Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story
Blue Sky Gallery 1231 NW Hoyt, 225-0210
Basil Hallward Gallery 1002 W Burnside, 228-4651 Through Sept 1
In 1948, 20-year-old Don Normark trekked to the top of an LA hillside to get a better view of the skyline. In addition to urban grandeur, he discovered a small neighborhood of shacks, connected by a web of dirt trails. It was one of three villages in Chavez Ravine, a community mostly occupied by poverty-stricken Mexicans, who shared their self-made community with a number of old white men and one black family. Intrigued by his discovery, Normark spent the next year living, documenting, and befriending the families.
However, in 1950, the villages were torn down in the name of expansion, and the residents were forced from their homes by the LA City Council. Ironically, the land remained unused until 1967, when it was sold and became the site of Dodger Stadium.
This month, both the Basil Hallward Gallery and Blue Sky Gallery present images from Normark's Chavez Ravine series. The black and white, high-contrast photographs depict the daily life of the villages with an intimacy that can only be achieved by Normark's involvement with the community. His subjects are at ease, often laughing, or conversing over a ramshackle fence with a neighbor. The show describes the struggle of poverty superimposed with the love of family and companionship, while also punctuating the events of many slow days.
The postman visits, adorned with a badge and a bow tie. The school-kids are blurred forms next to a school that would later be filled with earth and demolished. A man with a reputation as a thief is hunched, sweating, over a car wheel, grappling with a torn, useless tire. Two young black men, mouths gaping and eyes wild, are in mid-song, practicing for choir. (See Above)
A weathered "curandera" (witch) stares into unseen space. A young girl with curly hair hanging over her eyes washes a plate over a rusted basin. There are many pictures of young children playing rambunctiously with torn jeans and hidden smiles. One particularly strong photograph is of a small boy staring out from under his brow of disheveled hair, his suspenders tightly pressing into his crisp long-sleeve shirt. He appears frustrated and stares forlorn at the viewer. It has the inscription, "Everyone liked this boy, but no one knew his name." Another titled "Vasquez Palace" displays a young girl with long dark hair hung over her shoulders. She has the stern expression of a full-grown woman while she weeps on the steps of her family's home--a converted garage.
Normark's sensitivity and depth of understanding as a 20-year-old is remarkable. The images are candid, lucid, and aptly reveal the personalities of his subjects. Nostalgia remains in the background: old soda pop ads, worn wooden walls, and the make-do furniture of the families living in inadequate shelters. Perhaps the most significant aspect of his documentation is the portrayal of the happiness and caring that the community possessed while in the midst of poverty.
By the end of the show, one remembers the names and histories of a people who might otherwise be forgotten. Normark has given us portraits of men in their Sunday best with wide, many-toothed smiles, and children reading and playing games with innocence and active fantasy, juxtaposed with a man returning from work along a darkened path, crumpled fedora in hand, as his home becomes a darkened, shapeless mass on the horizon.