The Beauty of Complexity

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I have a challenge…

But before I set it forth, I must explain from where it comes.

I love complexity. I love patterns in my fabrics that are no mere dreaming of pretty flowers or items, but a thoughtful contemplation of how shapes, colors, and textures can come together in unpredictable ways. This intrigue for me of the unexpected stems into my preferences in other aspects of my life, such as postmodern architecture that plays with our expectations and conventions of balance, materials, and atmosphere; or within the art of garden design where one may draw upon the unparalleled access we have today for plants and cultural influences from all over the world; or in the world of historical scholarship where one is repeatedly surprised at what they may discover; or even in the culinary arts where one may explore, may it be through intuition, combinations of flavors, textures, color that one is not used to.

This searching for complexity is, for me, much like going on a journey. With each new discovery you are encouraged as a creative spirit to draw upon a new knowledge base to now move forward and break more expectations. This creative spirit is what each new generation must harness, always living on the edge, on the ecstasy of hope and excitement mingled together for what is to come if we keep endeavoring.

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But this should also be something we seek in photography. With the prevalence of high-quality digital cameras we are all given the opportunity to be amateur photographers. And through this creative process to look more closely at how photography is both a product of and an influence upon our individuality, our identity, and the culture we share or build with others.

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For this reason, I suggest as both photographers and viewers we take more careful note of the importance of framing in this art. It is not solely what is captured within the photograph, or what appears to be its subject that is important in our observations. But also, and in some cases what may be more important, how a photographer chooses to frame what they wished to capture. Instead of cooing over the beauty in a photograph, should we instead back-up as viewers and ask ourselves why did this photographer frame their subject, if there is one, in this way? What did they wish to communicate by framing it this way? For we must remember that we are surrounded by a dizzying degree of detail in the multitude of environments that we move through each day. Amidst all that detail, why would a photographer choose this or these details to focus upon?

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I sometimes fear that in the effort to prove ourselves as promising photographers we focus too much on finding and perfectly photographing the culturally-accepted or expected beautiful subject. This emphasis on what we think others wish to see deprives us of the opportunity to utilize photography to its greatest creative capacities. Some of the photographers I most admire are those who have built a career out of photographing landscapes or subject matters that are complex, unattractive, and shocking: those subject matters that rattle your conscience and make you look around your world with some confusion and a few moments to even a few days of bewilderment at the world you thought you knew and were comfortable in. We need not horrify our audiences, but we should no longer point our lenses away from those subject matters that somewhat repel us for it is much the same as turning a blind eye to the most unjust aspects of our society. We need to be more careful observers of our environments, and in doing so communicating our observations in one of the most powerful ways that we can: through photography. But in turn, we must make the respectful pact to also be thoughtful observers of other’s photographs, and not be afraid to ask questions.

This challenge of mine to fellow amateur photographers (and to myself as well!) need not be only in reference to photographing injustices or ugly subject matters. Rather, I would love for all of us to feel more comfortable challenging framing conventions to reveal strange complexities in the world around us. There are so many pictures we never share that may hold or inspire additional interesting insights. We must always remember that one of photography’s great powers is to perplex and challenge its viewers. We do not walk around in a world where every view we take in is designed to be a lovely and momentary picture. Why, then, should such a great deal of our photography be this way? Rather, if you see something interesting, confusing, or overwhelming photograph it as well, for you and perhaps your audience may be surprised in the years to come at what you had captured in that moment of creativity and contemplation: a world of great complexity where its strength and intrigue can be found in its diversity.

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Rippling Shadows, Rambling Paths

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For this last semester I have had the lucky opportunity to volunteer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in their digital archives, adding metadata onto the newly produced photographs of various pieces in their collections to create a larger and more accessible database to scholars and the public. It is a great project to be a part of, and I am proud of the little work I have contributed to it.

But this experience has also been in many ways a challenging experience at multiple levels for I am traveling through a part of my home metropolis, a part that is not always easy, particularly for a young, attractive woman, to pass through without some tension or anxiety. Each time I travel the extensive distance to and from on the various highways, light rail trains, and buses to reach my destinations I am required to reanalyze my love and disgust of the city I am observing and communicating with. Is this a place of disaster in the making, or a city in transition towards something better? Are the people I share these spaces with as beautiful as I hope them to be? If not, what then is the true distinction between the beautiful and the ugly for their beauty still stands openly apparent there within these other spirits? Is it not true that many of the elements in our lives that we find ourselves awestruck from also have a touch of the ugly, or the disappointing? Perhaps the inner struggles that plague us over these deeper realizations are not because seeming contradictions such as these are truly contradictions. Rather are we trained to see contradictions all around us from the strict parameters that we grow up believing in; that there is light and darkness, good and bad; strict boundaries that we never entirely feel comfortable letting go of? Then again, do we truly challenge them to begin with?

