Empty L.A.

Photo by Matthew Logue

The density of urban slums once drove city planners and social workers mad — and, in some cases, still does today. But perhaps because of the vicious crime that followed mass abandonment of cities like Detroit, or the specter, for the first time, of an entire city’s virtual erasure in the wake of Hiroshima, the empty, depopulated city has inspired more horror in the last sixty years.

In the original (1953) film version of The War of the Worlds, Los Angeles is almost completely evacuated to await its doom. The philosophical 2001 film Vanilla Sky opens with a nightmare sequence in which the main character wakes up to an empty Manhattan. Alan Weisman’s recent book The World Without Us detailed precisely what would happen to the built environment over time if people really did disappear from cities.

Limited disappearance has even been used as a tool to stress the catastrophic consequences of a particular category of person vanishing, as in the 1922 Austrian novel and subsequent film The City Without Jews (a shocking anticipation of Nazi anti-Semitism), or the 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican.

These apocalyptic precedents are what first came to mind upon first encountering photographer Matthew Logue’s new collection, Empty L.A.

Logue has photographed an L.A. devoid of both people and (perhaps by necessity, given that the city is so legendarily, if unfairly, linked to them) cars. It’s not clear whether he did so by digitally manipulating the shots or becoming lucky enough to catch an early-morning city not yet woken up.

That confusion may be part of the point. As Christopher Hawthorne points out in the Los Angeles Times, Logue’s photos are part of the artistic compulsion to explore emptiness, a theme made salient by the high foreclosure and vacancy rates that, in many parts of the world, characterize the ongoing recession:

The combination of overbuilding during the boom years, thanks to easy credit, and the sudden paralysis of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 has created an unprecedented supply of unwanted or under-occupied real estate around the world. At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence.

But as the films and books cited above indicate, the obsession with evacuation, abandonment, and disappearance is hardly a recent phenomenon. And, if anything, the rising tide of foreclosure — absent the end of the world to go along with it — should make emptiness more familiar, even comforting. Still, Hawthorne rightly concludes that this landscape of retreat is particularly alien to the United States: “Occasional recessions and other setbacks aside, we assume that our national trajectory always moves toward fullness, that our cultural progress can be measured by how much new square footage we’ve created and occupied.”

For Americans, this cultural presumption makes phenomena like New York’s unfinished condo towers or the Sunbelt’s unrealized cities all the more unconscionable. Los Angeles, for years, represented the full blossom of the American Dream. Logue’s presentation of the city without its people may represent an apocalyptic unthinkable at once congruent with the cultural traditions of the last half century and particularly vivid — and horrifying — to the Americans of today.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Monday January 04 2010at 03:01 am , filed under Art and Design, Books, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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