Vintage LA in 35mm with John Brian King

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“Los Angeles in 1980 was the year Dorothy Stratten was murdered and Kim Kardashian was born – and I know which celebrity I prefer.”

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Matt Draper | December 11, 2015

“Photo by John Brian King”

Between 1980 and 1984, John Brian King photographed Los Angeles at night- well, two specific parts of Los Angeles. As a teenager, King shot the hurried and exhausted travelers at the city’s airport in a wide-angle, 35mm, paparazzi-like assault before “punk shows in Chinatown” and later after his CalArts graduation, he’d shoot barren, yet personal, 6×7 portraits of debris found in his nightly routines like ATMs, cabaret signs and lawn statues. Then he gave up photography and the negatives became artifacts themselves, sealed into storage. King opened a book selling and publishing company in LA, organized art exhibits, interviewed Charles Manson in prison, compiled a nonfiction collection of “writings and artifacts of murderers” and went on to design film titles for a number of major Hollywood films like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love.

Finally unearthed after thirty years, King’s images of a bygone city are now compiled in a new collection called LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-1984 via Spurl Editions and we couldn’t be happier with the results. Over email, I asked John Brian King about making these pictures, his intent: “by invading their space, I got a reaction that was nice” and the culture of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. After the chat, scroll down for a mixtape King compiled for us of songs he liked from the years these photos were taken.

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Explain the shooting process for both sets of work in the book. The 35mm “LAX” photos feel like they come from the direct street photography tradition while the 6×7 “LA” photos – you call the Pentax you used “brutal” – feel much more personal, direct, documents of objects, machines, fixtures, etc. You say you felt like an archaeologist.

I shot the “LAX” series at the airport from 1980 to 1982 and I shot at least once a week – it was an active way to shoot, always moving, always keeping an eye out for little absurd scenarios that presented themselves to me. I used a light 35mm camera with a wide angle lens and flash – I used up a lot of film and I was lucky if I got one good shot for each roll of film. But with the “LA” series, which I shot at night with no people around, it was almost a passive way of shooting. I used the really heavy Pentax 6×7, essentially a studio camera, where I could carefully compose the shot and look for things that were banal and ever-present, but were interesting to my eye. These photographs were indeed more personal in the sense that I photographed a lot of places that were in my routine: my apartment, my ATM, my work, my favorite late-night Thai restaurant, etc.

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In promotional materials for your book, Los Angeles is listed as a “metropolis that has now vanished” – What in your mind has replaced that void? Could one make photos like this today?

Well, it is a cliché, but Los Angeles is constantly changing – all cities change, but Los Angeles is almost as aggressive as Las Vegas in its destruction of its architectural history. I try to resist the urge to say, “This used to all be cornfields,” but it is true that I remember what used to exist in LA that doesn’t exist anymore, especially when it is tied to my personal history. For instance, when I drive by Paramount Studios, I often glance wistfully at a corner of their parking lot where my favorite restaurant, Nickodell, used to be. Los Angeles of the 1980s doesn’t exist anymore – but that is fine, especially when one thinks of all the horribleness of that time: AIDS, Reagan, the 1984 Olympics, the McMartin trial, and the music of Jane’s Addiction.

I think it would be difficult to photograph the airport the way I did over thirty years ago now, with Homeland Security being in everyone’s shit, but obviously one could photograph Los Angeles today and document it through the city’s architecture and objects – the trick is to not make it like your typical Instagram account.

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Space collides so wonderfully here. There’s confrontation, there’s tension, but there’s also real physical space in your pictures, like the bench portraits with the white wall. It feels like you’re entering a personal space that your subjects aren’t even letting themselves grasp. A woman sits on one side of a bench clutching her purse while a man stands opposite her atop the bench and yet, you stand and shoot right from the middle.

I thought about using a telephoto lens and trying not to invade the personal space of my subjects, but I realized fairly quickly that the compositions were flat and dull. Also, by invading their space, I often got a reaction that was nice – quizzical smiles, blank stares, etc. And even though I shot with a flash, I used a very slow shutter speed to capture the ambient light that filled the space.

