I wanted to write about Renato D’Agostin’s new book Archaeologies: Los Angeles because I was born and raised in L.A., and on trips back to the city I’m always trying to find the best way to shoot it. My own photo work is mostly based on my perambulations around my longtime home of New York City (see my latest book, New York Street), where I have a tight city to shoot, with an abundance of unexpected subject matter. Shooting New York allows me to constantly go after texture, surprise, the concatenations of pedestrian energy and concentrated color leading to bursts of startlement and magic. When I’m in L.A., I’m also out and about, no plan in my head other than to hope for more surprise; but surprise is a lot harder to find in the endless streets and empty sidewalks.
I’ve never set out simply to capture a city, but in Archaeologies, that’s what D’Agostin appears to be after: a determined investigation of Los Angeles, a way to understand the city through his photographs. I think of this as the top-down, intentional way of getting shots. You don’t go out hoping to be see something you’ve never seen, a moment that will crystallize a truth you might not even have been aware of till you saw (and with luck, captured) it. Instead, you go out with pretty strong ideas in your head about what you’ll shoot.
In D’Agostin’s case, this means a lot of conventional L.A. imagery: palm trees, surfers, Watts Towers. Doubt his intentionality? Then how else to account for all the overhead shots of freeways and urban sprawl. D’Agostin clearly had to go up in a helicopter to get those shots, hardly an Oh, wow, look at that; hope I can catch it approach.
So given his intentions, what has he come up with? A book of many strong black and white shots, with high contrast and lots of negative- versus positive-space compositions. D’Agostin worked as Ralph Gibson’s assistant, and it shows. If we do have to see a photo of surfboards and their fins, at least the angle of the shot is not straight on, and the image is paired with a far more mysterious one of sharp-pointed lights stretching feather-like across a totally black space.
Which is a strength of the book: Thought has gone into how to match up photos, to make the most of patterns and the play of dark and light. And there are many striking shots: a woman’s wedge heels shuffling off an Escher-like patterned floor; what looks to be a burlesque dancer’s corset floating over her white skin; the back of a platinum blonde wearing a shaggy jacket and snuggling a furry pooch; and even a mysterious blurry smear of palm trees against the smog-bound sky.
That blurry shot of a palm tree works, but the first one in the book, a chiaroscuro of palm fronds, isn’t very interesting. The next one, palm trees reflected in one lens of a pair of sunglasses, should have been cut for being too L.A. sun-worshipy obvious, as should both its neighbor, silhouetted palm trees shot through an airplane window as another plane passes by, and three pages later, a shot of another copse of palms before the gradations of a gray sky.
That’s a problem in the book: shots that startle and intrigue mixed in with too many tourist snaps. (O.K., often the tourist shots are imaginatively taken, but still.) The book isn’t a travelogue, per se, but D’Agostin’s desire to take in the city as a whole ends up too close to a standard coffee table book.
I do have to stress, though, that there are a lot of fine photographs here. Another one I like a lot is a floating large white V hung on cables against a grainy backdrop. This shot has the feel of Ed Ruscha’s powerful L.A. signage paintings, and of course it was Ruscha who also got into a helicopter for one of his notable photobooks, Thirtyfour Parking Lots. But thinking about Ruscha and Los Angeles can also help us see what goes well, and less well, in D’Agostin’s book.
In his classic white-covered books from the 1960s and early ’70s, Ruscha was consciously fulfilling one simple idea: shoot every building on the Sunset Strip, fly over thirty-four random parking lots, show us some swimming pools. There’s also no conscious artiness to Ruscha’s shots, they’re flat, demotic portraits of unexpected and banal parts of the city—yet these books capture the true archeology of Los Angeles better than anyone ever has, and the books themselves retain a totemic magic (just look at the vast hordes of imitators).
In D’Agostin’s Archaeologies too many of the L.A. shots are either clichéd or try too hard. They don’t honestly surprise us, in the way truly great photos can and do.
Here’s another way to look at the problem.
There’s a long interview with Garry Winogrand, at Rice University—he couldn’t look more relaxed, slouched down, feet sprawling over some desk chairs—that’s well worth taking a look at (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP6lP3UaP24). In the video, he speaks of a statue of St. Augustine at the very end of Sunset Boulevard in L.A. He says: “I shot that goddamn statue and made a reasonably good picture of it. Then I saw the Frank book [The Americans, with Robert Frank’s picture of the exact same statue], and it killed it; it put me away six ways…. The picture I made was made. The picture he made happened…. He didn’t make any attempt at making any points…. And it taught me a hell of a lot.”
That’s what ultimately sinks D’Agostin’s Archaeologies. Too many shots feel made, they don’t appear to just happen. No question D’Agostin brings vivid composition and a talented eye to his shots, but at bottom that’s technique—a way to make reasonably good pictures—not the true magic the best photobooks evoke.
Archaeologies: Los Angeles can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.