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Flashback L.A.: 'Postcard Views, Then and Now' captures lost city

Flashback L.A.: 'Postcard Views, Then and Now' captures lost city
A new book by Michael Oldham juxtaposes images from vintage postcards of Los Angeles with contemporary views. (Michael Oldham)

It's a picture book to make a grown person weep, and that's just fine with its author, Michael Oldham.

"Flashback Los Angeles: Postcard Views, Then and Now," juxtaposes images from vintage postcards of Los Angeles streets, parks, buildings, restaurants, motor lodges and more, next to recent images taken by Oldham of the exact same views.

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Inevitably, the vintage images look so much better. Lacquered with sentimentality and framed by notions of the city's fabled past disseminated by Hollywood movies, the postcards conjure the glamorous heart of a lost city.

"It's actually a healthy thing to feel a tinge of sadness when you see a modern building in place of a demolished historic one," Oldham says of his book, which was published in July. "Because it keeps the public interested in saving what historic buildings remain."

That's not to say the book is paean to preservation. It's more like a clear-eyed tribute to the past and present of a city that Oldham, 56, has loved since his parents first drove him from his native Orange County to Beverly Hills when he was 8 or 9.

Driving past monumental movies star homes, Oldham became hooked and regularly traveled to Los Angeles to soak up the scenery. In 2004 he co-authored the book "Movie Star Homes: The Famous to the Forgotten," and he still pens a star homes column for the Palisadian-Post.

The idea for his latest book came to him after he began collecting old postcards of L.A.'s Chinatown for a book that he didn't end up publishing. He soon expanded his collection to include images from across the city with the help of EBay and paper and postcard collectible shows.

In 2008, and again in 2012, he shot all of the "now" images for the book. "Flashback Los Angeles" contains 400 total "then" and "now" views.

The book is divided into chapters by neighborhood including Beverly Hills, Century City, downtown, Hollywood, Marina del Rey and West Adams. Because the postcards are often not dated and Oldham is not a historian, he can't say for sure when each postcard picture was taken, but they range from the late teens to the 1970s.

Some of the most striking "then" and "now" shots are of MacArthur Park, which once featured a fully functioning boathouse and was filled with dapper citizens in canoes. Elsewhere, Googie coffee shops can be glimpsed in shimmering backgrounds and downtown's barren, modernist Pershing Square is shown resplendent with jungle-like foliage.

Grand old restaurants become bland storefronts and midcentury-modern Travelodges that would make "Mad Men" fans drool are transformed into run-of-the-mill, two-star motels.

Oldham didn't just snap any old pictures. He tried, as much as possible, to obtain the exact same angles and vantage points as those shown in the "then" postcards.

"You're not always going to get all the correct angles," says Oldham. "You can't possibly climb on top of a building and shoot where a previous photographer shot. And sometimes when trying to get the correct angle, you put yourself in some interesting dangers. You quickly learn that jumping in the middle of the street is not a good idea."

Finding the locations depicted in the postcards wasn't always easy, either, and took some detective work on Oldham's part. He says he knows L.A. so well that 60% or 70% of the time he could look at a postcard and know right away where it was taken, but other times he would be stumped, even when the answer was seemingly obvious.

A postcard labeled 6th and Main streets presented his biggest challenge.

"I was standing on the southwest corner one day and I remember just going haywire. I thought the postcard was a misprint," says Oldham, who soon realized that he was looking from the wrong direction. "It wasn't until I dug in the deep background that I got it. The foreground of the postcard was completely torn down."

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Encountering vistas that simply no longer existed was certainly a hazard, but it happened the least in downtown's historic core, a place of extreme pleasure for Oldham.

"I call it the 'goosebumps moment'," says Oldham. "You can go downtown and start walking and you look up and these buildings almost talk to you. They stand proud, chin up. I see them as fascinating pieces of history that are often ignored by passersby. I like to touch them and try to get a hold of them. Doing this book I had to research multitudes of these buildings, and it's always interesting to see what a building is functioning as today."

Follow me on Twitter @jessicagelt

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