DECEMBER 22, 2020
WHEN, IN 2016, photographer Janna Ireland first started a project of shooting buildings around Los Angeles designed by Paul R. Williams, she had almost no idea of what his work was like. I have to confess that, for a long time, I shared her ignorance. Like many Angelenos more than a little familiar with local history, I’ve always been more aware of Williams’s stature as an iconic local architect than of his actual work. I thought of him as a figure more historical than aesthetic, one of many trailblazing black professionals who defined ascending black L.A. and the Central Avenue scene at its zenith in the 1940s. I assumed that his designs followed the popular ones of the era — streamline moderne, Art Deco. That would have been impressive enough.
But, over the years, I’ve learned that the scope of Williams’s work was much more varied, stylistically and functionally, than I ever imagined. Geographically, it ranged across the city, and across the cities of Southern California, and beyond. Ireland’s new book, Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View (published in September by Angel City Press), captures that scope not by cataloging the physical buildings — Williams designed an astounding 3,000-plus, including luxe single-family homes for Hollywood stars, housing projects, hotels, and churches — but by capturing the emotional sweep and dogged ambition that connects all of Williams’s work and creates a narrative about Los Angeles itself. Ireland’s black-and-white images are sometimes intimate, glimpses of voluptuous staircases and immaculate interior walls in half shadow; sometimes they observe, unsentimentally but meditatively, dirt and concrete lots where Williams’s work used to be. There is a poignancy to all of this that make each image a compelling piece of a larger search for the essential meaning of Paul R. Williams, and of the city that gave him his chance. It’s a search that, for Ireland, is far from over.
I recently talked to Ireland about the book and its impact.
ERIN KAPLAN: The photos in this book are beautiful and profound, but also kind of fleeting and elegiac. There are stately structures that have stood the test of time, and there are the ghosts of what were. Overall, your images capture built Los Angeles at its core. Did you plan that?
JANNA IRELAND: Originally the idea was to photograph buildings that were still in pretty good condition. More and more I’d hear about a Williams building that was in a fire or damaged, and I wanted to get to places in various states of repair. In terms of finding places, I did my own research, one person would lead to another, and another.
You didn’t know much about Paul Williams before you started the photo project. What do you think of him now?
He was someone who was really brilliant, creative, and driven in a way that is interesting. He had to maintain this career, keep his office open for 50 years. That took lots of tenacity.
He’s a continued source of fascination for me, the way he presented himself, the way he wanted to keep things positive; he didn’t want to make racism a big part of the stories he told about himself. The epiphany he had of not competing with the white world but of always competing with himself, of blocking everything else out — I love that.
It took incredible skill to please all these clients and to fulfill all these diverse interests. If he had wanted to or if he had been in a position to, he absolutely could have developed a “signature” style the way many architects did — the way he uses curves jumped out at me. His own house is full of curves, it’s definitely something I see again and again in his work. But that diversity was kind of used against him, it meant that some people saw him as a generalist and not specialized or exclusive. But his diversity was his genius. It’s what made him unique, and also ubiquitous.
His variety is very L.A. You can have one block with houses in many different styles. Back east, you have row homes, and there’s a real uniformity, but here there’s a feeling that anything could be on any street. Paul Williams started his career in the ’20s when there was still much to build in Los Angeles; his work was from the ground up. He did many single-family homes across the spectrum of styles, from Moorish to Spanish Colonial to Tudor.
You capture a lot of that spectrum in this book. But you say it’s the tip of the iceberg.
There’s so much more to do! I didn’t shoot the buildings he worked on with partners, partly because it’s hard to see the line between his work and someone else’s. I didn’t shoot the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he designed an addition — not the whole building, though the hotel’s iconic lettering is his. Paul Williams is so iconic, but he’s not as well known as he should be. I would say he’s not unrecognized, but underrecognized. I think because of the sheer variety of his work, and because of his race, he didn’t get as much recognition as he deserved during his lifetime (he won the prestigious AIA Gold Medal Award in 2017, 37 years after his death in 1980). I’m still going, trying to get into the archives at Getty and USC.
