and photographs present in this book, a way to quickly track down a particular photograph is not just necessary, it should be an obvious thing to include. Second, all of the photos are presented in black and white, although many of the source photographs (particularly for the last few decades) must have been in color.

Historic Photos of Los Angeles is a wonderful chronicle of our city. Sure it's not always pretty, but family histories rarely are. Like any good history book, this volume gives us a context from which to view Los Angeles as she stands today. If you love Los Angeles, warts and all, you'll love this book.

Historic Photos of Los Angeles, text and captions by Dana Lombardy, published by Turner Publishing Company. Available at bookstores and online.

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