I left San Francisco in 1988 to take a newspaper job in a far corner of Los Angeles County, on the edge of the desert. My love for the European intimacy of that “City by the Bay” left me ill-prepared to embrace or even understand the famous horizontal sprawl of Southern California, and I spent several years heartsick about the sun-blanched nothing-ness of my new hometown.
Over many years and jobs, however, I moved my home deeper and deeper into the heart of Los Angeles, and learned by slow degrees to read the lay of that land. Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion guided my journey into the mythos of the place, and Reyner Banham and Mike Davis explained the hidden codes and messages that were borne in the architecture and politics of the built environment. Finally, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander urged me onto the streets.
I began using toy cameras to make “urban landscapes” in September of 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. My heart was shattered, then, and my career was momentarily ruined. In that upside-down time, I truly had nothing better to do than walk all day, every day, in Los Angeles’ many strange neighborhoods, shooting with a camera that couldn’t see straight.
Six months later, I took my bag of Holgas to New York, to photograph the light-sculpture at Ground Zero that re-imagined the fallen towers with huge banks of movie-premiere spotlights shining heavenward in two brilliant columns. I spent five hours, one chilly spring evening, zig-zagging through most of the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan to slowly approach the ghostly buildings. It was my forty-fourth birthday.
I’ve spent a dozen weeks in New York since then, and shot a thousand rolls of film. All of the usual tropes are true, I’ve learned, and they make for wonderful photographs: it’s a city of great brick canyons, through which streets and avenues run like rivers of bus and taxi, and denizens rush past each other like lemmings. But walking all day on those blocks and bridges, one learns well that there’re countless other pictures to make, which aren’t the staple heroic views. Against that familiar background of towering architecture are surprising details great and small, poignant and ironic, that leap into focus when one’s gaze resorts to the human scale---and there’s no camera whose gaze is more human-scale than that infernal Holga.
The many laughable failures of this cheap plastic camera are well known and all-encompassing: focus, exposure and parallax are effectively un-controllable, and the plastic lens is always aberrant, cloudy and vignetted. Much to my surprise, however, the freaky results of that technical dysfunction are exactly the pictures I’d dreamt of making. By obliterating the hyper-detailed, documentary specificity that modern multi-coated lenses have made commonplace, the Holga’s bizarre optics have given me access to a realm of richly-textured suggestion, impression and allusion that I couldn’t achieve in my earlier attempts at a lyrical cityscape, which seem banal and psychologically barren in comparison.
As I limp toward the conclusion of this body of work, the Holga continues to be my mainstay. By recent count, I’ve passed almost three thousand rolls through a dozen of those $17 cameras. When finally I’ve worn out the last of them, sometime late this year, I hope I’ll have created a book of photographs that will convey a cast-eyed, peripheral vision of two very different metropolises, like a meandering, minor-key tone-poem…