Los Angeles during its growth spurt

Imagine Los Angeles as an unfinished sentence: big, open fields; no homes or other clutter hugging the Pacific; dirt roads from downtown to Pasadena.

To see Los Angeles, before its superstructure of freeways and sweeping transition roads, summons up a different sort of narrative. Richard C. Miller was there to watch L.A. transform, and lucky for us he carried his camera with him -- either a 35-millimeter or a 4-by-5.

He took long drives at night to clear his head, wandered out to the edge of settled L.A. and brought back tens of thousands of images of street corners, stop signs, old traffic lights, parking lots, gas stations, dirt roads, open fields -- unfolding, rolling space where now a grown-up city crowds together. These “snapshots” of the city coming into its own were just for his pleasure. And Miller, like many Angelenos of that time, simply liked an excuse to drive. His work -- both the bread-and-butter commercial images and the fruit of his wanderings around young L.A. -- make up a new show, “Richard C. Miller: Over the Long Run,” at the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.

The exhibition brings together not just the various chapters of Miller’s career -- his magazine work, celebrity portraiture and his signature pieces in the vibrant carbro-print process -- but also offers an unusually evocative record of Los Angeles’ idiosyncratic beauty.

When Miller, now 97, arrived in L.A. from Hanford, Calif., in the 1920s, the family built a house on Serrano Avenue, near Wilshire and Western -- back then, the very edge of town. The region had yet to be joined by elevated arteries of asphalt that would connect the city’s disparate neighborhoods that, to many Angelenos, still felt more like far-flung settlements.

“From 1948 to 1953 Dick documented the construction of the Hollywood Freeway,” says artist and family friend Michael Andrews who has known and worked with Miller since the late ‘60s and has co-edited (with Reece Vogel) three volumes of his work. “He was like 007 with a gun over his shoulder. The camera went everywhere. He must have climbed to the top of the buildings, hiked up hills to get some of these perspectives. And from these you see, he clearly loved Los Angeles so much.”

Those textures -- upturned dirt; wooden planks; pylons; cement; squat, shaggy palm trees jutting up from the side of open roads; a scrim of smog along the horizon -- give us clues about L.A.'s earlier chapters, a sense of why someone might want to climb into a car and set out for no place in particular. “The four-level interchange downtown was so exciting,” Miller recalls in the introduction to “Freeway,” Andrews and Vogel’s 2009 collection of his images. “I saw it and I went out of my mind . . . . I thought, ‘My God, this is what people must have felt when they first saw the cathedrals in Europe.’ ”