Imogen Cunningham was once asked what her favorite photo was out of all she had made over a career that spanned over sixty years. Her response? “The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”
I have always appreciated that motto and generally agree with it. However, this is the one image that I have made that I am most deeply satisfied with. This image epitomizes my early childhood memories of Los Angeles and is like a missing family portrait.
I moved away from San Pedro when I was nine. When I got my drivers license at age 16 I would go back to San Pedro in the summertime. First as a chauffer to my parents, and later on solo sojourns south.
As my career grew, I would go back on business trips and even adopted an LA cell phone number so clients could reach me without being charged for long distance. I would visit my aunt and uncle and stay with my grandmother.
Living in the northwest has taught me about salmon and steelhead runs and about how these salmonids leave their home waters for the ocean and return many years later to the exact spot where their life started.
I relationship with Los Angeles and San Pedro in particular has felt similar to the life of those fish. Each time I have returned I have felt instantly at home in a way that Spokane has never felt. I know I could move there if I wanted to but that isn’t the point. I love living in Spokane because it supports the lifestyle I love. I need mountains, lakes, streams, and forest. I need solitude. There is a difference between going out and living your life and returning home and feeling at home.
Anyway, about 12 years ago I took my son to LA to show him my childhood neighborhood. I decided it was time to finally take a camera out and make a portfolio of photographs.
Something unusual happened when I did that. Prior to that trip I would always operate in a hazy fog about where things were and how to navigate to them. I would always find my way but it was more of a intuitive guess than a certainty. During this trip with my son, the fog cleared away and I knew exactly where I was like the proverbial back of my hand.
The thing I love about San Pedro is the diversity of culture. The street I lived on was filled with families of different ethnicities that ranged from Mexician, Yugoslavian, Phillipino, and African American. Life was tough but it taught me lessons about mutual respect that I have taken with me everywhere. My neighborhood childhood experiences reminded me of reading Eudora Welty’s short story The Shopkeeper.
My dad had his business on Gaffey Street and my Grandfather had his optometry business just down the street. We lived in a rental house just around the corner on 8th street. When I took my son there the building was still there but it was now a soul food restaurant. We had lunch there and I shared photos that showed what the building looked like when we lived there. I think it was the first experience in my son’s life where he was a minority.
The owners of the restaurant treated us like family and made a huge impression on my son. He still talks fondly about that experience.
After lunch I drove around the neighborhood and stopped at a school where all these kids were just hanging out. My son was afraid to get out of the car because he didn’t know how to read the street. He had listened to my father talk about why they had moved me away from here because a kid got knifed to death at the school we were now parked in front of.
My son felt like an outsider. He was a fish out of water. I on the other hand recognized it and understood it and embraced it as a homecoming. I got out of the car and went up to a group of teenagers and asked if I could take a photograph. They’re chorus of immediate responses was “Are you going to pay us?”
I laughed and smiled as I explained that I couldn’t afford to pay them and how I had lived in the neighborhood as a child but never got any photographs and how they represented exactly how I remembered it to be. They responded with a simple, “Sure. Go head.“
They gave me the most beautiful gift at that moment which is that they went back to doing exactly what they had been doing before. They ignored me. Most of the kids returned their gaze back to the sidewalk or somewhere else except for two defiant girls who raised their heads defiantly and represented their strength and courage. I love that! The image is heartwarming in the way it clearly illustrates how young girls grow and mature earlier than the boys and how shy they guys tend to be until later in life. As I look at the skateboards I remember throwing mine away thinking it was pointless since we lived on a gravel road without sidewalks.
I made my photo, thanked them, and left. I went back again a year later and the fog had returned. I didn’t have the certainty of where things were and just managed to get around as I had before on blind intuition. I think the photography I was doing had caused me to access all the details that the mind stores in the subconscious and now that I had made my photograph they were no longer needed. For me this image is like recovering a lost family photo after a house fire.
I continue to go back to California but much less frequently. A couple of summers ago I rode my motorcycle down there. I don’t know when I will go back. I think the need to go was born out of an absence of childhood photos.
My father hated California and didn’t seem to have any photographs. Much of my childhood is missing. The old family movies and photos got boxed up and seem to vanish. Later on when we were going through a difficult financial time, my father pawned his camera gear so there are major gaps where there are no photographs and I have only only dimly lit memories.
Now that I have made this photograph, my emotional need to go back and refresh my memory has diminished just a little. With this one photograph I can return home anytime I feel like it.