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I brake for streetlights

Los Angeles has more than four hundred styles of streetlights spread around its metropolitan area and India Manderlkern wrote a beautiful book about them. It’s called Electric Moons: A Social History of Street Lighting in Los Angeles. Or, the way I call it, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Streetlights in Los Angeles * But Were Afraid to Ask. A series of fortunate events happened and I ended up collaborating with India on that book: my photography is everywhere, from the front cover to the back, and on most pages in-between.

This is a sort of visual diary of some of the things I saw and loved while working on this book.

How the streetlamp addiction began

Precisely like this:

I drove to the Observatory in Griffith Park before dawn, in May 2022, I was hoping to shoot again the vistas of DTLA, first glowing in the dark and then shimmering in the rising sun, as I did a few months earlier, but with a better camera. Tough luck: there were no liquid coyotes and the fog showed no sign of lifting. But my trip had not been in vain. The lamps looked beautiful in the mist, and that little glowing light at the intersection between Canyon and Observatory Road made me think of a solitary mark calling aspiring talents to the place where they could make a deal with the Devil and see their Hollywood dreams come true.

Those images made it quick to Instagram and the appropriate hashtags brought them to the attention of a strange account, obsessed with the streetlights of Los Angeles: streetlampilluminati. The Illuminati, turns out, were actually one illuminata, India Mandelkern, and she was working on a book on the streetlights of Los Angeles. Dr. Mandelkern was, like me, a veteran academic. It’s like a radar, I swear. We find each other. So after a brief conversation we thought my photos could be suitable for cover of her forthcoming monograph. A few days later she had a meeting with her publisher and an exciting opportunity came to be: aside for the archival images already being used, I could illustrate the whole book with my photography! The rest, as they say, is history.

Streetlights were everywhere (in my work)

The first step in illustrating the book was to look for previous unpublished photographs that would be fitting for the scope. I quickly realized something that I had never really considered before: streetlights are everywhere. Virtually every urban photograph features streetlights.

What makes the streetlamp such an interesting object of photography is that, to paraphrase the Italian adage, streetlights are like garlic: they must be present, but they must not be noticed. When do you notice streetlights? Either when they blind you (ok, it’s rare), or when they are not working: a dark street makes you realize how much our aesthetic of what the night is supposed to look like depends on streetlights doing their job.

A particular art installation, which India amply discusses in the book, draws your attention on the lights themselves – and their variety in Los Angeles. It is Chris Burden’s Urban Light, commonly referred to as the “LACMA lights” or (mistakenly) “Urban Lights.” I like to think that the singular light does not refer to the plethora of designs featured in the installation, but as those lamps, together, generate the kind of light that we see – and that lets us see – in the cities at night.

I like to notice how that picture of Urban Light, in spite of being as recent as November, 2019, is already a “vintage” photograph, impossible to achieve today. Incidentally, such an unobstructed viewpoint from the opposite side of Wilshire Boulevard would be impossible to achieve now because of all the roadwork for the new subway line. What is more interesting is that the main building of the LACMA in the background was demolished in late 2020 and the new one is still under construction.

Streetlight safaris are a thing

I knew that photo-walks were a thing, but I had no idea that streetlight safaris existed and were so exciting and fun. And yet, once we went through my archive and picked all the previous photographs that could serve in the book, I embarked in plenty of streetlight safaris all over Los Angeles. Many were with India, some were solo, and some were with my wife and other friends. That’s how you find goodies. Old lights. Unique lights. Odd lights. Wonderful lights and horrible lights that are noteworthy because they are so… strange!

The book is concluded by a rich field guide representing forty of the most iconic street lamps across the L.A. area. This means that you can also go on your own streetlight safari! Entertain your guests and impress your friends with fun facts and memorable details about the best street lamps of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, from San Pedro to the Valley, from Pasadena to the West Side. Another reason to sing “I love L.A.!”

Just beware: streetlights can be addictive and once you get into them you will never walk or drive across L.A. the same way as before. Rubbernecking for accidents or people being pulled over will be a thing of the past. You will slam on the brakes for a rusty old lamp you drove by a hundred times and never noticed: now you will appreciate it as a vestige of the golden era of Los Angeles, where the least urban improvement was a careful study in functionality and aesthetic. Also – as India herself remarked – once your eyes start locking on streetlights you will pay more attention to the banners that hang on many of them, and be ever more up to date on the current exhibitions, shows, and other cultural events! In other words, it’s literally a gift that keeps on giving!