One of the more touching and life-altering lessons I took away with me when I read Thomas Merton’s No Man is An Island is that ironies in our lives are natural and the result of a higher knowledge, for lack of better terms (forgive me for my poor summary: I am recalling several years of memory); that true love, from our perspective, often seems contradictory because we often turn it into a selfish act, entirely forgetting its true nature. True love is a selfless act. True love is what we give when we desire nothing, expect nothing, from our beloved in return. But can we entirely love selflessly? In my opinion we can, but that love is not selfless in the way we often imagine it: a kind of selflessness that requires detrimental sacrifice on our own parts. We also need to love and take care of ourselves. Otherwise, how can we give our best to others? Otherwise, as Thomas Merton reveals we denigrate the very miracle God created in us. And to add another dimension onto these thoughts: I have long held to the philosophy that the greatest love we receive and give to one another is that love that challenges us to grow into wiser and stronger human beings, breaking comfortable boundaries we have formed around ourselves in order to transcend into new realms. But is that growing process not the very essence of living: expanding, growing, reaching, desiring, struggling, loving each new moment that brings us closer to gaining even just a moment of understanding of that higher knowledge? The path of Humanity. The reason we struggle.

This is not what I had intended to write about in this post. But that is the beauty of the art of writing. It is not, nor should it be merely a development of a piece representing facts we have developed around questions we have asked, a most dull form of writing that I run into regularly in academia. No… it should represent our own inner exploration of our experiences and revelations from the contemplation of those experiences written down to be shared with other human beings on different, but similar paths. For as a historian and urban planner in training, we scholars, intellectuals, creators, artists cannot do our work well if we do not remind ourselves to try to connect with other human beings. We are, after all, creating stories just like other human beings. We just get used to creating those narratives in different ways. No… writing is an exploration: an opportunity to dig deeper into our thoughts and create new understandings. What a gift language is to Humanity in that is not simply a record, but a journey!

But to pull back to what I had hoped to bring into this moment: photography is a realm, an art form, I never expected to explore more deeply. I suppose I always held back because I recognized how widely this art form is already studied by others, and I felt I couldn’t add an important contribution. Therefore, being exposed to such a phenomenal range of photography has become another challenge in this work experience. Photography is such a deeply important art form in our cultural experiences for how photography captures its diverse artists’ perspectives as they question and explore their-our-world. In approaching the photography of dozens of photographers’ portfolios cared for in this museum’s collections I have been challenged, stretched, even shocked on occasion into seeing new details and patterns in my own daily experiences. As a photographer myself, this has led me rather quickly into pointing my lens in different directions, focusing on different ways to perceive our world; another strange branching on this path of Humanity.

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“Let’s Go Get a Cup of Coffee…”

I think what hurts me the most, believe it or not, is when someone that I genuinely like as a fellow human being, someone I would like to get to know better, who I think has intriguing stories and insights to share, and with whom I would like to share stories of my own, conspicuously avoids me. It makes me wonder, somewhat uselessly, what I might have said, done, or not said to offend them, or make me appear in their eyes less interesting as a human being. For one of my favorite things to do on my personal time is to go get coffee with a friend or new acquaintance and talk with them. And, in my opinion, and what is little recognized, is that one of the kindest compliments we can give to a person is to ask them to go get a cup of coffee and talk; not in the expectation of a date, or under the pressure of a professional conversation, but just as two human beings who are interested in listening to one another and desiring to make a genuine connection. Perhaps if we as a society were a little less afraid to ask each other to sit down, talk, and in the process, sincerely open up to one another, we would come to understand each other better and learn how to avoid offending each other so often. I have found that so much offense that we give to others is unintended, for which we often find it hard to forgive. And forgiveness comes much more easily when we desire to understand where our fellow human beings have been and where they are going.

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Layers of a Landscape

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“Misconstrued” 

What do we see in a new and unfamiliar landscape? What do we see in a familiar landscape? Or, perhaps more importantly, what do we look for in a landscape? These are questions that have come up among multiple professions, including historians, anthropologists, cultural studies scholars, artists, musicians, photographers, writers, conservationists, scientists, landscape architects, and urban planners, among many others, to be sure. The concept of how one relates to place, how one sees a landscape, and whether seeing a landscape requires interaction with that landscape or just a distant observation are questions that are popping up in numerous publications over the last few decades. For our relationships and perceptions with a place or with a landscape are deeply intertwined with the choices we make, our perceptions of ourselves, our sense of identity, and how we see ourselves amidst a larger whole in society and with the natural world.

