LA River Bridges

My family lived in Los Angeles since the early 1900’s and my grandfather on my mother’s side had a construction company that built many public works projects.  My uncles continued in construction for many years and I was on my first construction site at the age of six.  During high school, I spent a summer living with my uncle and working as a carpenter’s apprentice.  I liked being on the construction sites, especially the excitement of a concrete pour.  All the men rushing around, working together, a race against time, and at the end of the day a completed pour.  Years later, when I saw the concrete bridges over the Los Angeles River from downtown to East LA, I recognized sophisticated design and great skill.

The area is surrounded by industrial uses and rail yards and the concrete lined Los Angeles River.  Such a surreal a setting that it was used for Terminator movies.  I originally took 35mm photos to use as guides for a series of hard edge paintings and quickly found that the safest time to shoot in the area was very early in the morning before people wandered in.  I got there one morning before dawn and the light was eerie and magical.  A river flowing through hard concrete and steel surroundings, the only signs of nature being a weed that has grown through a crack or birds stopping for a drink of the questionable water.  The concrete bottom of the river is scoured by years of occasional floods and reminded me of terrazzo floors with polished aggregate.  I spent forty nights in the LA River photographing the bridges with my large format camera.  It was so dark the meter reading was zero.  The only way I could determine the correct exposure was by trial and error.  It turned out forty minute exposures worked best.  When photographing for that length of time each image is no longer a moment in time, it is a narrative story about what happened during those forty minutes.

One cold night as I was climbing into the river with my camera backpack and a tripod strapped across my chest, I was challenged my two men who had been sitting on the concrete river floor drinking under the Fourth Street bridge.  I really wanted the shot as I had been working for several nights to determine the right exposure, so I negotiated with them to give them the food I was bringing for the man who lived up under the bridge, and they let me take my forty-minute photo undisturbed while they settled back down.  With a long exposure in the pre-dawn hours of the day, I captured not only the people in the river, but the lights of the cars and buses passing by and the trains on either side of the river.  The area I photographed is adjacent to the original settlement of Los Angeles by the missionaries and has a long history.  The river was lined in concrete in the 1930’s because of its destructive and fickle nature during severe floods.  The result is unnatural and unreal, yet beautiful in its own gritty way.  The only residents along the river were the homeless and the gangbangers who preyed on them.

40 Nights in the LA River

I started photographing the bridges as studies for paintings.  I had been trained as a civil engineer at Berkeley and spent summers during college on construction sites forming and pouring concrete.  The concrete bridges east of downtown Los Angeles represent the height of civil engineering art.  The Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Street bridges were all designed and built by the city building department in the 1920’s.  Instead of repeating the design for the bridges, each one is unique.  At the time the bridges were built, downtown Los Angeles was going through its heyday with movie houses on Broadway and beautiful art deco buildings.  The intricately designed bridges carried on the craftsmanship that can be seen in buildings of that period.

The concrete bridges (concrete and steel in the case of Sixth Street) replaced earlier bridges that were washed out by periodic flooding.  The Los Angeles was a wild river.  It traversed a dry sandy coastal plain and would often sink underground only to appear in new locations.  To appreciate how much it wandered, consider that at one time Ballona Creek exiting near Marina del Rey on the west was the connection to the sea.  Now the river meets the sea in Long Beach to the south.

When the bridges were built, the river was not lined with concrete as it is today.  There had been different strategies to control the destructive, wandering river.  One had been to grant right of ways along the banks to the railroads in the hope that the railroad companies would shore the banks to protect their tracks.  But that was not enough.

From 1935 to 1955, the Army Corps of Engineers poured cubic yards of concrete with tons of reinforcing steel into the river – a straight jacket from Griffith Park to the sea.  Today the grey concrete surfaces provide canvases for taggers and graffiti artists.

The bridges are in a gritty industrial area of older warehouses, public housing, and rail yards.  A large homeless population takes advantage of the services in the area.  I feel safest if I go in to photograph early in the morning when there is less activity.

One morning I got there extra early – at dawn – and there was an entirely different feel.  The darkness covered up much of the grime, yet it added an edge.  My senses were heightened.  I was very aware of my surroundings.  I started going back earlier and earlier, up to 4 am.  I like photographing during the transition from night to dawn as it creates variations in lighting as the scene emerges from darkness.