I love this quote of yours, “I consciously went for an assaultive form of photography – flash, wide-angle lens, hit and run, no permission asked.” Do you still feel this way? Is there an exploitive tension here? The shots of folks rushing through the airport exits have a paparazzi feel at times.

Two of my favorite photographers are Weegee and Ron Galella – two photojournalists who had no problem being exploitative and intrusive. I grew up on Galella’s stalker-like photos of Jackie O. and I thought they were beautiful.

Traveling puts most of us on edge- your series not only captures people in some sort of agile realist action but it’s also in a location that isn’t public space like a city sidewalk. I wonder if one could even make pictures like this at an airport anymore…

The main reason I photographed people at LAX was because my subjects were on edge – exhausted, fragile, bored – and as a result they were not as rehearsed in their actions. But I assume if I tried to shoot the airport today, I would be run out or detained almost immediately.

From John Brian King’s unpublished Disneyland series. Anaheim, California, 1983.

From John Brian King’s unpublished Disneyland series. Anaheim, California, 1983.

In looking at your unpublished Disneyland series , I immediately thought of the “LAX” ones. Everyone has a camera at places like these, most all of which carry a tourist’s intent. Did you feel like you had free reign so to speak under this “another tourist with a camera” clause?

I approached photographing the people of Disneyland the same way I shot “LAX,” but it was so awful to repeatedly go to Disneyland that I lost interest pretty quickly and abandoned shooting the series. I also felt like I was repeating myself – it was essentially a brief interlude between the “LAX” and “LA” series.

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Can you discuss the social climate of LA in these pictures? There’s the hippie couple, the trophy wife, the cowboy, a fast food display for Return of the Jedi, an ATM and a cabaret sign – symbols of status and wealth in themselves.

The social climate of LA back then was an unreal co-mingling of the death rattle of the 1970s “I’m OK, You’re OK” pop psychology hippy bullshit and the burgeoning 1980s Reagan-fun faux Satanic crime yuppie bullshit. Los Angeles in 1980 was the year Dorothy Stratten was murdered and Kim Kardashian was born – and I know which celebrity I prefer.

“Public Image Ltd. taping their appearance on ABC's American Bandstand with Dick Clark. May 17th, 1980.”

“Public Image Ltd. taping their appearance on ABC’s American Bandstand with Dick Clark. May 17th, 1980.”

I noticed the Public Image Ltd. collection on your website. Did you shoot much music content? You say how you’d shoot at night before going to “late-night punk shows.”

I got a press pass from a friend who had some music zine, and he had me photograph punk shows and bands at their hotels. But it was really dull and the photos were pretty bad – I wasn’t a very good Jim Marshall, to say the least. But the Public Image Ltd. taping at American Bandstand was a fun opportunity because of the contrast between my favorite band and these disco kids in the audience who had no idea who PiL was. I think the band fed off of that feeling in the audience and reacted accordingly – they decided they didn’t give a shit and a little moment of anarchy ensued.

You mention how you “gave up photography” but now are shooting again. What are you interested in shooting?

I am interested in focusing on the banal and making it interesting. I am currently shooting a series in Palm Springs that upends the whole “martinis and swimming pools” culture that makes Coachella Valley a nice place to relax but a stultifying place to make interesting art.

It turns out King used to be a DJ; We asked the photographer to make us a playlist of some of the songs he used to listen to around the time these photos were taken. King: “I used to be a DJ around 1985, I ran a dance club called Mecca in downtown LA and my DJ name was Chief Lapu Lapu (named myself after my favorite drink at the Tiki Ti, ha ha)…I specialized in tiki music, mambo, occasional punk, etc…”

John Brian King is an author, photographer, designer and Los Angeles native. He graduated with a degree in photography from California Institute of the Arts having studied under the likes of John Divola and John Baldessari. He’s designed the film titles for a number of Hollywood films and more recently, took the reigns on his own film, writing and directing the feature film Redlands, an examination of creativity and horror in relation to photography. King currently resides in Palm Springs, CA.

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