I willingly identify myself as an Angeleno, a Californian, a North American, a Euro-American, and a Western American. All these identities are connected to a large place, a series of ecosystems, a series of landscapes. When I say or think of these identities I imagine multiple places, multiple landscapes in a larger region of the North American continent that are as diverse and distinct from one another as an estuary is to the Mojave Desert, and smaller agricultural communities  are to metropolises.

So our mind’s vision of a sense of place, of a connection to a landscape or place, can be multi-layered, and can change with time. My sense of place in Southern California has been radically altered over the last year since I entered into a graduate program in History and began studying Californian History in greater breadth. Now my sense of place is heavily shaped by a wider knowledge base of how Southern California has changed over the last approximately three hundred years.

Furthermore, my interests and pursuits in urban planning and landscape architecture have led me into a wealth of literature on the processes of design and construction in both urban and rural landscapes. These new experiences and new knowledge base have further enriched how I analyze the multiples places I encounter in my familiar landscape of Los Angeles County, from a small park on the side of the road, the grounds around the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to the design and routes of our highway systems, and the placement, relationships, and movement of communities through time. Now I see these landscapes through a history of how they were constructed and why.

This leads me to one more point: that our ambitions, values, and sense of morality also shape how we relate to place, not merely in the state that a landscape is presently in from its bedrock to the atmosphere above, and in what ways it has changed throughout history. But, and what is just as important, we now have added on another layer of perception: what we envision that landscape can become. We often envision what landscapes might have looked like several hundred years before colonization. These are perceptions that are based on little evidence, and may or may not represent what had been the true state of the landscape. These somewhat vague, historic imaginings are not entirely unlike the futuristic visions we can place on these same landscapes. And this, to me, is exciting. Do we not all wonder how our urban environments will change when new technologies begin to change how we move around our landscapes? And intriguingly, these relationships to place based on what we imagine a landscape may become is the base of so much dialogue occurring around how we create urban and rural landscapes that are more sustainable.

But this layer of perception is not new. In the nineteenth century Southern California had been touted as one of the most promising places for future settlement for its promise of agricultural and industrial success. Through the heavy boosterism that developed, a sense of place had been developed by many throughout the expanding nation for Southern California as it became synonymous with a promise of Eden-like bounty and good health. For centuries beforehand, explorers, colonists, farmers, businessmen, among others, had evoked a similar futuristic perception of the new landscapes they came upon for what they could become. Today, landscape architects and urban planners, and those that aspire to these professions, like myself, see landscapes from what they are thought to have been to what they may become. Therefore, when we continue to explore this sense of place and people’s perceptions and relationships with a landscape, we must not forget that our senses of place in all their layers are the result of experiences physically seen and envisioned.

All these experiences that we have, which are both unique and similar in many respects, create a detailed, layered sense of place, and alters how we perceive landscapes that are familiar and unfamiliar. We choose out specific things in specific frames of time, from milliseconds to centuries, precisely timed or left unknown, that are of particular interest to us in how they call upon our own experiences and knowledge base, and how they connect to those other interests that we hold.

The photograph that I began this entry with was one I took up in the “High Desert,” the portion of the Mojave Desert that lies just north of the Transverse Ranges. In the time I have spent out there I have come to love the landscape that I am both immersed in and distant from. It is very different from the many other landscapes I have spent significant time in: from the post-war-constructed suburban landscape of my hometown, from the Redwood forests I lived next to during my undergraduate, from the streets of Copenhagen I traversed as student abroad, from the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley where I worked and lived on a private estate, from the lush and violent nature of the Mackinac Straits in Michigan where I interpreted local history of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Sonoran Desert in Arizona where I spent many winters with family. Therefore, my sense of place is as much a result of these deep contrasts to other senses of place, as to my confusion in trying to acquire a more detailed layering of perception of my surroundings. But this landscape is also deeply complicated in that it is in a stage of transition. The High Desert has been in a stage of rapid and somewhat hectic development since I can remember. In my changing sense of place for this landscape, it is perturbed by a sense of fear that the flocks of quail, the hares and rabbits, the pronounced desert wrens, the modest sages, the stately but threatening joshua trees, and the brilliant creosotes, immersed in a cloud of buzzing during late spring, are at risk by this development. So this confused and changing sense of place as I try to understand this somewhat unfamiliar landscape was symbolized, for me, in this photograph. And for all the ways that one may perceive the multiple layers captured in this photograph, I have given its name “Misconstrued,” for any single statement for what is going on in this landscape is a misunderstanding of the multiple layers of perception and connection its inhabitants may acquire as they watch a landscape in transition.

