Looking at Jeff Gates' photograph of an abandoned house, a woman in the gallery burst into tears.
Besides capturing the gracefulness of the elevated ramps of the Century (105) Freeway, Gates' photos bring back memories of how people's lives changed forever when the freeway was built. The woman in the gallery remembered the person who lived in one rundown house he photographed--and that she killed herself there.
Gates photographed the Century Freeway project in the early '80s and then again from 1990 to the opening of the freeway in October, 1993. More than 40 of Gates' photos are on display the Downey Museum of Art through April 24 and at the Art Gallery at El Camino College through April 7.
Gates began photographing the freeway in 1982, when the boarded-up houses and abandoned neighborhoods caught his eye as he was commuting along the proposed freeway route. Curiosity combined with nostalgia for the rows of stucco homes in the San Fernando Valley of his boyhood drew him to the community, and he started taking pictures.
At that time an injunction stopping construction had just been lifted. Homeowners who first filed suit in 1972 had stalled the construction until a consent decree in 1981. The decree required highway officials to offer housing and job opportunities to people displaced by the freeway. In 1982, some of the more than 8,000 homes affected by the project were already condemned.
Gates walked through the eerily quiet streets, toting a 35-millimeter camera. He says he was interested in capturing the sense of abandonment of suburbia through pictures.
His photos contrasted the symbols of community with the disruption that was taking place. In one image, for example, a dead dog wearing a leather collar lies decaying on the lawn in front of an abandoned home. In another shot, a house boarded up and waiting to be demolished stands only a few feet from a neat, surviving tract home.
Gates recalls being stopped by residents who wanted to know why he was taking pictures. Many told Gates about being evicted from their homes, others described job training and housing programs. But even after meeting people who lived in the area, Gates' photos still emphasized buildings and streets--not a single person appeared in the first group of pictures.
For nearly a decade, the displaced residents fought to get help with the disruption in their lives caused by the freeway, an eight-lane, 17-mile-long highway that runs from El Segundo to Norwalk.
In 1983, Gates displayed 19 images from his series at the Downey Museum of Art. After his work was displayed, Hall & Phillips, the public interest law firm that represented the homeowners suing to stop the project, commissioned Gates to continue taking photographs.
He said he began to realize that his photos were not just a way to relate his own feelings about the changes in the community, but that he was documenting changes in a society.
"This wasn't just my story, it was many people's stories," Gates said. "My voice is simply another voice in this."
So he came up with ways to document the people involved in the project, including freeway workers. In one photo, for example, he illustrated the different backgrounds of the people involved in the construction training program by photographing their toolboxes, geometrically stacked, revealing names from different ethnic groups. In another photo, a construction worker balances precariously on an unfinished part of the roadway.
Gates, who teaches computer graphics and art in Maryland, has invited people who were affected by the freeway to attend the photography show and tell their stories. At both the El Camino and Downey exhibits, visitors may fill out a questionnaire or enter their comments into an interlinked computer.
Ultimately, Gates said, he would like to compile the photos, comments and a map into a book. After the exhibit, he said, he will create an Internet file in which people can look at a map of the freeway, then choose a particular point and read copy and look at his photos.
"I'm hoping to get some strong reactions," he said.
The Century Freeway, which cost $2.2 billion, is the most expensive freeway in the nation's history.