The Latest Picture Show
If a picture is worth a thousand words, actor-director Ben Stiller has helped birth an epic on the City of the Angels. “Looking at Los Angeles” (Metropolis Books), the new coffee table tome he co-edited with photography curator Marla Hamburg Kennedy to benefit the Los Angeles Conservancy, contains more than 225 reality bites of L.A. spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, snapped by such venerable figures as Julius Shulman, David Hockney, Andy Warhol and Diane Arbus, along with a younger wave of camera talent. From concrete rivers and bland Valley apartment buildings to the Sunset Strip and Lockheed Air Terminal parking lots, the collection documents without sentiment the evolving face of our sprawling megalopolis. Herewith, the New York native, photo collector and board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy explains his love for his adopted home and his fascination with pictures--the kind that don’t move.
How did you become an art book editor?
I have no expertise--editorial, photography, anything. It came out of a conversation with [co-editor] Marla Hamburg Kennedy, a person I bought photographs through and someone I’ve known through that field. She just said, about three years ago, “What if we edited a book of pictures of Los Angeles?” And immediately it sounded very intimidating.
“Looking at Los Angeles” joins a subgenre of photo books on the city. How would you describe the focus of this volume?
For me, at first, it was landscapes and urbanscapes but not people. As it developed, photographs of people came into it, but it was an idea of what the city looked like. That turned into a look at Los Angeles that isn’t the polished view that a lot of people see when they think about it.
Architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who has taken many classic photos of the city and whose work is in the book, has criticized the editors for not including more beautiful images of Los Angeles. Your response?
These photographs are not showing how ugly the city is. It’s finding beauty in the reality of what the city is. There are a lot of beautiful places in Los Angeles and a lot of not so beautiful places, but there’s something special about this city, I think, that is captured in the photographs. There are elements that are good and bad and should be documented.
You moved here from New York about 15 years ago. Tell us your personal New York-L.A. adjustment story.
At first I moved into a high-rise apartment. It kind of replicated my life in New York. It was on Hollywood Boulevard. It wasn’t the most glamorous part of town, but it reminded me of home. Of course, you can rent a little house for what you can rent an apartment for in New York, and you want to embrace that here. I fought against it for the longest time. You read about writers coming out here in the ‘30s and ‘40s to work and succumbing to the lifestyle.
Was there a turning point where you knew this would be your home?
Making friends here. It was like that leaving-home thing. I think it was the  riots, too. I was here less than three years when the riots happened, and that was a real bonding time for a lot of people. It was one of those defining moments when you have to decide, “Is this where I want to live?” I think everybody got more connected with what they were doing out here.
Have you explored parts of L.A. you hadn’t known before?
My friend just moved to Mount Washington, and that’s a perfect example. You go, “How can there be sagebrush in the middle of the city?” Wild animals are running around, and you’re in a huge city. It’s this incredible little community that’s very old and filled with so much history.
Was there an image in the book that really resonated for you?
There are shots of L.A. at night [where] movie lights create this surreal glow in neighborhoods. I remember they were shooting a movie across the canyon from us. It’s so surreal to see this giant moon balloon hanging over a house.
How did a New York transplant get a taste for preserving Los Angeles?
I used to stay with my folks at the Chateau Marmont. There’s a sense of history there, sort of a checkered past. I saw the first topless woman I ever saw when I was about 8 years old, sunbathing by the pool. Ever since, it’s been my favorite hotel. But also the building is a great preservation of that style.