To find the right combination of exposure and development, I take notes.  I use a notebook with pages that are blank on top for sketching with lines below for notes.  Because the light changes from dark to dawn, I keep track of the time each exposure is made.  By making diagrams of the scene, I visualize the tonal range of the final print and make notations based on the Zone System of Ansel Adams and Minor White.  I found that the best results at night in the river are from 40-minute exposures with development reduced two stops.

The Fourth Street Bridge is a graceful single arch.  There was a man living up in the underside of the bridge.  I discovered this one night when he came down, got on a bicycle, and quickly rode away while I was making an exposure.  After that, I felt I was invading the space of the residents of the river, so I would bring little offerings of water and food to leave behind.

This photograph was taken early in the Spring when it was still cold.  To be comfortable, I would wear my black hiking pants, hiking boots, a black fleece pull over, and a black knit cap.  My backpack of camera gear was balanced by strapping my tripod across my chest.  And I wore black fingerless gloves to protect my hands.

That night as I stepped through the chain link fence at the top of the concrete slope to the concrete river floor below, I saw two men drinking under the bridge.  One of them came roaring at me with an aluminum baseball bat.  As he approached the bottom of the slope, looking up he saw me with three aluminum bats across my chest (my tripod) and hesitated.  We negotiated.  I really wanted to shoot the bridge again since I had determined the correct exposure, and that night I left my food and water for Ron and Mike.  They settled down during the 40-minute exposure and can be seen as the lumpy blur on the floor of the river.

The Sixth Street Bridge is one of the most photographed icons of Los Angeles with its riveted steel arches.  To get the best image of the bridge, I wanted to link it with another defining element of the river and Los Angeles – the railroads.

Los Angeles was a sleepy coastal town bypassed by travelers who headed to the Sierra gold fields through San Francisco Bay in the 1850’s.  It wasn’t until the arrival of the railroads to Los Angeles in the 1880’s that the town became a source of fruits and vegetables to export north and east.  The railroads opened up Los Angeles to waves of migration from the mid-West.

To include the trains in photos, I had to take notes so I could begin to predict when they would arrive. The passenger trains on the west bank have predictable schedules, but the freight trains on the east bank do not.  The trains can be seen as lines of white along the upper banks of the river.

One night as I waited for a 40-minute exposure and was drawing a sketch of the scene before me, I looked up to see that I was not alone.  Down in the floor of the river was a car driving along with its headlights on.  The car stopped, and four men got out.  With flashlights, they went and searched around the base of a transmission line tower.

It wasn’t the kind of situation where I wanted to stand up and shout, “Hey, you guys.  Whatcha doing over there?”  Instead, I sat very still, waited for my exposure to be over, and quickly left the area.

The Seventh Street Bridge is where Stinky lives.  I call him that because the first time I saw him, I smelled him first.  He was very grimy, with a vacant stare and said nothing.  After that I avoided the area where he lived.

The surface of the concrete river has been polished smooth by the flow of water – grey terrazzo.  The gurgle of water and occasional cry of a shore bird were peaceful accents to an eerily quiet place.

The structure of the Seventh Street Bridge is unusual because of the double deck.  The space between the roadway and lower deck is only accessed through a trap door at one end of the bridge.  Although there was a rope hanging down through the door, I didn’t climb in.

While these bridges exist today mired in grime and graffiti, encased in the concrete of the river with industrial power lines overhead, they are still beautiful.

The sight of a twenty-mile long concrete river is unreal, like something out of a Terminator movie decorated with fantastic concrete bridges built in the early 20th Century.  The river corridor was further hemmed in by twelve crisscrossing freeways. Fenced off against would-be swimmers, its concrete banks tattooed with graffiti, referred to by local officials as a mere “flood-control channel,” the river is nearly dry much of the year, and what water trickles through in high summer has been called “urban slobber”: storm-drain runoff carrying cigarette butts, pesticides, dog waste, and what not from the gutter.  The river banks and shade under bridge overpasses have become homes for graffiti artists and the homeless.  And yet, at night it can be eerily peaceful with the gurgling water and cries of shore birds.