All images courtesy of Prospect Park Books. All rights reserved.
THE BOOK’S TITLE echoes Utagawa Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, the mid-19th-century woodblock prints of the city that later became Tokyo. Barbara A. Thomason’s works swap Edo for Los Angeles, and they’re paintings rather than prints, but painted in Cel-Vinyl, the medium animators use, which she tells us in her introduction recreates the colors and tonal values of Hiroshige’s works.
The title also raises a very basic question: if this is a book of the not so famous views of Los Angeles, which are the famous ones? Fame is certainly a moving target, and although I think LA is a great-looking city, with wonders and curiosities on every block, I acknowledge that it isn’t a sightseers’ paradise in the way that, say, London, Paris, or Rome is. I would say that’s a big part of the attraction. There’s also the matter of whether that title refers to sights (or sites) or to ways of seeing.
If you’d asked me before I opened the book what the famous sights of LA are, I’d probably have said the Hollywood Sign, the Walk of Fame, the Griffith Park Observatory, Venice Beach, maybe the Getty Center. Given a little more time I might have come up with the Capitol Records building, the Bonaventure Hotel, and perhaps some Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. This list is based entirely and unscientifically on the places I happened to visit, usually in a very haphazard way, when I was a tourist in LA before I came to live here.
In fact some of the above sights appear in the book, though usually seen from an unexpected viewpoint. The Hollywood Sign, for instance, is seen through the window of a dentist’s office high above Wilshire Boulevard, a view that is actually all too familiar to me (which I agree is very different from being famous) because it appears that Thomason and I go to the same dentist. I’ve seen that view while having my teeth scraped and drilled. Thomason paints the Capitol Records building as seen from a spot in Whitley Heights, with a crash barrier and a possum in the foreground. The Bonaventure appears as a backdrop to a piece of public sculpture titled Uptown Rocker, of which I admit I was completely unaware.
Above: "Capitol Records Building 300"
Below: "View from my Dentist Office"
Of course everybody develops their own version and vision of LA, one that grows by increments as well as by grand strokes. And we all have equally strange lacunae as well as strange bits of knowledge. When I first started living in LA I went to the Hansen Dam (I can no longer remember quite why), whereas after 11 years living here I still keep telling myself I should go and take a look at the Coca-Cola building south of downtown, but I haven’t yet. Thomason paints both these places.
There can also be a tendency to be “more obscure than thou” in creating your personal vision, but this is an urge Thomason generally avoids. Most of the scenes depicted are not utterly obscure, and I think most will be known, if not necessarily well known, to most Angelenos. And if they’re not necessarily famous, and in some cases not all that picturesque, they do tend to be places Angelenos regard with varying degrees of affection: the Shakespeare Bridge, Philippe the Original, the Crossroads of the World, the Chicken Boy statue.
However, Thomason’s vision of Los Angeles is even more personal and idiosyncratic, since it’s devoid of three things that most of us take for granted here: sunshine, cars, and people. Colors in the paintings are generally bright, but skies are pale blue or gray, occasionally red: there are few sharp-edged shadows. One painting shows the Temple Street Bridge in the rain, which I thought was an homage to the opening scenes of The Big Sleep, but Thomason tells us it was inspired by Hiroshige’s woodcut Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake. I now like to think it references both.
Temple St. Bridge
That bridge, like the streets, and even the freeways, is stripped of traffic, and cars are visible in only one image in the book, that of the Felix Chevy dealership at the corner of West Jefferson and South Figueroa. There may be one very blurry, distant figure in the painting of Train Town, but I wouldn’t swear to it; otherwise, there’s not a human being to be seen anywhere. It’s as though LA has been hit by some exceptionally ruthless smart bomb that has evaporated all the people while preserving the built environment, leaving the city to the hawks, coyotes, lizards, and pigeons. This effect is both disorienting and oddly appealing: one wonders if Charlton Heston in his Omega Man persona is lurking somewhere out of sight.
One absolutely crucial way in which Thomason’s paintings resemble Hiroshige’s is their shape. Hiroshige used the vertical oban format (what we might call portrait); Thomason’s original paintings were 15 by 10 inches (the book is somewhat smaller), which is nearly the same ratio as the traditional 35-millimeter photographic negative. This does raise the question of how the pictures were made, or at least sourced. We have to assume that Thomason didn’t set up her easel in the middle of the East 10 Freeway; many of the images look (deliberately, I’m sure) as though they’re unapologetically derived from photographs, in some cases photographs that must have been taken from a moving car. Buildings show parallax, verticals lean, horizons are tilted. Who can say how Hiroshige would have felt about this? Maybe he’d have sided with David Hockney’s belief that artists will happily “cheat” using any optical device they can lay their hands on.
Each of Thomason’s paintings is accompanied by a couple paragraphs of text, giving the exact location of the view. This sometimes creates the impression of reading a wildly eccentric guidebook to the city. I do fantasize about some hapless tourists arriving in town, and trying to organize their sightseeing using this book as their model, checking out Western Exterminator from Silver Lake Boulevard, hoping to go for a stroll on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, heading up to the roof of Home Depot on Sunset Boulevard hoping for a mighty view of Hollywood. In this last case the tourists would not be disappointed at all. Thomason and I apparently go to the same Home Depot as well as the same dentist, and I go up to the rooftop parking lot all the time. The view is terrific, and I’m very glad that it’s not more famous.
Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.