The first month: a lesson in rephotography

The first month of my sabbatical has been a period of adjustment. Trying to find the right balance between completing bigger and smaller tasks is never easy, and for me at least, it's even more challenging without the imposed discipline of a daily teaching schedule. Moreover, as I've allowed my curiosities to roam relatively free, I've found "small" projects tend to blossom into much larger ones. Such is certainly the case with my ongoing first attempt to produce an illustrated historical geographical transect across a portion of metro L.A.: the Santa Monica Bay shore. I chose this one first because it's a transect I've already spent several years thinking about and exploring. Moreover, this arc across the Southern California landscape provides a quintessential example of what Kevin Lynch called an "edge", as well as providing--at least in segments--a series of "paths" that run parallel to the ocean front. As arguably the most prominent face of Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Bayshore is also something of an elongated "district", which Reyner Banham identified nearly four decades ago as one of the four "ecologies" of the region: "Surfurbia." In short, this is a transect that provides, potentially, a variety of different lessons.

The idea of exploring L.A.'s landscapes via transects is not an original one. I was introduced to the idea by a professor of mine in graduate school, the geographer Thomas R. Vale. Tom and his wife Gerry--yes, they really are named Tom and Gerry--co-wrote a pair of books during the 1980s that explored the landscapes of the United States by following two national highways from one end of the country to the other. In
Western Images, Western Landscapes: Travels Along U.S. 89 (Univ. of Arizona Press, 1989), the Vales traveled border to border, from Arizona/Sonora to Montana/Alberta, to reflect on the complicated interplay between the highly imagined, mythic, iconic American West and the actual, visible landscapes of today. In U.S. 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1983), they went one step further; not only did they cross the country on its longer east-west axis, coast to coast, but they did so in the footsteps of a similar journey made thirty years earlier by George Stewart. Both of the books are thoroughly illustrated by the Vales' own photography--a geographer's-eye view rather than an artist's--and the theme of landscape change in U.S. 40 Today is provocatively illustrated by their exercise in rephotography. That is, the Vales attempted to re-take dozens of photographs from Stewart's book, presenting their photos alongside the republished originals as a collection of before-and-after pairs.
With the Vales' work in mind, I've spent much of the last several weeks revisiting local landscapes with both camera and historical photographs in hand. Here are a few examples of what I've managed to produce so far, along with lessons about some of the challenges and limitations of rephotography.

Example #1: Vista del Mar at Waterview, Playa del Rey (1955 and 2009)

Photo credit: Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner collection, photo #00031650

Rephotography is sometimes a straightforward exercise. This is the case when the original photograph was taken at a relatively specific, recognizable location, and the intervening years have not completely transformed the landscape. In the pictures above, more than fifty years have gone by, but the scene remains largely the same. The intersection has been upgraded to include a dedicated left-turn lane, as well as a traffic signal. The vehicles on the road are of more recent vintage. The smaller homes of the 1950s have been replaced by larger homes featuring greater diversity of modern and neo-traditional styles. The palm trees have grown taller, and the yards have grown generally more lush with vegetation. But the same house stands on the corner, and motorists along this section of Vista del Mar encounter a Playa del Rey landscape that presents the same general impression as that of the 1950s. Such is emphatically not the case, however, just 100 or so yards down the road, where hundreds of similar oceanside homes were removed in the late-1960s and early-1970s in the face of an expanding Los Angeles International Airport, whose takeoff path is immediately in the background.

Example #2: Vista del Mar and Dockweiler State Beach (1952 and 2009)

Photo credit: USC Libraries Special Collections, Los Angeles Examiner Negatives Collection, 1950-1961, #EXM-N-9511-002~5

Finding the original's location was more challenging with this pair, due to the lack of a specific landmark, like a named street intersection. Moreover, the past half century has brought more changes to the landscape here, with the stone retaining wall in the foreground and the simple telephone line beyond providing the key evidence that I had indeed found the right spot. Changes along the beach itself are both numerous and obvious. A lighted parking lot has been constructed, and palm trees and a paved road along beach's edge have also been added. The white buildings in the distant background of today's photo indicate more dramatic urban development along the Santa Monica Bay shore.

We must be cautious about treating the 1952 picture as simply an image of "before", implying a timeless landscape that
was, before modern development transformed it. In fact, the original image was taken to illustrate a story about all the recent change occurring then along Santa Monica Bay. The vast empty beach was actually quite new, the product of a dramatic widening effort following coastal flooding and beach erosion in the 1940s. While this is, indeed, a naturally sandy place--hence the dunes to the right (East)--the beach today is several times wider than it used to be. What's natural in the landscape, and what's artificial ("man-made") is not always obvious.

Along Vista del Mar itself (the right side of the photographs), change since 1952 has been more through deletion than addition. The roadside chain-link fence of the 1950s has been removed. Less visible in these photos, but more significant, rooftops of homes present along the dunes in the 1950s that are no longer there. Indeed, all that remains today of the
old Surfridge neighborhood are cracked streets, curbs, lamposts, and the occasional old yard tree.