 

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Rising Moon

Driving home from the Getty in the late afternoon and twilight I was reminded of the most important thing in my life and the reason for the path before me. Even though it was the worst hour to be driving through the heart of Los Angeles, the traffic bumper to bumper, the way the light was transforming the urban landscape around me and the hills and San Bernardino mountains wrapping around our little corner of the world, I looked up somewhat startled at this slow transformation, and awestruck at the beauty around me. This city is far from perfect, not that there is any city or town that is. But it is the home of an unimaginably large number of people I will never meet, but most of whom I still have faith in. And it is apart of a dialogue as to how we are going to reshape our rapidly expanding urban environments to meet the needs for the future. I am excited to read about it. I am excited to be here within it, even though the process is slower than I should like.

This city has great beauty within it, and I can See it now! For so long I couldn’t see it, blinded by the disappointment and fear for all the problems that have developed in this and other metropolises over the last century and a half. Understanding when to be disappointed is a sign that you are more deeply perceiving the society around you. But allowing disappointment to take over is damaging to our spirits, and worse, to our creativity and ingenuity. We have to remember that you and I did not create these problems. We were just born amidst them. But we have this opportunity to address them if we have the courage to stay and work hard with strangers to find lasting solutions to make our communal spaces healthier and more humane. And what brings tears to my eyes is the thought that if I stay on the path that I am already on, one day I will come Home and be a part of this project to make this city more beautiful.

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Reflection

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The candle I had lit this night left a translucent reflection on my small, framed copy of Ansel Adam’s famous photograph. It stood upon an iron candle holder I shaped myself to fit the curves of my fingers as I hold it. In gazing upon this photograph it occurred to me that like the trees seemingly reaching up towards this shimmering night sky, the epitome of the vastness, distance and nearness of the universe, it was not unlike my inner exploration during the quiet hours of the night. I have found throughout the years that when I spoke to friends about the depth and clarity of the thoughts I engaged in at night, my friends expressed having similar experiences. For some it is exciting. For others it can be terrifying. For many it is both, and I share that perplexing and complicated mixture of experiences. For in the solitude of night, perhaps what can be considered its greatest gift to humanity, is its ability to lead us to reflect more deeply on our experiences and what they mean to us from the very surface of our initial conception of them, to the very depths of our feelings for them.

But nighttime is also scary. I have often, without always being aware of it, associated it with the brink of madness. I am not entirely sure where that association originally came from. Perhaps from a longtime fear of the unknown, of the nightmares and dreams that I have experienced, or of the fears and anxiety that have kept me awake during those hours. But, perhaps, more so that anything else, I have made this association because I so often envision the experience of approaching the unknown and the risks it seems to entail of losing one’s sense of self and foundation, with that of the deepening of the night.

And hat should not be as frightening as I have made it out to be. Walking into the unknown, like opening up a book that you had no prior concept of except that it spoke to you on that dusty shelf, or meeting a new and intriguing person on the train, or falling into a dream, should be an experience we grasp at with the enthusiasm of a child, but the deeper insights and maturity of an adult. It is in those harrowing leaps that we make against the risks of fear, pain, even disillusionment, that we are given the gift of an opportunity to grow in the most admirable ways. We are certainly strengthened through these leaps and all the benefits and consequences that come with them. But, just as importantly, our eyes are opened to perceive the world with greater depth and, if we choose to see it this way, greater understanding and its benefits: patience to listen, tolerance of differences, and forgiveness.

So for me, this photograph holds a deeper meaning because it represents that leap of faith in myself, in my loved ones, in a greater purpose, and a greater Being, by reaching out into that infinite unknown with little more than a candle before my eyes, lighting my way for just a little section of the wilderness as I take each step, but keeping me blinded from becoming too exposed to the world around me until I am ready to approach it and See it.

