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Tourist photos? Get me security!

PATT MORRISON's e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

IT WAS the talking building that finally did it for Will Funk.

His photography students had been trudging through downtown Los Angeles -- in from Claremont, you know, taking in the big-city sights -- and they were walking near 7th and Figueroa -- walking, mind you, not even pausing, much less taking pictures -- when a voice came out of a wall.

Put away the camera. No picture taking here.”

Funk, a retired cop turned photographer, had been threatened with arrest before, under a law no one could name, for trying to take a picture of the Federal Building in Santa Ana. It took a call to his congressman to get that settled. But a building saying back off?

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One by one, like pixels in an image, incidents assemble and a pattern appears. Someone takes a picture, or tries to, of a public space, in a public place. Muscle appears. Sometimes badges are flashed. Vague laws are vaguely invoked.

A man taking pictures of a symmetrical array of school buses gets a visit from Homeland Security. A shutterbug shooting 16-millimeter film of the scenery outside the train window is questioned, and the film is confiscated. A history student taking photos of the New York state Capitol for her class project finds the police at her door. Another student in Seattle, photographing a popular tourist sight, is corralled by men declaring themselves to be “homeland security.” A Texas railroad buff takes pictures of trains and gets grilled for five hours by the FBI and the cops.

To the absurdities of overreaching “no-fly” lists that keep infants off airplanes, add this one: photographers, amateur and professional, being menaced for taking pictures of public sights in plain sight.

In the online photo magazine Vivid Light Photography, Jim McGee writes about photographer-cop encounters and “wild tales about ‘made-up’ laws that cops pull out of the air to justify their actions. Is photography becoming illegal in the United States?”

A courthouse, a library, a skyline, a beautiful bridge -- they’re not Suri Cruise. They’re part of the public vista and public life. The notion that security muscle, public or private, would view tourists as terrorists and treat them like paparazzi, with a “no pictures” strong-arm, is as silly as it is unworkable.

Especially in tourist meccas like Los Angeles. People don’t just want the postcard -- they want to be in the photo. “See, here I am in front of the big ball of twine / the Pacific Ocean / City Hall, where they make all those movies.”

Downtown L.A. has finally been getting a tourism payoff from years of building and boosterism. Take the Bunker Hill Steps, inspired by the spectacular Spanish Steps in Rome. They’re at the foot of what’s known as the Library Tower. It’s the tallest building west of the Mississippi, 73 stories, and reportedly the target of an unspecified terrorist plot after 9/11.

The steps and their waterfall, designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, are listed everywhere as public art, as is the Robert Graham sculpture at the top of the steps. But picture takers who believe that are getting intercepted by security.

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Last month, Funk’s students were snapping the steps when a security officer stopped them. Funk said his students were on a public sidewalk. “That’s actually private property,” the guard told him. “They always say, ‘Ever since 9/11, things have changed.’ I was a cop for 18 years, and I’m completely sympathetic to security concerns,” Funk told me. “But come on, a bunch of tourists taking pictures of a waterfall?”

On the website laobserved.com, locals and tourists have reported the same encounters. One man standing on the Bunker Hill Steps was told -- incorrectly, it turns out -- that it’s illegal to take pictures of the public library. Another man photographing the steps from the sidewalk was told to stop because he was on private property.

Something’s wrong here. I asked the L.A. Conservancy, which conducts downtown tours, and was told that since 9/11, photography has been banned on the Library Tower site.

But that’s where the Bunker Hill Steps are, and the Graham sculpture. Public art on private property? How does that work? The Community Redevelopment Agency told me that the Graham sculpture is public art but that the steps are not -- which may be news to the man who crafted them.

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Once again we have to find our way between license and absolute limits. Is that really so hard? Not for some people. At the Sears Tower in Chicago, the nation’s tallest building and a favorite tourist snapshot, security people are trained to distinguish between people taking the usual gee-whiz pictures and those photographing out-of-the-way, unusual things like mechanical operations, according to the American Society for Industrial Security.

If that’s too difficult, here’s another suggestion. During World War II, when the Douglas Aircraft Co. wanted to disguise itself from air attacks, it turned to Hollywood. Workers from Warner Bros. whipped together millions of square feet of chicken wire to canopy Douglas’ buildings, hangars and runway. On top of the mesh, they laid lightweight “neighborhoods” -- fake houses and garages, trees with leafy, green-painted chicken feathers, even clotheslines with waving laundry.

So, Tourist L.A., if you don’t want anyone taking your picture, fine. There are 650 creative people just laid off from Disney’s movie production operation looking for work. They can make you look like anything, or nothing. If nothing is what you really want to be.


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