Would you like to be an angel

When my daughter was a little girl, she started to draw a fantasy world of other little girls not unlike herself, yet each she would dress differently and give a unique name. 

My daughter was able to expand her fantasy world through her compulsive drawing.  I borrowed this idea for Los Angeles.

I was looking for a new direction in 1992 to build on a previous body of work called HomeLife: Tales from the Cu-de-sac in which I used persons (or at least parts of people) along with light painting to photograph tableaus in my backyard.  I was looking for another way of using people as the main subject.  I was interested in portraiture, but my light painting technique seemed to only allow a more metaphysical or indirect portrait. The motif of a specter or an angel seemed to fit.  It was a fifteen-year journey in the dark, drawing the same angel over and over in front of the camera, photographing 101 souls in the process.

Subjects for Los Angeles came from concentric circles of intimacy starting with my wife and children and closest friends and then moving on to larger circles of friends, and their friends, and so on, until the project seemed to take on a life of its own.  Angels recruited other angels.

Exploring the same color and light techniques I had used in previous series, the first angels were shot at home in my backyard.  In these first sessions I directed many of the things that would become the standards with future angels.  My wife Peggy was my first angel.  I chose her hat and outfit, staying away from dark clothing, which would have posed technical difficulties.  A cardboard template of a wing was used to make both wings.  I assembled my usual suspects of different sized Maglite flashlights, Coleman fluorescent camping lights, and a Vivitar strobe. With a bed sheet strung from the top of our patio, I placed Peggy in front of it and asked her to take a comfortable pose. The lights went out and I pulled the dark slide from the camera’s film holder and walked from behind the camera to start the exposure.  I got close to my wife and popped a couple of strobe flashes across her hat and the front of her body to capture sudden detail and texture.  Next, with color filters over the camera lens and Maglites hovering inches over her body, I painted light over her form, overlapping red, green, and blue filters to create new colors and textures that described her body swaying and settling. When the exposures of her form were done, I moved to the backside of the bed sheet to attach her angel’s wings.  Using a hand-torn cardboard template of a wing to help me find the wing’s shape in the dark, I painted strokes of colored light to create the aurora of the wing.  When one wing was completed, I flipped the cardboard and repeated the process to complete her pair of wings.

These first angels were created at their own slow and deliberate pace.  Every angel had a set-up that needed to be put together, and at the end of the night the angel set needed to be broken down and put away.  At home in the back yard, the angels could only be shot at night.  With each angel captured I found myself wanting to shoot more angels.  I realized I needed a studio to do so.

I found a place to use as a studio in a back storage area at my work.  There I was able to control the light and leave the angel set in place for extended periods.  When I moved the sessions to this new venue, the circles of intimacy expanded.  Many of the angels in the new location were my fellow workers, friends, and acquaintances from other parts of my life.  I had a key to my workplace, so I could shoot two or three angels a weekend.  One of the first of this second phase of angels, Jack Wilhite, began assisting me.  With Jack manning the camera at my direction, it freed me to concentrate on lighting and interacting more with each new angel.  The community of Los Angeles was growing.

In the new studio space I was able to improve the stands that held the bed sheet to keep the backdrop more consistent, and I added new flashlights that allowed me to choose from a variety of brush strokes.  From what I learned while shooting at home, the sessions at my new venue became less directorial and more about the improvisation that occurred during the long exposure.  I enjoyed being in process while skating on the brink of failure.  I brought in music, at first to cover up my heavy breathing while I danced around with the metal flashlights, but I soon discovered that my careful selection of music added to the mystical agony the angels felt while standing motionless in the dark as light and shadows swirled around them.

I always warned the participants not to lock their knees or stand too stiff.  Still, because of the length of the exposures, there were a few incidents where angels nearly toppled over.  I never had an angel faint, but occasionally during a session I might hear, “Help me I’m going to fall.”  When his happened, I would stop the exposure, help the subject squat down and keep his or her feet in position while I bowed the angels head down until the wooziness passed in the dark.  When the subject felt better, the exposure resumed.  If the feet stayed in position, the body would follow back in place, and shooting could continue.

During this period the number of angles I shot grew to 42 total.  Gradually I started shooting fewer sessions, however, until they stopped altogether as I moved on to other projects.

