John Brian King's never-seen photos of LAX are a Los Angeles time capsule

In the early 1980s, John Brian King was a student at the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with photographers John Divola, Jo Ann Callis, Judy Fiskin and more. But some of his most compelling learning experiences were happening more than 30 miles to the south, at the terminals of LAX.

A born and raised Angeleno, King grew up in the airport-adjacent neighborhood of Westchester, which means Los Angeles International Airport has in some form always been a part of his life. At 17, he began photographing the airport. Arriving on motorcycle, he scouted the vast concrete promenade of LAX and captured travelers in the act of coming and going throughout the early 1980s.

In the mid-'80s, however, life started to get in the way of his airport fascination and he put his negatives in a box, where they sat for more than three decades. In the intervening years, he became a successful title designer, creating the opening and closing credits for more than 30 movies, including Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love."

But after directing his first feature film project — the 2013 drama "Redlands," which is about a photographer — he remembered his LAX pictures and pulled out the box of negatives. The images have now been gathered in the new book "LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84," published by Spurl Editions.

The photos offer a wondrous time capsule of the airport and Los Angeles. (The second part of the book includes work beyond the confines of LAX.) King captured cowboys and dandies, kids and posers, old ladies and airport workers, frazzled-looking couples purportedly on vacation — all in the glare of his flash and wide angle lens.

The artist, who now lives in Palm Springs, took time to email with me about airports, photography and how his surprised subjects often reacted to his camera. 

Why did LAX appeal to you as something worth photographing?

I grew up in Westchester, less than two miles from the airport. I had been a passenger in a plane perhaps two or three times as a kid, but in the summer of 1980 I flew back east to visit relatives and I took my camera. At the airport I noticed how exhausted and vulnerable people were and I realized it was a perfect environment for me to photograph subjects being affected by this odd, dull chaos. I took some test shots, and then returned once or twice a week for about two years.

How has LAX changed since then?

For me, LAX has become pretty unbearable. I’ve traveled quite a bit since I took the LAX photos, and most airports are far more pleasant experiences than LAX. The only airports I actively avoid, if possible, are Heathrow, JFK and LAX. I now live in Palm Springs, California, which has an airport that is beautifully designed by a noted mid-century Modern architect — the late Donald Wexler — and not by some soulless bureaucrats.

I understand that the negatives for this book sat in a box since the ‘80s. Why did you set these aside? And why revisit the images now?

I went to art school with the intention of being a fine art photographer, but I realized after I graduated that I didn’t want to be part of the whole art world/gallery scene for the next 30 years of my life. I was also interested in film, design and writing, and so that’s what I’ve done up to now, having a few strange mini-careers instead of one big career as a photographer.

But recently I wrote and directed an indie film called "Redlands," about an amateur glamour photographer and his infatuation with a model, and I decided after I finished the film to pull the negatives out of storage and take a look. Maybe with hindsight, maturity — I don’t know — I was able to look at the photographs in a different light and go through the process of getting them out there to a new audience.

In your essay in the book, you describe taking these pictures as an “assaultive” form of photography — that you just snapped without permission. What kinds of encounters did you have as a result?

When I first started taking photographs as a teenager, I tried using telephoto lenses so I wouldn’t bother people, but the images were flat and boring. I realized that to get the photos I wanted, I had to be part of the space that I was photographing. I even used the reactions of people who knew that they were being photographed as part of the process. But surprisingly there were no bad exchanges — most people just smiled or laughed afterward. They probably thought I was crazy.

Of the images, which is your favorite? And why?

I really love the photo of the young blond woman sitting in a cocktail lounge. She is caressing this ugly iron decorative window screen that was really popular back in the 1970s, and she is vacantly looking off into the distance. Behind her, in the dark, is a bartender reading the newspaper. The lounge she is sitting in is weirdly discordant: It looks like it is outdoors, but it is inside the LAX terminal. And I love her hair — she has that Seventeen magazine, Cybill Shepherd hair.

Every photographer seems to have a story about the picture that got away. Was there a scene that you missed capturing but that remains seared in your memory?

No, not at all. If anything, I often experienced the opposite — I thought I had missed the shot or I had taken a shot that was probably a mess, but when I went back to my darkroom and developed the film, I was often surprised that I had captured this beautiful frozen form of anarchy.

"LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84" ($35), by John Brian King, is now available from Spurl Editions.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.


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