It's a sign of how fast things change that 1950s Los Angeles seems almost as far away as 1750s Boston. Luckily there were artists here who caught those soon-to-be-gone moments. One of them is photographer Jack Laxer, 74, who documented '50s Googie coffee shops in all their futuristic, glossy glory on stereographic three-dimensional color film. His images, many never seen before, will be part of a narrated slide show on Nov. 29 at the California Science Center titled "3-D LA: Modernism in Three Dimensions, the Stereo Photography of Jack Laxer 1953-1965."
"I came out to L.A. from New York in 1950 with the thought that I would photograph the architecture out here," said Laxer, who has lived in Pacific Palisades for 34 years. Today he specializes in photomicrography--shooting photos in rooms of architectural models that look as if they were full-scale. He also does travel photography. "I couldn't get a job, because there were already some great photographers, like Julius Shulman, in place. After being turned down over and over, I met with architect Paul Williams, and he shared a caveat with me that changed my life and my outlook on life. He said to find something distinctive, not good, because a lot of people did good work."
On a trip to Arizona, he discovered stereo pictures. "I thought to myself that architects created their works in dimensions, but then they're reduced to plein-air views in photography. Here was something to give back that dimension to their work," says Laxer, a courtly man with a precise way of speaking. Laxer bought a commercial stereo camera called a Realist and six hand-held roto-viewers that had the ability to show 60 slides each. His 3-D architectural photos fit the times perfectly, and architects immediately saw the value in it and hired him to shoot their buildings. One of his first clients, architect Arthur Froelich, had him photograph his designs, including racetracks like Hollywood Park. After that, Laxer was off and running.
And so was Googie architecture. Named after a now-demolished coffee shop called Googie's that was designed in 1949 by architect John Lautner, the term has come to encompass a commercial style filled with space-age motifs and optimism for a brave new world of intergalactic travel.
Googie architecture catered to the 1950s car culture, so each new tail-finned, chromed car model could be driven almost to the door of the floor-to-ceiling glassed-in coffee shops and bowling alleys. Laxer's photos show pulsating lights, sharp angled rooms, cantilevered roofs, stone surfaces, futuristic designs and multicolored Naugahyde upholstery.
Architects Armet & Davis were big in the field, and Laxer was a natural to photograph their Googie buildings. With the aid of polarized glasses or a roto-viewer, clients could see Armet and Davis' creations, like Norm's, Ship's, Tiny Naylor's and Clark's restaurants, from all their different angles.
"The Googie style fell out of favor around 1970," says Chris Nichols, a former chairman of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee, which is co-sponsoring this event. "Today the only place left pretty much intact is Penn's in Inglewood, which was built in 1958. You can still see the geometric accents. Most other places have been renovated or demolished. And 3-D faded too. It was seen as too faddy, and it was a complicated process, requiring as it did either polarized glasses or viewers. The wonderful thing about Jack's photographs is that he had the foresight to freeze them, so they are in perfect condition. He perfectly documented this world."
Which is a good reason to don your supplied polarized glasses and see Laxer's 3-D images projected on the theater's silver screen (itself an endangered species). Here again are the coffee shops, bowling alleys, office buildings and even the 1956 Motorama, featuring the kitchen of tomorrow.
Narrated slide show, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 at the California Science Center IMAX theater, 700 State Drive in Exposition Park, Los Angeles. Sold out. Information: (213) 430-4219 or http://www.laconservancy.org.