I am a photographer. In my search for found backdrops and interesting locations over the years, I have dissected Los Angeles. Over and over I look at the streets, the signs, the new and the old buildings. Every day I look for something I may have overlooked. In L.A., the beautiful and the ugly are spread out before you like an enormous garage sale. If you are curious about becoming a photographer, or you just like to take pictures, I’m writing this to remind you that you will never know your city. You will develop patterns, and like a well-behaved racehorse you will go round and round your designated track, but I want you to look sideways and upside down. I want you to find the secret life of the landscape of your city.
Hollywood Boulevard wig shops.
What surrounds the things you see affects your opinion of them. If the oranges were sold next to the bleach and the toilet paper in your supermarket you probably wouldn’t want to eat the oranges. The oranges as an object would be redefined. Look at your city that way. Separate every building from its background in your mind and then see if that changes your viewpoint. Get closer and see if the details are different when you isolate them. Think about the light and the time of day—do the shadows change your world? Do your memories need to be included in the story or cast out?
Abandoned Hotel California sign, Los Feliz.
I grew up in Los Feliz, where Mickey Mouse was born. There are many spooky forgotten spots here.
Griffith Park Observatory, where Rebel Without a Cause was filmed.
I find that I always go back to the places that I visited as a kid and as a teenager. I like to try to recapture my memories in some abstract way. I shot the observatory this way because it reminds me of the days my friends and I would ditch school and wander through the hills surrounding this building.
I learned where we are in the universe.
Exploring Truckee, California.
I went to Lake Tahoe with Kate and Laura Mulleavy (of Rodarte) and Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. We stopped in Truckee on our way to the Donner Party museum. Kate and Laura are the best tour guides—they do massive research on any area we are visiting and a plan is quickly formed. We stop a lot along the way to our destinations. I recommend you always document the journey, not just the destination. When you are editing later, you may find that one photo along the way really helps explain the emotions you felt when you got there. The lace curtain in this little building behind the mortuary in Truckee helps express the feeling I had when I was walking around the Donner Party museum later that day. It is the kind of abstract connection that I am usually very drawn to in my storytelling.
Jenny and Johnny, Los Angeles.
I’ve worked with Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice separately for many years on various projects of theirs. They are partners in music and in life. Jenny and I really like the creating photos that look like scenes from a movie that was never made. This photo was taken from a kitchen window. I wanted it to feel voyeuristic. I wanted them to look like they thought they were alone. I wanted it to seem somewhat ominous. This is a colorful photo, so I intentionally looked for a mood that was dark and passionate to thread through it. Look for opposites when you shoot. It can be really interesting to try to transform the meaning of a location based on the way you direct your subject.
Jenny and Johnny.
I used to hate palm trees and now I am completely fascinated by them. Growing up in L.A., I realized that all my memories of making out when I was a teenager have palm trees in the distance. Through a window, behind a parking lot, in a park. Try putting a personal memory into a photo that is the least noticed part of the photo. It can lead you to interesting places.
I photograph a lot of power lines. Power lines are like snowflakes. No two spots are exactly the same. Over the years I will have collected a lot of these photos. This is something that I photograph long term. What do you keep going back to? How will you chart your memories over the years?
Megan Nison in Peter Jensen, Echo Park.
I took this photo for a look book for Peter Jensen. I love red, white, and blue and find ways to combine those colors in a lot of my work. Megan is standing on a high stack of apple boxes. How does the angle you shoot affect the image of the person? How do your obsessions leak into your work?
Spider-Man and Lucia, Hollywood Boulevard.
This was for a fashion story for Paper magazine. Spider-Man was trying to get in my shot, or sabotage it, I’m not sure. I switched my focus to him, but kept Lucia large in the frame. Somehow this made it funny and dreamy at the same time. I love opposites—things that don’t belong sometimes perfect the moment.
The orange in the distance made the foreground more beautiful to me. Strong color in a monochromatic setting is another thing I hunt for.
Beck, Toy District, Los Angeles.
I found this sign and knew I had to shoot Beck there. Some people know how to complete an idea. If I give Beck a piece of the puzzle, he knows exactly where to put it. Try shooting all your friends, if they’ll let you. You might find that one person really knows how to tie themselves to an abstract idea. Photographing someone for many years can lead to a creative shorthand that is very fulfilling. I have been shooting Beck for 15 years. He is a muse for me.
Beck in Echo Park.
William Mulholland Memorial Fountain, Los Feliz.
The details on this fountain bring back a lot of memories for me. I skinned my knee here when I was 7, I kissed a boy here when I was 19.
Ugly can be beautiful. Beautiful can be ugly. Bring your camera with you wherever you go.
Peter Pan ride, Disneyland.
This painting is what you see before the ride starts. I love this ride with all my heart. What is the one detail that reminds you of how you feel about a place? Does that feeling transform when you shoot it in black and white?
I took a Polaroid in 2000 of a mural that was near my old junior high. I showed it to the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith and we decided to shoot there. It became the cover of his album Figure 8. The funny thing is that for years I used to pass that mural every day and think, That is the ugliest mural I have ever seen in my life. It was next to a McDonald’s where the kids in my school that were in gangs would meet to fight off-campus. That was where the showdowns were, especially the girl fights. They were bloody and brutal. Next to this bloodbath over burgers was a stereo repair shop with this obnoxious mural painted over the entire wall. The whole block looked like hell. Over time I started to become obsessed with it. I couldn’t explain why, but I felt compelled to show it to Elliott. Maybe the brutality of the fights I witnessed next door snuck into the story of that photo. Something was so wrong that eventually it was right.
Autumn de Wilde is know for her documentary and portrait work in music, fashion, and film. Her fourth book, BECK, comes out next month from Chronicle Books.
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