Finally, it's tempting to comment on all the cars parked along Vista del Mar in today's scene, in sharp contrast to 1952. Is this evidence that street parking here is more common today than before? Perhaps. But we need to be cautious about making too much of the absence of cars in the earlier photo, because it is not necessarily representative of how that historic landscape always or even usually appeared. It would be very incorrect, for instance, to conclude from the later photo that Dockweiler beach parking today is lightly used. That may be the case on a middle-of-the-week September morning as pictured here, but believe me, the Dockweiler lots regularly get crowded to capacity on summer weekends, as Southern Californians flock by the tens of thousands to enjoy the sand, the sea, and the coveted spaces for legal barbecues and bonfires on the beach. In short, landscapes change across many different dimensions of time, many of which are cyclical (daily, seasonal, etc.) rather than directional.

Example #3: old Vista del Mar Avenue, Playa del Rey (1920s and 2009)

Photo credit: Series 3, Box 4ov, f. 70, Fritz Burns Papers, CSLA-4, Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

In Southern California, there can be a big difference between 80 years and 50 years of landscape change. In the first example pair, we saw an altered but still familiar landscape, comparing the 1950s to the 2000s. Moving just up the hill, and more significantly, three decades back in time, from that photo pair reveals a more dramatically changed scene. Indeed, it takes some effort to recognize common elements in these two photos: the road, which curves gently uphill in the background; the sidewalk; the streetlights; and the palms, now considerably taller. It was the tile-roofed house in the right foreground, however, that directed me to this spot. Once proudly standing nearly alone with its hilltop view of the Pacific, this home is nearly lost today among its many neighbors, now on both sides of the street, as well as its own dense thicket of added vegetation. While urbanization is a process that we typically associate with the deletion of plant life--nature paved over--we need to remember that people add as well as subtract. This is not to suggest that what's been added is ecologically equivalent to what's been lost, but especially in regions such as coastal Southern California where wild vegetation was naturally sparse, the building of a city doesn't necessarily translate into a net loss of living biomass.

Example #4: old Playa del Rey, hilltop view (1908 and 2009)

Photo credit: USC Libraries Special Collections, California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960, #CHS-5380

Now we push back the clock a full century, and we find a landscape that has changed virtually beyond all recognition. The ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains are still visible in the hazy background, but the early streetcar-accessible resort that was the original incarnation of Playa del Rey is gone. The expansive lagoon is lost amidst a dense collection of beach-adjacent housing, and the small commercial district at the foot of Culver Boulevard today consists mostly of the low-rise strip-mall architecture that dominated the middle twentieth century. Palms have been planted and grown tall, and the slopes above old Playa have become themselves crowded with housing. As a result, I could only approximate the location and angle of the original photo, taking advantage of the narrow opening created by the one vacant lot that now exists on the hill.

Example #5: old Playa del Rey, lagoon view (1902 and 2009)

Photo credit: Los Angeles Public Library, photo #00022968

Back down at sea level, we see that a century of landscape change hasn't completely erased traces of the past. The small boats are gone and countless numbers of homes and trees have been added. But the hill is still there in the background, including the original road cut visible in 1902 that today still winds up to the top as Montreal and Fowling streets. Likewise, the waters of the lagoon remain, even if they no longer extend far up the coast toward present-day Venice Beach, as they once did, before nearby Ballona Creek was channelized and then adjacent Marina del Rey was excavated in the late 1950s. Whereas the Marina is an entirely new and artificial landscape, Playa del Rey retains at least a hint of its nineteenth-century form.

Example #6: View from Pacific Palisades toward Santa Monica (1929 and 2009)

Photo credit: Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives, #PST2

I move further up Santa Monica Bay for this final example. Using a photo-based postcard from the 1920s as a base, I had hoped to illustrate change along the beachfront--in particular the replacement of the old lighthouse that once stood at the foot of Portrero Canyon, where even earlier the "Mammoth" long wharf of the Southern Pacific Railroad used to extend a mile out to sea. This was always going to be a challenging image to rephotograph, because the original appears to have been taken from an elevated perspective, perhaps even a plane or a balloon. I had hoped I might find a comparable vantage point somewhere in Asilomar Park, but my search became moot as soon as I dropped down through the tunnel onto PCH from the Santa Monica freeway to discover that, despite warm, sunny Santa Ana wind–influenced weather throughout most of the region, the Santa Monica–Malibu coast had quickly turned thick with coastal fog. The afternoon wasn't a total loss, and I managed to take a number of interesting photos for my classes on topics such as meteorology (fog), geomorphology (landslides), and urban studies (housing and architecture). But rephotographing the beachfront would have to wait for another day. Like any outdoor event, rephotography is subject to weather.