You write in the book’s introduction that you’re not an architectural photographer or a documentary photographer. How would you characterize this book?
This book isn’t the first of its kind, but it’s the first of a kind. I haven’t figured out exactly what to call it — fine art photography, but something else. It isn’t a straightforward architectural book. It might be confounding for some people who are expecting that. There is overlap of photography and architecture, of course. But this is its own thing. The choice of shooting in black and white seemed right, though not because the buildings are old and I wanted to do this period thing; it just felt right for the project.
I lived in Los Angeles 2011 to 2013, then moved here four years ago, got a driver’s license when I was 31. For this project, I drove around a lot, mostly on Saturdays. My favorite thing was visiting communities where Williams designed all the houses, created a scene — like in Rancho Palos Verdes, and Willowbrook. I liked seeing him all around me, as opposed to seeing one of his houses here and there. Hillside Memorial Park Mausoleum (in Culver City) was my favorite building. It was very peaceful, very resonant.
For all the “gone” structures — the rubble — there’s the question of what comes next? So often in architecture, these really classical houses are replaced with monstrosities. I’m always thinking about that, so I was trying to get the last little bit of what remains. One thing I learned doing this project is that people buy Paul Williams houses, they promise sellers to preserve them, then they get torn down. It’s kind of horrifying.
What else did you learn?
Before starting this, I knew only a little about black history here. I knew about the First AME church that Paul Williams designed, and attended. I learned about racial redlining, restrictive covenants. I didn’t know specifically about all the details of how segregation worked in L.A., but when I did learn them it didn’t surprise me at all. But I fell in love with L.A. — it has a real art community. That’s a necessity for me. My grandmother lived here when I was growing up, so I had that connection. Now I live in Sherman Oaks. Paul Williams did a couple of smaller projects here in the Valley.
How did you integrate this project with your working life, and your life as a wife and mother?
Before the project, I was working full-time as an administrator at USC, teaching at Pasadena City College, running around and commuting. After I had my second child, I eventually quit USC because the cost of childcare basically meant I wasn’t making money, just breaking even. After I started the project at the end of 2016, I did an exhibition, then kept going with it in 2018 and 2019. The whole thing fed on itself.
Most of the homeowners I approached received me very well, though for others it didn’t quite happen. But once someone knew what I was doing, they were usually very happy to help. All of them had at least one of Karen Hudson’s books (Hudson is Paul Williams’s granddaughter, an author and longtime steward of his archives). For the most part, people who lived in these houses understood they had something very special.
The day I went to Rancho Palo Verdes to shoot, I did feel very self-conscious. Very conspicuous. Carver Manor in Willowbrook, next to Watts, was very different. The single-family homes in Willowbrook were conceived by a black woman, Velma Grant, who figured middle-class black people, and black veterans, needed somewhere affordable to live after World War II. Williams designed public housing projects, Pueblo del Rio, Nickerson Gardens. He also designed stuff way outside Los Angeles — in Memphis, Oregon, South America. I’d like to figure out where more of these places were.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
I hope it encourages them to go do their own research. There’s room for lots of different projects about Paul Williams’s work. It deserves more. For me, doing the book definitely made my world in L.A. bigger — it introduced me to all these architects and all these other people interested in the city. I was already part of the art community, but there are so many other people that I never would have encountered otherwise. The East Coast perception that there is no culture, no history, here — that’s not true. The city has now become a subject for me. It’s L.A. as subject, not just, “Oh, I’m here and I happen to be taking pictures.”
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a Los Angeles–based journalist and columnist who has written about African American political, economic, and cultural issues since 1992. Her essays have been widely anthologized and she has published two books: Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispatches from a Black Journalista (2011) and I Heart Obama (2016). She is currently book review editor for Ms. magazine.