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L.A. Observed

March 2024
1min read

A Haunting Pursuit of an Elusive Town

As early as 1925 Aldous Huxley described Los Angeles as “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis,” and many people not native to the city still tend to see it as a vast incoherence, sun-dazzled and a little sinister. As a child growing up in New York City, Ben Stiller visited a Los Angeles that “smelled different, it felt different—it was fantasyland. And I loved it. I guess that might be why I moved here eventually. And of course, I grew up, and my impression of L.A. changed.

The novelist Joan Didion at home in 1974.
 
©bettman/corbis2005_5_16

As early as 1925 Aldous Huxley described Los Angeles as “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis,” and many people not native to the city still tend to see it as a vast incoherence, sun-dazzled and a little sinister. As a child growing up in New York City, Ben Stiller visited a Los Angeles that “smelled different, it felt different—it was fantasyland. And I loved it. I guess that might be why I moved here eventually. And of course, I grew up, and my impression of L.A. changed. It became real.” And yet it remained elusive, and Stiller began seeking the essence of his town in photographs of it. With the help of the art dealer Marla Hamburg Kennedy, he has assembled an impressive collection that has recently been published in a big, uncommonly handsome book called Looking at Los Angeles (Metropolis Books, 250 pages). Here, in the work of scores of photographers, is the city in all its contradictions: lush and sere, vibrant and desolate, the bungalow under the palm tree, the abandoned freeway curling off into nowhere. The pictures run from the 1930s to the present, and they do indeed give a powerful sense of a place not quite like any other, some of it grim, as parts of any big town are grim, and some of it very close to the fantasyland that enchanted the young Stiller.

Hoover Street in 1999.
 
©bettman/corbis2005_5_16a

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