Whether it is Palm trees, California houses, fast-food or Lindsay Lohan, the imagery of American pop culture is a growing source of inspiration for contemporary artists. Each week, Artsper will be presenting you an artist for our “I Love LA saga”. The artists selected are Los Angeles based or themed.
Let’s travel back to a time, not so long ago, where LA was the home of rock’ n ’roll. Music bands took over the city of angels during the 1960’s, tuning with it some urban landscape elements: billboards. One photographer captured this alteration and made a name of himself with it: Robert Landau and his rock ‘n’ roll billboard photographs from the late 60’s and 70’s. Starting off, taking pictures of the sunset strip while growing up, Robert is a true LA native and has seen the cityscape evolve. These billboards images are a tribute to what Los Angeles was and a prophecy to what it would become now, a city of imagery and iconic advertisement.
Gordon Lightfoot Billboard, Sunset Strip, 1978
Claire: You started taking pictures of Los Angeles as a teenager living near sunset strip and have continued to do so, how does this city inspire you?
Robert Landau: Los Angeles is a city that inspires me by refusing to be definable in simple ways. I have spent the better part of my life trying to capture through photography some essential aspects of the city’s nature. I began in the late 1960s photographing the gigantic and surreal hand-painted rock and roll billboards on the Sunset Strip and have continued to wander the streets of L.A. with my camera to this day. My eye is particularly drawn to the one-of-a -kind, fleeting elements of the urban landscape that define (for me) the city and its ephemeral character. Los Angeles is by no stretch of the imagination a beautiful city in the manner of say Paris, or even New York, but it has its unique charms if one is willing to get out of the car and search around.
Bingo, Gardena, 1984
C: You are known for photographing billboards of Los Angeles, urban elements that are very representative of this city. How did you come up with the idea?
R: When I was 16 years old and just beginning to get interested in photography I went to live with my father in his apartment a block above the Sunset Strip. I would wander down to the street early in the morning and would see the work crews taking down one billboard and installing a new one. This was the tail end of the 1960s and so most of the billboards depicted classic rock and roll bands. There would be these ant sized men hoisting up gigantic renderings of John Lennon and the Beatles. I could see them touching up the faces with paint so I knew they were hand-painted. Most people passing by in their cars assumed they were giant photographic prints because they were so well painted. I would also see them being dismantled a few weeks later so I was aware that they had a short life span and knew that I better photograph the ones I liked before they were gone. At first I was just interested in documenting them so I could show my friends who lived in other parts of the city. Over time I became more aware of their relationship to their immediate surroundings and began seeing them in the context of the overall urban landscape. This understanding and approach has informed my way of viewing Los Angeles over the years. I’d also like to mention that my father, Felix Landau was a well known art dealer. He showed the work of important California and European artists in his gallery on La Cienega Blvd. throughout the 1950s and 60s. He spent the later years of his life living just outside of Paris in Garches. My father was born in Austria and had a European sensibility. In the mid 1960’s when Pop Art hit the scene he was not a big fan. For me, a kid born and raised in Los Angeles, the giant hand-painted billboards that lined the Strip were an extension of living pop art. They were expressing the cultural aspirations of the emerging baby boom generation and transforming the Sunset Strip into a drive- thru gallery.
Warren Beatty / Marlboro Billboards, Sunset Strip, 1979
C: I find it interesting you are taking a photo of a photo in a way. Is that something you have thought about?
R: Yes that often occurs to me, but in looking back at some great historical photographs there is much precedent. One of my all time favorite photos was taken in 1937 by Margaret Bourke White and it shows African American flood victims lining up for relief beneath a giant glossy billboard image depicting a well do white family while extolling the virtues of the “American way of life”. Advertising imagery presents one slanted and idealized view of the world that often collides with the more gritty reality of daily life. Other photographers whose work has influenced me are Andre Kertesz and Brassai, both of whom who have at times incorporated billboards and signage into their photos to great effect. This type of work is both documentary and personal, and my goal is find a way to incorporate existing imagery in the Los Angeles urban landscape and still make my own personal visual statement. I might also add that the past examples I mentioned were all glorious black and white images, while Los Angels demands to be seen in color, as the use of color is an integral component of this landscape. Another aspect of Los Angeles that differs from older eastern and European cities is that it is a city that developed around the predominance of the single automobile as transportation. The phrase “car culture” gets thrown around a lot, but for the most part Angelinos experience their city visually through the windshield of their car as opposed to being pedestrians on foot. For that reason, the outward appearance of everything from buildings and storefronts to billboards and other signs has been affected in a way to communicate with people passing by at 25 to 30 miles per hour. People used to say that L.A. was superficial and completely absorbed with outer appearances, but I like to think of it as having raised the façade to an art form out of necessity. There is art in the artifice.
