“After/Image,” veteran journalist Lynell George’s heartfelt collection of photographs and essays about Los Angeles, isn’t exactly a valentine to her hometown. It’s better, because it’s honest.
“There is a distinct, episodic quality to L.A. In smaller or differently arranged cities, pieces of the past are more visible, often integrated into your present — readily accessible as you plan your future. In Los Angeles, returning to a location out of your past, trying to re-experience a feeling that you had, can leave you dislodged and disoriented, depleted. No coverless and thumbed-to-ruin Thomas Brothers Street Guide or state-of-the-art GPS can take you back to where you used to be. In a blink that place you knew is not just gone; you sometimes wonder if it was even there.”
The seed of the book was planted during a dinner party conversation when George, long a reliably passionate defender of the diverse city where she grew up, uncharacteristically did not leap to its defense as a fellow guest derided LA as “ugly.” Why? Writing about this fascinating metropolis for the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET and other outlets over the past few decades had helped her get to “the city’s core” and discover her writer’s voice.
“The beauty of LA is seated in change, adaptability,” she notes early in “After/Image.” It is “complicated” and “messy,” but that is part of its wonder. Now, she questioned herself: Had the ever-intensifying traffic, perpetual destruction of historical architecture and gentrification of neighborhoods finally nudged her to join the exodus of friends who had decided it was time to move on?
It’s a question that George, a 10-year Pasadena resident who has recently spent time reconnecting with family heritage in New Orleans, hasn’t fully answered. “After/Image” is less a culmination of her writing and thinking about Los Angeles than maybe just “the destination I’m at right now,” she says during an insightful conversation. “I thought at the end of the process of writing this book that I would have a clearer idea of how I felt about the city, and whether I wanted to stay or go. I guess what it did do is make me realize just how ambivalent I am.”
“Neighborhoods aren’t museums,” but witnessing so many different iterations of one place “makes it hard to form memories” and that “teaches you not to value something,” says George, who recently won a Grammy Award for her liner notes for “Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings.” Contemplating the city’s ceaseless change, she made an unexpected realization: “The city I live in, a lot of it, is in my mind.
“When I think about LA, it may not be the LA I am experiencing; it is a memory of it. But it has made me really question, has that always been the case? Maybe it’s this understanding about this ethereal LA, an abstraction of Los Angeles. Maybe I’ve always lived in it, in the books I was reading, as I mention in one of the chapters about growing up and grabbing all these books about LA in the 1930s and the ’40s and the ’20s, and [laughs] wanting to have a piece of that Los Angeles.”
Somewhat paradoxically, that makes instinctive sense to a small-town Yank who grew up dreaming of living in Los Angeles; this writer’s doe-eyed dream was that writer’s gritty daily reality, but LA has long been a state of mind as well as a geographical location. George’s abiding love of LA in all its contradictory aspects illuminates the pages as she explores hidden treasures like the Stoneview Nature Center, savors zesty conversation and international cuisine at neighborhood restaurants, reconnects with longtime friends who left and returned, and visits artists fighting gentrification’s “language of erasure” and spiking rents driving them from their downtown studios. With its intimate evocation of enclaves across the city, “After/Image” earns its place alongside Luis Rodriguez’s “Always Running” and Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz” on the shelf of LA books of note.
There’s a pleasing tactile dimension to reading the book, illustrated with George’s photos on sturdy, semi-glossy pages. The layout was designed by Highland Park resident Amy Inoyue (recently announced as the 2018 Lummis Day Noisemaker Award honoree), whose contributions George highlights more than once. “In the book, the dingbats with the little leaves and berries — those are from LA’s city seal,” she enthuses. “She made it feel like walking through Los Angeles.”
As does George. One of the resonating pleasures of “After/Image” is viewing LA through her child eyes as she walks along old streets past previous homes across the LA basin, camera in hand, and recalls family gatherings on back porches, neighbors conversing over fences and watching each other’s kids. That still happens, though in different spaces; from Frogtown to Venice, LA remains a patchwork of smaller towns and neighborhoods vulnerable to the schemes of developers and urban planners. “Spirit of Place” is not just a chapter title, but something essential she strives to honor, especially as newcomers press in to realign LA with their own vision. That enhances LA’s reputation as an eternal haven for personal and cultural reinvention — and exacerbates the blinkered confusion of those struggling to understand it, which in turn contributes to a common misperception that infuriates George: that LA is “just about gloss and surface, and that there is no there there.”
In truth, LA forces us to emerge from our little concrete boxes and explore, define and share its diversity on our terms. It is its own tax as well as its own reward.
“There’s so much richness that comes with this co-existence, because it has attracted people from all over the world,” George says. “I learned so much in my young years because people chose to come here from all over the world. I learned rituals and language and history just because of the proximity. And it does come from sitting down and having conversations, or having arguments, or sharing a meal, or go as deep as you want to. That is about you, and it is on you deciding to say yes to something, making a turn, making a friendship, opening your home and your heart. LA is so rich and it gets dismissed time and again. That’s the thing I really hope people can walk away with from this book.”
Lynell George discusses and signs “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 7-8 p.m. Thursday, March 22. Free admission, but anyone wishing to get books signed must purchase at least one copy at Vroman’s. Info: (626) 449-5320. Lynellgeorge.com, vromansbookstore.com