Unknown Unknowns Come Sweeping in: On John Brian King’s “Riviera: Photographs of Palm Springs”
By Geoff NicholsonAugust 1, 2020
Riviera by John Brian King
The first time I ever set foot in Palm Springs was in the middle of a curfew. It was the early 1990s, I was an English tourist making a “road trip” in a rented car, and Palm Springs looked like a convenient place to spend a night or two before heading into Los Angeles. My knowledge of Palm Springs in those days was close to zero and so I might have been surprised by anything I found there, but even so it was very strange indeed to find the city under lockdown, the streets empty of cars and people, all the shops and most of the bars and restaurants shuttered, though I did manage to find one that was open, where I learned that the closures weren’t because of a pandemic or ethnic strife but because there’d been some trouble the previous night with Spring Breakers running wild. This, I learned, was a long though not unbroken tradition that had culminated in a “spring break riot” in 1968. You can watch highlights on YouTube.
On the night I arrived I did walk the empty, curfewed street. This was probably against the law, but I reckoned that if I got stopped by the cops I’d play at being a dumb tourist — not a huge stretch. Although my memories of that night are inevitably patchy, I recall the streets looking much the way they do in John Brian King’s new book, Riviera: Photographs of Palm Springs, this despite the photographs being taken over 30 years later, between 2016 and 2018.
In Riviera, we see empty parking lots, dead palm trees, bare sports fields, expanses of desert and waste ground, a neon sign glowing out of the night, an empty hotel lobby, a semi-tended stretch of land adjacent to a Coco’s restaurant. None of it is exactly pretty, and little of it is conventionally attractive, and yet the overall effect is to make Palm Springs look curiously appealing, like an eerily depopulated wonderland. There are no people, no cars, no signs of life.
The images do something that many of the best photographs do; they make the familiar look strange and the strange look familiar. Palm Springs looks strange enough to begin with, and King makes it look stranger still. This is not the Palm Springs we know — in fact, it’s probably better than that. So much that is quintessentially Palm Springs, all the obvious stuff, remains well outside the frame.
You could argue, and I imagine the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism would, that King’s vision misrepresents Palm Springs. I have some basic sympathy with this view. My on-and-off love affair with the town has now lasted almost three decades, and I’m much enamored of the midcentury motels, the Moorten Botanical Garden, Bob Hope’s flying saucer house, the statue of Lucille Ball on the main drag, the one or two places I know where I can get a pretty decent martini. The golf courses, admittedly, I could well do without.
Still, the fact is that we tend to know Palm Springs as a place where the sun shines, the air is clear, and the light is hard-edged. But of course any self-respecting photographer has to subvert that easy vision, and so John Brian King’s photographs have a softness, a lack of hard lines, a deliberate fuzziness, an aesthetic choice and effect achieved using Fuji and Holga instant cameras.
This rebellion against the received vision had me thinking of Henry Wessel, a fine photographer generally considered a “new topographer” of the American West. He arrived in Los Angeles from the East Coast in 1969 and later reported, “I walked out of the airport into one of those clear, sharp-edged January days. The light had such physical presence; it looked as though you could lean against it.”
I don’t know that Wessel ever photographed in Palm Springs (although I can’t absolutely swear that he didn’t). However, he has an oblique connection with a photographer who certainly has photographed there — Los Angeles’s Mike Slack — who once told me a story about standing next to Henry Wessel in the line to get a drink at some art opening. They got to talking, and the far younger Slack told Wessel how much he liked his work, and that he was a photographer too. Wessel asked Slack if he’d ever been required to write an artist’s statement. Mike said no, at that stage of his career he hadn’t, and Henry said, “Good. Once you start having to write artist statements then you know you’re fucked.”
Given that Henry Wessel received two Guggenheim Fellowships and three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, I assume he must have written a certain number of artist’s statements in his time. But the principle remains sound, and it’s one that John Brian King has adhered to in Riviera.
The book is gloriously free of text: no foreword, no introductory essay, no captions, no interview with the photographer, and definitely no artist’s statement. These photographs are allowed to speak for themselves. There’s just the lightest sprinkling of text on the book’s last two pages, a four-line biography of King, and some information from the publisher. However — and I liked this a lot — there are quite a few words in the pictures themselves, most of them on signs: Welcome to Palm Springs, Canyon, Tortilla Factory, Diplomat, Church, Massage, The Desert Sun. Although most of these words are identifiable as the names of businesses, in the context of the book, which is to say out of context, they seem wonderfully coded and mysterious.
THREE: WALKING AMOK
In fact, John Brian King’s CV suggests an intense engagement with words — and it’s quite a CV. The first work of his that I ever became aware of was the 1990 publication AMOK Fourth Dispatch: Sourcebook of Extremes of Information in Print. King was co-editor of the book and also a partner in the AMOK bookstore in Silver Lake, the outfit that published it. The volume was in part a mail-order catalog and it was possible to order items from it, but in those pre-internet days, I think most people, myself included, thought of it as a reference book, a compendium, a database that could direct you to all kinds of fringe material and information, some of which we didn’t even know existed, and some of which we might have been happier not knowing about.
