When I think about Los Angeles, I often find myself thinking about a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright, whose staggering architectural masterpieces are scattered throughout the city: “Tip the world over on its side, and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” A surreal metropolis that entirely should not exist, perched precariously atop a parched desert and crisscrossed with highways like grey arteries, Los Angeles is a catch-all of cultures and people, a master of reinvention always two steps ahead of its own reputation, with a haunting history as tragic and magnetic as the doe-eyed starlets who flock to it in droves.
It’s everything all at once: a city that revels in its own eclectic impossibility, full of people chasing wild dreams or outrunning patchy pasts beneath a perpetual layer of smog-streaked sunshine. Anything can happen here, the swaying, singsongy palm trees seem to say. You can be whoever you want to be. The city’s endless sun-bleached sprawl stretches out in front of you as far as the eye can see, glittering with hidden gems and strange pockets of secret history. There is no such thing as too weird for Los Angeles.
Most Angelenos view their fair city from their car window. We can all relate to the feeling of barreling through an unfamiliar neighborhood (re-routed due to traffic, no doubt) and catching a glimpse of a building that feels so emblematic of Los Angeles’ multi-faceted identity that you almost want to pull over and take a picture – and that’s where photographer Ashley Noelle comes in. She has been tenderly capturing the unique and iconic storefronts, restaurants, homes, and buildings of the city of angels for years now, and her open-ended Los Angeles Series is a love letter to LA’s defiantly eclectic architecture and eternal shape-shifting. Bursting at the seams with hushed history, her quiet photos land with an audible impact, a homage to the bittersweet passage of time and an apt reminder to stop moving and look around every once and awhile, because Los Angeles just might surprise you. We chatted with the photographer about her love affair with her city, how she finds her subjects, and what she makes of LA’s rapidly gentrifying landscape.
Live FAST: Tell us a little bit about your relationship with LA. What inspired you to start documenting the city?
Ashley Noelle: I had my childhood on the east coast, but I grew up in Los Angeles. I moved here in 1994. The first time I came here I drove in from Arizona and did not get out of the car until we were parked on Fairfax across the street from Canter’s Deli. I remember that moment so well because as soon as I set my foot on the sidewalk, I paused. I felt something. It was weird at the time, but amazing when I look back. Los Angeles and I are connected. I see her.
In 2005, I met two artists that had a massive impact on me: photographer Julius Shulman and builder Mohamed Hadid. Julius taught me about the view camera, master architects, and how to not take shit. He planted in me the first seeds of seeing and respecting the architecture of Los Angeles. At the time, I would never have even considered that I could do work that Julius would be impressed with, but with this series…I know he is proud of me. Mohamed Hadid is someone that believed in me before I did. He pushed me and gave me so many opportunities. I would have days were I would see Julius in the morning and in the afternoon I was literally on a construction site with a master visionary actually building something. Mohamed’s style of building is grand, but also filled with subtle details. Mohamed builds spaces for people to experience even without knowing they are looking where he wants, or feeling a space a certain way. Watching him and seeing space come to life, as well as understanding the process of construction and its impact on lives, neighborhoods, and cities, all had me looking at Los Angeles differently.
In 2014, I really wanted to photograph without a massive crew. I wanted to work with my view camera alone. When I thought about what I truly loved, it was Los Angeles, so in my free time I just went out, drove around, and did whatever. Then in 2016, something clicked. I found my composition and became obsessed. I never thought specifically about making a series, but when I saw I could photographically save buildings before they were lost to the march of ‘progress,’ I was not going to stop. I’m at about 360 images now and there is so much more work to do.
LF: What about these spaces speak to you, either aesthetically or emotionally? How do you find your subjects?
AN: I find locations by driving everywhere. My eyes never stop looking at the city. I pick locations based on how I feel when I look at them. Sometimes I appreciate the building itself because it just looks cool. Sometimes I appreciate the history of a place, like a corner market that has been there for decades – you can almost see the generations of people walking through the doors. Or I’ll know something is coming down soon and I’ll photograph it almost out of respect. Sometimes I drive by a place ten times and I don’t feel it, and then one day it just happens.
LF: Your photos feel organic and spontaneous, almost like you just spotted them from your car window. When shooting for the series, do you have a creative process or philosophy?
AN: I think my creative process or philosophy is how I live generally: feel it.
LF: What do you like most about LA?
AN: Absolutely everything. Even traffic? Yes, it slows us down, but LOOK AROUND!
LF: I was struck by the bittersweet sense of time passing your photos encapsulate. What do you think it is about this sense of history that is so compelling: is it nostalgia? Our collective desire to connect to a sense of place? A love of eclectic design?
AN: Great question, and I think you really hit on all of it. The photographs are capturing the history of Los Angeles. The series is compelling because we don’t get to see these building so directly like this. There is a special nostalgia with Los Angeles because people all over the world can have a visual connection with it even though they have never been here. A favorite movie, video, or social media post can make a place important to millions of people. Los Angeles has taken on her role as a backdrop for our lives for decades, she just doesn’t always get the credit she should. With this series, I’m doing my part to change that.
LF: Your work feels like a homage to LA’s endless sense of self-reinvention. From your vantage point, how have you seen LA change? How do you see the series evolving as LA continues to rapidly shape shift?
AN: As a photographer that started working with film and printing in darkrooms for some of the biggest photographers in the world, and then had to make the switch to digital with all that going away, I know firsthand that positives and negatives never matter when ‘progress’ is marching forward. In every aspect of our lives, all over the world, we are changing – fast. Those brave enough to slow down should. And take photographs! I will always photograph Los Angeles. Julius did until he was 98!
LF: What advice would you give your younger self?
AN: You do alright, kid. Relax.