L.A.'s intimate stranger
ELEVEN years ago, a German tourist named Martin Schall arrived in Los Angeles, armed with a guidebook, a camera and a traveler’s vision of the city. He was at the end of a long road trip along Route 66 and had parked his rental car on the Sunset Strip, close to the House of Blues.
Schall paid a scalper $30 for a ticket to a Marc Cohn concert, found a hotel nearby and made plans to visit the city’s tourist destinations, including Hollywood Boulevard and the beach.
But it was raining. He got befuddled by the freeways. And at some point, he ended up downtown.
Schall was awed by the skyscrapers. He visited the Wells Fargo museum, rode Angels Flight and ate at the Grand Central Market. And he aimed his camera at the city’s more unfamiliar sights: the twin cupolas of the Terminal Annex building downtown, an ornate yet graffitied doorway along 6th Street, and a colorful mural at Olvera Street, which he reverentially calls El Pueblo.
His photos were not the normal tourist’s fare. Instead of stock shots of amusement parks, sunsets over the ocean and celebrity haunts, Schall focused on a moodier, more eclectic L.A. There were few people in them -- just the shapes and shadows of the city.
It was 1996 -- a few years after the L.A. riots and long before downtown’s revival. To Schall, though, Los Angeles was full of promise -- “a place where you can look into the future like in a crystal ball and be your own fortuneteller.”
When he got home to Stuttgart, Schall decided to share this vision of Los Angeles with a few friends. He posted a handful of photos to a simple website. But he thought there was more to see, and share. So he made plans to return.
In the last 11 years, Schall has visited Los Angeles 10 times -- mostly in February or November, when he thinks the light of the city is particularly good.
And in that time, he has gone from tourist to architectural maven. His website, you-are-here.com, has become the ultimate online collection of photos documenting the city. It now includes more than 1,700 images of what Schall thinks makes Los Angeles great.
The website has made Schall a celebrity in the urban design world. Building owners beg him, via e-mail, to include their buildings on his site. And preservationists and other architectural aficionados use it as a bible of L.A. architecture.
But only a small number of his fans realize Schall is not a native Angeleno, an architect or a professional photographer -- but rather a German oil and gas engineer whose evenings are spent toiling away on the website from a sleek, sparely decorated loft in Kornwestheim, just outside of Stuttgart.
“It’s one of those situations where, in many ways, it takes someone from the outside to know and appreciate a place best,” said Ken Bernstein, manager of the Los Angeles Planning Department’s historical resources office. “I don’t know anything about [Schall], but he is clearly someone who has a deep appreciation and insight for Los Angeles.”
IN Schall’s online Los Angeles, buildings dominate, and cars and people are infrequent. There are no dirty streets, no homeless people.
“That’s everywhere in the world,” he said, “and I don’t want people to say, ‘That’s L.A.’ ”
Instead, Schall targets his camera at an eclectic mix of buildings for which he finds particular affection: an intricate green-and-yellow Victorian residence in Angelino Heights, a Googie-style coffee shop in Glendale, the brightly stuccoed elementary school of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy west of downtown.
Schall walks most of the time -- covering up to six miles in a day -- or takes public transportation. He rarely goes inside buildings, preferring to shoot exteriors, which he usually finds much more interesting. He is neurotic about avoiding awkward sight lines and tries to shoot pictures between lampposts -- otherwise, “I get angry when I get home and see them.”
Schall’s photographic idiosyncrasies date to when his parents gave him his first camera at age 12. “When I look at my old pictures,” he said, “it’s always the same: buildings and empty streets. No people.”
At home in Germany, Schall shoots similar photos, and even posts some on a back page of the you-are-here website. But his true obsession, he freely admits, is Los Angeles. His goal, he said, is to see every square inch of the region, and to photograph most of it.
In the time he has been visiting the city -- always alone, always in pursuit of his photos -- Schall has grown from a 29-year-old just out of university to a 40-year-old with a slight paunch and a receding hairline.
He has become a father. (The only year he missed, he said, was when his son, now 8, was born.)
He has married and divorced -- his frequent visits to Los Angeles being “one of the reasons” the marriage fell apart.
“She hates downtown, urbanism. She doesn’t like to go to cities,” Schall said.
Schall hasn’t brought his new girlfriend with him to Los Angeles either.
“I don’t know that she would like it,” he said of the way he spends his days here, which often begin at 4 or 5 in the morning. “If you are not obsessed, you wouldn’t have much fun.”
In fact, besides the hours he spends working on the website from his home in an industrial neighborhood outside Stuttgart, Schall’s life in Germany has little to do with his life in L.A. He purposefully tries to keep them separate -- guarding his intimate relationship with Southern California like a treasure. Most of his friends don’t know anything about his role as the greatest L.A. architecture nut.
“I don’t talk about it much,” he said. “It’s something very special. It’s not like football or what the other guys do.”
SCHALL is an unlikely example of the ultimate L.A. tourist. For starters, he hates vacation. He said he takes time off from work, mostly doing maintenance on oil platforms in the North Sea, grudgingly because his boss forces him, really.
But L.A.'s pull is strong.
All the time, Schall said, “there are people writing e-mails, saying, ‘I have a nice building here.’ Then I find the architect’s name and see that there are five other buildings by him. Then it starts, again and again.”