C: The billboard images you took were of rock’n’roll icons. Today it is more advertisement and branding or television. Do you regret the old billboards?
R: It’s true that if you visit the Strip today you will see mainly fashion, television or alcohol products. To generalize a great deal, most advertising is by its nature false in the sense that it is presenting some trumped up vision of the world that has been cleverly conceived and designed with the sole intent of influencing and persuading you to spend money. On the other hand the Rock and Roll Billboards of that time were a bit of an aberration. That generation, of which I am a member, was deeply suspicious of anything overtly commercial. The musicians too, from the Beatles on down were redefining the entire culture through their art and would never consider allowing the music to be used in commercials. But the billboards which looked a lot like the posters and record albums we were already buying seemed a hip way to let people know that a new record had been released.This was in the pre-digital, pre-internet, pre MTV days of the 60s and 70s. so there were not a lot of avenues for recording artists to communicate directly with their fans. The amount of energy and creativity that went into the Rock and Roll billboards on the Strip in those days did not necessarily make sense from a purely financial viewpoint. However both the record companies and the artists were making a lot of money so the billboards which mainly served to make the artists happy were the beneficiary of this largess and therefore had a great deal of latitude in terms of visual content. Once the trend started each new billboard tried to outdo the previous ones. And so for reasons of both pride and passion, highly non-commercial imagery appeared on billboards on the Sunset Strip in this most unique period.
The Starlet Apartments, Burbank, 2012
C: You have photographed the urban landscape of Los Angeles, do you think Los Angeles has a special architectural and visual quality?
R: I believe it does, I believe there is a specific “LA-ness” but it’s damn hard to define. I believe that quality comes through best, not in any one or two particular examples, but rather in the overall amalgam of visual elements that we experience over time and then make a joint construct of in our minds. This quality wavers from the good and the bad to the downright ugly and depending on one’s sensibility can range on any given day from the ridiculous to the sublime.
C: One could say Los Angeles is your canvas, has the canvas changed over the years?
R: Over the course of my lifetime I’ve seen the encroachment of corporate mentality on culture in general and that is having an effect on the Los Angeles landscape as it is cities everywhere. I have more respect and love for the single local owner of a shop or restaurant or corner market who decides what his or her place will look and be like, as opposed to some unseen entity creating the identical experience in hundreds of different markets around the world. Variety of looks and styles is what gives a city its flavor, and that is particularly true of Los Angeles. Another aspect of this question is that Los Angeles is still a relatively young city just over 200 years old and thankfully has retained some pieces from the past. However, L.A., due to the influence of Hollywood, is a city primarily focused on the present minute and latest trend and as such has not always been completely respectful of that past. Some great buildings and in fact entire historic sections of town have fallen to the bulldozer in the name of “progress”. But I’m starting to sense that this attitude is changing and there is a collective desire to retain what was good from the past alongside what is the newest thing to capture everyone’s attention. A good recent example of this is that Starbucks bought the location of a defunct classic gas station on Highland Ave., and rather than tear it down and erect another box coffee shop, repurposed the existing architecture.
Shop Easy, Brentwood, 1982
C: Is there any French personality or celebrity you like? Are interested in? Would like to meet?
R: Yes, I’d like to re-meet Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk. I say re-meet because I knew him slightly when he was a child and his father and my father were friends in France back in the 1990s. After my book, Rock N Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip came out a year or so ago, Daft Punk was one of the few, perhaps only contemporary bands to erect a billboard on the Sunset Strip. I read in a magazine that they were inspired by my book to create that board and I’d like to to thank him for that.
C: Who would you like to shoot a portrait of if you could chose anyone?
R: Living or dead? Man Ray was my first art hero, and I’d like to have known him- so I’ll say Man Ray.
C: Any projects at the moment, what are you working on?
R: I’m compiling a new book of my work on Los Angels from the late 1960s to present day. I still love shooting the city, particularly on Sundays when the traffic is lighter and parking is easier so I’ll keep doing that and be adding some new images to the book. What’s really interesting to me is looking at one particular subject over time and finding fresh ways to represent it.
These billboard images drive from his book “Rock N Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” Angel City Press publisher and is distributed in the UK and Europe by Turnaround.
To see more of his work click here !
Dog Hospital, Hollywood, 1978
Tiki Figure, Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, 1981
Mural, Venice Beach Boardwalk, 1977
Bendix, Downtown Los Angeles, 2006