The publisher’s blurb gave a very fair description of the contents and aspirations:
AMOK fingers the pulse of deviance — raw data in the form of: forensic medical texts and CIA torture manuals, behavior control techniques, biographies of serial killers and porno queens, fire and brimstone fundamentalist fulminations, Satanist manifestoes and Santeria spellbooks, nudist colony guidebooks and psychotronic film directories, human oddities picturebooks and UFO abduction accounts, riot control technologies …
It was divided into sections such as “Control,” “Sleaze,” “Scratch and Sniff,” and “Mayhem.”
It was a hard book to read, the contents often grotesque and disturbing — personally, I was much more comfortable with the sleaze than the mayhem — but once you’d opened it, it was even harder to put down. The material was simultaneously compelling and rebarbative. Somebody “borrowed” my copy a few years back, and I’ve never quite felt the need to replace it. There’s currently a used copy on Amazon that some speculator is offering for $985.
I also came across King in an interview in the book Incredibly Strange Music (1993), published by RE/Search, in which he championed, in a slightly ironic way, the music of Scott Walker in what we now think of as his “middle period.”
King also edited, published, and sometimes wrote introductions for such titles as The Sexual Criminal: A Psychoanalytical Study by Joseph Paul de River, Lustmord: The Writings and Artifacts of Murderers, as well as editions of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and Bataille’s The Trial of Gilles de Rais. By these standards, Riviera is quite the family-friendly piece of work.
King has also had a parallel career as a designer of movie titles. IMDB lists 59 credits including Boogie Nights and 101 Dalmatians (both 1 and 2). He’s also a directed the full-length feature Redlands (2014), about a glamour photographer, his model, and her boyfriend living in the city of the title, and he made the short film Model Test (2016), which shows Palm Springs landscapes interspersed with topless women filmed against a white backcloth, staring awkwardly into the camera.
Or maybe this isn’t such a strange CV for someone born in Los Angeles — and, at any rate, the camera seems never to have been entirely out of the picture. King was a photography major at CalArts, and while there he regularly slipped away to LAX to take pictures of travelers arriving, departing, and waiting. The resulting photographs show, but are not overwhelmed by, Garry Winogrand’s influence, and the results only became widely known in 2015, with the publication of LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980–84. And even those not much interested in art photography per se may have been aware of Nude Reagan (2016), in which a variety of nude models pose while wearing the same rubber mask of our 40th president.
Riviera doesn’t feel exactly like a continuation of these interests and activities. It’s rather more considered and meditative, though some of it edges toward the Ballardian: inscrutable ruins, structures half-built and half-abandoned, the inevitable drained swimming pool. I imagine King would approve of the comparison.
FOUR: WORKING FOR THE WEEKEND
I said at the beginning of this piece that my knowledge of Palm Springs when I first went there was close to zero, but it wasn’t absolute zero. I’d heard the name in various Warner Brothers cartoons (Bugs Bunny seems to have been a big fan of the place), and more than that I’d seen the 1963 movie Palm Springs Weekend. My mother was an omnivorous moviegoer: if it was on at the huge local cinema (in Sheffield, England, where we lived), we went to see it.
I remembered the title, and knew I’d seen the movie, but my memories were understandably vague until I watched a few chunks of it online, as oblique research for this article. Some, though by no means all, of it came flooding back. The plot, such as it is, involves college students going from Los Angeles to Palm Springs for Easter — though the term “spring break” isn’t used in the movie as far as I can tell. Love and hijinks ensue: a lot of flirting, a swimming pool gets filled with soap bubbles, people dance the twist, and there’s a road race through the desert between two of the coolest cars I’d ever seen at the time. The race I did remember.
There’s a discussion in the movie about the value, or otherwise, of female virginity, with all the best lines going to Stefanie Powers, who plays the teenage daughter of the police chief. She doesn’t look all that much like a teenager, and she was over 20 when the movie was made, but the rest of the cast — Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Ty Hardin, Jerry Van Dyke — all look far, far too old to be college kids: at times they look downright middle-aged. But maybe that in itself is a touchstone of early 1960s culture, a time when kids wanted to look like grown-ups, as opposed to a few years later when grown-ups started wanting to look like kids.
As for Palm Springs itself, well, some of it is perfectly recognizable in the movie as the town we know today: palm trees, cool architecture, glittering swimming pools. There is, however, one extraordinarily relevant, and not in itself especially convincing, scene where two college men in a Model T Ford arrive at a hotel/resort, where the parking valet doesn’t quite treat them with the respect they think they deserve. As they drive up, you can clearly see the name of the establishment. Wouldn’t you know, it’s the Riviera, though I’m not sure how much of the movie was actually shot there.
The Riviera, of course, is still in business today, styling itself, according to the website,
an iconic alluring oasis set in the heart of the Uptown Design District, where local chef-owned restaurants, artists, and eclectic visionaries reside. The Riv embodies a unique historic footprint of old Hollywood’s elite such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin with a cool retro vibe and midcentury flair that allows guests to live in the moment and celebrate the past.
Well, okay, no doubt that some photographers would find that a suitable subject for a photo essay. I’m as sure as I can be, however, that John Brian King wouldn’t be one of them. Good for him.
Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His latest novel, The Miranda, appeared in 2017.
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