William Reagh; Photos Show the Changing Face of L.A.


William Reagh, who recorded Los Angeles in black and white photographs for more than 50 years, has died. He was 81.

Reagh died Wednesday at his Silver Lake home after a long battle with cancer, his wife, Harriet, said Thursday.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Harvey has called Reagh “a sort of Ansel Adams of the Angels.”

Times art critic William Wilson noted that Reagh was drawn to “seedy, tragic buildings, ragamuffin kids and old folks--everything that is sympathetic through its vulnerability.


“At the point we feel they (Reagh’s pictures) are social protest pictures about the destruction of L.A. tradition they become witty and aesthetic,” Wilson said.

Over the years, Reagh’s work became a stunning before-and-after documentary of the transformation of downtown Los Angeles. His pictures showed, for example, a row of dilapidated Victorian houses on 1st Street in 1939 changing to a row of office buildings in 1969, and the Angels Flight trolley system at 3rd and Hill streets in 1939 changing to a mound of dirt in 1972 and a senior citizens housing development in 1986.

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

The key for his avocation--he made his living as a graphic artist for an engineering firm--was finding a common reference point to relate photos in a series taken over many years.


The California State Library bought 200 of Reagh’s prints once his work became known.

Commenting that he was “a photographer, not a librarian,” Reagh for years stashed his photos in boxes in his basement darkroom or his garage. But the owner of a photo supply store who saw some of the pictures brought his work to the attention of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department.

That led to a local exhibition titled “100 Views of City Hall.”

That in turn led to several other showings and to a 1989 calendar, “The Changing Face of L.A.”

Asked why he preferred black-and-white film for his 20 cameras, Reagh replied: “It has more of a documentary look. Color isn’t permanent--it fades. Besides I started out with black and white.”

He never planned to become an amateur historian.

“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.’ ”

Along with nostalgic losses, Reagh recorded changes for the better--such as a 1963 picture of bars and liquor stores on 3rd Street which gave way in the early 1970s to the World Trade Center.


In addition to his wife, Reagh is survived by his three children, Elizabeth Reagh of San Francisco, and Patrick Reagh and Kathleen Yoshimi of Los Angeles.