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Unearthing a Bizarre Metropolis

Los Angeles’ 2015 Archives Bazaar

As a native Angeleno who grew up on the descending foothills of the Angeles National Forest, I had always felt myself somehow looking West trying to peer over those distant rolling hills, valleys, freeways, lights, skyscrapers, and red sunsets to envision all those symbols that I knew my home metropolis was really known for by the rest of the world. Perhaps as an Angeleno, or even dare I say, a Californian, you grow up with a sense that you are at the center of world’s attention, and in many ways you are due to a unique presence and influence that Southern California, and especially, Los Angeles County, has established over the last hundred and thirty-five years through climate, tourism, agriculture, oil production, industry, trade, film, unimaginable diversity, civil rights activism, and so much more! I was, and still am nestled in a quiet, safe, and homey suburb curled within the folds of these foothill communities touched with a particular sense of place that they have inherited through a determination to remember at least just a little of the prior, sun-sweet endeavors and earthly toils. But I always understood that my home and my daily activities were intertwined into the larger workings of this bustling and bursting global metropolis, one whose continuous energies and evolution bring such intrigue.

Perhaps it was these memories and sense of place that made my drive to USC that cool, bright morning so exciting. I was excited because I, for the first time, was entering that fabled campus, so treasured by this metropolis and its academic community. But this Archival Bazaar also held a specific focus: L.A. as Subject. Archivists, librarians, historians, and other volunteers, excited about their collections and the purpose they enabled their great diversity of organizations to achieve, all came to USC to tell visitors about their collections and how they were changing. When I entered into those rooms set up with the displays, pamphlets, photographs, and materials representing some of the diversity of these archives I was unsure where to begin. Where do you go? What questions do you ask? But no questions were required. Noticing that I was eyeing their displays and pamphlets, those archivists and volunteers immediately reached out to me, eager to share, encouraging me to visit them, reach out to them, and join their mailing lists. The questions now came to my lips freely, and I felt myself moving fluidly about the various tables. Tables could be found exhibiting collections documenting the history of film, theatre, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, ethnomusicology, migration, pier and community development, to name just a few areas. Volunteers had arrived from organizations as diverse as LACMA’s Balch Art Research Library, the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, Orange County Archives, Santa Monica Public Library, California African-American Museum, Ayn Rand Archives, Little Tokyo Historical Society, Heyday Publications, and UC Irvine Libraries, Special Collections, and Archives. But I was blown away to see such a wealth organizations exhibiting throughout Southern California that I had never known existed. I was startled by an exhibit for the Design School in Pasadena, revealing the work their students were engaging in to design future automobiles and interior environments. I was inspired by the sense of purpose in the work of an Asian Pacific American Visual Communications Collection, whose volunteers and archivists desired to make accessible their collections of film, interviews, oral histories, and photographs to promote a greater cross-cultural understanding. And I was excited to see a table for the collections from The Homestead Museum that documents the experiences of early homesteaders and farmers in Southern California, while providing workshops, tours, and events that provoke visitors to experience a little of what life was like in early Los Angeles. This act of discovery made the experience extra enriching in that, even as a historian not specifically focusing on Los Angeles’ history, I was awakened to the phenomenal range of possible corners within a metropolis that one may uncover papers and manuscripts that revealed different perspectives and events of the communities’ history.

Furthermore, one of the strongest senses I came away with was that these archivists and volunteers wanted me to draw upon their resources. And more importantly, I was touched by a genuine excitement for the continued pursuit of understanding Los Angeles’ history in all the diversity of narratives and voices that can be found. Nevertheless, the difficulties, the dangers, the mistakes, and the bad decisions that have and continue to shape the development of Los Angeles were not quiet in this archives bazaar. Nothing demonstrated more thoroughly the fear that is present about what disasters could be on the horizon than the pamphlet that lay at the foot of the pillar marking the entrance to a center exhibit. This pamphlet, “Your Guide to a City to be Determined,” led one through a series of possible futures the metropolis may experience in five, ten, twenty-five, or an “unspecified” number of years in the future: plague, a refugee crisis, continued sprawl, pollution, or criminal issues, etc. that plague the city, while leading you into local mysteries to be solved. The endings are not positive, but not always disastrous. Instead, these various story lines remind the reader of the larger problems to address in this continually evolving metropolis. The reader is necessarily saddened by this reminder, but not less encouraged to contemplate these problems, their vastness, and potential solutions. It is this context that makes the Archives Bazaar so important, and from which it provides such rich soil for hope: that it is in this continual pursuit of archival work and historical scholarship that we may unveil new understandings of our history as it develops so that we may better perceive and provide solutions for these larger problems as we approach our future.

 

 

(This was originally an assignment: a blog entry for an Intro to Archival Studies course)

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