A Haunting Collection of Los Angeles Still Lifes


Jim Heimann is the man to see in Hollywood if you are making a movie that is set in Southern California in bygone times--he combines the skills of an archivist, a cultural anthropologist, a designer and a historian, and he knows where to look for a dusty photographic relic that shows what any corner or byway of Los Angeles looked like on a particular day in the past.

Heimann’s remarkable skill set is put to good use in “Sins of the City: The Real Los Angeles Noir” (Chronicle Books, $18.95, 160 pages), a beguiling collection of black-and-white photographs that depict the demimonde of Los Angeles from the ‘20s to the ‘50s. What the photographer Weegee did for New York in his classic “Naked City,” Heimann now does for Los Angeles.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 5, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 5, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Book review--A review of “Loteria Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives” (City Lights Books) in Wednesday’s Southern California Living listed an incorrect price. The book sells for $15.95.

“Sins of the City” proves that the depiction of Los Angeles in countless noir movies and hard-boiled detective stories was not merely the work of an overheated imagination. Here are real-life cops and robbers, gangsters and gamblers, strippers and hookers, clairvoyants and charlatans, starlets and the occasional authentic star, all of them captured by a corps of photographers who roamed the meaner streets of Los Angeles with Speed Graphic cameras in hand.


In fact, most of the images that Heimann culled from photo libraries and newspaper morgues were shot on deadline, and there is an opportunistic and even voyeuristic quality to the shots of corpses and crime scenes, busted madams and preening starlets. But the photographs are so rich in detail and so deeply evocative of their time and place that they now seem as crammed with intentional symbolism as a religious icon.

A shot of a wholesome young woman idling at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in 1938, for example, stands for the countless innocents who came (and still come) to Los Angeles in search of stardom--she is fresh off the bus, her valise at her side, her purse clutched closely to her breast, her face full of both giddiness and raw fear.

Now and then, one of the photographs will come as a kind of revelation. For all of us who have wondered about the abandoned mock-Romanesque building in Malibu that we have passed a thousand times while driving up or down Pacific Coast Highway, Heimann reveals that it once housed the fashionable restaurant of a woman called Thelma Todd, celebrated around town as “the Ice Cream Blond,” who ended up famously (and mysteriously) dead in her own full-length mink.

“Photographers could make the town look good and bad,” writes Heimann. “The glamour shots helped bring thousands of transplants to the Southland. The flip side of paradise was a different Southland, a web of dope rings, petty criminals, sensational murders, ladies of the evening, bullet-riddled bodies and a notoriously corrupt police force.” That’s precisely the dark vision of Los Angeles that he displays so hauntingly and so tellingly.


La loteria refers to a traditional game of chance played in Mexico with a Tarot-like deck of cards or game board that features strange and haunting images--a mermaid, a devil, a rose, a skull and cross-bones. Now the game is turned into something even richer and stranger in “Loteria Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives” by Mexican artist Artemio Rodriguez and Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights Books, $59.95, 214 pages). The result is a mating of art and poetry that comes fully alive on the printed page.

Each two-page spread in this elegant but potent and provocative book features a raw-edged linocut by Rodriguez and an edgy poem by Herrera, each one playing off the other in odd and illuminating ways. “A sense of jazz improvisation, tragedy, and darkness” is how Rupert Garcia describes their work in his useful and illuminating introduction.


To the traditional set of loteria images, Rodriguez and Herrera contribute their own interpretations and inventions. Thus, for example, “El Diablo,” the devil, is given a fresh reading as “this brooding orphan in our garden.” And “La Migra,” the immigration officer, is an entirely new image, a demonic figure on a motorcycle with a loping wolf at his side: “Listen to his guitar-tongue,” goes the poem that accompanies the linocut, “his lobo spirit / how he howls along the border-wire, how the moon / falls over his terrible lips, so much desire / his borderlands so infinite.”

“Loteria Cards and Fortune Poems” is published by City Lights, the landmark bookstore and publishing house founded and still operated by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet laureate of San Francisco, and his partner, Nancy J. Peters. One measure of the vigor and vision of City Lights is the fact that the same press that first offered (and still offers) Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” is still on the cutting edge of art and poetry with the work of Rodriguez and Herrera.

West Words, about books relating to California, runs every other Wednesday.