Despite having a population of far more than 3 million and a cultural and economic diversity rivaled by very few places, Los Angeles is not quite viewed as a real city by much of the outside world. Ever since large-scale irrigation and the movie business put the city on the map in the first decades of the 20th century, Los Angeles has been romanticized -- and reviled -- for its iconic lifestyle: sun, surf and the casual debauchery of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It is a city that has always lived much more vividly in the imagination than on the ground, even to its natives, and the best-known pictures of it tend to reflect that eternal tension between aspiration and reality, dreams and dreck, shiny self-invention and tawdry self-destruction. That tension created the noir that Los Angeles is also known for, yet that element, too, quickly became as mythologized as the sun and surf, a comic-book approximation of Los Angeles' darker side that was immortalized in stylish movies (of course) like "Blade Runner" and "L.A. Confidential." Entertaining as those movies were, Los Angeles the city has pretty much gotten lost in so many translations. I gave up looking for a good one long ago.
Joe Schwartz's photographs, on view at the Skirball Cultural Center, restored some of my faith that Los Angeles can be clearly seen. Schwartz is a self-described folk photographer who pointedly calls his exhibit "L.A. Unstaged" -- that is, it looks at L.A. beyond the overly familiar, irony and Hollywood-ized images, and into the streets where people actually live. This retrospective spans 30 years, from the 1950s through the 70s, and through it Schwartz also gives a sense of local history that we almost never see. Interestingly, many of the 53 photos on display are set on the Westside -- Venice, Santa Monica -- but a wholly ordinary, blue-collar Westside well before it was established as a bastion of political elitism and beachside chic. That documentation alone is worth the price of admission (which, by the way, is nil -- the exhibition is displayed on the walls outside the Skirball café, before you even get to the admissions desk. Nice touch.).
As you might suspect, Schwartz is a photographer with a bent for social justice; he was once a member of a photography collective that included luminaries such as Dorothea Lange and Weegee. But revealing the social and economic injustices of Los Angeles is a more nuanced matter than revealing those of the Dust Bowl Midwest or New York, where they were stark and longstanding. Los Angeles is relatively new, and its lines of fortune blurrier, especially 40 years ago. Schwartz wisely acknowledges this. He doesn't try to create false divisions or over-sentimentalize the poor, ethnic and working class. He simply chooses his subjects and shoots them with care, allowing the larger context of Los Angles' myths and contradictions to fall where they may.
Sometimes context and reality align, and the results -- far from being noir -- are buoyant, if only for a moment in time. In "Acting Out," a shot from the 1960s, three young Latina girls in East Los Angeles strike a playful pose that can only be called movie star. "Synanon Rehabilitated Residents" is a generically titled shot, also from the 1960s, depicting a black man on the Santa Monica boardwalk cradling his infant child (Schwartz has several photos related to Synanon -- it is this exhibition's favorite motif of transformation).
Yet it's the specifics, including the L.A. context, that make for contrasts and elevate a competent photo into an eloquent commentary: a black man battling drug addiction sitting at the white-sand beach with a few carefree sunbathers and the endless Pacific in the background. This photo reads as less tragic than hopeful: The man is nattily dressed, he is sitting upright, and it is a brilliantly sunny day, not foggy as Santa Monica is inclined to be; the ocean is close to him, not eternally beyond his reach. "Angeles Child" echoes that optimism with a portrait of a young black girl on a Watts schoolyard in the '60s. The girl's smile is as wide and inviting as any child's -- or movie star's -- and we get something very different from, and oddly complementary to, the racial isolation and urban grit that became almost synonymous with Watts even before the riots of '65 put it on the map of L.A. imagination.
Schwartz is after inequality, but also humanity, and he captures both in most of the work here. He has the no-nonsense eye of a journalist and the inclinations of a poet, and in the end both things prove necessary to render L.A. fully, to show the glittering ounces of truth in the clichés and the pounds of truth everywhere else.
Schwartz also has a sense of humor, something no serious chronicler of this city should be without. "Only in L.A.: Stocking Factory" is an irresistible shot of a giant stocking atop a building, a little-seen example of the architectural kitsch that once existed all over town, not merely in the exclusive environs of the Brown Derby. Nor does Schwartz resist L.A. celebrity-ism, though he does it with a common touch: "Henry Miller and Friend" has the famous writer chatting with a young woman in a nondescript place in the 1970s; he looks tired and she looks half-bored, half-amused -- noncommittal in an L.A. kind of way.
"Perfume Model" from the 1950s depicts a woman of no celebrity at all, a department-store working stiff who nonetheless projects an aura of glamour and possibility that is uniquely and stubbornly L.A. Ultimately, Schwartz finds our glamour useful, even in the smallest moments where his subjects are doing nothing more than hunting for their glasses, clambering atop street signs or moving their belongings on a makeshift dolly. "Thirty Years of Folk Photography" is a testament to the transcendent powers of dreams and of spirit that still make Los Angeles a destination for so many, a place to come to rather than simply be from. We have not lived up to that promise, Schwartz cautions, but the promise is here.
"L.A. Unstaged: Three Decades of Folk Photography by Joe Schwartz," is at the Skirball through April 2: noon-5 p.m (Tuesdays-Saturdays); noon-9 p.m. (Thursdays); 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sundays); closed Monday. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.