It wasn’t any one thing that brought the project back to life when I resumed the series in 2004.  I had been planning to shoot more angels for several years, but then film and processing were becoming less and less available in the industry.  I knew that, of all the projects I was involved with at the time, limited access to film and processing would have changed Los Angeles the most. I knew I had to complete it soon.  I had already begun to use digital cameras for other projects, but I found there wasn’t a good way to make a long, elegant exposure with a digital camera.  Then, an earlier angel and friend, John Upton, gave me an Ansco 8x10 camera, and from then on things started to happen quickly.  I ordered a 50-sheet box of 8x10 Ektachrome 64T and started to work on a new set of wings—literally:  not a single wing flipped around from side to sideto serve as both left and right, but a full pair of wings.  I made a few different sizes of wings, as well as an open (outline) pair of wings for painting light into the wings’ interior.  All of the new wings would fit neatly onto a light stand that could be placed behind the bed sheet.  They could also easily be swapped in and out in the dark.  No longer would I need to hold a cardboard wing in one hand while painting with a flashlight in the other hand.  With the larger film format and new wing setup I could photograph the angels with more detail and concentrate more on the strokes and colors of the light painting itself.

The first subject of the next version of angels was my son Sean.  Older now, Sean and his sister Christen were the only children I had shot as angels.  As adults now and with the new format, even though they were the same subjects, they became different angels.  By this time photography, too, had evolved.  A color photograph was no longer printed in the dark with an enlarger.  Film was now scanned and printed on digital printers.  This change in photography allowed me to divide my one long exposure on one sheet into three more controllable long exposures on three separate sheets of 8x10 film: I used the first sheet for the strobe exposure; I used the next sheet to take the long, color-infused light painting exposure of the angel’s body and wings; I used the last as a catch up of light strokes that occurred to me during the first two sheets, and then add what I referred to as “the gesture.” The gesture exposure was a new feature for Los Angeles, and it became an additional narrative for each angel.  In the first 42 angels, the body gesture that was recorded over the long exposure was my initial conceit.  As the project progressed, I began paying more attention to where the hands were placed.  Just as the subtle position of hands in the paintings of Byzantine icon speaks volumes of storyline, my angels’ use of hand gestures during the shooting session became more important over time.  It eventually evolved into a second set of hand gestures recorded onto the film—the gesture exposure.  Sean was the first angel to use the gesture, the first angel seen possessing four hands.

It was at this time that the studio venue changed to my new place of work.  Many of the new participants came from the people I as working with as well as the many new and old friends, associates, and artists who had not made it into the first 42 vintage angels.  Inertia was the force that needed to be overcome when I restarted the angels again. At first I would shoot one after work in the evening and another on the weekend. Working out the little details of the new equipment and new place, I started scheduling two or three angel sessions per weekend. The project was gaining momentum again.  This is the place I love to be as an artist.  I was seeing not only the work I was doing and had done before, but I could almost visualize the road of art ahead of me.  When I’m in the middle of this creative place, it’s not clear when it all will end.  In fact, it seems like I’m always the last to know when these projects are over. 

With Los Angeles the conclusion was different.  The end of the project came from the conversations with the participants during the angel sessions.  “How long are you going to do this?”  “How many have you done?”  “How many more are you going to do?” Somewhere around the 55th or 60th session I mentioned 100 as good number to conclude with.  It became the best answer to those questions.  I had no idea how much work lay ahead of me.

Many of the angels would ask if I had ever been an angel.  My best answer was, “No, how could I shoot myself?”  “I’d help,” was the usual angel response.  Then, one day as my wife and I were driving back from San Diego I spotted a road sign on Interstate 5: “Lucinda 5 miles, Oceanside 12 miles, Los Angeles 101.” By the time my wife and I got to Oceanside we had worked out how I was going to be the 101st angel.  On January 21, 2007, in a studio on the campus of Orange Coast College (another place I work), I assembled a group of my past angels to witness the 100th angel shot — and then with my son manning the camera, I took a comfortable pose and the angels shot me.

Looking back over the entire Los Angeles project, it was the 100 things that 100 people brought to help find these 100 angels.  Libby brought her dead father’s hat.  Rick brought his wife’s ashes in her favorite pot of sweet peas.  RH brought her black (yes black) wedding dress. She wanted to be the angel of pain.  Charlene brought her wig from chemotherapy. Jeannene brought her red tablecloth and wore just the tablecloth and a hat.  She loved red brocade.  Lynn was a recycle artist and she brought a hubcap, a shawl made of latex gloves, and flippers.  Pat brought his favorite hat and a baby.  Luisa brought a knife.  Hideki brought a gun.  Darryl brought everything important he could fit in the back of his station wagon.  John brought his prosthetic and a horseshoe charm he received from his grandmother when he was a boy with two legs.  Francisco dressed as his grandfather did. Deidre dressed as her mother wouldn’t.  Derek gave a new meaning to half-dressed.  John dressed as a nineteenth-century gentleman of Japan.  He’s still dreaming in block prints.  Aviva wore the smallest headdress and everything else she wore was even less.  I am pleased they made me the 101st angel.


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