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Before and After in Black and White

Times Staff Writer

Bill Reagh has proof that at one time the Los Angeles River had a dirt bottom, Angelenos rode on their own subway and motorists could park downtown for 25 cents a day. Wild claims, you say, but he has the photographic evidence.

Reagh, 77, has been shooting the city in black and white for 50 years, a sort of Ansel Adams of the Angels. And he can’t stop tramping its concrete and asphalt trails--not when Los Angeles keeps changing on him.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 14, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 14, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
The photo of the Angels Flight trolley that appeared in Tuesday’s Times was taken in 1955, not 1939 as the caption stated.

“This town is like a movie set,” Reagh said. “Things are put up and taken down very quickly.”

His work has evolved into a stunning before-and-after documentary of the transformation of the city, especially the downtown area:

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* A row of dilapidated Victorian houses on 1st Street (1939) becomes a row of office buildings (1969).

* A low skyline (1969) interrupted by only one high-rise--City Hall--is filled with numerous glass towers (1987).

* The Angels Flight trolley system at 3rd and Hill streets (1939) becomes a mound of dirt (1972) and then a housing development (1986).

“The key is finding common reference points” in each series, he said. In the last photo of his Angels Flight sequence, not only has the trolley’s 315-foot-long incline disappeared, but most of the hill itself. Even the tunnel entrance has changed--it is rectangular.

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But Reagh found his reference points. “The tunnel lights,” he said.

“We’re lucky that he had the foresight to take these photos,” said Gary Kurutz, director of special collections for the California State Library, which is purchasing 200 of Reagh’s prints. “He’s got a great eye and a good sense of history.”

The odd thing is, for more than 30 years virtually no one knew of Reagh’s collection. He shot mostly in his spare time while supporting a wife and three children as a graphic artist for an engineering firm.

“I’m not a very aggressive person,” said Reagh, who estimates he’s accumulated 50,000 negatives. “I just like to take photos.”

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Most of his images wound up in notebooks stashed in boxes either in his musty basement-darkroom or in the cluttered garage of his Los Feliz home. They’re catalogued only by year.

“I’m a photographer,” he said with a shrug, “not a librarian.”

‘100 Views of City Hall’

But, in the mid-1970s, word of Reagh’s work reached the city’s Cultural Affairs Department from the owner of a photo supply store who had seen samples (even a modest artist can’t help but show off a few of his 50,000 shots).

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That discovery eventually led to a local exhibition, “100 Views of City Hall.”

“I got the idea from the Japanese artist Hokusai, who did ‘100 Views of Mt. Fuji,’ ” Reagh said.

“He kind of likes to play games, to have sub-levels of meaning,” said Tom Meyer of Cultural Affairs, who was the curator. “In some of the photos, it was as though he were asking (the viewer), ‘Can you find City Hall?’ Or with others, ‘Try to figure where I shot this one from.’ ”

Reagh has also had several other showings, and his prints are featured in a 1989 calendar (“The Changing Face of L.A.”).

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The acclaim is fine, to a point.

“At one showing, the guy (curator) kept calling me up about this and that,” Reagh recalled with a laugh, “and finally I had to tell him, ‘Look, this is taking up too much of my time.’ ”

20 Cameras

Time that could be better spent taking pictures with one of his 20 cameras. He even clandestinely shoots photos of fellow bus passengers on his way to shoot photos of the city.

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Reagh’s used every type of film, from 4-by-5 inch (with the old Speed Graphic) to 2-inch and 35-millimeter--usually black and white.

“It has more of a documentary look,” he said. “Color isn’t permanent--it fades. And with color, even something gruesome looks sort of pretty. Besides I started out with black and white.”

He didn’t start out to record the transformation of Los Angeles.

“I was just a kid from a small town in Kansas and I was impressed with the big city,” he said. “So I started taking pictures. And later when the city started taking things down, like the old Victorian homes on Bunker Hill, I thought, ‘Someone ought to have pictures of that.’ ”

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Different Pictures

Pictures of the dusty Los Angeles River before its 1939 paving . . . of the subway that ran from downtown to the corner of 2nd Street and Glendale Boulevard before it was shut down in 1955 . . . of the crumbling Victorian house with incinerator on the current site of the Music Center.

Reagh mourns some, but not all, of the scenery changes on the mega-set of Los Angeles.

A 1963 shot of a collection of bars and liquor stores on 3rd Street--since replaced by the World Trade Center--reveals “a bummy area of bars and liquor stores,” he pointed out. “People who feel nostalgic for that probably didn’t even go down there in the old days.”

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But go on a photo safari with Reagh and you’re also likely to hear, “I’ve got a shot of a great building that used to be there--Victorian-type front and everything.” Or: “A boxing gym used to be there--it was once the Adolphus Theater too.” Or: “The Westminster Hotel used to be there. President McKinley visited it.”

And he speaks of the street characters who’ve disappeared, too: “Nails,” whose fingernails were so long that they curled into loops; another gent who stood outside the library in white face and tuxedo; a woman in a long white dress who played guitar and sang religious songs in Pershing Square.

“I have a good shot of that woman,” Reagh said.


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