In Search of a City

A new book depicts L.A. in all its multiplicity.

It can be hard to see Los Angeles with fresh eyes. Whether it is exalted for its glamour, mocked for its vanity, reviled for its artifice, or condemned for its sprawl, the city is emblematic. Even individual streets and intersections—Rodeo Drive, Sunset Strip, and Florence and Normandy—hold a place in our modern mythology.

In the photographic book Looking at Los Angeles (Metropolis Books, May 2005), Marla Hamburg Kennedy and Ben Stiller (yes, that Ben Stiller) seek to challenge conventional perspectives. “We didn’t want to poke fun at L.A. or do a book about kitsch L.A. or another dry architectural survey,” Hamburg Kennedy explains. “We wanted to find the best images of the city that were not about the clich�.” The result reveals hundreds of disparate worlds within a single municipality that share one essential quality—being “sooo L.A.,” as she puts it.

Spanning eight decades, the book features work by 88 artists, including William Claxton, Joel Sternfeld, Julius Shulman, Ed Ruscha, and Catherine Opie. “Every image had to stand alone as a great work of art, whether or not it was by a famous artist,” Hamburg Kennedy says. The book underscores the singularity of each photographer’s sensibility by loosely grouping the photos according to subject. Designed with great sensitivity by Lorraine Wilde, the book begins with aerial shots and concludes at the ocean proceeding rather elliptically through various themes such as automobiles, apartments, store facades, and industrial areas. Wilde’s approach often brings together pairs of images—David Hockney’s and Larry Sultan’s swimming pool photos, for example—that look as though they were taken on different planets. “It is a place of unbelievable contradictions,” Hamburg Kennedy says. “Just think of all the natural disasters that happen amid this money and glitz.”

Hamburg Kennedy and Stiller, both of whom previously lived in Manhattan, profess deep affection for their second home. “I think people coming from New York get mesmerized by L.A. because it is utterly foreign, and it becomes a love affair,” Hamburg Kennedy says. While they consider the book to be definitively a celebration, it is not without ambiguities. “Los Angeles is a dichotomy,” Stiller writes in the preface. “Beautiful and ugly, full of hope and promise, and also full of despair. I have often felt it to be as lonely and sad a place as I have ever been, and I wake up most mornings thankful to be living here.”

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