William Reagh presents the perfectly uninteresting figure for the work he does.
If you could have picked him out of the crowd, you’d have found him at work Monday trundling up Brand Boulevard. He was the one in stay-press pants, red-and-white striped Oxford shirt and khaki tennis hat.
The unevenly trimmed gray beard, the slight build, the timid countenance betrayed no purpose. The eyes avoided contact.
A slight deviation in his path, a subtle movement of the hands on the camera slung at his chest, then, at just about seven feet, snap, you’re recorded history.
The shutter clicks so softly that you probably didn’t notice when Reagh made you one of his 50,000 bits of Los Angeles.
Reagh (it sounds like “Ray”) documents the world around him through the faces he sees on the street. He’s not especially discriminating about whose they are as long as they’re real and unaffected by his presence. Some days he shoots the facades of buildings. Others, he goes for people, as he did Monday. He shoots them in crosswalks, in parks, on the sidewalk peering into windows.
He shoots pretty young girls licking food off their fingers, mothers with babies in strollers, salesmen searching the eyes of those who pass, old men disputing unknown topics on benches.
He’s been doing this since 1939, for most of that time unnoticed by the world that he was so keenly watching. His entire product is stashed in his Silver Lake home, most of it inaccessible for lack of his interest in indexing.
“It was just sort of something I wanted to do,” Reagh said. “I didn’t really have any commercial viewpoint.”
Reagh, who turns 78 today, has a viewpoint that places him pretty much out of fashion, among a constellation of documentary street photographers. Walking up Brand the other day, he tossed their names about: Walker Evans, who fashioned the genre in the Depression; Cartier-Bresson, who caught the “decisive moments” of postwar Europe; Diane Arbus, who made ‘50s America pay.
“Missed that one,” he interjected when a well-dressed woman with a determined walk threw off his rhythm. “Shot it too soon.”
Reagh doesn’t care for today’s fascination for the heavily manipulated image.
“I believe in straight photography, just recording what’s there,” he said. “My approach is kind of just trying to describe what it’s like to live now at this time and how it looks to me.”
He’s never sold a street picture and doesn’t expect to.
“Nobody wants a picture of somebody to put on the wall,” he said, stating the obvious as placidly as its certain corollary: “My wife has never been too happy with my complete indifference to money.”
The lure is more a fisher’s or hunter’s, he said. “You think, ‘That’s a hit. That’s a miss.’ If you get one good one on a roll, you win.”
Reagh somehow managed to make a living without straying too far from the camera. During the war, he photographed airplanes for Lockheed. Until his retirement in the mid-1970s, he had jobs in graphics and advertising. Then he free-lanced in public relations. He’s done hundreds of weddings.
Yet Reagh never lost his fascination for documenting the public places where Los Angeles finds expression.
“I would go on taking pictures if no one ever looked at them,” he said. On Monday the search led inevitably to the Galleria. Reagh strolled through, hoping to have some luck with a new high-speed film. He snapped a few shoppers, then an old man sitting on a bench beside another who was sound asleep. He admitted, without being accused, that it was a cliche. He likes cliches.
He spotted a fat woman sprawled almost irretrievably on a lounge chair.
“That’s a good picture,” he noted. He let it go. It made him feel too predatory.
The only form of justice for one who has seen his own life so clearly is coming to pass for Reagh. An audience is finding its way to him.
His first break occurred several years ago at the counter of a Hollywood photo store. A desperate curator from the city art gallery in Barnsdall Park happened up, saw Reagh’s work and asked if he could be ready in three weeks.
Later, Reagh exhibited 100 views of City Hall in City Hall. A show arranged by friends at L.A. Nicola’s restaurant brought a review in the Christian Science Monitor. More shows followed.
Reagh’s most popular photos have turned out to be those of buildings. With an eye that seems to have known the future, he shot characteristic viewpoints of Los Angeles, then returned years later to photograph a transformed landscape, somehow magically recapturing the original perspective.
His more striking scenes, mounted, now sell for about $175. Reagh said he’s grown to like the feeling he gets when someone buys a picture because it’s a good picture, and not because the name on it is known.
Maybe that’s why he still finds it hard to maintain a commercial perspective.
“Actually, I get a little tired of having to do shows,” he said. “I like to be a free spirit, get up in the morning and think, ‘What will I do today?’ ”
Recently he’s been photographing a lot of roots and roads.
That’ll be his next show, he thinks.