Like a lot of outsiders, photographer Claudio Edinger formed his first impressions of Southern California as a youth watching beach movies.
The native Brazilian recalled being drawn to the "freedom and eccentricity," wondering whether the film portrayal of the beach area was fantasy or reality. "I was really moved by all the different kinds of people, the energy and the creativity," Edinger said. "I wanted to know more about the place."
Edinger, who now lives in New York, got a firsthand perspective when he visited last summer. What he quickly discovered was that the beach bozos and bimbos created by Hollywood paled in comparison to the real-life residents of an outpost called Venice.
The evidence can be found in Edinger's "Venice Beach," a new coffee-table book that depicts the bohemians, businessmen, artists and entrepreneurs who occupy the famed beach community.
His subjects include a Jewish convert to the Sikh religion who remarks that his parents wish he'd "drop the Eastern guru thing"; a man calling himself "Rad Ish," which stands for "radically selfish," who peers from a beachfront garbage can and comments that many of his neighbors are stranger than he is, and a male nurse who shares his apartment with baby alligators, turtles, snakes and piranhas and who notes that his sisters have stopped visiting.
Edinger also focused his lens on the less extreme. There's producer/director Tony Bill, owner of a new Venice restaurant, who says he lives across the street because he hates to drive to work; 95-year-old Della Elizabeth Powell, who comments that Venice "ain't gettin' no better. But it ain't gettin' no worse either," and beachfront businessman Larry Woods, who sells buttons and bumper stickers bearing messages such as, "Support Wildlife. Throw a Party."
Some longtime Venice residents have criticized Edinger's book, accusing the photographer of focusing only on people who represent the outer fringe of the Venice community. Arnold Springer, a member of the Venice Town Council, called the book "banal, antediluvian nonsense. It's not real. It's not what Venice Beach is like."
But Edinger said he chose his subjects by observing the community-at-large.
In a recent telephone interview, the 33-year-old Edinger said he conceived the Venice project after completing an award-winning photo essay on New York's Chelsea hotel. Edinger said he was motivated by natural curiosity about the area and the hunch that Venice would yield enough interesting characters to fill at least one photo book. Having lived in America less than 10 years, Edinger said he also hoped to learn more about a section of this country by observing the racially, socially and economically mixed Venice population.
When Edinger approached the New York-based Abbeville Press Publishers with the idea last year, they immediately gave him a contract. There was one catch, however. Edinger, who had worked on the Chelsea book for almost four years, was told that he had less than three months to complete the Venice photography because the publisher wanted the new volume out by the summer of 1985.
Hustling to meet the deadline, Edinger moved to Santa Monica last July. After finding an apartment, he bought a car and contacted one person who was supposed to have a lot of connections. The contact introduced Edinger to four people, who introduced him to another four, and before long Edinger said he knew everyone in Venice.
"I'd hang around all day long," said Edinger, who shot more than 300 rolls of film for the book. "I'd carry my lights, my cameras, my book from the Chelsea. I probably talked to about a dozen people a day. Some of them were wary. They'd say, 'You want me naked, right?' But 98% of the people were very receptive."
Overall, Edinger said he found a lot of similarities between Venice's residents and the people who lived at the run-down Chelsea.
"Venice is like an extension," Edinger said. "The Chelsea is more of a passive place. It doesn't generate history or anything like that. Whereas Venice is very active. . . . I was basically amazed by the freedom I found there. Anything goes; it's like a Brazilian carnival. But that's only for a day. Venice is like that year-round."
Edinger's subjects came from all sections of Venice and represented all walks of life. The text, which was taken from Edinger's interviews, rounds out the characters in the book and helps to explain an area commonly associated with roller skaters and granola bakers.
There's a shot of Terry Hershey, a nuclear engineer, building pyramids in the sand. Hershey told Edinger that he builds his pyramids in Venice because people there appreciate them. Maria Illg, a 68-year-old grandmother, sits under a banner advertising chicken and ice cream. "Venice is so dirty," she told Edinger, "you can't even go to the public bathroom. It's a great place to sell fried chicken, though." Linda Albertino, a former jazz singer seen in front of her house, calls Venice a "slum by the sea," adding that a former school friend was strangled on a nearby beach.
Edinger said he chose his subjects because they epitomized the eccentricity and freedom he had associated with the area. But Edinger also said he discovered that Venice's residents share some serious concerns. One is the fear of gentrification. Another is crime. Edinger recalled that one of the most interesting people he met was a woman who was so frightened that she slept with a shotgun at her side.
"People were really afraid," Edinger said, "especially women who live alone. . . . It's probably one of the most dangerous places in Los Angeles. And that's part of it. You have to be street-smart to live there."
Despite all it's problems, however, Edinger said most of the people he met had a strong attachment to Venice for one reason or another. "People are what they are they make no secret of it," he said, "whether they're Sikhs, gay men or pyramid builders. . . . That's the gift of Venice. These people are searching for new ways to live, successfully or not."