People are generally receptive to his photographic musings. (Though after 9/11, he was stopped repeatedly by police while photographing buildings. “They asked, ‘Are you a terrorist?’ I responded, ‘Tourist.’ They said, ‘OK, have fun.’ But it was really strange, you know?”)
The constantly evolving face of downtown Los Angeles, which Schall has witnessed over the last 11 years, has been both a comfort and a challenge to the photographer.
Hundreds of years of European history have taught him that “you can’t prevent the city from changing.”
But as the city center has begun to transform from a long-moribund office hub to a thriving residential neighborhood, Schall finds that his to-do list is getting longer. A new coat of paint does not warrant a new photo, he said. But when a building’s architectural details, long hidden, are revealed by a renovation, he goes out of the way to document them.
Near 5th Street and Broadway, Schall pointed at a building that was midway through a rehab. Already, intricate cornices just above the ground floor had been revealed, as well as delicate leafy decorations farther up the edifice.
“Last year there was scaffolding on that building. I think I’ll make a picture of it now,” he said as he scurried into traffic to get the shot.
At the corner of 11th and Main streets, Schall noticed a tall brick structure with graffiti on its windows and storage on the upper floors. The building, home to a couple of wholesale accessories stores, was something that most people would pass by without noticing, let alone admire.
But Schall crossed the street and circled the building, almost willing it to tell him its story. Above the entrance, he noticed a clue: a few words etched in stone, partly covered by a lowered ceiling and a security gate: M. HARRIS BU.
“Now we’ve found it,” he crowed.
Schall crouched down, pulling a special green notebook out of the pockets of his khaki jeans. He noted the building’s location, the words on the sign, and drew a rough map of the corner. It was enough information to go on.
He replaced the pen in the notebook’s spine and stood up.
“Maybe we should make a picture now?” he asked in a sing-song voice, light with his German accent, and walked across the street to a position kittycorner from the building.
There, Schall waited patiently for the golden moment that he says comes every 15 minutes or so: an instant when even along a busy street the building can be photographed without cars or buses in the way.
It is a moment worth waiting for, he said, when the building can show itself off in proper splendor. “If you do it, you show some respect. You show you are not in a rush. It’s some respect for the building, I think.”
Then the traffic subsided, and Schall stepped out into the street. He pointed his camera, a digital Canon 300D with wide-angle lens, and snapped.
When he returned to Germany, Schall searched the archives of The Times, available through the Los Angeles Public Library’s website. (After years of trying, he scored a library card on this trip, allowing him free access to the site.)
He would learn that the 10-story structure was built in 1923 and touted by an ad in the newspaper at the time as being “in the heart of Los Angeles’ rapid growth.” He posted the building’s picture at you-are-here.com along with a simple caption: “Morris Harris’ Union Manufacturing Co. Building 1923 Harwood Hewitt.”
“I don’t know a lot about architecture,” he said. “What I like is the story of who was in the building.”
YOU-are-here.comdisplays Schall’s quirky way of looking at L.A. The site is divided into downtown and the rest of L.A. County. Street photography and restaurants get their own categories. And Schall has thrown in a couple of trompe l’oeils for good measure, digitally altering several L.A. billboards in photos to make them advertisements for the website.
Building descriptions on the website are deliberately spare in language -- mostly to avoid embarrassing grammatical mistakes in English. (Schall is still haunted by the time he used a German spelling, calling Little Tokyo Little Tokio. “Everyone was making fun of it.” )
Schall’s free time in Germany now is almost completely devoted to the website -- doing research, adding pictures and, increasingly, answering fan mail. He works from a wooden desk in the corner of his Kornwestheim loft, equipped with two computers and a special hard drive to hold all of the photos. Bookshelves nearby are stuffed with the hundreds of reference books Schall has about Los Angeles, including a Thomas Guide he keeps close.
For Schall’s 40th birthday, his father gave him a travel book. But the subject matter -- Italy -- seems to underline how little most of Schall’s friends and family know about his passion for the City of Angels.
Schall thinks he has come to see Los Angeles as a city that is underappreciated by its inhabitants, who too often remain ensconced in particular neighborhoods or routines.
He finds that Angelenos are more inclined to use his website than walk around the corner to observe the city on their own.
“Maybe people here are more busy,” Schall said. “But they never leave the car or the train, between work and home. I thought, that’s the reason they don’t see a lot.”
Schall, by contrast, credits most of the expanse and breadth of the site to his deliberate attempt to see the slower side of the city by walking its streets.
With each new trip, Schall adds to Angelenos’ collective knowledge of their city and their region. He’s cataloged almost all of the buildings along Broadway in downtown and highlighted suburban residential projects developed by noted architects.
Bernstein, of the city’s historical resource office, called Schall the latest in a series of visitors to Los Angeles -- including H.L. Mencken, William Faulkner and British critic Reyner Banham -- who have brought a fresh eye to the city.
“Not just the obvious, well-known landmarks,” he said.
Each time Schall visits Los Angeles, he said, he feels that he has gotten to know the city better, and he wonders whether he’s finally accomplished his goal and can put the website aside and move on with his life.
But L.A.'s siren call is just too powerful to ignore.
“Every year, while I am here, I say, I am finished,” he said. “Then I work on stuff, doing research. And I say, ‘Ah, there’s something else.’ ”