If you don’t know yet, I am going to tell you what a randomaku is, but we will take a little detour that will take us all the way to Japan. A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, Tommaso Bertolotti was a college student in Pavia, Italy. He was getting his master in philosophy, and he picked Anthropology as one of his classes. The class stretched over two trimesters: the first was a general overview of the discipline, while the second was on a specific topic. The professor had carried out his fieldwork in Japan and delivered passionate and inspiring lectures that still resonate with me today as a photographer in Los Angeles.

The classes often revolved about Japanese esthetics, even if that very expression is an understatement. One of the notions I found most fascinating was the distinction between meisho (名所) and randomaku (ランドマーク). Both pertain to the language of sightseeing, and they convey the visual idea of a “famous place”, panorama, viewpoint, vista. But their difference is paramount: a meisho is natural place of interest, while a randomaku is a man-made view (usually an architectural feat). Meisho is an ancient notion, that became established with wood printing during the Edo period (1603-1868) and is indeed written in Kanji (ideograms). Randomaku is written in Katakana, the phonetic Japanese language used to transliterate words borrowed from foreign languages, mostly English. If you are a little bit acquainted with Japanese phonetics, you will have recognized that randomaku is indeed a variation of landmark. To simplify that distinction, you can think of this: Mount Fuji is a meisho, while the Tokyo Tower is a randomaku.

This distinction came to my mind as I reviewed the photographs I took last week from Griffith Park at dawn. Sights of the park, of the observatory, of the Hollywood sign and all of Los Angeles before your eyes offer a number of precious and delicate vistas, but they are virtually all anthropogenic.

Los Angeles is clearly an empire of randomaku. We made a cult of our landmarks. But let me go a bit further, and – full disclosure – the following reflections are a collaboration between Tom Bertolotti the photographer and Dr. Tom the philosophy professor. The concept of meisho dominated – and still influences – Japanese architecture and urban development. Buildings were designed so their occupants could enjoy a particular meisho, and to avoid obstructing or hindering the view to that very natural panorama. If the Niagara Falls were in Japan, you can bet there would be no towering hotels at the top of the waterfall. In L.A., the difference between meisho and randomaku was almost reversed, to the point that natural features became mere points of observation of our human feats. You climb on the top of Griffith Park and Runyon Canyon to see Downtown and the Hollywood sign. Kenneth Hahn is famous for the view of DTLA framed by the San Gabriel mountains. Los Liones is famous for the view on the buildings and the pier of Santa Monica. And we manicured nature to give us exquisite views of the ways we transformed it.

Most L.A. photography is, after all, a deep dive into the randomaku culture. Literally, as I was writing this piece, I realized that my work for India Mandelkern’s Electric Moons was indeed a thorough exploration of streetlamp-related randomaku through Los Angeles. Quite interesting, isn’t it?

DISCLAIMER: This blogpost builds on very ancient college memories, dating back to more than fifteen years ago. I love Japanese culture and I did put my college education in practice when I travelled to a conference in Japan in the summer of 2012, but I am not an expert and I am aware that philosophers have a habit of crunching notions and bending them to their purposes, so I apologize in advance if I said something very stupid or very wrong ^_^