The galaxy of Los Angeles streetlights is constellated with incredible people

Once you get into streetlights, you start meeting wonderful human beings who belong to this world.

Suzanne Zada is by far one of the most striking characters I met: the image below depicts her at her home (which also doubles as her pride and joy, Gallery Z). From left to right, Suzanne Zada, her dog Ziggy, a portrait of Suzanne painted many years ago, the author of Electric Moons India Mandelkern, and her furry sidekick Sydney.

Suzanne Zada’s life should be the object of a biography, or even a movie starring Helen Mirren. Suzanne was born in Hungary and is a Holocaust survivor. A young girl at Auschwitz, in the midst of unspeakable horror and death, she found her calling to art. Among the prisoners in her barrack was an art teacher: at night, she would comfort the spirits of the other women by recalling by heart the beauty of artworks such as the Sistine Chapel. Liberated from the concentration camp, Suzanne returned to Budapest. When the Hungarian revolution broke out, Suzanne and some of her family members escaped from Hungary to the USA, fearing for their lives and further hardships under the Soviet regime. In Los Angeles, Suzanne heeded her call to art and beauty and became an established art dealer and collector: indeed, she became the prime agent of Edward Biberman. Biberman, also amply discussed in Electric Moons, was an American painter who had moved from the East Coast to California and whose urban paintings included meaningful and meticulous representations of the Los Angeles streetlights.

Another streetlamp crusader of the Los Angeles area is Glen Norman.

Glen is probably the most authoritative living repository of historical knowledge on streetlights in the whole Los Angeles area, and his documentary collection of streetlamp photographs in the past fifty years is second to none. If you need to know any detail or historical fact about any streetlight in Los Angeles, he is the man you want to reach out to. On top of his encyclopedic expertise, Glen is also an extremely personable, congenial, and soft-spoken person: it is a delight to listen to him speak about the various designs and their deployment throughout the history and geography of Los Angeles. I met him and India during one of his frequent visits at the Bureau of Street Lighting‘s field office division. Unsurprisingly, L.A. has a whole bureau solely dedicated to streetlights. At the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Virgil Avenue, the Bureau’s maintenance office has a boneyard of new and old streetlight parts: most of the pieces stored there are not decommissioned, but are ready to replace damaged parts of vestigial streetlights across Los Angeles. The only way to describe Glen’s sheer glee as he moves around the sunny yard of the bureau is the proverbial child in a candy store – which clearly pleased superintendent James Masud, also portrayed in the images below.

Streetlights are a gateway to the beauty of Los Angeles

Ernest Hemingway famously said that “the streetlights of Los Angeles were a moveable feast.” Or maybe he said it about something else, but who cares. For a photographer, each streetlamp is indeed a moveable feast. Looking for the most iconic streetlights led me to finding the most unique views of this city. They acted like anchors, securing my vantage point to incredible corners and vistas. I was compiling photos for the field guide, hoping to lead other people to these lights, but they were the ones leading me. Streetlights became my guides, my friends, my insiders. Many of the photos I captured while looking for streetlights soon became my all-time favorite images of Los Angeles. And here lies my immense gratitude to India for welcoming this Italian photographer into her glorious project, for letting me become a sort of a visual pioneer, and old-world storyteller in the American West, so that I, too, could leave my mark on Los Angeles.

Electric Moons: The Book

The book is published by Hat & Beard Press and is currently available on the publisher website, on Amazon, and in selected bookstores throughout Los Angeles. Ordering it directly from Hat & Beard is an excellent way of showing your support for the arts, for culture, and for the amazing world of American publishing.

Last, but not least, you will join the exclusive ranks of the Streetlamp Illuminati.

3 thoughts on “I brake for streetlights

  1. Thanks for the mention, Tom! Love the photos you’ve shot for India’s book. I like that candid you caught of me at the LABSL yard–it looks like I’m describing the one that got away.

    As far as the person who is the “living repository” of L.A. street lighting knowledge–that honor definitely belongs to Jeff Ziliotto, formerly of the LABSL. HE is Mr. L.A. Streetlight.

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